Here Comes the Slush

With so many ways for aspiring writers to self-publish their books, Laura Miller at Salon says the slush pile of millions of rejected manuscripts is about to go public…but will readers have the stomach for it?

People who have never had the job of reading through the heaps of unsolicited manuscripts sent to anyone even remotely connected with publishing typically have no inkling of two awful facts: 1) just how much slush is out there, and 2) how really, really, really, really terrible the vast majority of it is. Civilians who kvetch about the bad writing of Dan Brown, Stephenie Meyer or any other hugely popular but critically disdained novelist can talk as much trash as they want about the supposedly low standards of traditional publishing. They haven't seen the vast majority of what didn't get published — and believe me, if you have, it's enough to make your blood run cold, thinking about that stuff being introduced into the general population.

[…]It seriously messes with your head to read slush. Being bombarded with inept prose, shoddy ideas, incoherent grammar, boring plots and insubstantial characters — not to mention ton after metric ton of clichés — for hours on end induces a state of existential despair that's almost impossible to communicate to anyone who hasn't been there themselves: Call it slush fatigue

So what happens to the book business when readers, who've filled their Kindles with $1.99 slush, discover that most of it is unreadable drivel? What will the backlash be?

A few days of reading bad manuscript after bad manuscript has a tendency to make you never want to pick up another manuscript again, but when finding new talent is your job and your vocation, you keep at it until you're successful enough to hire someone else to do it for you. If, on the other hand, you're a civilian, and reading is something you turn to, seeking fun or transcendence, during your precious hours of free time, how long will you persist when book after book has exactly the opposite effect, crushing your spirit instead of refreshing it? How long before you decide to just give up?

Some argue that readers and bloggers will spread the word about what is good or bad, and the market will become self-correcting. The sludge will quickly be identified, as well as the few genuinely terrific books buried amidst it all. But Miller argues we are just trading one set of gatekeepers (publishers, editors, "elite" literary critics) for a new set (bloggers, pundits, self-annointed experts).

Perhaps this system will work better, but I'm not so sure. Contrary to the way they're often depicted by frustrated authors, the agents and editors I've met are in fact committed to finding and nurturing books and authors they believe in as well as books that will sell. Also, bloggers or self-appointed experts on particular genres and types of writing are, in my experience, just as clubby and as likely to plug or promote their friends and associates as anybody else. Above all, this possible future doesn't eliminate gatekeepers: It just sets up new ones, equally human and no doubt equally flawed. How long before the authors neglected by the new breed of tastemaker begin to accuse them of being out-of-touch, biased dinosaurs?

17 thoughts on “Here Comes the Slush”

  1. All the more reason for me to not buy an e-reader unless I use it to store favorite books in order to free up shelf space. If it ain’t in a bookstore where I can sample the writing, I don’t bother.
    I got to judge a short story contest some years back, and if those were the finalists, then I get queasy at what horrors lurked on the pages of those that didn’t make the cut.
    Slush readers have my respect and my thanks for protecting the general public from what’s out there. They remind me of the Rangers who roamed the wilderness protecting oblivious Hobbits from untold harm.
    Sadly, there are plenty of readers who honestly cannot tell the difference between a well-written book and a bloody awful disaster.
    I suspect they could be space aliens.
    Watch the skies. WATCH THE SKIES!!!

  2. In combination with my last post, slush won’t sell as e-books. Higher quality writing than current print offerings is what will sell, according to the OPEN ECONOMY model.
    Just for my own interest, I looked into the books for Simon & Schuster to see what the profits and expenses were for one of the Big Six, and to get some clues for how this will play out with e-publishing.
    S&S is owned by CBS, so I downloaded the 2009 year end consolidated annual report for CBS. Incidentally, CBS is controlled by a company controlled by Viacom chief, Sumner Redstone, a guy who usually demands results, so I expected good figures from S&S, a company I really like.
    CBS earned $13 billion in 2009. Of this, S&S brought in about $793 million. To earn this, they spent about $565 million in expenses. Royalties to authors were about 10% of revenues, or about $79.3 million. Profit isn’t $793M – $565M = $228M as there are all sorts of corporate doodle-dums that enter the picture, but they did all right in 2009.
    Okay, sounds good. But then I learned that they publish 2,000 books a year, and if you take the expenses of $565M divided by 2,000 books, you get a cost per book of $282,000, which is just out of sight. I like S&S, but I’m wondering what all these costs are for?
    So I did some digging. Total corporate debt for CBS is about $7B. I have a note that the interest expense on this is about $542M. Then there is “corporate restructuring.” Did you know that in 2009 they paid $137M in resturcturing costs, of which $127.5M was in severence pay? (You make more money being fired by CBS than you make writing your novels!) Oh, and then there’s the stock options they awarded themselves of about $3.5M. So how much of all this expense and cost could have gone to the writers who are earning the revenues? A lot. In fact, if I gave $30,000 per book to a company to find, edit and produce cover art for 2,000 good books, could they do it? My guess is, yes. And the costs would be $30,000 x 2,000 = $60M. What is S&S expense money going towards? And why shouldn’t it go towards the writers?
    With e-books, of course, the $565M in expense money will be available to e-book writers who produce works of very high quality, which is something experienced writers can do. S&S will adapt. And writers will with the e-publishing revolution. And slush will fade away.

