slushpileIn Salon Magazine, Laura Miller brings up the conundrum of self- and e-self-publishing turning the Internet into one huge slushpile. (The slushpile, for those who don’t know, is the publishing term for the stack of unsolicited manuscripts on a publisher’s desk, 99.9% of which are guaranteed to be absolute rubbish.)

It’s a problem that has received plenty of play in e-book circles over the last few years, with increasing frequency now that e-book devices are actually starting to take off. When everyone is publishing everything they want to publish, how can anyone find anything they would actually want to read?

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. Civilians who kvetch about the bad writing of Dan Brown, Stephenie Meyer or any other hugely popular but critically disdained novelist can talk as much trash as they want about the supposedly low standards of traditional publishing. They haven’t seen the vast majority of what didn’t get published — and believe me, if you have, it’s enough to make your blood run cold, thinking about that stuff being introduced into the general population.

There have been various responses to this concern; Miller mentions one of them in the article in the person of former Salon editor Scott Rosenberg, who brought up the idea of bloggers, pundits, and other authorities familiar with some subsection of e-publishing recommending good titles. (Mediabistro does this, with its Best Online Fiction Directory.)

And when I interviewed Dave Howell of Alexlit, he told me that one of the original design ideas of Alexlit’s automatic book recommender had been to help people pick out self-published stuff as easily as pro-published. (Of course, given Alexlit’s current state of affairs, this seems unlikely to happen any time soon.)

But I think the true answer isn’t quite any of these. I think the real solution to the slushpile problem hasn’t happened yet. But it will. As soon as there’s enough money involved, someone will come up with a way to solve the problem.

It might be a collaborative filtering recommendation system like Alexlit, it might be some other way to harness enough eyes to make bugs shallow. For instance, what about a collaborative filtering system that signed up volunteer slush-readers, polled them for their story preferences, and randomly assigned them a self-published e-book to read and rate in return for payment or some other reward? If you got enough participants, it could start to get pretty accurate.

Mark my words: the slushpile scenario will only be a problem until someone finds a way to make money by solving it. And the more people adopt e-books, the sooner enough money will be there to make it happen.


  1. Or maybe there is a solution to the slushpile already in place. Publishing companies read the slush because we have to, reject the vast majority, and put our stamp of approval on the few we believe have true merit.

    Time is short. I don’t see why anyone who doesn’t do this for a living would want to spend significant portions of their lives reading through unpublishable works.

    Rob Preece

  2. I think they are still too much thinking only in terms of solutions that involve money (“the slushpile scenario will only be a problem until someone finds a way to make money by solving it.”) Other models are possible, however. The publisher’s selection model doesn’t work properly either. Sometimes a promising author is just refused by all publishers and they have to depend on self-publishing. Take for example Boyd Morrison (The Ark). He first gave away his novel as an ebook, and got so many favorable reviews that finally a publisher accepted it. Of course this is a tiny fraction compared to the slush pile, but I think this is a model that is going to play a big role in the future, although probably not the only model. Instead of having a few elephants doing the work you have this huge army of little ants all doing a tiny bit of work but together solving the problem. Ants are much better at removing this kind of garbage than elephants. Publishers still have to learn to adapt their way of thinking to the internet and social media. And maybe someone will find a way to make money from this model.

  3. Unfortunately, no matter the solution, the Internet will still be inundated with the slush. Rejected authors will simply self-publish through outlets like ManyFeeds, Feedbooks, and Smashwords, and readers will still have the problem of finding that needle in the haystack of needles.

    The other problem is that the Internet has made it easy for new “publishers” to come into being. Consequently, being “published” by a “publisher” is rapidly losing any value as a means to separate needles. I know if I were a self-publisher, the first thing I would do is create my own publishing company, slap up a website that talks about how great the company is and how it nurtures authors, and introduce the company’s first author — me.

    If I were a prolific writer (not necessarily a good writer, just prolific), I’d use a couple of pseudonyms so that it looks like my company has more than 1 author — and away I’d go. I might not make a lot of money, but I’d probably make some.

    BTW, think 5-star reviews are needed? Easy enough in the Internet age. O’d prepare a dozen or so canned reviews and ask a few friends to post them.

    The one thing that we can be certain of is that the Internet will remain, for a long time to come, a receptacle for slush. Long live slush!

  4. This sort of hand-wringing amuses me. Does the music industry spend much time fretting about all those garage bands and (very well equipped) backyard studios? Do professional sports leagues complain about the NCAA? Does the NCAA wail about all those mediocre high school athletes they have to sort through? Who have no chance of going pro?

    Well, their parents and friends love them. That’s pretty much the audience for most self-published work too.

    Comiket, the world’s largest comic book convention (35,000 sellers, 500,000 attendees) is entirely devoted to doujinshi, or self-published manga. It’s seen by mainstream publishers in Japan as a net plus, a venue to discover new talent and genres (like the NCAA and the minor leagues). So they mostly ignore the widespread copyright violations from fan fiction.

    Ask yourself how the average kid attending Comiket decides to spend his limited time and money. Therein lies the answer.

    The underlying fallacy here is that every individual decision matrix is based on the total possible output from an industry. It’s hip these days to fret that we’re faced with an “oppressive” abundance of choices. But if that were the case, then with 6.8 billion people in the world, how would anybody ever decide to settle down with anybody? Dumb question, right?

    Netflix’s 100,000 titles don’t overwhelm me because I ignore the other 99.99 percent. Ditto my satellite service (I actually pay for only one channel). The grocery store. The Internet. I read blogs that are hyper-specific to my particular tastes and buy from hyper-specific retailers. This is crowdsourcing 101 in action. The size of the crowd doesn’t matter.

    In fact, when it comes to trusting the purely subjective opinions of others, the smaller and more intimate and more specialized the crowd the better.

    People preselect as a matter of course. We’re choosy about everything. It’s human nature. Common sense, the wisdom of crowds, power law distributions, long tails, and Adam Smith’s invisible hand nicely do their work when left alone. The trouble usually starts when “experts” decide it’s their duty to police the market “for its own good.”

  5. “Does the music industry spend much time fretting about all those garage bands and (very well equipped) backyard studios?”

    Yes, that was pretty much my first thought upon reading the article. The music industry had this “problem” years ago, and they solved it by ignoring it. Let word-of-mouth do the filtering, and then pick the stuff that gets to be the most popular.

    I do see this as yet another example of a media-publishing industry refusing to accept that it’s no longer In Charge of the Revenue Stream. One of the biggest mental shifts that the modern media industry is going to have to make is accepting the idea that they don’t get all the money that’s out there. People are so used to getting 100% of a pittance that they think they should always get 100% of everything.

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