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Is Self-Publishing The New Slush Pile?

Is Self-Publishing The New Slush Pile?

ALLi's founder Orna Ross, named by The Bookseller magazine as one of the 100 most influential people in publishing, explains how the rise of self-publishing might lead to the demise of the slush pile, and its implied disrespect for writers, no matter how they intend to publish their work.

self-publishing the new slush pile

Self-publishing is seeing off the disrespect inherent in the term “slush pile”

The “slush pile” is how publishers and agents refer to unsolicited manuscripts submitted to their offices for consideration. I've always disliked the term. When I (briefly) worked as an agent myself, it was banned in our office, as we felt it reeked with disrespect for the loving labour that goes into most book manuscripts.

I've heard more than one publisher and agent of late say that self-publishing is the new slush pile, most recently when I took part in one of those “Which Is The Best Route To Publication?” panel discussions, with an agent and publisher on the panel representing trade-publishing, and me representing author-publishing.

For the record, I don't believe any one way is the best route to publication. It depends on the book — and many ALLi members move happily across the range of options now available to them, depending on their project and its needs.

On this panel, after giving out a lot of inaccurate information – self-published writers feel isolated and alone? self-published books don't sell? self-published writers can't licence subsidiary rights? — the agent began to bemoan the quality of submissions that arrive to her office. The audience laughed along – oh, those deluded writers! – while I wondered how many potential books, in this room full of budding writers as well as publishing folk, were being crushed.

Missing the Point

Nobody would claim that all unsolicited manuscripts are fit for publication, or all self-published books either. But this focus on the sub-standard is massively missing the point in the new publishing landscape. Its thinking belongs to  the scarcity model, grounded in commercial principles, that is a feature of trade publishing, whereby gatekeepers select a few books for publication and protect their value with copyright.

But publishing now operates within an abundance model, grounded in creative principles and in an abundance model, excess and redundancy are no cause for concern.

Yes, self-publishing is enabling more poor-quality books to be published than ever before. What’s important in an abundance model, though, is not that more bad books exist — but that more good books are enabled.

Creativity is never a zero sum game. More bad books doesn't mean fewer good books, but the opposite. More masterpieces emerge at the top, the expanded tip of an enlarged mountain.

The Creative Perspective

From the reader's perspective: an abundance of books is a good thing. The sophisticated algorithms, search engines, keywords and sampling that readers enjoy today mean that sub-standard publications are born to obscurity. They quickly fall to the nether regions of Amazon and other online outlets, while it’s easier than ever to find great writing, including great self-published writing.  Engaged readers are now helping to develop genres and books that Manhattan and London would never have published.

From the writer's perspective: a poorly-produced book is often the precursor to a better one. It is certainly a learning opportunity — and most writers are quick learners. The proportion of high-standard self-published books, both in terms of literary quality and production values, has never been greater, and is growing exponentially.

As Commissioning Editor Debbie Young regularly points out, thousands of readers are enjoying self-published books without knowing — or in the main, caring — how they were published. Books that feature strong writing, flawless editing, appropriate cover and high production values are either assumed to be trade-published, or don't raise the question. Editorial and design are like housework; we most notice them when they're absent.

It is one of ALLi’s key objectives to encourage excellence in the self-publishing sector, through example, advice and information. And equally to nurture the sort of creative environment where writers can make mistakes and, in the words of Sam Beckett, then “Try Again. Fail again. Fail better.”

This is the creative way.

What's Good For Writers Is Good For Readers

What's good for writers and good for readers is good for literary culture: that is the truth missed by those who deride the slush pile or self-published books.

If writers do the hard work of understanding their offering, developing their craft, building their audience and learning from their mistakes, they become unstoppable. They turn “failure” to “success”. Then when the trade publishers and agents come calling, as they surely will if they sense money to be made, the writer has the confidence born of readers and income.

Such writers approach a publishing conversation with a very different attitude to those who are submitting unsolicited manuscripts, pleading for publication, metaphorically on their knees.

Does this make self-publishing the new slush pile? I think not.

