It seemed like a good idea at the time: The Slushpile Smackdown

As someone who spent many years filling slushpiles and was, indeed, discovered in one, I like to keep abreast of slushpile innovations.

One such innovation is slushpile self-selection.

The traditional method of sifting slush is in-house – a job usually handed out to a junior because it’s time consuming and occasionally injurious to mental well being. Why? Because anyone with a word processor can submit a novel and while many aspiring authors are professional, know how to follow guidelines and are eager to learn, many are just eager.

And submit as soon as the last word hits the page, sometimes sooner. They’re full of hope and convinced they’ve just penned the bestest of bestsellers.

Cue Slushpile 2.0 – why not outsource the sifting process to the authors? Let them read and vote on each other’s work?

It sounds good, doesn’t it? Del Rey tried it a decade ago with their online workshop. Harper Collins is trying it now with their Authonomy site – slush authors vote for the samples they like and the top five samples each month are read by Harper Collins editors.

But can you trust authors to rate each other’s work fairly? Especially when the prize – breaking out of the slushpile – is such a motivation. How can you prevent them from bringing in friends, relatives and even imaginary friends to vote for them?

Authonomy even suggests authors do this – not imaginary friends – but ‘champions from outside the authonomy community – whether that’s family, friends, colleagues or visitors to your blog, facebook profile or other website.’

Authonomy try to control this by then applying talent spotter weightings to each member’s vote. ‘The ‘top talent spotters’ are the members of the authonomy community that managed to spot a popular book before it’s been placed on many bookshelves. If a member has publicly recommended a book and that book then gains popularity on other member’s bookshelves, their talent spotting ranking will rise.’

It’s an attempt to prevent the inevitable but it still disadvantages the shy and retiring, the authors who hate the idea of soliciting others for reviews or imposing on friends and family, and empowers the self-promoters, the ones with bulk emailers and a giant list of imaginary friends.

But maybe this is deliberate. With advertising budgets for new and midlist authors virtually non-existent, maybe this is a way of weeding out the media shy.

At least Authonomy doesn’t allow authors to trash each other’s submissions. Del Rey allowed that – in the early days. Now, before I go any further, let me say that I learned more about writing in three months on the Del Rey Online Writing Workshop than I had in the previous three years. The workshop part of it was brilliant and the number of SF/F authors who benefited from time spent there and were later signed up by major publishing houses is well over a dozen.

But, if memory serves, Del Rey didn’t sign a single one of them.

And they soon gave up on using member ratings for anything other than a guide. Instead they allowed their editors to sift and select their own monthly choices. I’m proud to say I was selected twice.

But in those early days…

When self-selection was at its rawest and Del Rey allowed users to list submissions in order of reviewer rating…

It was Slushpile Smackdown!

You can imagine the scene. A group of boy authors decided that, being ‘the next big thing,’ their submission had to be top. And if that meant creating twenty-three user names for themselves and reviewing their own work then it had to be so. And having all the submissions ranked in order of merit let them know exactly who the competition was. Cue all out war.

AelvenDude couldn’t believe it. His groundbreaking exploration of elven teen angst was only at number three. He’d logged in under thirteen different user names. He’d twisted the arms of friends and relatives, he’d bribed and cajoled but…

That Cyberego was still at number one. Solid fives across the board, twenty-nine reviews. And it was crap. Seven thousand words about a dead man talking to himself in a dark cupboard. Seven thousand words! And that was only part one!

Only one thing to do. Sabotage. So on logs AelvenDude thirteen times using all his thirteen user names. And savages Cyberego’s seminal piece. Ones across the board. This is crap. This gives crap a bad name. If I were a lawyer I’d advise crap to sue!

The dead man in a dark cupboard tumbles down the charts. Then hits back. AelvenDude’s elven angst gets a dozen savage reviews. Call that angst? Your protagonist is not even dead! And everyone knows robots can’t kill. Haven’t you heard of Newton’s Third Law of Robotics!

AelvenDude is incandescent. Of course he knew about Newton’s laws. Even the one with the apples. That was the whole point of the story! The elf’s life sucked so much even a robot tried to kill him!

Back on line goes AelvenDude, this time logging in as IsaacFrigginNewton and savaging Cyberego’s pathetic tome. I am SO glad I’m dead otherwise I’d have to write another law banning your crappy crap. You have no world building, no dialogue and no plot. Just crap. Seven thousand words of it!

Cyberego screams down the ether: It’s literature! It’s not supposed to have a plot!

And then all out war – like AelvenDude’s face after a surfeit of chocolate – breaks out. Everyone joins in. Reviews are either all fives or all ones. The only winner is Nasty McNasty’s military SF classic, Die, You Purple Reptily Things, Die! a graphic blood-spattered two and a half thousand words where everyone gets killed, including the narrator – unexpectedly cut off mid-sentence by a booby-trapped semi-colon.

(On re-reading the above, I think I may have slightly exaggerated the great DROWW slushpile smackdown. But then this is humour. And in a more interesting parallel world it would have happened.)

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Chris Dolley is an English author living in France with a frightening number of animals. His novel – Resonance (Baen) – can be downloaded for free here. More information about his other work can be found on his  BVC bookshelf .

Available now from Book View Press:  Magical Crimes – a fun CSI with Magic and … ‘a little something else’ story.

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It seemed like a good idea at the time: The Slushpile Smackdown — 3 Comments

  1. Pingback: The Great Geek Manual » Geek Media Round-Up: January 18, 2010

  2. Chris, I remember that Del Rey workshop. If I’m not mistaken, Elizabeth Bear was part of it. It’s “different” in other types of writing. However, another online “popularity contest” takes place regarding blogging alone (not necessarily in conjunction with the online work upload/commenting processes). I know that several children’s editors speak highly of author communities and group promotion efforts. I’m of numerous minds about this, despite being one of the original BVC members and in fact, the one who sort of suggested it as in “why sit around and wait for others to do when we can take action?”