Macauley gets into the act

It is desirable that we should have a supply of good books; we cannot have such a supply unless men of letters are liberally remunerated; and the least objectionable way of remunerating them is by means of copyright.
— Thomas Macaulay, 1841

When Macauley gets into the act, Macavity Cat can’t be far behind.

Inventor of 99c price wants to kill it

Even though many mistakenly name J. A. Konrath as the creator of the low pricing ebook model, as one of the very first authors who published on Kindle and pioneered the 99 cent pricing model, I can attest to the initial effectiveness of using the minimum price to attract new readers. When I first used the 99 cent price to sell books, very few indie authors sold their books using the low pricing model. I remember when I and a handful of other indie authors decided to go against the grain and use 99 cents to counteract the explosion of free and public domain books traditional publishers introduced to Kindle. At the time, we assumed it was the trads opening salvo against the onslaught of self-published books that were starting to cut into their bottom line. I also remember personally contacting and encouraging fellow indie authors to use the 99 cent book price to fight against the wave of free books that were hampering our Kindle book sales. Within the first few hours of lowering my book to 99 cents I sold several hundred copies and had broke into the top 1 percent of all Kindle sales on Amazon. As I said at the time, almost no indie author dared to sell their books at so low a price and we were keeping score of who was selling what and when. Word soon got out among my circle of author friends that we were selling thousands of copies of books and a tidal wave of cheap 99 cent books quickly followed.

As more and more authors published their books on Kindle and priced them at 99 cents, I noticed my sales dropping drastically. I realized very quickly that a trend had been set that could potentially ruin self-publishing. It seems that nearly every new author publishing on Kindle is not only forcing other indie authors to keep their prices low in order to compete, but also fostering an environment where even readers who don’t purchase indie books doesn’t want to pay over $9.99 for a traditionally published Kindle book. It seems there is an inevitable race to the bottom end of book pricing for Kindle books which I believe is close to being fully achieved. As I write this, publishers have recently lowered many of their bestselling books such as Dan Brown’s The Last Symbol to a ridiculously low $3.99. Now imagine that you are an indie author, such as myself, who dares to price his books above $2.99? What effect does this have long term upon the buying habits of readers who are used to paying 99 cents for indie books? What will happen to our sales if traditionally published books start debuting on Kindle at bargain prices for $5.00 or less?

For a while, the one advantage indie authors had by publishing on Kindle was being able to compete with mainstream books on price. But in the race to sell cheap books, I believe we have artificially depressed ebook prices and will now be forced to pay the price for a lack of long-range thinking. Sure, some indie authors will continue to sell their kindle books for a respectable and fair price. But overall, I can’t help but wonder what damage has already been done by shooting ourselves in the foot with offering so many 99 cent books. I do foresee a time when authors won’t be able to sell short stories or even novellas on Kindle due to so many authors offering their entire catalog of full length novels for 99 cents.


All any reader can ask of an author is to charge a fair price for the hours of entertainment they’ll receive from his or her book. I’m hoping other authors will realize that our books don’t sell simply because they are cheap, but rather because they provide a service to readers looking to escape into new worlds. Routinely charging 99 cents for a well-written novel is a travesty that cheats an author of his fair due.
Kevis Hendrickson

Why Amazon will recover falling profits from indie writers

Amazon Says Kindle Sales Exceed Paperbacks — and Coincidentally, Profits Fall Even As Sales Rise Over $3 Billion

The headline from Publisher’s Lunch (30 January 2011) tells the story. Sales up 36%, profits down $2m. Ouch.

Now that the Kindle stands clearly established as the industry leader, and the sales are self-generating, how long before Amazon gives up the pretense that they depressed book prices artificially “for readers” rather than to grab maximum market share for their proprietary ereader, the Kindle, and thereby ensure their dominant place in the new ebook world?

For surely, the stockholders and the market will not long stand still for buying market share at this rate of opportunity cost. Just in this last quarter, Amazon gave up over $170m in profits to establish the Kindle, which some might argue was already well on its way to establishing itself.

The interesting consequence for writers is how long Amazon will let the destructive 99c lowest price for books continue.

Already in the UK the 99c/72p price is an entrenched expectation among the most vocal and loyal of Amazon’s customers. How will Amazon deal with them?

And, even more interesting, what will Amazon make the next minimum price? Will they try to raise it stepwise, say first $1.99 on the way to the $2.99 entry point to the 70% gross share they pay to authors (less a few cents for delivery costs)?  Or will they decide to handle the outcry all at once and just declare $2.99 or even $3.99 the minimum permissible price for a full-length book?

Or will Amazon lower the 70% “royalty” they pay authors in an effort to boost their own corporate profits?

And why not open up the top end of the highest  royalty rate beyond the current $9.99, grabbing a few brownie points from the big publishers along the way?

My guess is all three, plus other fine-tuning. And before the end of the next financial quarter.

You heard it first from Kissing the Blarney.

