Still Trying To Beat The Slush Piles?

The Wall Street Journal took a look at the infamous slush pile in the publishing and film industry over the weekend. It makes for depressing reading but does highlight the trend of modern authors no longer even bothering to jump on the submission/literary agent bandwagon, and choosing instead to go straight to self-publishing. The article by Katherine Rosman also claims Random House last plucked a manuscript from the slush pile in 1991. To be fair to publishers, any author submitting an ms query, full or partial to a large publisher like Random House is being very foolish and naive, and I’m not going to expend the time here explaining why. Here is an extract from the Wall Street Journal article.

Book publishers say it is now too expensive to pay employees to read slush that rarely is worthy of publication. At Simon & Schuster, an automated telephone greeting instructs aspiring writers: “Simon & Schuster requires submissions to come to us via a literary agent due to the large volume of submissions we receive each day. Agents are listed in ‘Literary Marketplace,’ a reference work published by R.R. Bowker that can be found in most libraries.” Company spokesman Adam Rothberg says the death of the publisher’s slush pile accelerated after the terror attacks of 9/11 by fear of anthrax in the mail room.

A primary aim of the slush pile used to be to discover unpublished voices. But today, writing talent isn’t necessarily enough. It helps to have a big-media affiliation, or be effective on TV. “We are being more selective in taking on clients because the publishers are demanding much more from the authors than ever before,” says Laurence J. Kirshbaum, former CEO of Time Warner Book Group and now an agent. “From a publisher’s standpoint, the marketing considerations, especially on non-fiction, now often outweigh the editorial ones.”

Well, there you go, it’s partly the fault of 911, the threat of anthrax in the post, and too many writers doing what they do – writing! Dang writers, always bloody writing and doing them books and film scripts! The article goes on to discuss how the advent of the internet should have somehow leveled the playing field for all writers and made things easier for publishers. It did, or rather, should have, but publishers themselves choose not to embrace it, just as there remains a reluctance to accept the changes digitalization is having on the industry.

Jez, you’d swear the poor dears in the New York publishing houses couldn’t get to the door on the way home but for the piles and piles of manuscripts impeding their thankless day’s work. The gate-keeping practice by large publishers is a bit like Macys pulling the shutters down on their stores half way through the day and declaring, “We’ve made quite enough money today, thank you, please f*** o**, your custom probably won’t make us any more money than the time we’ll spend serving you.” I worked in the retail industry for many years, and the old adage ‘the customer is always right’ still holds firm, but they never tell you about the caveat at the end of that adage – ‘as long as the customer is actually spending money’!

So, how should publishers have used the internet and email to make their jobs easier and cut a march through those slush piles? Here is one UK publisher, Sparkling Books who deal with the flow of manuscript submissions to them perfectly well, via a detailed submission form, and in a way all large publishing houses should have adopted ten years ago. Not exactly quantum science, is it? I’m sure publishing proprietor Anna Alessi has a perfectly smooth and effortless journey to the door on her way home every day.  

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