The New Slush Pile: How Readers Are Choosing The Next Bestsellers

… or “Whoops! My book has started selling – I’d better get it edited.”

While the old guard in the books industry is still busy struggling to figure out how to give traditional publishers, agents and bookstores some relevance in the new order, a far more significant change is taking place just beyond their (albeit limited and utterly self-focused) lines of vision. Due to the availability of thousands upon thousands of free books by beginning authors in electronic format, and the proliferation of e-book reading devices with fodder-hungry owners, it is no longer editors or agents who are now combing through the slush pile looking for the gold: it is the readers.

A note to the non-writers: the “slush pile” is a term that has been used for centuries to describe the manuscripts that writers have sent to publishers uninvited, in the hope that they would be “discovered” and made famous. The term “slush pile” distinguished these unsolicited manuscripts from those that were sent to publishers by agents, established writers, or a senior editor’s aunt in Rapid City, Iowa. Interns generally read the slush piles, which were mostly full of dross, but (tradition has it) occasionally the readers found a Rowling or a Hemingway in there, and a career was launched.

The transition from editorial-office slush piles to online ones has happened so quickly that the mainstream books industry is largely unaware of it, as are most writers and most readers. The evolution has taken place in a climate where, over the past couple of years, new and inexperienced writers have proudly put their first books out in e-book format – usually created at little-to-no cost to them – only to discover that attempts to sell their novels or memoirs at $2.99 or $1.99 or even $.99 are fruitless. No one wants them.

That has led these writers to discover that if they put the same books out there at zero cost, e-book-reader owners will snap them up by the dozens—as if they were free marbles. Suddenly the writer’s “sales” figures shoot through the roof – from zero sales to 4,000 in a weekend is not uncommon among my social media “writer” contacts. Their books also start climbing up the bestseller-in-their-genre lists (romance, western, etc.) on Amazon.

Of course, their sales are illusions – nobody is actually “buying” their books and the writers are not making any money, and usually after a few days of skyrocketing numbers of downloads, when the writers put a price back on the book – having a new but deluded appreciation for their own worth— it drops off the bestseller lists and sales are once more insignificant.

Building An Audience of Readers

But what happens next? That is the question that all of us who are watching this phenomenon have been asking, and on a recent Monday I began to learn the answer. On that morning, I read a posting by an acquaintance on FaceBook that said, “Oh, whoops! My book has started selling. I’d better edit it.” Someone replied, “If it’s selling, why edit it?” to which the original poster responded, “Oh, nothing major. Just spelling, typos and formatting. Things like that.”

Coming from a background in the books industry—I have published four books with traditional presses, been editor-in-chief at a publishing company, and freelance-edited almost every kind of writing under the sun for thirty years—I was flabbergasted that anyone would put a book out there— in electronic or any other format—without editing it. I expressed my outrage on Reddit and a writers’ forum and attracted great interest from other writers and readers – most of whom were in my corner when it came to the importance of doing as good a job on editing as you can (and can afford) before you offer a book for “sale” – even at no cost.

What amazed me were the responses from people who have been downloading all these books for free. This was the first time I had heard them speaking – the first inkling I had gained into what was happening to cause all of those free books – good, bad, indifferent – to be downloaded onto all those Kindles, Nooks and Kobos. To my surprise, these readers (many of them quite literate) seemed far less perturbed than the writers were about the condition of the editing and formatting – what they wanted to see was good writing and good stories. They had downloaded dozens or even hundreds of free books by people they had never heard of, just because the books were free. They sampled them like new food: if they liked what they read, they kept going. If they didn’t they stopped reading after the first page, or the first few pages or the first hundred pages. They had no commitment to finishing the book: they had paid nothing for it. The only books they finished were the ones that kept them reading: which was, I realized, just the way readers of the slush piles in the publishing houses treated manuscripts.

More importantly, they said they would remember the names of the writers whose books they had liked, and they would follow up and read what these writers published next time. It sounded to me as though they might even be willing to pay for those next books.

It is in ways like this that a new books industry is being born, and the old one being swept away forever. The Publishers of the Future will not dictate what readers want to read, they will learn what readers want to read – from the readers. Then they will publish the NEXT books the readers have found in the new slush pile – which is what the mountain after mountain of free ebooks has obviously become – and they might even offer to clean up the editing on the first ones.

(And if the publishers are lucky, the writers might actually deign to give them their second books. However, after having tested their mettle on real readers without the interference of the books industry, and enjoyed the power and freedom of creating and marketing their own books, they may decide to self-publish the second ones as well. We’ll see what happens there.)

In the meantime, it is nothing but great news for writers that books in the slush pile are no longer being read by those who THINK they know what readers want (publishers and agents), they are now being read by those who DO know what they want: the readers.

I love this brave new world.

