Brave New (Writing) World: The End of the Slush Pile?

Over on his blog, marketing guru Seth Godin has this to say about the slush pile:

If you have something good, really good, what’s it doing in the slush pile?

Bring it to the world directly, make your own video, write your own ebook, post your own blog, record your own music.

A great idea in principle, though the trouble with his suggestions is that they still don’t really get you out of the slush pile; they just put you in a bigger one — the Internet. He goes on to suggest getting an agent, which is another wonderful idea, but not exactly easier than getting out of the slush pile. (One of the comments on the Futurismic post where I first saw this said that Godin tends to think marketing is easier than it is.)

The whole discussion appears to have started back in January when the Wall Street Journal ran a long piece on the death of the slush pile. As writer Thomas Scott McKenzie notes on his blog, SlushPile.Net, this is not exactly breaking news:

But still, can anyone be surprised by the fact that it’s hard for unrepresented, unknown writers to get their work read?

Although M.A. Orthofer, writing on the Literary Saloon, thinks shutting down the slush pile is “suicidal for the publishers.” That could be true, though if so, it is only one of many mistakes being made by the huge corporations that now own most publishing houses.

And there are publishers who have tried harnessing the collective online wisdom by getting all those who are submitting to go through slush — such as the program at Baen’s Universe.

The thing is, regardless of whether we’re talking about the old fashioned slush pile in the publisher’s office or tossing yourself into the larger slush pile of self publishing, the issue for writers remains the same:

What do I need to do to get read and get paid?

Those of you holding your breath because you think I’m going to give you the secret to publishing success should go ahead and breathe. In fact, take a couple of deep breaths. I don’t have any magic answers. If I did, you can bet I’d be busy using them all myself instead of passing them on to you. But I do have some thoughts on the issue that you might find useful.

I think Seth is onto something when he says “If you have something good, really good, what’s it doing in the slush pile?” But my favorite solution to that is figuring out how to work the system so you’re not in the slush pile to begin with.

And the first rule of avoiding slush piles is: Don’t play by the rules.

Back when I was in college — in the dark ages before computerized class registration — you signed up for your courses by standing in long lines in the gym. You were assigned a time period, and if you were a freshman, it was often a very bad, late-in-the-week time slot when many desirable classes and classtimes were already full. I got to one desk, for a required history course, and was told that the only discussion section I could get was on a Saturday.  (Yes, they had Saturday classes back in the dark ages, too.)

Fortunately, I had been warned in advance about this problem. “I can’t have a Saturday class,” I said. “I’m in the Longhorn Band.” (The Longhorn Band performs at all University of Texas football games, meaning that it  has to travel to out of town games, which are usually on Saturdays. ) “Oh,” the registration person replied. “Of course you can’t have a Saturday class if you’re in the Longhorn Band,” and gave me another slot.

Now I knew that as a freshman clarinet player I was very unlikely to travel to any out of town games, and in town games wouldn’t interfere with a Saturday morning class, but the registration official didn’t know that and I wasn’t about to mention it.

Sometimes I think figuring out how to work the system was the most important lesson I learned in college. I just ran up against a situation where I followed all the rules for getting a press pass — and I am, in my day job, a very legit reporter — and was turned down. Duh, I said to myself. Why did you follow the rules? Next time I won’t even bother to do what they say; I’ll find the right person and call them up.

It isn’t always easy to work around the system. Mentors (like my seniors in the Longhorn Band) help. In the SF/F publishing world, going to cons and meeting editors helps. Being visible online helps. In the modern online world, self publishing also helps — in the book I wrote about last week, Fans, Friends and Followers, Scott Kirsner interviewed several writers who got their start with self publishing.

All those things involve a certain amount of self promotion, not to mention self confidence, not to mention learning the ropes of the system so you know what the real rules are. And you have to learn how to put yourself forward without being so obnoxious that people start avoiding you. But these things can be learned.

And they all beat the hell out of sitting around hoping somebody is going to discover you in the slush pile or anywhere else.

***********The Shadow ConspiracyRocket Boy and the Geek Girls

Nancy Jane has stories in all three of the anthologies recently published by Book View Press: “The Savage and the Monster” in The Shadow Conspiracy, “Blindsided by Venus in the House of Mars” in Rocket Boy and the Geek Girls, and “Dusty Wings” in Dragon Lords and Warrior Women.

Her collection Conscientious Inconsistencies is available from PS Publishing and her novella Changeling can be ordered from Aqueduct Press. All fifty (plus one new one) of the short-short stories she posted as part of her year-long Flash Fiction Project are available for free here.

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Brave New (Writing) World: The End of the Slush Pile? — 3 Comments

  1. Thanks for this thoughtful look at an increasingly puzzling and vexing problem.

    Two reactions. One, every single writer thinks their thing is “something really good” or they wouldn’t be trying to send it in. That’s something we just can’t judge for ourselves, especially when beginning writing–we are passionately invested, or to use the old and serviceable metaphor, we are so deeply in the forest we really can’t see the trees.

    The second thing is, yesterday Jim C. Hines posted a detailed discussion of his poll on first sales, and how his stats measure up (or don’t) to the old saws about how to break into the biz.

    The post is here

  2. Thanks, Sherwood. You make a very good point about everyone thinking their work is great, even when it isn’t. That’s why there are so many horror stories about going through the slush pile. A lot of it is, well, slush.

    The need for superior editors as gatekeepers has never been greater. Alas, I fear that too many publishers see editors as interchangeable and small presses and online ventures generally can’t afford to pay them. I still don’t know how all this is going to work out.

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