Wednesday, 18 February 2009

Cutting The Slush Pile Down To Size

The slush-pile is an ever-present sea of despair. Some writers wallow about in it for years, while editors avoid it's depressing claggy depths. Most of the books it contains have no hope of ever being published by a mainstream publishing house; and yet their writers are so determined to be published that they submit their work repeatedly, racking up the volume of the slush pile and making it even harder for agents and editors to discover the few commercially-publishable works that the slush-pile contains.

If the books which stood no chance of commercial publication were removed from the heap, the submissions system would be transformed: volume would be reduced and response times could be improved; and the big publishing houses might just well reopen their doors to unsolicited manuscripts.

How could this be achieved? First, by writers taking more care with their submissions by editing their work more carefully, and by ensuring that they submit only to appropriate markets; and then by the provision of an ethical alternative route into publishing for the manuscripts which are commercially unpublishable.

I’ll be discussing that last point in greater detail soon.

24 comments:

Samantha Tonge said...

The trouble is, i believe many not so good writers submit their work, truly believing that they have polished and edited to a high standard - it is only in retrospect, after years of learning your craft, that you realize how poor your first efforts were.

I'm about to submit my fourth book and cringe when i now look back on my first one - but at the time i truly believed it was well-written and have to admit I was surprised at my first rejection. I have learnt a lot since then, thanks to how-to books, membership of a writing site and getting an editorial report done!

How the system overcomes this i don't know.

Interesting post, Jane.

DanielB said...

A lot of people submit work before it is ready, believing it to be "polished" because they have edited and tweaked it a bit.

They'll maybe then re-submit, sending a "revised" version which isn't really all that revised after all.

My students often want to know what their "chances" are of being published - what odds they face, as if it's somehow like winning the lottery. Of course, some people have close to a 0% chance while others have almost a 100% chance, depending on the quality of the manuscript and its being sent to the right editor or agent at the right time. The sheer volume of totally unsuitable manuscripts makes the slush-pile look more intimidating than it is.

Jane Smith said...

You're right, both of you. Writers really need to wait until their work is ready before they submit: but how to get some writers to recognise that they're not at that stage yet?

And although I'll agree that the slush pile is full of dreadful stuff, most of which can be rejected after reading just the first paragraph, it still has to be opened and read before you can reject it. Which all takes time.

emmadarwin said...

I'm sure slushpiles have existed since they were formed of Sumerian clay tablets written in cuneiform, but I do suspect that the wordprocessor has something to do with it. It's so easy to turn out dozens of perfect-looking manuscripts and send them hither and yon. When even the most basic revising and tweaking meant retyping the damn thing, and you couldn't have more than two or three carbon-typed copies doing the rounds, the sheer labour of doing it all sorted a good few goats out of the sheep before they got to the submitting stage.

Plus, I fear, the much-peddled dreams of mega-advances tempts more people to try their hand. Indeed, a small ACE-funded literary publishing house recently ran a competition for a first novel, prize publication and an advance of £1000. And I myself heard a bunch of MA Creative Writing students (who of all aspiring writers, you would have thought knew a little about how it works) say they wouldn't bother entering because it wasn't enough...

TOM J VOWLER said...

Ah, that first rejection letter: how it hurt! The shock, the horror.

I observed a conversation recently that typifies such naivety. An as-yet-unpublished 'novelist' was telling those around him how he'd nearly finished his 'first novel'. He planned to send it to a few friends and family members first - 'the ones who'd be honest'! - and then 'if it needed it..'[WHAT?!] he would give this first draft 'a bit of an edit before submitting'.

The steam has just stopped coming out of my ears.

Helena Halme said...

Yet there are many published books that should never have emerged from that Slush Pile. How come?

green_knight said...

First off, a writer won't know whether they are 'there' or not until they submit - critique partners, even established authors are only individuals, and their opinion of a book is not necessarily shared by the editor who draws up a P&L and who has to decide whether they can actually _sell_ the thing. So writers will have to submit, and get rejected, and lick their wounds and rewrite and submit again somehow. (Also, writers are encouraged to believe in their book and to keep submitting and to market themselves. The writers of bad books are following those rules often with more zeal than more advanced writers who are more ready to see flaws in their own writing.)

Second, there's already the alternative of having someone else read your slush, but I would be wary to rely *entirely* on gatekeepers - because *someone* has to read submissions from new writers unless the industry wants to starve itself and restrict itself to only established writers or the friends of established writers. First we had agents, now we have people who provide query services and who will pass your query on to an agent if they think it's good enough... where will it end?