44 responses

  1. That’s a lot of work for an inkling of ‘oh-I like that author’ I will keep her work in mind when I am willing to part with $5. Three years pass, how many of that small sampling will be realistically hanging around, looking for that author? She may have pounded out a second book, but also may have given up and gone back to slinging hamburgers out of sheer discouragement and lack of funds?
    How about a PayPal (cross that, actually)
    Dwolla payment option hyperlinked at the end of the work?
    If you liked this novel, show your love by contributing to the author’s hard work…

  2. Thanks for sharing those insights, Mary.

    I really like the fact that we writers are gaining more control of our publishing future and that readers are gaining more control as well. I’m all for buying/selling direct and cutting out the middle man who takes most of the profits. That may mean self-publishing my next book — and I’m OK with that.

    It’s a brave new world indeed.

  3. Mary, very interesting article charting an important development in publishing. Cory Doctorow was one of the most visible proponents of epublishing and unmediated access to readers (no agents and editors). It is working, at least for some. Only, as you state, it’s not about first MAKING a living off the books, but rather about EARNING it: by which I mean earning a reputation as a writer and building a readership. Then you can hope to make some money off it too.

  4. It’s certainly a very interesting and liberating landscape out there. From selling two to three POD novels a month pre-epublishing, I am now selling around 60 a month at $1.99 per copy and it seems to be building. I’m thinking that for the next one I may try the Kindle lending library for three months as a way of building publicity and then release it for sale after that.

    Let me know when your’s is out, Mary. Can’t wait to read it.

    • Thanks, Lesley. I’m delighted to hear that your book is reaching so many readers: it deserves to! I really enjoyed it.

  5. It doesn’t surprise me that the e-reader market has a large number of people flipping through various things that are available, moving on if they don’t appeal, and not paying for additional content. That’s what the last two decades of cable TV inculcated. It’s channel surfing, and as a writer it’s reassuring that there are enough invested readers that channel surfing could hop back to reading with another tech development. It’s disquieting, of course, to think of all the effort I’ve put into my novel in the last fourteen months, and then think that it’s recommended I turn it into advertising fodder by releasing it for free. But after I have a back catalog, that may be the best turn to invite more readers into my worlds.

    • If you release a POD/paperback version at the same time, you can encourage people to buy it if they like it: that idea courtesy of Cory Doctorow.

      • Doctorow’s idea has never been economically viable for more than a vanishingly small well-known elite, of which he’s a member. I understand fully well why he likes it, though his arguments have never been persuasive on the industry-wide data side.

  6. I’m currently breaking up my family saga into a four book series for publication on Amazon Kindle. The manuscript is already well edited, but I would like to find a content editor just to make sure each book is tight and focused. Any suggestions?

    • I admit that I do that kind of work (info here on sale: http://marywwalters.com/index.php/book-coaching-and-editing.html main site here: http://thebookcharmer.com ) but I’ve also noticed there are quite a few editors on LinkedIn so you might try there for some comparison shopping. There are many many groups on LinkedIn, and some are for professional editors. People who post there who are looking for editors often get good responses, and the editors list their credentials — and that’s important. There are no universally accepted certification programs for editors so it’s buyer beware.

  7. enjoyed this article. These very issues will be debated thoroughly at the London Book Fair’s Digital Minds Conference, April 15. August panel , on ‘Blurred Boundarie’s panel includes Kerry Wilkinson, UK Kindle bestseller offered last week a 6 book deal from Pan Macmillan. He’s joined by Vicky Barnsley, ceo HarperCollins; Ed Victor, Agent; Michael Tamblyn , Kobo. Will be the talk of the Fair! http://www.londonbookfair.co.uk/digiconf12

  8. Good article and interesting theory.

    What I find the most appalling, though, is that writers are putting unedited or poorly edited books out there, and shrugging about it. I think I would be pschologically incapable of doing it. I edit the nuts off mine, and I *still* die a thousands deaths every time I spot another edit that was missed (and go and change it — yeah for instance re-uploads!) because self-publishing has a reputation for badly edited books, and I’d prefer not to contribute to the swill. It drives me freakin’ crazy that books coming out of New York have more errors in them than mine, but that’s a whole other story…

    I have six self-published titles, and I charge a price for all of them. I have an ambitious publishing program that will have me releasing ten more titles this year. Your article has me thinking about offering one of those titles for free, just to test your theory, and to introduce myself to the “slush pile” readers.

    My one concern, however, is that there is a VERY large “free” mind-set population on the Internet, who are more than happy to download and read any free book going, but will never move over to paying for products, no matter how much they like the author. It is the same population that download bootleg (pirated) books. I’m quite sure they’ll enjoy my free book that I spent weeks writing and formatting, but I’ll never see them as customers.

    Do you have statistics or information that leads you to believe these slush pile readers are being converted? Or are you just guessing? You said it “sounded to you like they might”. What made you think that? Because that’s the critical point upon which this all hinges.