Goodbye and Good Riddance to the Slush Pile

What we have here is a power shift and in the new publishing environment that independent authors are helping to foster, I hope self-publishing will see off the “slush pile” term entirely — along with the disrespectful attitude to writers' work that underlies it.

After all, it is writers' work that generates the income of all who work in publishing.


Twitter bird outlineEASY TWEET “Why #selfpub is good for readers as well as writers by @OrnaRoss:  https://selfpublishingadvice.org/no-more-slush-pile/ via @IndieAuthorALLi”

OVER TO YOU Please feel free to share your experience and your views from whichever part of the publishing industry you are involved in


Author: Orna Ross

Orna Ross is a bestselling and award-winning author of historical fiction and inspirational poetry, and a creativity facilitator. As founder-director of the Alliance of Independent Authors, she has been named one of The Bookseller’s Top 100 people in publishing. 


This Post Has 32 Comments
  1. Bottom line, I don’t have time to bother dealing with self-publishers or their stuff. Until you institute effective GATEKEEPERS who perform the same functions as traditional publishers, i.e. weeding out the crap before it gets to me, I DON’T HAVE THE TIME OR ENERGY TO DEVOTE TO WADINGTHROUGH THE ENDLESS WAVES OF SHIT SURROUNDING ONE ONE-CARAT ROUGH DIAMOND THAT MIGHT BE WORTH READING.

    Stop wasting readers’ time. Nobody cares about your opinion of your work. Get someone with decent credentials to vouch for you or GO AWAY. NO ONE WANTS TO READ UNVETTED SLUSH.

  2. You people are hilarious. As a reader, I’m NOT going to pay to read slush (oh, so sorry that the term hurts your feelings). I’ve *tried* to read self-published books after their authors swore up and down that their books were works of genius unfairly overlooked by “the dinosaurs.” Every time I tried to read one, I wondered how writers could be so self-deluded to think that their books were at all close to ready for publication! Nope, nope, nope. I’ve concluded that I’d much rather pay some poor slob to slog through all that slush and find the few books that are actually worth reading. The ONLY people who think self-published books are “just as good” as traditionally published books are deluded self-publishers themselves. This isn’t to say that ALL self-published books are horrible; there are always going to be the few exceptions to the rule. But as a whole, self-published books are just not worth my time, never mind my money. As for those who are bitter about the difficulty of getting their precious baby accepted by a traditional press, keep in mind that “The Big Five” aren’t the only option. There are numerous small presses that produce brilliant books.

  3. I never thought of the slush pile as a sign of disrespect to writers but now it’s out there it’s all I can see it as. When you’ve poured your heart and soul into a project just to have it left unread in someones inbox or on someones desk it makes you feel rubbish. Indie publishing is enabling people to get their words out there for people to see and if they’re not all that great, well the ball is in the writers court to improve them. It’s a wonderful feeling to have so much control of your own creative endevour.

  4. Thank you Orna about this topic because now, when I am reading Let’s get Visible and read that in 2013 the books in literary fiction were over 700 k. Now, one year and a half they are over 1 million. Visibility is a problem for every author no matter if traditional or indie published.

  5. I can’t believe this term is still being thrown around when discussing self-published works. Yes, there are terrible self-published books. There are also terrible traditionally published books. It’s a matter of taste and opinion.

  6. What I’m wondering is has all this independent publishing made the “slush piles” in publishing houses any smaller? I’m guessing it has. Otherwise publishers wouldn’t be slow in taking authors down “a peg or two” by plastering it all over the Internet that their “slush piles” are still as high as they ever were.

  7. It’s still VERY difficult to be noticed. IMHO. Especially if you like to color outside the lines. I worked in traditional publishing for decades. I found I could not give my e-books away so I just removed them from all channels. It’s less upsetting to me. I’m trying to re-brand a bit. Maybe that will help. Mostly I think it’s my, uh, style, my humor, some issues with genre-blur, etc. and just the fact that there are way too many really good writers on the internet competing for attention. And then there’s the whole “boxed set for 99 cents” thing where indies are shooting themselves in the foot, the precious “algorithms” (voodoo!), on and on. But I still write. Every day.