Slush pile 4: The executive summary

Previously, on this blog:

Slush pile 1: From vanity publishers to independents

Slush pile 2: Chance would be a fine thing

Slush pile 3: The slush pile is dead. Long live Direct Publishing. Long live Smashwords. Long live Darwin.

From memory and industry wisdom and reading a 100 indie books I put together a profoundly statistically invalid, politically incorrect, objectively opinionated survey of how many authors emerged from the slush pile of unsolicited manuscripts under the three dispensations within living memory:

1. The pre-desktop computer age. At a literary publisher c1973, most authors came by introduction. The slush pile, suspected by me of being pre-selected by the reputation of the house. would eventually release 6.8 writers per 1000 for publication.

2. The computer age. By 1990, half a generation later, the number of manuscripts that washed in over the transom at publishers had become impossibly large, while at the same time the quality fell disastrously as the common  desktop computer facilitated the talentless and the ungrammared in their dream of becoming “authors”. Publishers, under pressure from their accountants, now altogether stopped considering unsolicited manuscripts. The gatekeeping role passed to agents, mostly dealmakers. At this point it was widely said in the industry that one out of every thousand manuscripts in circulation would eventually be published. 1/1000 is clearly fewer than 7/1000.

3. The ebook age dawns. Another half a generation later, Amazon provided all these disappointed aspirants with a cost-free publishing platform , the Kindle. Tens of thousands of previously unpublished writers flocked to publish. They were joined by substantial numbers of traditionally published writers with solid backlists and bulging bottom drawers who thought they could do better for themselves than their publishers could.

My quest was to discover whether the old complaint that traditional publishing overlooked talent was justified. Comparison of the two previous era with the ebook era would tell the tale.

I had handled and read some of the slush pile at several publishers in the second half of the 1970s, and in my opinion very little real talent that a) merited publication and b) behaved professionally enough to invest money in was ever overlooked for long, never mind permanently. So the 7/1000 hit rate from the slush pile of the pre-computer literary publishers sets a baseline, maybe a little high, maybe a little low, but it doesn’t matter.

The 1/1000 hit rate of the intermediate “no unsolicited submissions” is more difficult to get a handle on. An entire industry’s aggregate wisdom is never far off, but this figure is out of line with both the previous and following era.

After I published the previous three articles in this “Slush pile” series, strenous efforts were made to discredit the articles, or me, or preferably both, by any means because some indies feared the conclusions would not be favourable to the indies.  Apparently none of them had the brains to do the simple math I’m laying out in this summary, and discover their fear was baseless. One of these people suggested that I had found only what Sturgeon’s Law predicts. Teddy Sturgeon was a sci-fi writer who said, “Ninety per cent of everything is crap.”

So, from within the indie camp we have another comparative metric to put on the table: 90 percent of indie books should be crap.

To determine what percentage traditional publishers overlooked,  I had to apply their standards to the new “independents” or indies. So I took 100 indie books, selected mostly at random and subjected them to the same method as the slush pile of old, reading each until the writer  lost me. This is what I found, out of 100:

6 previously published authors, easily identifiable by professional books, very likely a skewed number because they were included by sending me books

1 previously unpublished author who had built up a cult following, very unprofessionally presented, working in a vampire genre that didn’t exist a few years ago, which appears to have been at least partially created by ebooks and indies

1 unpublished author, with a thick stack of rejection letters, in my opinion ready for a publisher

1 unpublished writer, with a manuscript in my opinion developable to publication

12 writers who write well enough to believe that eventually they might write a traditionally publishable book

Okay, we can group those together as follows:

6 previously published pros, maybe 7 if you count the vampire writer with a following as a newly minted pro

3 writers definitely overlooked (2 with good books, 1 with a market that previously didn’t exist, who could also counted with the pros)

12 writers who write well enough for a literary publisher a generation ago to have opened a dialogue with

Total 21 (6 self-selecting as previously published, 15 with either a market, a publishable manuscript, or a lot of promise)

Oh, shit. This is shocking.

Let’s have a summary, normalizing to 1000 manuscripts/ebooks:

Traditional pre-computer literary publisher: 7/1000

No unsolicited manuscripts era: 1/1000

Indie era: 30/1000

The indie metric excludes the previously published writers but includes the vampire writer.

29/1000 writers appear to have been unfairly excluded in the “no unsolicited manuscripts” era but to have found publication in the ebook era.

Just for fun, let’s see if the defensive indie insistence on Sturgeon is accurate:

Sturgeon prediction: 10/100 decent writers, 90/100 crap

Indies evaluated: 21/100 decent writers, 79/100 not for me, probably not for any traditional publisher, but some of them have found readers.

Looks like Sturgeon is the one who is full of crap.

Actual indie books are twice as often good as Sturgeon’s prediction.

I don’t know why the indies are so defensive.

REMEMBER: We’re comparing apples with oranges with plums. Neither of the samples were truly random. Large elements of judgment are involved. Nobody remembers perfectly over such a long period.

