In David’s article on e-slush, I commented on Baen‘s electronic workflow that uses fans as early reviewers. Subsequently, Pam Uphoff of Baen offered a few more details to share with TeleRead visitors.
Just in case you aren’t familiar with the publishing world, I’ll start by defining the problem. Publishers like Baen accept unsolicited submissions from new writers. These unsolicited manuscripts are added to the bottom of the “slush pile” as they join the queue waiting to be read by an editor. With the advent of electronic submission, the Baen e-slush pile has grown to over a thousand queued manuscripts.
Just 40 originals a year: 99 percent rejection rate
Consider that Baen only publishes about 40 original (70+ including reprints) manuscripts per year, and that most of the published books are from established Baen writers. This means that well over 99 percent of the slush books will be discarded. An editor needs to read over a hundred books to find one that fits their needs. Pam explained that editors need to quickly identify rejections, so that they can get through the dross to find the gems. It is easy to get in a negative frame of mind, and this can lead to the premature rejection of a fine manuscript—especially if the manuscript has a rough start.
Focused on promising manuscripts
Some might argue that the most efficient process is one that routes everything directly to the recycle bin. Baen decided that, if the review process was to have any meaning, they needed a process that highlighted promising manuscripts, not one that focused on rejection. In service of this goal, they turned to the members of their discussion community (aka barflies).
Barflies who volunteer and are accepted by Baen are given private access to the e-slush pile. Originally, volunteers were assigned a random set of manuscripts to read. However, Ms. Uphoff reports that the process has been modified to allow volunteers to select the manuscripts they review. She explains that this allows volunteers to specialize: “A manuscript doesn’t get a bad review because the first reader doesn’t like ‘that sort of story.’ I get fantasy recommendations from the readers who like fantasy, and Mil Sf reviews from hard core Mil Sf fans.”
Half the slush managed by volunteers
Pam notes that the volunteer network is big enough to manage about half of the slush volume. Recommendations from volunteers have led to the publication of two novels, and the barfiles have queued up a substantial “pile” of books for consideration by a senior editor. When Pam or another senior editor reads a recommended book, they can start the process with a positive expectation.
This e-slush process rests on the ability to quickly share electronic manuscripts. In the paper-based world of yesterday, submissions would still be gathering dust (literally) in the office of an individual editor.
Moderator’s note: As defined by Wikipedia, the term crowdsourcing “is a neologism for the act of taking a task traditionally performed by an employee or contractor, and outsourcing it to an undefined, generally large group of people, in the form of an open call.” Wikipedia itself just might be the ultimate crowdsourced site. I don’t know if the term would fit the Baen situation exactly since Michael says the publisher “accepts” the volunteers, making them a “defined” group in a sense, but I love the word and he’s certainly entitled to use it. What a readable and informative contribution, Michael! Thanks—you made my Sunday. – David