  8. I always felt the term slush pile to be deeply offensive. I love snow; it brings out the big kid in me. But slush? Polluted by countless feet, car tires, dog muck, it’s shoveled to the side of the road and left to disappear when the weather warms. The use of the phrase does show a deeply embedded contempt.
    In all honesty though, were I to be approached by a *proper* publisher or agent, I don’t know what I would do. I spent years and a lot of heart ache trying to get the validation of a contract; I’m not convinced I would turn them down. Probably would, but…

    1. … but you shouldn’t, if they can do something for your book that you can’t do yourself. At ALLi, we define “independent” and “indie” not in oppositional terms, but as an attitude that sees the writer as the creative director of the book, in service to the work and reader, but heading up the project. So we must do what’s best for our books — recognising that trade publishing is now one service among many for a writer. Good luck, Vivienne… and thanks for commenting!

  9. An excellent post, Orna. I have just finished reading The Long Sword, Christian Cameron, published by Orion -and stopped counting the errors after I reached twenty. These were all small things that should have been picked up – but it in no way interfered with my reading pleasure. It is a brilliant book – gulped it down in three sittings.
    My point is that author-published books with far fewer typos etc are castigated in reviews but no one will mention them in Cameron’s book. Time this stopped too.

    1. Good point, Fenella. The same editors (good and not so good) are now working on both trade and author-published books. Publishers of all kinds have a responsibility to choose the right editors (not always easy, I’ve had problems with this myself) and (memo to self) double-check the work!

  10. Very timely Orna.
    ( I’m working on me 21st novel right now. All with pro design and good editing.)
    I’ve had only good reviews from real readers, 4 star and above and yet… I am lost in the flood and sometimes feel I am drowning.
    My sales tick over slowly and all attempts to follow the advice given in Alli and elsewhere makes no difference.
    I once was in the trad slush piles and never got noticed. Rejecting that and learning how to put out a good product freed me from that pile but submerged me in another with even more staggering numbers.
    If like me, you write non-mainstream literary fiction, then the struggle will always be finding the will to go on and keeping faith with ones art.
    I have had huge rewards by way of reader reaction and the trickle of word of mouth goes on but it is too easy to look at my low rank on Amazon and feel disheartened and defeated.
    I tried Google Add words recently and got a lot of traffic to my new web site but none of it was the right traffic and the economics were making no sense. I tried Boosting Posts on FB and got site traffic but very few sales.
    I guess the point is this: merit alone will not get you out of the trad slush pile or off the bottom of the Amazon sales figures.
    Getting discovered remains the biggest challenge facing any author, no mater what route they choose. One can only keep faith and try to do it well and keep writing.

    1. I do agree David. I think it’s important for non-mainstream, literary writers to realise that their chances of ever having significant sales is low — and general advertising like Google/Facebook ads are unlikely to work.That has little to do with sales outlets and marketing methods and everything to do with the fact that literary reading is a minority sport and such readers are spoilt for choice. Simple supply and demand.

      I need to also tell you that as a literary writer, your Amazon ranking is NOT particularly low. I was shopping for WB Yeats novel John Sherman last week and it comes in at #1,103,110 in Kindle Store!

      For literary writers, the rewards are different and that’s because the creative intention is different. If your main goal was sales, you would write more commercial books! The only marketing that works for literary is the slow, painstaking work of finding your readers and showing them your work and recognising, daily, that the joy of this work is in the doing, not the selling. Keep on keeping on, soldier!

  11. Great post, Orna.

    If only there were more rubbish out there. Then it would be easier for indie authors to make a living. Unfortunately there’s a glut of excellent self-published books. As Mark Coker wrote recently, “Self-publishing is unleashing a tsunami of high-quality works.” http://blog.smashwords.com/2014/11/ebook-publishing-gets-more-difficult.html It’s the kind of problem readers like to have and it can only raise the game of the commited author-publisher.

    It makes you wonder though. If there was all this writing talent and originality lurking in the “slush piles” of traditional publishing, how did the gatekeepers manage to overlook it? And how did they manage to publish so many distinctly average, largely derivative books?…

  12. I think the term of slush pile is referring to the traditional publishers. Self publishing is their pile of unsolicited MS that they can take from. It becomes a safer bet as they can gauge some response to the book before taking it on. Self publishers, the slush pile, is just another resource for traditional publisher to exploit.