  3. This affirms what I’ve been saying: the value of gatekeeping brands, such as the old-line publishers in NYC, will rise rather than drop as all that slush is self-published on Kindle and elsewhere. Readers will rediscover the gatekeepers and value their good product. I am a former book editor and have read mountains of slush, and believe me, I know what not to buy.

  4. Dear P.N.,
    I can only comment on the e-reader that I own, which is the amazon Kindle. It has a sampling feature so that for ANY book one can download a sample (usually anywhere from 20-50 pages) so one can read to discover if it is drivel or not before they make the purchase.
    Although, like you, I love a bookstore, burt take my Kindle while I browse and download samples of what looks interesting (though an employee at a popular and “noble” bookstore (who sells their own e-reader) approached me last Saturday and told me with utmost seriousness that Kindles were not allowed in their store and asked me to leave…a few moments later he added “just kidding” – I currently have a complaint report with the company!

  5. It’s a great point, and the other side of the coin is, how do you get your ‘great’ book into the device of your reader amongst all the slush.
    I think the market will correct itself in the same way it always does. I’m not sure that (harlequin excepted) people buy books because of the publisher, or agent. They buy the author or genre, and then if it’s good, they tell their friends.
    One thing I would add is that I’ve read more than a few books that have come through the traditional publishing process that are poorly written and badly structured,and full of typos an other errors, so there’s no guarantee either way.
    I look forward to being part of what the future unfolds.

  6. I have been sampling a bunch of self-published books on the Kindle and they are beyond horrible. It’s hard to believe that some of these people even graduated high school. I may do a blog post soon quoting from some of these overlooked masterpieces that those NY elitist intellectual snobs refused to publish…that, thanks to the e-book revolution, we can finally all appreciate.

  7. As I write for more than one publishing company, and in more than one genre, I get nagged from more than one direction at once. Then, when my finished product hits the bookstores — on line and brick and mortar — not everyone is going to love it. I’ll get my share of negative reviews from crabby true crime readers who complain that “the author didn’t have enough sex” (no argument there), or fiction fans who write “I doubt that this is a true story.” What of the slush authors? How can they possibly fare better? And should they?
    I confess to having a weak spot for the self-published Pakistani author of ONCE.
    While I urge fiction authors to NEVER pay to self-publish when they can do e-books, some can only manifest their vision in hard copy, and are in countries where getting a publisher is even more difficult than in the USA. The young Pakistani author of ONCE includes wonderful photographs from diverse collaborators as “bonus material” to his prose, plus a section of poetry inspired by the book. He is attempting something out of the ordinary, and not for the sake of himself, but to enhance the experience for the reader. His heart and intentions are good, and he really wants to master the craft. It isn’t easy in Pakistan apparently to do what he is doing.
    I’m trying to find him better outlets for his work..he’s being ripped off of course. The slush pile suckers are one thing — the dedicated aspiring professionals who don’t know where to go, or what to do, is another.

  8. Back in the late 70’s/early 80’s, HBO and The Movie Channel ran some of the most unbelievable crap ever committed to celluloid, the kind of movies that would not have made the drive-in circuit back in the 1950’s. They were so desperate for product, so hungry to fill the time, they showed all kinds of things with an occasional rare gem popping up.
    It might be the same with eBooks. It’s the new “It” thing, and the floodgates will open, but over time, things will change. Even today, when you buy a book from an author you don’t know, you’re still taking a chance. Even with an author you DO know, and like, you’re taking a chance with each book.
    Will there ever be a way to control anyone putting their ‘Masterpiece’ online? No, that’s not how it works. But an experience two years ago with a woman who didn’t like my critique of her memoir and now has it listed on Amazon through a POD publisher, and tells everyone she meets she is a Published Author, also shows people will find ways around the traditional methods….

  9. That’s hilarious. They sure didn’t think that one through.
    Still not getting a reader. I have a 25-year stack of hard copy books to get through first, most of them unavailable as e-books.
    Now I have to go make a new aluminum foil hat. The voices are getting through again.

