Slush Pile Reader – Overview (Updated)

For authors with a book looking for feedback from an online community and have decided against going the self-publishing route, one alternative is a site like Authonomy, set up by HarperCollins as a means to deal with huge slush piles of manuscripts and a pro-active way to select the cream of new and unknown authors for publication. We have mentioned one alternative, Authonomy, many times here on POD, Self-Publishing & Independent Publishing.
While I welcome alternatives for authors like Authonomy, the basic premise has always puzzled me. A quick check of the multitude of HarperCollins imprints will demonstrate one thing to an aspiring author – HarperCollins’ imprints, like most large publishing houses do not accept unsolicited manuscript submissions. The now defunct HarperStudio was the one exception. So, frankly, I’ve never bought the argument that Authonomy was a way of HarperCollins addressing its large slush piles. Like many large publishers, they are simply meat for the recycling collection, and the contents of so many padded envelopes simply take up needless time for a spotty teenager or intern to re-pact the SAE and post it back.
If there is one practice by authors which still baffles me, it is sending completed manuscripts to publishers who do not accept unsolicited submissions, let alone full manuscripts. This is an absolute no-no. There was a time, back in the 1980’s, when I would have said, well maybe, just maybe, an editor might open a package containing a manuscript and their attention might have been captured by an outstanding letter and opening page or two of an ms. Not now. So don’t do it. You are waisting your own time and energy.
Decide the path you want to take as an author. The path should almost always start with the traditional method of searching for an agent to represent you and your work, whether it is approaching independent and small presses who will look at unsolicited submissions, or the handful of remaining large publishing houses who will actually consider unsolicited submissions. You might wonder why someone who spends so much time researching self-publishing services and the importance of self-published books advocates first and foremost this approach.

“Yes, I am an advocate—absolutely!

I am an advocate of publishing (self-publishing is a part of that – like it or not) and the right of the informed author to choose their own publishing path. I am an advocate of supporting authors once they have made the choice of path. I am an advocate for associations and organisations who support an author once they have made their choice in publishing. I am an advocate for publishing information and advice. I am an advocate for anyone, author or publisher, who challenges and presents innovative ideas to write, edit, deal and trade in an industry which changes by the month.

Most importantly, I am an advocate of the reader. They include the best writers, reviewers, editors, agents and supporters the world over. But singularly, the reader is the most powerful force in publishing. Each day, throughout the world, they put their hand in their pocket, and they make book publishing work. Dismiss, fool, confuse, ignore or treat them lightly, and they will in turn reward us with what we fear most – prosecuting written but unheard voices into the wilderness.

The first question I ask any author who contacts me and asks me for advice on self-publishing is – ‘why have you decided to self-publish?’ If they have not engaged with the tried and trusted channels of mainstream publishing first, then, of course, I will strongly advise them against going the self-publishing route. Would you buy a house if you knew fuck-all about finance and mortgages??”

From, Publishing: Advocate or Be Damned, March 2010

Let’s just say I have seen the results of many authors who decide they have nothing to learn from going the normal route to publication. For the most part, the womb to tome path turns out to be a disaster, and at best, results in a handful of sales and a very disillusioned and depressed author. Believe me, there is nothing worse than sharing the company of a disillusioned and depressed author because they thought they knew it all, and that self-publishing without some kind of basic knowledge of the publishing industry itself would result in a career writing bestsellers and a bouquet of flowers with every written word. I’ve seen enough of these authors.

I should add, before setting out on the path to publishing, consider a year or two in a writers’ group, taking in a couple of workshop weekends, and even a well attended book club can do wonders to hone a writer’s skills. The other path worth considering is a site like Authonomy, combining the ideas of book club and writer’s workshop, though I think Authonomy is far stronger on the peer readership feedback than it is on any constructive workshop formula. I have expressed my views on Authonomy elsewhere many times, so I will not rehash them here, suffice to say it has proved to be a platform for several authors over the past two years receiving contracts from HarperCollins.
Now, to the subject of this article. Slush Pile Reader see themselves as an alternative to other sites like Authonomy. In fact, from perusing the Slush Pile Reader site, I sense a degree of needle existing between the two. Nothing wrong with rivalry, but the founders of Slush Pile Reader were irked at the suggestion that they were nothing more than a display site for unpublished books.

“Slush Pile Reader is the only publisher that actually listens to the readers and promises to publish what the readers choose. Slush Pile Reader goes all the way, in effect democratizing the selection process. Why do we do this? Well we believe readers know what they what they want to read. We believe there are great manuscripts out there that simply have no chance of being discovered the way old school publishing works today. We want to change that and we are convinced, that in this day and age, with modern technology and the openess and transparancy it brings, Slush Pile Reader is the way to go about it. We know we will find excellent literature in our slush pile!”

Hold on guys, slow down. Whatever you feel about any critical press, describing yourselves as a publisher is somewhat preemptive. You become a publisher when you publish books, and not beforehand. While Slush Pile Reader is an innovative process in progress, and promises much (of which I am strongly supportive), we have yet to see many of their plans in practice. Their blog says that details of their publishing contract is soon to be revealed, but accept that royalties will be 15% on listed retail price and an advance will also be paid. Actually the more I look at what Slush Pile Reader are aspiring to be, the more I consider them a million miles away from Authonomy, or for that matter, sites like Smashwords, distributing and paying authors for eBooks listed and sold.
Slush Pile Reader as a living and breathing publishing innovation has been around since 2007. They have been in beta format online since late 2009 and to date have 275 subscribers approximately. Registration with Slush Pile Reader is entirely free and authors can upload their books (so long as they hold the copyright – includes previously published work) and the rating on the site is based on voting for the best featured book, leading to an unprescribed number being offered a non-exclusive publishing contract at an as yet non-defined timeline. Here is their FAQ page and a little of what their soon to be posted contract will contain:

“The basics of the contract will be follows:

  • we want exclusive global English language rights for trade and paperback editions as well as e-book and audio books

  • we want non-exclusive right to a lot of other stuff as well but they will all be “subject to authors approval”, meaning the author has the right to veto them.
  • royalty rates will be 15% on list price from the first book on trade editions and 10% on list price from the first book on mass market editions (as compared to traditional publishing houses we push the envelope on this one)

  • for audio and e-books we want a 50%/50% split.

