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Has there been some sort of unpublished author Rapture?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 Although they’re not supposed to make multiple submissions, I’m sure that unpublished authors violate that rule more than they obey it. And each unpublished author may have multiple manuscripts. If a bunch of busy-beaver unpublished authors are out there sending out ten different manuscripts to every agent and publisher in the Writer’s Guide once a year or every time they tweak their query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.



  1. I haven't read a single "slush pile story" from those in the industry, usually interns who read through the "pile," that came across as anything other than it was too much like real work. They all come across as complaints, like electrician's helpers complaining that they are not The Electrician after three days on the job.

    Great post.

  2. You hit it. I was thinking along the lines of #1 and #4. There is nothing so large as an individual's dreams and delusions. I have loads of friends who have "written a novel," or "written several novels," and are "looking for an agent." When you really pin them down (and I have, I'm a pushy broad,) about the potential of self-publishing and self-marketing, it turns out that the novel(s) have only been "written" in their heads.

    I have one friend who has written a harlequin press style novel that is really good, but she is so wrapped up in the idea of being discovered as an "artist," (not a writer, an Artist - and she can WRITE! and her art is probably never going to get her noticed,) that she has done next to nothing with her novel. She had an editor accept her synopsis! and then she dropped the ball on sending in the rest of the manuscript. (You think I didn't pull out a few of my going-grey hairs over that?! Sheesh!) I think it's, as you say, all about the dream, and in her case, if she actually pursues publishing, she not only will be something other than "Artist," but she risks losing her fall-back status as an author.

    I have another friend who has self-published. She wrote one book based on a true story, and she has written a novel, and is mostly done with a sequel and an unrelated novel. The books desperately need a ruthless editor, but the stories are sound. And each one gets better. Here's the thing: She doesn't care about the "dream." She wrote the books, she published the books through POD and ebook. I'm proud of her. But would somebody else consider her books "slush pile?" Maybe. The next one won't be though, if she keeps improving like she has.

    But what you say is true among my friends - out of about 20 or so novels claimed to be in existence authored by my friends, only 2 actually made it into availability. I truly wonder if that 10% holds true across the industry, and if the so-called slush pile is really only 10% (or so) of claimed proportions.

    Apologies for my long-windedness. FWIW, I'm not an author, so none of my imaginary books will ever be in a slush pile. Ha!

  3. Stacy:

    You're right - there are probably a lot of "vaporware" novels out there too.

    To be submitted to Kindle, they have to be finished. And sometimes the distance between a partially written novel and a finished novel is...infinity.

  4. I'm late to this party...but I had to comment as soon as I read this line:

    "Has there been some sort of unpublished author Rapture?"

    I about fell over laughing. Good stuff. =)

    I think you're onto something with this post. The path from dream-to-failure has been paved and greased. And that could short-circuit the "slush pile" in a big way.

    Thanks for a great post.