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 Tens of thousands of previously unpublished writers flocked to publish.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.

Glad hand

Hi. I’m André Jute. That’s my photograph in the banner above, kissing the Blarney Stone, which is about 40 minutes  up the road from where I live on the Carbery Coast of West Cork, in Ireland. There’s a longer biography and booklists and suchlike in the dropdown menus above.

I’m a writer. I write novels and non-fiction texts in subjects related to my various professions; my hobbies soon turn into professions or books or both. There are well over two hundred editions of my books in a dozen or so languages, and many thousands of reviews in the performing arts, my preferred form of journalism. It’s many years since I counted my books: the first editions take up five shelf-feet.

The occasion for this blog is the 25th anniversary release next year (2011) of the entirely revised 5th edition of WRITING A THRILLER, first published in 1986, and since reissued in three ever fatter revised and expanded editions, with a fourth enlarged edition currently being prepared for the Kindle. I’m preparing to create an entirely new 5th edition, and later this year that will for a while become the main subject of this blog. Meanwhile there are other books from my backlist to rewrite and launch onto the electronic seas, and several books by others that I’m helping with.

My schedule is pretty full, so I shan’t be sticking strictly to the writing of one text-book. I expect this blog to touch on any and all aspects of writing and books that occur to me. Though my hobbies and rants will be in other blogs my publishers are giving me space for, in this one I shall add notes about the music I listen to, the videos and films I see,  the books I read, and a few other things I do, simply because a writer doesn’t live and work in a vacuum. You may ask, What about newspapers and magazines? I don’t read any; if they contain anything I need to know about, someone is sure to give me the gist of it. I rarely watch the news on television either.

Readers are welcome to ask questions or make suggestions of topics I should cover.