But even so the differences summarized by the numbers are so large that, were the numbers out by half, the main conclusion would not be undermined: traditional publishing overlooked substantial numbers of publishable authors.

Whether these authors, even after they met the quality parameters, would have enough sales to be worthwhile to the present megapublishers is a different question. But here’s a hint. In the first period considered, the 1970s, an author was viable if his hardcover sales justified a print run of 2000 copies.  Quite a few hardworking indies with excellent books, presented with utmost professionalism, don’t sell 2000 copies.

The difference between books and literature

I have to disagree about literature being a business. Books are a business and have to be marketable to the general public. Literature, however, like great music, is on a plain all its own. — Sheila Dreckman

Who else has stolen from me?

At Goodreads we discover this quotation stolen from me:

Stolen! Good novels are not written, they are rewritten. Great novels are diamonds mined from layered rewrites. — Piers Paul Read Stolen!

Piers Read didn’t write that. I did.  It’s on page 83 of my Writing a Thriller, first edition published 1986 by A & C Black, London, and in every reprint and expanded edition since, with my name in large print on the cover and title page, and on the verso a copyright notice.

This is not an auspicious introduction to Goodreads or Piers Paul Read.

I’ve written to Goodreads about it. No action. I imagine Read or his representative will eventually hear about this page and arrange to straighten matters out. They should let me know when the last stolen reference has disappeared from the net. At that point I’ll take down this piece.

It gets worse. The quotation hasn’t only been stolen by Piers Paul Read or someone acting on his behalf, and by Goodreads for their profit. It is being ripped by other writers stealing from my pocket even as I write this. Here the theft is propagated 31 times (on 29 January 2011).

You’d think writers would be more careful about the ownership of quotations on the front pages of their netsites, wouldn’t you?

Hell, you’d think writers would craft their own sentences, and attempt to write something quotable. Not a bit of it. The above list, kindly provided by Google, clearly defines a bunch of careless losers and shills for vanity publishers.


It is by far the most commonly quoted  saying for writers and about writers on the internet. See A quotation I can stand by for other forms of abuse.

Libraries & librarians, I love them

William White, famous on the internet as “willie wit”, a funny man, also is a serious book lover. He sent me this touching reference to a Quaker library’s connection to Martin Luther King Jr.

Miss Catherine Nagle, who progressed in the time I lived in my little town from a small crowded room, little more than a hole in the wall, to a whole glass building prominently situated on the busiest corner in town, had also progressed from being the librarian to a few children and their mothers to being librarian to a whole bunch of tax exile bestselling novelists attracted to Ireland by the favourable tax regime for artists.

They would come into her library looking for inspiration or distraction. “What have you got that’s good?” was a question she always answered the same way:

“If you want to read a good book, go home and write one.”

Fame at last 1: I’m mistaken for myself

We’re sitting at a table outside the red pub halfway up the hill at Unionhall, a tiny fishing village on the Carbery Goast of Ireland. At the next table is a lady. As one does in Ireland, we strike up a conversation. We have something in common: we’re both artistic tax exiles, she in showbiz, me in litfic.

A storm that lasted three days passed within the hour. The tide is running out and there’s a choppy wind. We’re all bundled up but remain sitting in the bracing air.

Then, below us at the stone jetty, a proper but small yacht approaches. It is battered, its Avon gone, displaying the signature damage of having survived a deadly serious storm on the open Atlantic. It’s quiet in Unionhall. We can see and hear that the master is using only sail. My wife says, “Oh, my god, his motor’s out. After what he came through, he’ll smash his ship on the jetty. The tide’s running!”

“Nah!” I say authoritatively (holding thumbs under the table). “Keep watching. He didn’t come through that storm by luck. That’s a seaman you’re watching.”

And, true to prediction — can’t pretend I wasn’t holding my breath — the sailor judges his approach on that fast-running tide so perfectly that his hurt ship kisses the stone jetty ever so gently when the fisherman standing around wondering when they would be able to go out again kick over a couple tyres at the last moment.

When his ship is tied up he comes stomping up the hill, a guy pushing seventy. It turns out he belongs at the next table; her dad.

Before he is introduced to me, when I put the pint of beer down in front of him, he says, “I know you. You’re André Jute.”

“See?” I say to my family, “Fame as a novelist at last. Out there on the lonely ocean with only my book for company…”

“Rubbish!” says the sailor. “I know you from the day you sailed your ship the City of Germiston into Mombasa with the mast missing after a monsoon that killed five other ships with all hands. With your motors flooded, and your broken arm self-set, you brought her in under sail, and put not a scratch on the jetty. And then, when a journalist jumped aboard after they carried on the stetchers for the dead, you roared at him, ‘Get those fucking leather shoes off my deck, Mister!'”

“Gee, a hero. You didn’t say,’ his daughter mocks me. Like I said, she’s show business: no respect for a serious artist.