  10. With every new tech, there are plenty of naysayers.
    Crap has always been available, and always will be, no matter who the gatekeepers are. But YouTube and iTunes have shown us the gatekeepers can be the consumers. Amazon has shown us the same. It’s already got 650,000 ebooks on it, yet consumers are still able to find things to buy. It won’t change if that number goes up tenfold.
    The cream rises. But in this case, it rises on a level playing field. I can’t outsell James Patterson in print, because he has huge marketing budgets and is available everywhere.
    But I’m on over fifty Kindle bestseller lists. Readers can find me, and I’m getting more reviews for some of my self-pubbed stuff as a get for my print stuff.
    It’s no longer about who has the biggest print run. I’m happy to wade through crap for this opportunity, and yet I keep seeing the same doom and gloom posts.
    But this is how it always works when a new media format arrives. People bemoan. People resist. People reminisce.
    Then people accept and embrace.
    The writers who couldn’t find publishers in print won’t find their audiences on ebooks either, and the extra ebooks for sale won’t take away from those with well written books.
    Salon is wrong. And I say this having edured tens of thousands of newbie manuscripts, having judged the Writer’s Digest fiction contest more than half a dozen times.
    Yeah, it’s almost unendurable. But it hasn’t put me off reading.

  11. I believe that deserving authors will find their audience in the new digital world, much the same as deserving musicians have found theirs now that they don’t have to go through record companies. Now authors, like musicians before us, will be able to draw a straight line from our computer screens directly to readers, and with books going for $1-$3, the outlook is bright. Or certainly a lot brighter than when we were forced to grovel for a print deal.

  12. For many reasons the music analogy doesn’t hold for books. First, musicians can play venues, even street corners, to get their music heard. And you can sample music fast and with little effort. Also, you’ve got radio play for music with plenty of alternative stations. But most of all its the culture–music has long had the culture of people, especially younger people, wanting to find the new and different, sadly books have been going the other way.

  13. I’ve never groveled for a print deal. I just wrote something a commercial publisher thought was good enough to sell so we’d all make money.
    Of course, I think they *also* liked my aluminum foil hat!

  14. One thing I would add is that I’ve read more than a few books that have come through the traditional publishing process that are poorly written and badly structured,and full of typos an other errors, so there’s no guarantee either way.
    I see this comment all the time, and all I can think is that the people who are saying it aren’t reading the right books.
    More than a few?
    Perry, can you list three poorly written traditionally books that are badly structured and full of typos and other errors? I’m honestly curious.

  15. As a reader, I have no desire to waste my time wading through unpublishable slush to find good books.
    As an author with both self-published and professionally published books on the Kindle, I don’t want my work lost in an oil slick of swill…and I don’t want potential readers driven away by slush fatigue. I think that’s a real worry.
    Like it or not, the system as it stands — getting accepted by an agent, then by an editor, then by a publisher, then by bookstores buyers, then by readers — does weed out a lot of inferior work and provides a gatekeeper function that is beneficial to readers. Is it perfect? Hell no. Is it the best possible system? Hell no. Does it mean good work doesn’t get overlooked, or that the system isn’t abused or manipulated… or that it couldn’t be better. No, of course not.
    But I would argue that, unlike what some self-published authors say, the majority of stuff that doesn’t get published is rejected because it’s awful. Still other books are rejected not because they are bad, but because they don’t meet the publisher’s particular needs… or it fails their profit and loss calculation (ie, it won’t make enough money to merit acquisition, publishing and marketing). Publishers do need to make a profit in order to continue paying authors and printing books. And bookstores need to keep selling books in order to stay in business. And that figures into the decisions behind which books they will publish… and which they won’t.
    Some self-published authors contend that this makes publishing is a popularity contest, that only big names get published. That argument is simplistic, naive and wrong. Every bestselling author, every brand-name talent, was a first-time, unknown author once. To say that publishers never nurture talent is also wrong…Harlan Coben was a mid-list author for years before he finally broke through. Sue Grafton didn’t start out big…it took three or four books before she caught on. There are hundreds of such examples.
    Yes, the midlist is shrinking. Yes, publishing relies on big names to pay the bills. But there are new books published by unknowns every day. Nobody heard of JK Rowling before Harry Potter. Or Steig Larsson before Girl with the Dragon Tattoo. And it took two or three books before Dan Brown broke through with DaVinci Code.
    Publishing is changing. No question about it. So is television. But to say either industry is dead…and that the Kindle and the computer screen will take over for the book and the television is, I think, very premature. E-books are still a small, albeit growing, percentage of publishing…but print is still how most people read books. Filling e-readers with the publisher’s slush pile is not going to entice those book-readers to the Kindle, the Nook, and the iPad.


Leave a Comment