Friday, September 10, 2010

On the Slush Pile Apocalypse and Other Myths of Self-Publishing - Part 2


Yesterday we talked about how the dire warnings of a tsunami of self-published slush washing over the product pages of the Amazon Kindle Store have not come to pass. How can we explain the eerie absence of the millions of slush manuscripts we were told to expect and to fear?

Has there been some sort of unpublished author Rapture? Doubtful.

So what’s up?

I think four things are possible.

1. Slush pile authors only want to be "published".

I will admit that just like every other observer, I assumed that when an easy path to free or nearly free self-publication with wide distribution became available, a significant percentage of slush pile authors would jump on it. Why wouldn’t they? Well, if you aren’t looking at writing as a business or your manuscripts as assets ["I have a product and I want to sell it to people"], but are instead looking at writing as a vehicle for achieving a dream or fantasy vision of yourself, then self-publication isn’t really a substitute for traditional publication.

Some people are writing for the moment when they can walk to their mailbox and open a letter telling them that They Are Somebody. Those people aren’t getting out of line no matter what royalty rate Amazon sets.

2. The slush pile was never really that big to begin with.

The slush pile is a legend of the literary world, and the thing about legends is that they grow in the telling.

Typewritten manuscripts take up a lot of space. Print out 500 novel-length manuscripts, put them in padded mailers, and put them in a pile. It will be a big pile.

But you can add 500 books to Amazon’s database and you won’t be able to tell the difference.

The slush pile will look larger to people who have to physically live with it than it will look to anyone else.

3. The slush pile was as big as everyone says, but it doesn’t represent as many authors as we thought.

"Oh no!" agents and publishers said as they read #2. "You’re completely wrong! The slush pile really is as big as we say! It’s not a perception issue. I get 500 emails a day!"

That may be true – but it’s always possible that this never represented that many authors. Although they’re not supposed to make multiple submissions, I’m sure that unpublished authors violate that rule more than they obey it. And each unpublished author may have multiple manuscripts. If a bunch of busy-beaver unpublished authors are out there sending out ten different manuscripts to every agent and publisher in the Writer’s Guide once a year or every time they tweak their query or opening chapter, that adds up to a lot of unread manuscripts. It can also create the impression that there are orders of magnitude more unpublished authors chomping at the bit than there actually are.

4. The slush apocalypse already came, and those authors slunk away to hide.

Everybody knows that the slush pile represents a certain amount of delusion. In #1 we talked about how some unpublished authors are motivated by a fantasy vision of themselves. I think there’s a second common unpublished author daydream out there – the fantasy of Unrecognized Genius and the related fantasy of Instant Success.

If you’re a slush pile author who subscribes to these two fantasies, you firmly believe that as soon as you get published the world will acknowledge your brilliance and you will sell a million copies and go on Oprah and hang out with Nicholas Sparks and John Grisham and Tom Clancy while the Smithsonian looks into acquiring your childhood photos and mementoes. If you’re that author, the entire time you’re formatting your first Kindle upload, you’re daydreaming about the 1000 sales you will have in the first 72 hours after your upload goes live. You’re daydreaming about how Stephen King will email you about how he bought your book and wishes he had written it. And then your book goes live, and these things don’t happen.

A large number of those authors won’t upload another manuscript. They’re done. They’ll bail.

The funny thing about the traditional publishing slush pile is that anyone in it can still hold on to the dream, or the delusion. For as long as you’re still in the pile, you can still be an Unrecognized Genius. So in a real sense the existence of the pile is itself a factor in increasing the size of the pile – because for as long as it’s there, people aren’t clearing the decks of their dreams.

Consider a nonworking actor who also believes himself to be an Unrecognized Genius. He goes to auditions for years, convinced that he will succeed if someone will give him a chance. For as long as that’s the case, he’s increasing the size of the line at auditions.

And then one day someone gives him a chance. Opening night, the curtain goes up, and he steps out on stage – and the crowd boos. The show closes. The actor finally quits, and the line at auditions goes down by one person.

It’s at least possible that a large number of slush pile authors have experimented with the Kindle platform, and finally "gotten their chance" – and since they didn’t instantly succeed, they quit in disgust. It’s a maddening thing, checking the DTP report system waiting for sales to show up. If your expectations aren’t set properly, it would probably be an embittering thing.

By giving authors a chance to finally fail for real, instead of leaving them to bide their time in the slush pile line, the Kindle boom may finally be clearing the backlog in the slush pile line. It may be leading at least some people to quit who would otherwise have continued to toss manuscripts into the pile.

I don’t know if what’s going on is a function of just one of these possibilities, or if all five are in play. But it’s got to be something.


Thursday, September 9, 2010

On the Slush Pile Apocalypse and Other Myths of Self-Publishing – Part 1


A persistent meme about self-publishing is that the ability of writers to independently publish to the Kindle for free and to POD platforms like CreateSpace at minimal cost will inevitably lead to irresponsible and talentless hacks burying the reading public in a mountain of slush.

In a Salon article that attracted a lot of attention, Laura Miller wrote:

Will readers have to flounder in an ocean of slush before the new gatekeepers appear to rescue them? And if so, how long before they contract slush fatigue? 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?

Currently there are a couple of threads over at Kindleboards lamenting this as well.

So the question, to me, becomes: Where is the mountain of slush we were promised, and told to fear? The Kindle has been out for three years. Shouldn’t we be drowning in the slush by now?

Bowker reports that in 2009 traditional publishing produced 288,355 new titles and new editions.

That was down slightly in a recession year, but not to a degree material to our concerns here. 2008 and 2007 showed similar numbers, and we can assume 2010 will as well.

By the time the Kindle’s 3rd anniversary runs around in November, there will probably be around 690,000 titles available in the Kindle Store. That means that Kindle Store title growth is averaging around 230,000 titles a year. In other words, the ebook platform that we’re told will be a fire hose spraying all readers everywhere with slush is currently adding fewer titles a year than the traditional publishing world is adding the old-fashioned way.

And it’s important to note that these years should be the Kindle Store’s peak title growth years, because there’s a huge backlog of existing print titles being formatted for Kindle and added to the store. Right now, right this very moment, should be the peak slush era also - all the unpublished authors between the ages of 20 and 70 should have a giant trunk full of titles available to add to the Kindle with minimal effort. So even with a huge backlog of "shovel ready" content available, and no barrier to entry, the Kindle Store can’t grow its title base as fast as traditional print publishing is growing its own – let alone increase it at the kind of exponential rate people seem to fear. The titles aren’t appearing the way they should be.

So where are they? They. Just. Aren’t. There.

Why aren’t they there? I have a couple of theories. I’ll talk about them in tomorrow’s blog post.


Friday, September 3, 2010

Win A Free Kindle


Scott Nicholson, noted indie horror author, is running a promotion this month where he is giving away free Kindles.

You can view the contest details here.

Check it out!