Over dinner we discover the old chappie does indeed have a single novel aboard, and it is one of mine, Reverse Negative, bought because he recognized my name. He says, “It’s a good book to while away the empty hours, reading it again and again, trying to work out what the devil it all means. Best bargain in a novel I’ve ever bought!”


Fame at last 2: I’m mistaken for Stephen Leather

I was starting to have serious self-confidence issues when I heard that the esteemed Stephen Leather receives money from ladies (and gentlemen) all around the world, and has to do nothing in return. That sounds almost like the EU gravytrain I once rode when they were big on expanding electronic communications capability, which has been a sincere concern of mine since 1964 when a cousin who ran a huge insurance mutual gave me an old IBM (with thermionic valves/tubes) if only I would bring the electrical engineering department of my university to remove it tidily from the basement of his skyscraper to clear the space for a more up to date machine. I also had to promise never to drive anywhere near his new Bentley, because I totaled the previous one, parked out the front, with another company boss’ big Mercedes when I had a holiday job with a firm on another floor of my cousin’s building. He got stuck with paying out the insurance on both expensive cars…and a week later I totaled my Porsche (insured with guess who!) racing in the storm drains.

So, not to drift off the topic, my free money is from nobody less than the UNITED NATIONS. Suck on that, Stephen Leather! And that’s not all. The letter is signed by Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon himself, the big cheese. That’s even better than when Bill Clinton called me direct to ask if I would give him the ten grand I won on the bet that I could get him to call me direct; dear old Bill was very disappointed when I said the money was going to the Fat Girl Cigar Smokers’ Rehabilitation Fund aka FiCtion. But then Bill has called everyone, probably even Stephen, but I bet Stephen never got a letter from the UN SecGen. With money!

Slight doubt about that “unhelpful” e-mail address, but still, the UN SecGen probably doesn’t want just any old greedy writers dropping him a note.

BTW, that probably means I’ll have to forgive the UN for shooting at me when as an idealistic student I went to the Congo to fight for the freedom of our black brothers. Still, an old grudge given up isn’t a big price for so much money.

Look, friends, and rejoice for me!

From: “United Nations”
To: undisclosed-recipients
United Nations Compensation Unit, In Affiliation with World Bank.

Congratulations Beneficiary,

We wish to inform you that the UN / WORLD BANK ORGANIZATION facilitated around-table meetings which just ended some days ago, and it has been agreed upon that compensation payment of US$5,000,000.00 should be paid to scammed individuals whose Name and E-mail have been chosen through an open E-mail ballot system. Your email was included and that is why we have contacted you.

These also includes every foreign contractors that may have not received their contract sum and people that have had an unfinished transaction or international businesses that failed due to Government problems or the other etc. Also, we have been receiving complains from beneficiaries informing us that they are yet to receive the payment due scams emanating from Africa as well.

However, it is my pleasure to inform your Bank Draft No: 158545*90*3365*99940333 have been reserved for you which contain your certified amount. So you are hereby advised to contact our payment representative in Africa affiliated with ZENITH PAYMENT CENTER with your payment code: 82509.

You are advised to contact Mr. Mike Jonathan of our paying center in Africa, as he is our representative in Africa, contact him immediately for your Cheque/ International Bank Draft of USD$5,000,000.00. This fund is in a Bank Draft for security purpose ok? So he will send it to you and you can clear it in any bank of your choice there in your country.

This meeting was first held on the 8th of April 2003. You can view the link below for your perusal:

You are to contact Mr. Mike Jonathan at the address below:
Contact Person: Mr. Mike Jonathan
PHONE: +2348033353383

You are required to contact the above person and furnish him with the following of your information that will be required to avoid any mistakes:-

1. Your Full name:
2. Your Country:
3. Contact Address:
4. Telephone Number:
5. Fax Number:
6. Marital Status:
7. Occupation:
8. Sex:
9. Age:

Congratulations, and I look forward to hear from you as soon as you confirm your payment making the world a better place.

Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon.

Money for jam!

Have the Luvvies* taken over books?

“The fact is, when you decide to become a writer you give up some of your personal freedoms. When you sell your first book you give up even more. There’s no getting around that, and there’s no changing it. You can no longer say exactly what you think exactly the way you think it at all times. You can no longer assume that only the people you’re familiar with are reading your blog or your tweets. You no longer have the luxury of an opinion, honestly, on a lot of things.”
— Stacia Kane Being Published Changes Everything

That’s a state of affairs that should embarrass anyone who calls himself a writer.

A writer is an intellectual.

The best intellectuals are measured by the number and stature of their enemies.

A writer, and particularly a novelist, is simply not worth the name if she creeps around fearing she’ll offend an agent — an agent! a sales representative! — or some other thin-skinned writer incapable of debating points robustly.

Even the Mafia does it better: Nothing personal, just business.

The business of the best writers is to provoke thought.

I can’t think of anything more likely to define “hack” than a propensity for creeping around inoffensively in fear of losing a single sale, or losing a sales representative, or causing some other writer not to love you.

