Monday, April 11, 2011

eBooks and the Slush Pile

Over the last few weeks I’ve come across lots of discussion about eBooks, the future of publishing, and how the career of a writer is changing. Most of the time I come away from these discussions confused at the amount of information that is out there and needs to be absorbed just to begin to understand the problem. But then it dawned on me:

Ebooks are the new slush pile.

Now, this may not mean anything to most writers today because over the last thirty or forty years most publishers have given up the slush pile. The slush pile was a long and honored tradition of publishing houses accepting for review manuscripts that arrived unsolicited. No agent had sent them and no editor had requested them. They arrived because the writers had enough confidence (or demented ego) to believe that a stranger would buy their work if just given a chance to read it. And sometimes they were right. Thousands if not millions of mss went through the slush pile, but rarely did any one stand out enough to be read from beginning to end, and then to capture the reader’s attention so thoroughly that he or she decided to pass it up the line. If you know how the slush pile works, you know why surviving it is a rarity.

An editor assigned to manage the slush pile was usually new to the business and had many other duties. Her job (and it usually was a she) was to glance quickly through the mss (read page one, check page 200 to see if the author is still on the same topic and can still write, and read the last paragraph to see if the writer is still sane) and select an appropriate rejection letter. The editor signed this, usually with a pseudonym. (Unless you’ve actually worked in a publishing house, you have no idea how many people will show up uninvited and unexpected, insisting on seeing “their” editor.)

If the editor happened to come across something that seemed truly remarkable, she might read more, and if she read the entire mss and liked it, she then had to persuade a number of other editors, all senior to her, that here was something worth looking at. Considering the known writers the other editors were working with, the slush editor had her work cut out for her. And this is where eBooks come in.

There is no longer a need for a slush pile. Any book published in eBook format is in essence sent out into the world’s largest slush pile. Many of these books will die or disappear after selling half a dozen downloads to the author’s friends and relatives. These results are in essence kind rejection letters (“Thank you for letting us review your mss; I’m sorry to report that this isn’t for us”).

Few novice writers will reach the heights of Amanda Hocking, who sold upwards of a million ecopies through her own efforts. But she is proof that there still is a slush pile and that it still works—by word of mouth, she sold her books one reader at a time, working her way up the scale of readership, until she had an audience that would return again and again.

Tags: editing, slush pile, writing, Amanda Hocking