Slush pile 1: From vanity publishers to independents
“Take that stack of manuscripts up to Cambridge with you for a shufti, and let me know if any of them are any good,” said John Blackwell on the third day after Christmas in 1977. He was editorial director of Martin Secker & Warburg , old-fashioned London literary publishers back in the days when such distinctions mattered; he, and Nick Austin of Sphere, who was to be my paperback editor, had come in to the city on a holiday to greet their new author when I flew in from Australia with my wife; that evening John and Pamela gave Rosalind and me dinner. When John died, the novelist David Lodge in his obituary of John in The Independent made a point of telling us that John Blackwell was the last London editor of note to do his own copy-editing for his authors. John also rode home on his bicycle every night with a stack of manuscripts that had “washed in over the transom” tied to the rack; he would read at least a few pages of each, more of any manuscript that caught his attention.
What I’m describing is an editor of immense goodwill, who actively searched for new writers. Though with all my other publishers I had introductions, with Secker & Warburg I was one of those authors who “washed in over the transom”, and had been in correspondence with John, long informative and entertaining letters crafted on his own typewriter, for several years. I didn’t know how privileged I was.
It is true, as recounted in WRITING A THRILLER, and quoted many times by others, that I sent my first novel out over forty times, including three times to John, before it was accepted. Naturally I wondered what were the odds I’d beaten.
Secker & Warburg might have taken on one new writer every year or two in John’s time — and, as I’ve described, not for lack of trying. Most of their writers came by what I call the “Bennett Cerf method” — introductions from people who know instinctively who can be an author, or think they do. I’m interested in the minutae of any profession I find myself in, so I looked into the efficiency of John’s method of discovering new authors. It came down to this: of each 440 manuscripts that “washed in over the transom” Secker & Warburg would publish — one. (In my previous role, as a troubleshooter in the communications industry, I would instantly have redirected John’s valuable energy and attention to the more profitable tasks at hand, working with Secker’s Nobel Prize winners and potential winners.)
All right, so Secker & Warburg were high quality literary publishers who maintained a very high standard even when they could have expanded with all that Heinemann money behind them, not to mention the authority of having become under Tom Rosenthal the most profitable Heinemann division. I saw absolutely no evidence of empire building at Secker, nor any desire to expand for the sake of expansion; instead the Secker publisher, Tom Rosenthal, was moved into the hot seat at Heinemann, in short, a reverse takeover.
Thus, in theory at least, some of those manuscripts of authors who didn’t meet Secker’s perhaps unreasonably high standards should and would find a place on another publisher’s list. They kept decent records, so I picked the fifth year back, and checked every one of the declined manuscripts against records of books in print for all the intervening years. Two out of 441 (I’m giving this from memory) had made it into print elsewhere.
Now, most writers and aspirants are not self-delusional. Secker & Warburg were, with Faber & Faber and Jonathan Cape, the top literary publishers in London. One must assume that only aspirants who thought they were ready for the heights would send their manuscripts to this select company of publishers. Surely the rest would send their manuscripts where they might stand a better chance of being accepted. Thus there would be a large element of self-selection even in the 440 manuscripts that on average “washed in over the transom” at Secker in a year. In short, one would expect that the slush pile at any of these top literary publishers would hold some publishable examples that, given their size and quality expectations, they would have to pass on.
Yet out of 440 manuscripts by new writers who though they were ready for prime time, three in total were published. Count them. Three. That’s 0.68 percent of the unsolicited manuscripts at one literary publisher in a year that eventually found publication. And, if my reasoning above holds, it is an exceptionally high fraction. In fact I know from information from other publishers that the reasoning holds and also, as a separate matter, that by itself the percentage is astoundingly high, but it would take too long to present the evidence. Anyway, I just checked one year, so it may have been a very good year. You should also consider that this was when a manuscript had to be typed and retyped, before computers made creating and submitting a manuscript appallingly easy. Today, largely because of cheap computers enabling the untalented, the percentage of manuscripts in circulation quoted as being publishable is about one tenth of one percent, that is, one in a thousand. This is the major reason publishers eventually stopped accepting unsolicited submissions.
So what should you say when your child announces that it wants to be a writer. First of all, don’t shout, “Over my dead body!” That could be an incentive. Instead smile brightly and say, “Chance would be a fine thing; first find your publisher. Now, if you wanted to become a professional gambler, your parents might see fit to pay for an education in mathematics, so that you can keep us in our old age in the style to which we would like to be accustomed.”
Now you may be wondering. Did I ever find a promising author in John’s slushpile, the few times I had no excuse for refusing to serve as an unpaid sieve? Why, yes I did, and at a higher rate than he did. (Perhaps my taste wasn’t as good, perhaps my standards were lower… Actually, I was just more innocent and therefore keener.) I found, over a period of a decade or so, three promising writers, two of whom John hated for lack of “moral core” (which was pretty pointed language from a fellow out of whom his own authors had to drag “notes” with pulleys and a steam engine), and the third jerked himself up as beyond criticism when John wrote him a letter explaining why his novel wasn’t immediately publishable, thereby damning himself as permanently unpublishable. One of the other two was eventually published by Barley Alison, who had her own imprint under the Secker umbrella; Barley later told me with a downturned mouth that after two novels (of which I adored the first one, very funny, and hated the second one as superficial and condescending), this writer was posturing in pubs as an author, drinking, doping and not working. Another handful of years on, when I was packaging and editing a series of graphic design books I discovered precisely how difficult it is to find good, hardworking, consistent professionals who could also write, and I understood that downturned mouth and bitter tone of an editor who lost a writer after his second book, a very common experience in all grades of publishing. That experience, in turn, tends to make even the most enthusiastic editor look with a leery eye upon even the most talented new writer with only one or two books to show. That was the point of John’s several years of correspondence with me, that he wanted to be certain I was working, producing more books, not just sitting there feeling sorry for my unrecognized genius. It also explains why those who already have substantial and satisfying careers in a related field behind them often make the best writers (and publishers too — Barley Alison, mentioned above, was diplomat).
Okay, now we have two numbers we can work with. In the typewriter days, at a literary publisher at best 7 authors out a thousand manuscripts would rise from the slush pile to the glory of publication. In more recent times, the computer made it easier to present unworthy manuscripts and the number fell to approximately one in a thousand publishable novels emerging from the slush pile, driving publishers to refuse to accept unsolicited submissions.
Now, in the e-book age, anyone can publish their own book costlessly. Is the Kindle’s stack of erstwhile amateurs, vanity publishers, all now restyled indies, the new slush pile of a golden opportunity for young editors looking to discover the next big author?
Slush pile 3: The slush pile is dead. Long live Direct Publishing. Long live Smashwords. Long live Darwin.