To creep around in the shadows denying yourself the truth demonstrates nothing more than a total lack of confidence in your ability, skill and opinions.

Pull the other one!

The best editors are too fine to let a disagreement stand between them and a good book, and the rest are too greedy (they say “professional”) to let even a political disagreement stand between them and the profit on a good book.

Or so I always believed.

*The Luvvies are those distinguished actors, usually knighted, who always have only kind things to say about even the most appalling doings of their fellow-actors. Dickie, Lord Attenborough, is the patron saint of the Luvvies, the chief mealymouth. For American readers who may not know who he is, he played the owner of the dinosaurs’ island paradise in Jurassic Park.


“I’m a dyslexic — a miracle I can write. Dyslexics can read. We just can’t spell, we write words, letters and numbers backwards, and we can’t tell right from left easily. But dyxlexia doesn’t have anything to do with intelligence. Einstein was a dyslexic. We just work harder.”
Pamela M. Richter

The writer as reviewer

“I love getting reviews, but being a writer makes it harder to be an objective reader. I’m constantly saying, That sentence is a little awkward. How would I make it better if I were the author.”
Pamela M. Richter

Slush pile 3: The slush pile is dead. Long live Direct Publishing. Long live Smashwords. Long live Darwin.

Slush pile 1: From vanity publishers to independents

Slush pile 2: Chance would be a fine thing

We have seen a few previously unpublished authors discovered in self-published e-books by traditional publishers. They amount to a tiny fraction of one per cent of all e-books published by hitherto unpublished authors, much, much less than the 7 in a thousand that might have emerged from a literary publisher’s slush pile a generation ago, even much less than the 1 in a 1ooo that emerged from the slush piles of big traditional publishers after the computer made composing and printing a manuscript easy even for the impulse-driven and untalented.

But is this a true reflection of the value of this resource, or have publishers and agents merely not caught on yet?

I had a bunch of manuscripts sent to me by professionals publishing their back lists on the Kindle, hoping for a review. It was a simple matter to download enough samples of other authors who caught my attention for some reason, plus some at random, to make up 100 books. Then I started reading them in the same way I used to read the slush piles for favourite editors (okay, when I ran out of excuses). I would read until the author lost me. Here’s a sample from an author who shall be nameless:

Chapter 1
The streets and gardens of Ranelagh were quiet. Only the distant hum of Dublin rush-hour traffic and the occasional twitter of a lone bird broke the silence.  The air was mild and damp after a recent shower. Maud stood at the gate and looked at the house which, in the gathering dusk of the March evening, had a lonely air, as if its occupants had been away for a long time.

As she stood there, she felt the usual comfort in the old bricks, the bay window, the faint glimmer of light through the stained glass of the hall door, and the tiled porch. Despite her intention

And that is as far as I read. I just stopped in the middle of a sentence, no longer caring about the woman’s intention; after only one paragraph of passive description I already wished she would commit hara-kiri to take her out of my misery. That’s not to say this author won’t find a readership and a publisher somewhere on the fringes, for the little I read has a certain polish, merely that none of the editors and publishers I know  have a longer attention span than mine (par and a few words!) for this sort of dull correctness.

One book I set aside to read because it is the sort of thing I read, and it was well done, publishable with only some serious copy-editing. Thus, when I met the author in a discussion forum, his name seemed familiar. I’ve since read all of and reviewed William Marantz’s Christmas Eve Can Kill You. I can understand why it isn’t published by a traditional publisher: he has only the one book. That is too much of a risk for a publisher, who is almost guaranteed not to get his investment back on a first novel. Bill needs four or five books in a series in hand before he even speaks to a publisher. He has a leading man and a leading lady already to carry a series and a background in radio, TV and films  that will give a publisher confidence that he will develop the series to maximum effect, if he wishes to.

Five further books I noted as publishable and then discovered that all of them were by professional writers republishing their backlists, or launching books from their bottom drawers that their publishers didn’t want because they didn’t fit established series.  They weren’t the sort of book I read (some of them were flash genre crap), but I would have recommended them to a suitable editor if I found them in a genuine slush pile that had, in John Blackwell’s brutal phrase, “washed in over the transom”.

One book by a previously unpublished writer I noted, after reading ten pages of it at the front and ten pages at the back, might be a possibility for an editor who wants to spend the necessary time developing it with the author. Where to find such an editor today is a different story. I just liked the writing and there was a beginning at a problem for the leading character and a definite ending, so the middle may or may not be okay, but if the author is not a jerk-up can always be knocked into shape.

Another twelve novels were well enough written to hold me past the third page for a bit but not enough to want to check the back of the book. Decent English by itself isn’t worth much. The dull extract above that I couldn’t bear to continue with is in perfectly serviceable English. To rise out of the slush pile, the author’s characters really need to bond with the reader by page 10 at the latest. With these books, though they weren’t objectionable on first sight, I could bear not to know what happened… I was amazed that there were so many at this level; these are authors who eventually might write a good book — but, depressingly, not one of them had a second book that I could see. That lack by itself is a barrier that stops a traditional publisher saying as much as hello to them.

