Friday June 25th, 2010

The Slushy Future

I’m a few days late on this, but Salon’s Laura Miller wrote a terrific piece about the possible future of book publishing. It’s the future being touted by many as the Happy Happy Land of No Gatekeepers, where writers and readers (but mostly writers; we’ll get to that) bypass the big, mean traditional publishers who keep so many great books from seeing the light of day. Miller’s column boils down to a question: “Is the public prepared to meet the slush pile?” Her answer could have been a simple “no,” but that would be much less smart, entertaining, and right than the longer answer she gives. (For any lucky souls who may not know, “slush pile” is slang for the teetering stacks of unsolicited material received by magazines and book publishers.)

I feel particularly motivated (and qualified) to write about this because I was one of a few people who handled the slush at Harper’s Magazine during a four-month internship about a decade ago, and then I read plenty of unsolicited material during my ensuing time in the editorial department at HarperCollins.

Miller writes:

You’ve either experienced slush or you haven’t, and the difference is not trivial. People who have never had the job of reading through the heaps of unsolicited manuscripts sent to anyone even remotely connected with publishing typically have no inkling of two awful facts: 1) just how much slush is out there, and 2) how really, really, really, really terrible the vast majority of it is.

Yes, indeed. The slush pile’s main strength is as an unintentional source of hilarity. At Harper’s, a good friend and I were particularly thrilled by regular dispatches from a reader in New Jersey, long essays that included crude, hand-drawn illustrations and many sentences like these: “The sun is made of hydrogen. THAT IS A FACT!!

Miller writes:

Everybody acknowledges that there have to be a few gems out in the slush pile — one manuscript in 10,000, say — buried under all the dreck. The problem lies in finding it. A diamond encased in a mountain of solid granite may be truly valuable, but at a certain point the cost of extracting it exceeds the value of the jewel.

The truth is, diamonds have their chance. There is self-publishing, after all, and if someone’s work is good or popular enough, that route often leads to a bigger distribution deal with . . . a traditional publisher. The other, hard truth is that some diamonds go unnoticed. Such is life. Does this mean that we have to read manuscripts (or self-published books) by everyone on the planet for fear of missing a possible gem? It’s hard to imagine anyone so obsessed with not letting a single diamond go unnoticed that they devote their life to staring at granite.

What Miller implies is something I wholeheartedly believe, which is that one could just as easily make the argument that there aren’t enough gatekeepers. There are days when I think there are more literary agents in New York than hot dog vendors. These agents are constantly competing to find new talent, scouring obscure journals, and the fact is that they find too much. Forget slush piles. Reading material represented by agents (which was a light-years advance in quality over reading slush), I would still be disappointed/unmoved/unimpressed by, what, 85% of it? Some of that percentage is simply accounted for by personal taste, of course, but not nearly all of it.

A reader named Jeff Maehre left this comment on Miller’s essay:

To say that one manuscript out of ten thousand in your “slush pile” is a gem is to be grossly out of touch with realities of what’s going on in publishing now.

Authors who win Pushcart Prizes are unable to sell their collections of short stories. Authors of fifteen published books find themselves unable to sell their manuscripts and if they do publish them, do so as the winners of university-sponsored contests. These books may not meet your definition of “gem,” but they don’t deserve to be called “dreck” any more than the average offering from Putnam or FSG.

You write as someone taking a wild guess at what the publishing world is like.

Unfortunately, it is actually the case that authors of intricately-crafted, compelling works find themselves in slush piles on a widespread basis. And I’m sure any editor of any publishing house or any literary nationally-distributed literary journal will tell you the same.

It sounds like Jeff has never read a slush pile. But even if he has, it’s fair to say “dreck” is a strong word. It’s equally fair to point out, though, that having a story selected for a Pushcart Prize does not mean your entire collection of short stories is worthy of publication. I’m pretty sure that most editors in publishing would disagree with Jeff.

And while we’re at it, let’s not forget that the publishing world hardly consists of only massive conglomerate publishers, even though they’re the easiest targets. I’m not defending large publishers here, per se (though if you can find me the self-published books that can compete with the lists at Knopf, FSG, etc., I’ll buy you a very nice dinner). Large publishers operate more and more by committee, and as one of my favorite proverbs has it, a camel is a horse made by committee. There are lots and lots of camels out there. Dreck is given imprimatur all the time. Good things are ignored by big publishers all the time.

But if I have it right, the argument is that too few books are published, not too many, and it takes a blinkered view of things to think of publishing as just the conglomerates, even with their increasingly consolidated powers. There are many small publishers devoted to smaller, less obviously commercial work. These publishers, no matter how independent, still represent an experience distinct from self-publishing.

Another commenter, “AchillesisCrying,” writes:

This whole idea of the publishing industry being just a bunch of well-meaning literature lovers puttering around their tiny little cluttered NY offices is nonsense. Publishing is controlled by large multi-national conglomerates. The industry is driven by marketing. When the self-publishing revolution topples it, will there be bad books? Sure. (There are plenty of bad books now, so I don’t see why we have to nod obediently when the publishing industry tells us that we don’t know what we’re talking about). Something else better will rise in its place.

Besides, pretty much every other art form has embraced DIY. Take music for example, you can write an album, play every instrument and sing, record and distribute and it yourself and nobody gives a shit about that, as long as it’s good. Same for film and visual arts. Only in books is DIY a stigma. And I understand why: it is a direct threat to their business. And that is all.

Well, sure, I can tell you the industry is not teeming with “well-meaning literature lovers,” but this screed answers itself. “There are plenty of bad books now,” saith Achilles. Yes, and these books are published by a wide (even dizzying) array of outlets, including, already, the authors themselves. So how we get from this to “something better” by lowering the barriers to publication isn’t immediately clear to me. DIY is a stigma, broadly speaking, because DIY can mean anything, and most of anything is bad. It’s that simple. Publishers are not frightened by the latent powers of the slush pile, believe me.

If anything, most bitterness about the publishing industry is driven by frustrated writers, not frustrated readers, who are already absolutely buried in options. As Miller says:

People who claim that there are readers slavering to get their hands on previously rejected books always seem to have a previously rejected book to peddle; maybe they’re correct in their assessment, but they’re far from impartial. Readers themselves rarely complain that there isn’t enough of a selection on Amazon or in their local superstore; they’re more likely to ask for help in narrowing down their choices.