Thirdly, while it's *much* easier to send out a document that has been wordprocessed, it is also *much* easier to revise. The barrier to retyping a whole mss is one that writers would tackle only when they perceived a great need - at a certain point it becomes more efficient to let the text stand rather than retype a whole chapter, never mind the whole book, just because you changed your mind and felt that inserting a paragraph on page five and taking out a scene on page seventeen would make a big improvement.

Jenny Woolf said...

Interesting thing. I've noticed that some amateur writers online have quite a following. Their sites are well patronised and people do download their books - and pay to do so.

Yet some of those books are REALLY BAD. Clearly the readers do not care. They want a story and have no interest in how it is written.

A bit like the way that many kids gravitate on YouTube towards the videos made, incredibly badly, by other kids pushing toys around. Makes you wonder why anyone ever writes and produces "proper" TV shows for children.

So is it so surprising that very untalented people feel it is quite reasonable to submit their work for "proper" publication? Perhaps the publishers who turn them down are even missing out on something lucrative.

Just thought I'd add my 2 pence worth!
Jenny Woolf
www.jabberwock.co.uk

Donna Hosie said...

Samantha Tonge said everything that I was going to say! I look back on my first mss (which I thought was the greatest, most original piece of writing ever) and cringe.
Patience is a virtue that comes to writers with experience. My sympathies are definately with the agents and editors, but I can't think how the system overcomes over-eager writers either.

DanielB said...

There is some medically-recognised name, isn't there, for the syndrome which prevents people knowing the limits of their talent? I'm sure I read about it a while back.

The compulsion which makes people go on The X-Factor when they patently can't sing - and then have to have their weeping, wailing family dragged off Simon Cowell by the bouncers as they beg him to "give her a chance" - is the same one which motivates some people to send stuff in to publishers when they cannot write. They genuinely think it's good.

That first rejection can be a real slap in the face, and is sometimes the start of the "publishing conspiracy theory" route, which leads to the vanity press...

Sally Zigmond said...

You're absolutely right, DanielB and I'm pretty sure Jane has blogged about it here.

emmadarwin said...

Jane did blog about it, and off the back of that I blogged too about this business of the people who are worst least knowing about that they are. It has a link to the research paper which got Jane and then me thinking:

http://emmadarwin.typepad.com/thisitchofwriting/2008/09/learning-to-be-bad.html

kaolin fire said...

I have to respectfully disagree--the items that blatantly have no worth whatsoever are the easiest to cut out of the slush pile. They take almost no time at all (a few minutes apiece, tops). Especially with a nice system like GUD's to handle emailing the rejection, etc. ;)

It's the ten percent of slush that you have to read through to the very end (or nearly so) that take 99% of the time already. :)

emmadarwin said...

"I have to respectfully disagree--the items that blatantly have no worth whatsoever are the easiest to cut out of the slush pile. They take almost no time at all (a few minutes apiece, tops"

Yes, but if you're getting 100 submissions a week, which would be pretty common for big-name agency, at two minutes each on the 90 which are worth nothing, i.e. one minute reading and one minute finding the SAE and stuffing it in, and sucking the papercut which results, is still three hours of the working week when you're not working for your existing authors, nor for the one whom you're currently longing to take on if they can just be helped over the last hurdle towards something sellable. There will be a few of that 90% where there is something in the enquiry letter or the voice which makes you pursue it a little further... and suddenly the afternoon's gone. Every week. When you might find one author a year by that route. By any other industry's standards that is a perfectly staggering waste of time...

kaolin fire said...

We get a little over a hundred submissions a week. Somehow I failed to do the math...

say 90 easy rejects @ 3 minutes apiece ~ 270 minutes. 10 not-so-easy rejects at 30 minutes apiece ~ 300 minutes.

That's a lot more comparable than I expected.

I wasn't wondering where my time went, but ... sheesh, all the same. :)

Jane Smith said...

The blog post of mine, in which I linked to an academic study which had established that people need to develop a certain level of competence in a task before they are capable of realising just how bad they are at it, can be found here:

http://howpublishingreallyworks.blogspot.com/2008/08/you-have-to-be-good-to-know-that-youre.html

(Emma Darwin and I have now referred to each other's posts in a very incestuous fashion: it's become a circular discussion between us, with the end taking us both right back to the beginning again.)