I then checked each of the hundred books in my sample to see that I hadn’t missed any that were previously published, or any by established authors. This would act as a check on my judgments. I hadn’t missed any. No one has perfect judgment, of course, but ungrammatical or boring rubbish is easy to spot. The writer quoted above whom I found too dull to read more than a few lines of had actually found a minority press to take her on, so the total of professionals is six. I passed by one indie with a cult following: ungrammatical sentences, with misspelt words; perhaps in the market for vampire books it doesn’t matter that the writing grates.

If we subtract the six professional writers repurposing their back lists, and the indy with a cult following as a newly minted professional, we are left with one out a hundred novels that is publishable, Bill Marantz’s novel. As we have seen, that is a very good hit rate, higher by one-half than the best average in the last glory days of the traditional publishers, ten times as high as in more recent computerized slush piles. Statistically, however, it is likely I just got lucky (I’ve been lucky all my life, with cards and cars and women, even with publishers and readers), that if I read a thousand indie-published manuscripts at random, the hit rate would be lower than 1 in a 100.

The key conclusion is that the hit rate isn’t so high that I feel compelled to spend a month of my life reading part of each of a thousand indie manuscripts in an effort to determine precisely what fraction of one percent of all the indie manuscripts (excluding the professionals recycling their back lists and bottom drawers) is publishable in traditional publishing. Whether it is one-tenth of one per cent, or seven-tenths of one per cent, it is still too miniscule a fraction of the total to waste my time on — and I fear most editors will feel the same way, or, if they’re young and keen, their bosses will redirect their energies into more profitable channels.

What’s more, it doesn’t matter. The analogy between the slush pile of paper manuscripts a generation ago, or even the computer disks of more recent times, and the published e-books of the indies is far from exact. Editors don’t in fact need to cruise the e-book slush pile: they merely need to wait to see who attracts readers.

The paradigm has changed. Let’s mix a metaphor even more atrociously than some of the grimmer writers I’ve been reading: The slush pile isn’t dead wood, it is a living compost heap, from which will rise the tender shoot of new authors tended by Adam Smith’s hidden hand to be cropped by the quick and the richly rewarded among the dealmakers who now pass for editors.

The slush pile is dead. Long live Direct Publishing. Long live Smashwords.

Long live Darwin.

Slush pile 4: The executive summary

Slush pile 2: Chance would be a fine thing

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.

Slush pile 1: From vanity publishers to independents

When there were only a few authors self-publishing the process was known as vanity-publishing. The assumption was that anyone good enough to be published would find a proper publisher. A proper publisher was defined as one who paid the author; a vanity publisher was one who expected the author to pay for the privilege of being published.

Along came Amazon and their Kindle e-tablet. Amazon are not particularly book lovers; they are merchants who’re in books because books are universal and easily shipped; Amazon could as easily have been primarily in recorded music. Amazon’s Kindle was proprietary, with a proprietary format. Amazon intended by any means possible to grab the major market for it, and part of this strategy was to provide lots of books very cheaply. From there it was only a small step to providing a channel for the huge numbers of unpublished authors who would gladly give their books away free if only they could get them published.

Quite incidentally, Amazon also provided a channel to costless self-publishing, and a burgeoning new market, for those professional authors of “proper” publishers who were dissatisfied with the arthritic practices of traditional publishing. The complaints were multitdinous and luxuriously variant, but three are of special importance here. They are that traditional publishers

  • consistently failed to market any but the thinnest layer of top sellers at all, never mind adequately
  • sat on the valuable back lists of authors without ever reissuing them
  • killed creativity by demanding series books, and refused to publish books outside the author’s established genre even from successful authors, resulting in a goodly number of unpublished but good novels in bottom drawers

Amazon’s DTP (now called “Kindle Direct Publishing” or KDP) offered a solution to each of these, and many other problems. Suddenly there were lots of professional authors with substantial New York and London tracks records self-publishing. They called themselves independents, or indies for short.

Amazon didn’t distinguish between the professionals and the erstwhile vanity publishers. They were all grist to the mill. The amateurs or vanity publishers too called themselves independents or indies. And why not? They were competing on an equal footing with the professionals who had the stamp of approval of Big Publishing on them. They would sink or swim in the same pond.

The question was: How many of these writers revealed to us by DTP had publishers unfairly turned away? How many nuggets of gold had the receptionist brushed off with a preprinted card while painting her fingernails over the slush pile? (I’m not making this up. I saw it, and more than once.)

But that’s too depressing. Let’s look at the old-fashioned practice of editors who actively searched for new talent in the slush pile, of which I came into the tail end.

Slush pile 2: Chance would be a fine thing

Review: Christmas Eve Can Kill You by William Marantz

William Marantz can come again. His first novel Christmas Eve Can Kill You is a cracking read.