  • there will be an advance (you will however not be able to retire on it…)”

Regarding when the full roll-out of Slush Pile Reader will happen, that is, when voting will result in a deadline resulting in contracts being offered to authors. From their How Does it Work Page:

“When will Slush Pile Reader select a manuscript for publishing?

We will have several cut off periods when a manuscript is chosen and we hope to publish many manuscripts a year. The first cut off period will be set as soon as we reach critical mass, i.e. as soon as the site has enough authors to enable a sufficiently large pool of talent from which readers can choose. So help us spread the word about Slush Pile Reader…the more people who join, the sooner we can select the first manuscript.”

This seems to be the nub of it to me. ‘the more people who join, the sooner we can select the first manuscript’.  I do understand what Slush Pile Reader are trying to do, and I believe it is innovative; publishing what their readers want, rather than what a publisher thinks should be published based on selling trends, house style or personal choices of commissioning editors. There is nothing that I have researched on their site that I do not broadly agree with, but now it is time to get to the crunch. Primarily, Slush Pile Reader is a publisher using an alternative method of selecting what they publish by means of their book listings submitted online. I will apply the same factor I use for all publishers and services I use when I do a review. Firstly, they are new, kind of, though they have been in development since 2007, and in several months, they have attracted 275 subscribers who have submitted books. Who are Slush Pile Readers?

“Slush Pile Reader was born out of the idea of combining the power of the global reach of the Internet, the preferences and knowledge of readers, and the creativity of writers. After all, it is the readers who buy books, so why shouldn’t the readers themselves be able to decide which books are published?

Slush Pile Reader believes that the common knowledge of a large group of readers is the most interesting, and valid, means of determining the value of a particular manuscript. After mounds of research and thought, Slush Pile Reader was conceived in San Francisco in 2007 by Johanna and Pascal Denize, both originally from Sweden and now residents of San Francisco. A beta site was launched in 2009. With a team of unbelivably talented and inspired techs, communication specialists and book professionals Slush Pile Reader will help make great new literature available to the world!

All of us at Slush Pile Reader have certain things in common – we love books, we love to read and we all want to find the next great novel. It is as simple as that. We know that there are writers out there with unbelievably good manuscripts but no way of reaching an audience. We believe that Slush Pile Reader is the perfect way to help these manuscripts become published books available to all and everyone!”

Johanna and Pascal Denize are the husband and wife team co-founding Slush Pile Reader which seems to have been in development for a considerably long time, too long for my liking, and I am unconvinced of what actual experience either founders have beyond finance and business consultancy. Certainly, I could find nothing to indicate any publishing experience, and a company existing since 2007, which as a publisher has not sold a single book, can’t have many paid staff willing to hang around until the 275 subscribers reaches anything of real potential. Therein lies the foundation the publishing house needs to be built upon. If at this stage Slush Pile Reader is still looking at so few subscribers, then, it begs the question, how long?
Frankly, as much as I want Slush Pile Reader to succeed, I have a lot of reservations. This project has been going a while and I don’t believe it is a primary business focus of its founders – otherwise it would have long taken off or been put to bed. It strikes me as a pet side-project given enough attention online to keep it alive and going, but not the endeavor a serious publishing business needs if is to get off the ground.
I desperately want to Slush Pile Reader to succeed, but there is simply too much on the long-thumb never-never here to really sate investing authors, or for that matter readers. There is only so long you can actually wait. Subscriber amounts should have nothing to do with the core decisions to running a business, especially when that business is not reliant on a subscription fee, but on the long-tail of actual book sales. The Slush Pile Readers have already spoken and voted. You become a publisher to publish, period – that’s how you make your name no matter how small you start out. No matter how many readers endorse what you intend to publish – publishing will always be a risk to a publisher. You can’t remove that risk – it’s like sucking water from a stone. No amount of subscribers and supporters are going to protect you from the challenges, twists and turns of the big bad world. Slush Pile Reader is either going to do this in 2010 or it is frankly never going to happen.
For now, Slush Pile Reader will go in our Publishing Innovators slot, but I can’t help feeling in six to twelve months times, I will be deleting the link.

It is up to them to prove me wrong.

UPDATE, April 8th, 2010.

As a right of reply, I felt if important that Pascal Denize, co-founder of Slush Pile Reader recorded his strategy for the company here.

“We started out in 2007 researching the project and then decided to work behind the scenes for a while: building the technology, talking to potential partners, planning. We only launched the site in Beta late November last year and the technology is still being perfected. We are 100% committed to making this a whopping success. This is not a side project but what we do – full time and more. We are discussing with external investors, recruiting a team of industry professionals and together we have big plans for the future.”

Denize stressed to me that the development of Slush Pile Reader has been taken in stages, placing an importance on ‘doing it the right way rather than the quick way’. The next stage for the company will see improved site functionality, disclosure of the author contract, followed by a full-scale launch of Slush Pile Reader in 2010.


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