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