The slightly edge-worn hero is Val Virgo, real name Izzy Miller, who’s sunk from being the travelling singer-songwriter Muddy Rivers to taking a job with the Canadian national broadcaster. For Americans,  this is the living hell of public service broadcasting. I’ve been there, done that, won the prizes, ran for my life. So has Marantz, as a movie critic, writer and actor. The realism is superb; every word rings true. Marantz, a Winipeg lawyer has also written successful radio, TV and film features, and played featured roles in films. It rings in his dialogue and his eye for hanging the lantern just so in his quickly sketched but appeallingly sordid Winipeg landscapes; no actor on his page is ever without ‘business’ either, which gives the whole thing a layered sense that all the best novels have.

Now Val is working for the pint-sized Patricia St John Hogg, a zero-talent civil servant who is trying to live up to a Napoleon-sized father who was fired from the station a couple of decades ago. Val is interviewing an obstreperous cop about the unsolved murder of a judge when the death-threat against him comes in, and is promptly cut off during the standard delay (you didn’t think “live” really mean “alive” in PSB, did you then?) by Sinjin Hogg. When the copper has taken away the tape for analysis, the reluctant colleagues demonstrate why one is an entertainer and the other a bureaucrat. First they wait for the recording tech to leave:


Throughout this familiar ritual the girl wonder was rocking on her heels like someone dying to relieve herself. And as soon as Bans was out of earshot she proceeded to do so, on her favorite target.

“Okay, Virgo, I’m through arguing with you. Just tell me one thing, are you or are you not prepared to conduct yourself in a professional manner?”

“What seems to be the problem, Patricia?”

“You’re the bloody problem. It’s that smart ass attitude of yours that invites this kind of nonsense.”

“By nonsense I take it you are referring to the only spark of life that lit up this morning’s slumber fest. A wake-up call that, thanks to your itchy trigger finger, our faithful listeners didn’t get to share.”

“Yeah right. I’m sure you were just dying to have your faithful listeners hear some drunk call you a two-faced bugger.”

I smiled, modestly. “A rose by any other name…”


A judge is dead and Izzy, okay, the semi-famous no-shock-jock Val Virgo, soon moves in with his grieving widow, one Abby, who is one of those scatty girls I remember from my own time in the theatre — perfectly true to life. She’s a potter, of course:


“That’s an interesting pot,” I said.

“Do you like it?” she said, brightening. “I threw it myself.” She waved her free arm around the room. “I threw all this stuff.”

Not far enough—you fell short of the trashcan. “No kidding.”


Val Virgo is playing the dead judge’s guitar and sleeping in his bed, in a house just across the road from the deposed Napoleon, father to St John Hogg. To try and track down the threat to his life, and the perpetrators of several attempts on it which have already resulted in the death of one cat which shouldn’t have sat on the television controller, and one chambermaid at the “Hooker’s Hilton”, Val takes a tour through his life.

He almost misses the turning point because it is so small. Marantz has a good grip of structure and I — a professional thriller writer! — never spotted the red herrings, and didn’t identify the killer until too late, even though he has a prologue and later on a reprise. Marantz gives a money-back guarantee to anyone who spots the guilty party before he is announced. I think his money is safe.

This thriller is highly recommend. I read it in my bath, which happens in the early hours of the morning in an echoing old house, and my family, being woken for the third night running, threatened to exile me to the stables until I finished reading Christmas Eve Kill You — and stopped laughing aloud.

I know I’ve gone on too long, but I just can’t resist giving you another sample of the snap, crackle and pop of William Marantz’s dialogue. A newspaper editor asks Val about being nearly killed:


“Do you want to tell me about it?”

“Why, so you can sell a few more papers?”

“It’s what I do for a living, Val.”

“Well, breathing is what I do for a living, Morgan, so you’ll pardon me if I don’t jump at your generous offer to plaster my name, address and phone number in the ‘Assassins Wanted’ section of that snot rag you edit.”

Christmas Eve Can Kill You

The truth about Jane Austen

“Pride and Prejudice is as far from magical as it is from waffle. Austen is for readers who prefer reason over passion, wit over sentimentality and observation over fantasy. In other words, Jane Austen writes for grown-ups.”
— Morphybum


Posturing stylishly

Caught an episode of CSI Miami. All these stylish people appear jetlagged, with not enough energy to work but just enough to posture stylishly. Someone should tell the actress playing the pathologist that pathologists actually look at what they’re working with, partly for fear that they will end up on their own dissecting table. Someone should tell the redhaired lead detective that the crims are supposed to confess because he’s menacing them, not charmingly condescending to them. Miami is soullessly shot — please, please, someone, anyone, tell me the director and cameraman have the brains and taste to do it on purpose! — as another glossily empty actor posing stylishly but purposelessly. There’s zero detection — unless the detective watching over a sick colleague at the hospital and building a fingerprint set in the hospital pharmacy to stave off boredom is the Sherlock Substitute. Still, he does find the incriminating fingerprints on the esky for taking beer to the cricket– ah, sorry, this is almost as boring as cricket. Actually he finds the prints on a coolbox used for carrying kidneys to transplant victims — and in a parody of proper police procedure takes the photograph of the prints to be matched with the camera on his phone. But by then the show was running out of time and credibility, so the crim didn’t even ask for a lawyer, or point out that they couldn’t convict him of jaywalking because the dead doctor done it. Nah, he just confessed because because they’re all so cool, it would have been churlish not to tell them what they want to know, so they can go home and catch up on their sleep. I wish I did. Zzzzzz.

