Here Comes the Slush

The ease of self-publishing has been great for mid-list authors and authors with big, out-of-print backlists. But it also means that anybody with a mouse and an Internet account can be "published."
Naturally, aspiring authors love this…now there are no gatekeepers keeping their masterpieces from the hands of the reading public. But, as it turns out, readers aren't so thrilled that the slush pile has spilled over onto their Kindles, as Eric Felton writes in a piece today for the Wall Street Journal.

It isn't just the elusive prospect of riches that excites the untold thousands of hopefuls crowding into the new self-publishing space. They are buoyed by escaping the grim frustrations of trying to get published the old-fashioned way. No more form-letter rejections from know-nothing agents and can't-be-bothered editors.

It's only natural for those locked out to despise the gatekeepers, but what about those of us in the reading public? Shouldn't we be grateful that it's someone else's job to weed out the inane, the insipid, the incompetent? Not that they always do such a great job of it, given some of the books that do get published by actual publishers. But at least they provide some buffer between us and the many aspiring authors who are like the wannabe pop stars in the opening weeks of each "American Idol" season: How many instant novelists are as deluded as the singers who make with the strangled-cat noises believing they have Arethaen pipes?

[…]The stodgy old gatekeepers are to be replaced with "social media." But self-publishers are finding that getting the attention of the crowd once their e-books are out there isn't easy. Which leads to efforts to game the judgment of the new and amorphous network of influence.

Look in the forums Amazon hosts for its Kindle "direct publishers" and you won't find many posts asking how to do the basics of traditional book production—copy editing, anyone? But there are plenty of threads with titles like "Promote your book" and "review swapping?"—orgies of desperate back-scratching that make old-school literary logrolling seem downright genteel.

He is so right. In their eagerness to be the next Amanda Hocking, hordes of self-published authors are forgetting the most important elements for success: genuine talent, a fresh voice, a great story and strong writing skills. 

12 thoughts on “Here Comes the Slush”

  1. Having read slush for a couple of national fiction magazines, I can confirm that the average quality is several notches below “Dreck.” But on the positive side, I can also confirm that most any literate person will be able to identify the dreckitude of most any of individual story before exiting the first paragraph.
    The other advantage of this system is that it’s going to provide almost immediate discouragement for the less talented as they fail to sell, and I expect a fair number of them will simply wash out after their first book or two. I suspect that for many readers, an easy clue of at least some degree of quality is going to be the number of books an author has done. No, not always, but at least an encouraging indicator.
    Yes, bad books are going to make noise that makes it more difficult for good books and writers to get noticed, but crowd-sourcing will take care of the slush-reading problem to some extent. And from the writer’s standpoint, it isn’t as though getting attention for your book isn’t incredibly difficult already, and you have to get through that difficulty, through a process taking years, before your book gets within MILES of an actual reader. So it balances out.
    As an indie-publisher, I’m more concerned about spam books, unless outlets like Amazon and B&N can find some automated way of discouraging them. If even a crack is left open that Bots can get through, spam could overwhelm anything real writers (good and bad) can do.

  2. I just got an email from Smashwords indicating 6000 books had been published in the last 30 days. 6000! That’s not slush! That’s a frickin’ avalanche! In a couple hundred years archaeologists and historians are going to look back on this era and think, “WTF were these people thinking?”

  3. Lee, as a formerly traditionally-published author (who is now self-published), I must respectfully disagree here. This is just a reiteration of the gatekeepers’ tired mantra, specifically:
    Quote: “Shouldn’t we be grateful that it’s someone else’s job to weed out the inane, the insipid, the incompetent? Not that they always do such a great job of it, given some of the books that do get published by actual publishers.”
    Notice he even admits they don’t do a good job at what is supposedly their primary function. Of course, when a reader walks into a bookstore, he can browse through tens of thousands of titles and weed out the inane, the insipid, and incompetent by himself, and I’m sure you’ll agree that there’s plenty of inane, insipid, and incompetent crap resting on shelves of every single Barnes & Noble at this very moment. Well, guess what? The reader can do the very same vetting at the shelves of Amazon.
    And then there’s this comforting chestnut:
    Quote: “But at least they provide some buffer between us and the many aspiring authors who are like the wannabe pop stars in the opening weeks of each “American Idol” season.”
    Do you know how insulting that is to a self-published author. And no, the shoe does not fit, so I won’t wear it. This smarmy implication that all self-published authors are delusional, untalented slugs who are utterly incapable of penetrating the golden gates of New York publishing is crap. Notice how lovingly he cherishes the buffer between US and “them”. This is New York elitism at its most typical.
    You and I both know that the standards for admission through the golden gates have nothing whatever to do with high literary content, despite the “gatekeeper’s” heated assertions to the contrary.

