Wednesday, January 30, 2013

The Public Slush Pile


The dreaded slush pile.

Writers view it as the place where manuscripts go to die, a symbolic elephants' graveyard of writers' aspirations. Slush piles are physical or virtual collections of unsolicited manuscripts that accrue in the offices of literary agents and smaller publishers. With luck, some manuscripts are reviewed by assistants or contract readers for literary merit and, if found worthy, passed up the food chain to an agent or editor for consideration.

At the end of my last post, I stated that I understand why writers turn to self-publishing after having their work validated by others – and after receiving multiple rejections from agents, the traditional "gatekeepers" of the industry. Although self-publishing precludes the need to add to traditional slush piles, they still exist in self-publishing – as the public slush pile.

One of the oft-noted results of self-publishing is the...how do I put this?...mass of amateurishly written, poorly presented, and/or ineptly marketed works offered to the public through self-publishing sites[1]. To be fair, that mass also certainly contains some of the best writing of this century[2]. So, the result of self-publishing is offerings that span the spectrum from some of the worst to some of the best writing available.

Some of those who would disparage the accumulation of self-published writing, from the shoddy to the shining, would also defend to the death the concept of capitalism, one of the basic tenets of which is free market competition.

Such competition is the connection to the public slush pile of freely-published short stories, novels, essays and other works available on sites such as Smashwords, Createspace, KDP, and others. Implied is the freedom to offer any product, within legal constraints of course, to the market for consideration.

In the tradition of free market economics, the consuming public will decide if a product is worthy of consideration and outlay of cash. The slush pile is open to the public and not hostage to the judgment of literary agents, publishers, and editors. Granted, one can question the judgment of, at least, American consumers when considering the sales of pet rocks, invisible dog leashes, viewers of "reality" shows, and the like; however, the freedom to make those buying decisions is pivotal to the free market system. Like Mark Coker, founder and CEO of Smashwords, wrote in a 12/23/12 blog post, "Readers are our gatekeepers."

It would not surprise me to see the self-publishing industry, barely out of diapers at this point, evolve to the point that, if left to its own devices, it becomes a self-correcting outlet for deserving writers and a source for consumers who wish to slog through the public slush pile.

[1]  A cursory review of offerings on self-publishing sites will confirm the existence of such writing and therefore are not referenced  separately here.
[2]  A simple search with Google® will uncover debut and previously published authors, who have been highly successful and critically acclaimed, on self-publishing sites and therefore are not referenced separately here.

Monday, January 7, 2013

Where Is Agents' Mutual Respect?

On the road to traditional publishing, it is virtually compulsory that writers query agents in an attempt to obtain representation. At this point, the writer begins a metaphoric game of darts – played in the dark. The lights are turned off and the dart board begins to move around the room in a random, haphazard fashion.

Agents are insulted if a query is addressed, "Dear Agent," and insist that a query be addressed to a specific agent. However, if the agent bothers to respond to the writer with a rejection, it is often addressed, "Dear writer" or "Dear author."

Many agents state that, if the writer does not hear from the agent within a specified time period, the writer should assume rejection, citing the high volume of queries as reasons that they are too busy to return the writer's respect. Further, agents expect a writer to submit a query, after dozens of hours spent polishing it, and if they respond to the writer at all, do so with an email comprised of perhaps ten words, tersely phrased. The message is simple and clear: Dear writer; I demand respect and my time is dear; however, you should not expect respect from me because your time is not as valuable as mine.

While reviewing 130 agency websites this past week, I discovered an agency who advises writers that they are too busy to respond to the writer unless they are interested; however, they ask that the writer advise them if another agency is interested in the work – the apex of agency arrogance. I am sure that there are more agencies with the same attitude.

If an agent's requirements for submission of a query are amenable to the writer and respectful to both parties, that doesn't mean that the dart board stops moving and the lights come on. If an agent is having a bad day, the chances of viewing a well-phrased, deserving query in a positive light can be dim, depending on the professionalism of the agent.

Many are fond of pointing out to novice writers that publishing is a business and should be treated as such. Others argue that the process is simply one that all writers must endure in order to earn their chops. Is writing a business or is it a sport ... for example, darts?

For those relatively few writers who have courted and won an agent, I submit that the query was enticing, the work well written, respect flowed bilaterally, and the agent saw a market for the piece. However, much more than a well-fletched, trimmed, and sharpened dart was involved. I further submit that the agent was contacted on a good day and the winds were steady and at the agent's back. In short, the writer threw a bull's-eye in the dark.

Although there is a relatively small contingent of agents who respect deserving writers – and online comments confirm their efforts – the majority appear unable to return the respect and professionalism that is so important to the agent. It should come as no surprise that talented writers, many who have gone through hell to finally – and sometimes only through luck – have their work validated by friends, family, independent editors, and online contacts and critiquers, turn to self-publishing.