The announcer said the second of the double bill of CSI Miami, which I denied myself in favour of a spot of self-flagellation, was the “last”. One wonders whether it is the last in the current series, or one hopes it is the last forever, because it is clearly a series that has run out of steam and is just going through the motions.

A quotation I can stand by

“Good novels are not written, they are rewritten. Great novels are diamonds mined from layered rewrites.” — André Jute/Writing a Thriller

This is the most quoted remark for writers on the net. It is so well known that

  • it has motivated a best-selling novel of authorial wish-fulfillment
  • it is now being attributed to everyone’s favorite writer — see Who else has stolen from me?
  • it has been ripped by Launchpoint for at least ten cashinquick books (they’re all mostly the same inside) for writers, which is quite a bit more than fair use.

I suppose I should be flattered. The words are  from my WRITING A THRILLER. They encapsulate the writer’s need to persevere to success, and a professional attitude and outlook, and the concept of writing not as a splurge of self-gratification but as a process aimed at communication with a defined audience.

One has to ask how Launchpoint defines its audience if the same material (including the quotation from me) serves for freelance journalists, autobiographers, novelists, those in search of their writing voice, non-fictionalists, short story writers, those planning a novel, and business writers.

I’ve heard of packaged books, and of one-size-fits-all clothes, but this is ridiculous!

Clearly, for some, the words no longer relate to the writer burning the midnight oil, sweating over every adjective and subsidiary clause. Instead the quotation has for them become a meaningless mantra.

It’s definitely a quotation I can stand by, but can Launchpoint and those authors who have appropriated my words, or permitted their fans to appropriate my words on their behalf, say the same?

Being first with the most for too long makes you old hat

A relevant and rather pointed pair of question were posted by Mrs B about the forthcoming 4th edition of WRITING A THRILLER. Mrs B demands to know: “Why does a successful textbook for writers need to be rewritten? Surely good writing is a timeless art.”

That’s a good point. Much that is in WRITING A THRILLER is timeless, applies to every novel and every creative profession. But the process of good writing is not “timeless”. It changes over time. And WRITING A THRILLER was the agent of that change in the last quarter of the 20th century. But now we’re in the 21st century…

I can give you an example, Mrs B. You go on to say, “I never saw the need for the second and third editions, which catered to ever more advanced writers. The first edition was a perfect eye-opener, and cheaper too because it was thinner.” We’re running the risk of conflating several matters here, so I’ll leave the desire of publishers for ever thicker editions for later. The phrase we want to focus on is “a perfect eye-opener.” From the mouths of babes… (No, I don’t know anything about Mrs B. I’m not referring to that sort of babe.)

On one of the Amazon sites there is a condescending review of WRITING A THRILLER, saying it is a useful book but there is little in it that the reviewer hasn’t found in other books. I laughed aloud when that review was drawn to my attention; I would bet money that whoever wrote that wasn’t born yet when the first edition of WRITING A THRILLER came out. Certainly, all the “other books” he refers to were written after WRITING A THRILLER.

When WRITING A THRILLER first appeared, it was a radical departure from the textbooks for writers then available. The preface explained why, and named the only other good book — in my opinion —  for writers then available, Writing a Novel by John Braine, author of Room at the Top. Writing a Novel was then out of print; it was eventually reprinted at my repeated suggestion.

Among other things, WRITING A THRILLER

  • Shifted the focus of the thriller from plotting to characterization.
  • Redefined the plot from a creaky mechanical contrivance operated by events to a structure driven by characters through the events they motivate.
  • Became the most quoted book for writers ever through its insistence on professional behavior for writers.

All of this is now commonplace because in the intervening quarter-century so many writers have followed where WRITING A THRILLER led. Your library shelves will demonstrate a big change in thrillers. All those villains, previously so many cardboard cutouts, now have proper motivation. In fact, I’ll probably burn in hell for being the impetus behind so many sympathetic serial killers!

So, Mrs B, a new, fully revised edition of WRITING A THRILLER is required because the first three editions caused a shift in the emphasis between the elements of good writing that now makes it seem a little old hat — because everyone else has caught up to where I stood a quarter-century ago. The new edition’s emphasis will shift to strengthen what has been made into general practice by the earlier editions, and address what is bad (a very great deal) about current practice. It will also have to address a vast new army of writers who unless they receive help will be empowered by Amazon’s Kindle Direct Publishing (new name of DTP) and Smashwords to publish before they are ready.

New challenges for a new century.