To return to the real topic: how to get writers who are (ahem) not quite ready for the big time to realise that? It's hard. If you are too up-front with your criticism they refuse to listen to any of it; if you're too gentle they don't understand the distance that stands between them and true ability. Filtering their work out of the slush piles takes up a huge amount of time, and all that happens when they get a rejection is they send it straight back out again, determined to place it somewhere.

So, how to persuade them? God knows. More writers' resources, especially peer review sites like WriteWords and Absolute Write? more honesty and openness about the realities of publishing? Or by establishing some sort of qualification, without which you can't get your work read by agents or editors (very problematical, that last one)?

BuffySquirrel said...

When I suggested in another place that many writers ought to know their limitations, I got snarked. There's this whole entitlement thing going on--'I wrote it, so it should be published'. I have no idea how you get past that.

Perhaps deterring the bad-and-persistent is what some publishing houses are hoping to achieve by diverting them to vanity presses. A bad solution to a bad problem.

emmadarwin said...

I think there's a genuine difficulty in that not only does most of the world see publication as the only validation for what people write, but that for novelists, that's very nearly true. There are no slams, mags, open mics, and precious few competitions. When the hardy perennial of the writing forums comes up: 'I've written the first three chapters, should I send them out?', it's partly because they believe the stories of books being contracted for six figures at that stage, and have no idea how rare it is, but also because they're so desperate for affirmation, validation, feedback - just the sense that they're being heard.

Which is where writers circles and even more the online writing forums come into it. I've watched as newbie writers dip their toes in, and seen how they cope with good, informed, detailed feedback on their not-nearly-ready work, while they're also fed hard-won industry knowledge from the battle-scarred veterans of the aspiring writer world. Some lap it up and are soon looking back and being amazed by how much they've learnt, some go quiet for ages while they cope with the brute reality now revealed to them and then come back for more, some are so horrified they burst into the e-equivalent of floods of tears and rage, and disappear. But at least in an ongoing community like a well-run forum, at some level even the latter are recognising the reality, I think, and knowing it's not actually for them. Which is okay. At least they'll not be adding to the slushpiles for a while.

Mind you, Editorial Anonymous blogged a while ago about how many successful published authors are incapable of knowing if a given book of theirs is brilliant or terrible, maybe one never quite learns... http://editorialanonymous.blogspot.com/2009/01/i-dont-know-why-i-love-you-like-i-do.html

Jellycat said...

What about the increasing role of literary consultants (I mean the reputable ones) – some of whom now act almost as agents for agents and so reduce the slush pile in that way. Do you think they have a useful role?

Jane said...

Jellycat, regarding your comment, I did some work for The Literary Consultancy a while back, and gave a book report to an as yet unpublished writer. I was kind and constructive (I think!) and pointed out where he needed to revise. Back came the book, with a letter of tearful thanks saying that he was very grateful at my suggestions etc. I opened the manuscript to find he'd merely tinkered with it, and had completely ignored my suggestions at major revision. I did feel that the book could go back and forth with him paying out more money for a book that was never going to be published, and I refused to do any more crits on it.

The problem is firstly finding a good consultancy that has published writers, and editors with links to publishers, and secondly, I think it's important that the reader is clear and honest about the writer's chances of publication. I'm sure that some will subtly encourage the writer to keep submitting to 'improve' your work.

I don't know what can be done about that except to check credentials very carefully and see if any writers have gotten work published as a result of their crits.

Jane Smith said...

Jane makes a valid point. I have a blog post about literacy consultancies planned for the next week or two so won't discuss it now: but she's right. You must be cautious if you want to use one, and do a lot of research.

Jellycat said...

I'll look out for that blog, Jane.

I've used Cornerstones and found them excellent. I learned a huge amount in a very short space of time.

But I agree there are some sharks out there.

Andrew Lownie said...

I am an agent (www.andrewlownie.co.uk) and receive over 500 submissions a week. New submissions are my lifeblood and I read everything but I'm a business and not a manuscript evaluation service. I'm looking for books I can sell not working extra long hours to give free advice to writers. The contributors are right that many writers are not sufficiently professional in their approach and do not properly research the interests/expertise of the agency. As far as possible, I do try and give a reason for my rejection but quite often receive abuse back so sometimes it is easier saying nothing. Andrew Lownie

Jane Smith said...

I could write a whole string of blog posts based on that one comment of yours, Andrew.

Thank you for visiting.