    N.B. To be honest, I feel just as isolated in the self publishing community as in the traditional community, even with organizations like ALLi. So I am unsure how much of a myth it is. Naturally, there are a few that are gaining from the community, but I am not sure how universal that is. When you are in the middle of the crowd, it is hard to see those that are not there.

    1. I’m sorry to hear you are still feeling that sense of isolation, William, it can be so crippling for a writer. Will write to you on our closed member forum about this.

  13. Great post, Orna. I totally agree and I hope that someday soon the big 5 smell the wind changing and start communicating with authors and paying them in a timely manner and sharing more of their rising profits with the people who make their business possible.

    The writer getting up from his knees will be the biggest change that this revolution brings. Good luck in all you do,

  14. The slush pile was always very badly named, and frankly an insulting term to be used. If I remember correctly, Donal Ryan’s The Spinning Heart was rejected by 47 publishers, before being rescued from a so-called slush pile by an intern. The book went on to be longlisted for the Man Booker prize. If self-publishing is the new slush pile, it certainly shows that even slush piles contain works of a very high quality, which will always rise to the top. What rises these days, however, is decided by the reader, instead of being relied upon by some intern digging around and stumbling upon it by chance.

    1. Yes Noel, there are many stories like Donal’s. No system is ever perfect but I do think self- publishing is invigorating for all and a definite boon for readers and writers. Thanks so much for dropping by!

  15. Great article. I had a conversation with a friend on Facebook not long ago, who was arguing that there’s a “growing” perception that all self-published titles are junk, and that the majority of self-published authors are treating self-publishing as a slush pile, hoping for a traditional contract and/or publishing too fast, too soon, without working toward quality first, because they want to see if it sticks. I totally disagreed. There is a percentage of authors who do this, but my argument is that you only notice that a book is self-published if it sucks. If it’s good, you don’t care who published it. And I think more and more indie authors are realizing this. The market is changing – slowly, the traditional publishers are losing their strangle-hold on quality as more and more authors figure out how to publish professionally on their own. Grouping all self-publishing into “the slush pile” is like saying all traditionally published books are going to be best sellers: it’s simply not true.

    1. You’re very right, Megan. Writers come in many shapes and sizes and are responding very nimbly, and shrewdly, to the new publishing environment. We have members who have self published, been picked up by trade publishing, and then returned to self-publishing again – but I think the most interesting movement is towards breaking down these categories altogether, with a shift in power towards authors and reader. Thank you for commenting!

  16. The slush pile line goes hand in hand with a couple of other memes like “it’s a minor league and we’ll bring the best to the majors” and “skimming the cream from the top” and a “farm where we harvest the best talent”, none of which is currently working out for them. I think many of them are still acting under the mistaken impression that all self publishers secretly long for a traditional contract and don’t quite know how to act when that’s turning out not to be the case.

    1. Power shifts are always challenging. The people who are doing best in this new publishing environment, whether writers are publishers or agents, are those who recognise the implications of the change. Some, alas, seem determined to insist that nothing has changed at all! Thanks for commenting, Dan.

  17. Thank you for this, Orna. In this new publishing landscape, it’s the readers who decide what they want to read, not the publishers going through the so-called and badly named ‘slush pile’ and deciding for us what is ‘worthy’ of publication.

    I almost never buy a book without first downloading those free sample chapters. Every so often I’ll read through all the samples I’ve downloaded and decide which books I want to buy, and which I want to turf. And what I decide I don’t want to read might be exactly what someone else would gobble up on a weekend.

    1. Thanks for reading, Linda! I love the way readers are leading the way now. And one of the great joys of publishing my own work is the way it has drawn me closer to readers.

  18. One of the reasons we have such a wealth of music talent available to us these days is because musicians bucked the ‘usual channels’ and went Indie. I think that suggests a promising future for Indie Writers, too. The reader will decide in the way the listener decided for music.

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