  4. Okay, let’s accept that lots of books being self-published on Amazon have an as-yet-to-be-determined value, ranging from 1 star to five stars. The question is: “how can the value of a book be determined?”
    Answer: by the average of at least twelve reviews.
    Because in the law courts, we confidently place our trust in a 12-person jury system to get at the truth in situations that are far more complicated than accurately judging the quality of a novel or non-fiction book. Therefore, if it only takes twelve reviews, and there are millions and millions of persons reviewing ebooks, it won’t take very long for the not-so-good to sink in the ratings and for the pretty-good to rise. And in any case, the potential buyer of an ebook can browse it and likely come to a very good opinion on whether the book fits his or her needs or not. Therefore, sheer numbers of self-published ebooks can be waded through relatively quickly, not by New York, but by persons who actually want to buy books.
    One other thing:
    When I read a book and like it, I want to read another book by the same author. So the writer of good books has nothing to fear from published slush, and everything to gain by writing more good books!

  5. Twelve reviews from just anyone doesn’t quite count, though, does it?
    One can find twelve friends and family members to review a book. In fact, I’ve heard of Amazon authors disguising their own identities in order to hype their own works. Let’s see, it would take me about two hours to generate twelve rave reviews of any piece of crap.
    There’s still a place for gatekeepers, whether they be editors, agents, or trained reviewers of good repute.

  6. Yes, David, you’re right, I was assuming twelve bonafide reviews. And I agree there is still a place for gatekeepers, and, for that matter, printed books, print publishers, editors, reviewers and bricks and morter bookstores. I love the whole works.
    But when it comes to ebooks, I’m placing my faith in readers/potential buyers to do a very good job of recognizing quality work, and of raising it up the lists by their honest, bonafide reviews.
    But then I see New York as publishing a mass market kind of fiction whereas, with ebooks, there’s an explosion into niche areas and subjects that wouldn’t fit into New York lists. And I believe persons interested in those nickes would have the judgement to spot good writing.

  7. Acquiring editors do far more than accept or reject novels on the basis of perceived quality. Many publishers have lines, with criteria defining them, and the editor needs to find works that fit and enhance the line. Acquiring editors are also on the lookout for potentially profitable fiction, regardless of quality, and may deliberately purchase titles without much literary merit. Such editors also occasionally purchase fiction that is fresh and absorbing, knowing the novel won’t sell but deserves sunlight. Acquiring editors also pursue fiction by promising new authors, purchasing the newcomer even though the publisher will probably lose money on the first two or three books. And I should add that acquiring editors sometimes are forced by politics, such as pressure from the publisher or a vice president up the line, to buy titles that seem dubious. The miracle of a venue like a Barnes and Noble store is not how many bad books are in it, but how many fine, even great ones can be found there.

  8. I see, Richard, that you have a more discerning view of the job acquiring editors do in publishing houses than I do. And I also agree that they do a very good job in getting good books published, and that the miracle is, as you say, that so many good books reach the shelves of B&N. I feel very confident that whatever book I buy in B&N, on whatever subject, it will deliver a very high quality read. So my own argument is not so much AGAINST print publishing, as it is FOR ebook publishing. (Every good book I’ve ever read came from a print publisher, except for one or two.) (So the acquiring editors were doing a good job.)
    However, the problem with print publishing is that the industry has consolidated so much that the Big Six can raise prices at will and nobody can do much about it, just like OPEC and oil prices. Book prices keep going up and up and the only reason for it is that conglomerates want to milk the market for all that they can. The other problem is, the conglomerates want blockbusters, and so they’ve steadily narrowed their focus on the sort of books they’ll take a chance on: and that produces mass market fiction, published for no other basic reason than the desire to make as much money as possible–and this leaves out an awful lot of good niche books.
    Okay, so now ebook publishing comes along. That’s good because of much, much lower prices. That’s also good because niche books can get from authors to readers, at last. And if the only criticism of ebooks is that lots are being epublished, then the worry is over-hyped because bad ebooks won’t sell, only quality ebooks will, because potential buyers are discerning.
    So for all those writers who couldn’t fit into the increasingly-narrow-New-York-blockbuster-publishing-keep-raising-the-prices-higher-every-year focus, epublishing is a God-Send, and a liberation from the publishing-establishment model.

  9. In a world where “real” gate-keepers are interested in manuscripts that ask “Is Justin Beiber taller than the Beatles?” …
    I’ll take my chances folks will find me amid the self-publishing dreck. And if they don’t … I have already lived with it.

  10. I wish I could offer these impassioned critics of “gatekeepers,” as they call acquiring editors, a chance to select and acquire twenty titles over a year, negotiate contracts, write flap or cover copy, write promotional copy, as acquiring editors do, and see what happens over the following years, both in terms of profit and critical acclaim. I suspect the critics would find the experience instructive, to say the least.

  11. “In their eagerness to be the next Amanda Hocking, hordes of self-published authors are forgetting the most important elements for success: genuine talent, a fresh voice, a great story and strong writing skills.”
    So very true.
    I was involved in a discussion about editing and copy-editing of novels on a forum. Unbelievably, many were defending the position that you would edit after you could afford to, but release the book immediately.
    If people are so willing to take short-cuts on the necessities of producing a book then they shouldn’t be publishing. Unfortunately there are too many people who don’t seek out honest appraisal of their work and talent (just look at the initial auditions for American Idol!).


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