    Cheeers,

    Tracy

    • This is just a theory, Tracy, but it is based on feedback I got when I posted about these shoddily edited free books on two forums and got lots of feedback from authors who agreed with you (and me), but I also got these surprising responses from a few people who were readers. If you test out your theory and it builds your readership, please come back here and let me know. I have my first, out of print novel The Woman Upstairs: A Novel for sale as an e-book and I am dropping the price on that one to zero tomorrow for five days, also to see what happens. My new novel, The Whole Clove Diet, should be out during that period.

    • All self-published authors I follow I found because they offered something for free – a serial posted on their website, a short story collection featuring the same characters as the novel they were selling, something.

      A lot of the authors I followed before I got into ebooks I found because I had opportunity to read something of theirs for free or very cheaply – borrowed from a friend, borrowed from the library, bought a used or damaged copy for 99 cents.

      The very first ebook I bought was a collection of short stories that the author had posted individually and freely accessible on a website, and it wasn’t the last of those collections that I bought.

      So, I don’t understand people who believe that anyone who wants free content will never pay for any content. I just don’t want to pay for content if I don’t have good reason to believe that I like it, and “I read something else by this author and it was good” is a better indicator than “people who like some of the books I like also like those books”, or “it has good reviews”.

      If I pay $8 for a paperback and I don’t like it, I can at least trade it or give it away to someone who might. If I buy a $8 and don’t like it, that’s $8 entirely wasted from reader-perspective. I can’t even take it apart for a crafts project like I could with a print book I found so offensively bad that I don’t even want to give it away for free.

  9. @ Tracy, I have seen a number of self published books that were too much trouble to read because of typos, etc. Some authors are oblivious. Then again, look at how many traditionally published books have errors as well, text books for goodness sake. No one or computer is perfect.

    Very interesting post, thank you for sharing. It will be interesting to see how the new world of story telling develops. While I love to write, and will continue to do so, I will expect a fair exchange for the quality of my stories.

  10. Mary, I loved your post; thank you for your clarity and vision! As I sit here at my desk…in a publishing firm in India… I watch, as do the rest of us, the traditional world of publishing give way to a “brave new world.” I think it is time that writers (and readers) connect with their own “power” and with the respect they deserve. And continue to create change.

  11. Mary…Very informative. May I pass your article on to about 70 writers that I send info to? I wouldn`t do it without your permission. I gather from your article that you are hinting that well edited books receive a better reader response. Books full of errors make my skin crawl.

    Dennis @ Moneysaver Editing

    • Dennis, you’re welcome to pass on the link and to reproduce a few paragraphs from the article to pique potential readers’ interest in coming over here to read it. I’m happy for people to read my blog posts, but I just would like them to come back to The Militant Writer for more if they are interested… as I am sure you will understand. :)

      And yes. Editors ROCK!! They (we) are crucial to the new order. I wrote another blog post about that here by the way https://maryww.wordpress.com/category/editors-literary/ I believe that as more and more writers get into self-publishing, the fact that their books have been edited by certain well-recognized editors will become the new imprint.

      Thanks for reading my post! (And thanks for asking for permission to pass it on to others. Much appreciated.)

  12. Pingback: Wordpreneur Reader 03.09.2012 | Wordpreneur

  13. The fact that some writers are finding success in the electronic slush pile does not mean that they’re striking a deadly blow against publishers. The vast majority of what’s going onto Kindle is dreck that the publishers and agents are happy to see the back of.

    Something more complex is emerging – a widened market, where people who in the past weren’t book buyers for whatever reason (they didn’t have the money, they preferred a type of book that’s disappeared, whatever) have come back into the market, being served by the freebies. And a lot of the breakout successes have been imitations of mainstream successes – it seems that people who adore a particular book (e.g. Twilight) will keep reading paler and paler imitations of it to get their fix. The genres that are hot within mainstream publishing, such as teenage dystopia, are – not surprisingly – the ones that are also running hot in self publishing. These books don’t compete with mainstream books, they augment them. Readers aren’t homogeneous – there are many people happy to read fluff on the train, who nevertheless also want the latest Stephen King, or the break out serious narrative non-fiction, or the latest Booker Prize winner.

    In a very conservative publishing climate, which exists at the moment, there will be books that might have self publishing success that previously would have been published. There will also be quirky books that would be too risky for a publisher, that will find a home in self publishing.

    So far, though, the promise of unleashed talent simply hasn’t eventuated. it turns out that they vast majority of writers who found themselves excluded from the publishing table were excluded for a very good reason. The self publishing pile looks a great deal like the published pile, just worse. It’s striking how many of the most successful self published authors either came from a mainstream background, so understand the rigours of self editing etc, or who quickly accepted publishing contracts. And after the initial successes of November 2010, the Brave New World has turned into lots and lots of freebies that give the illusion of success, but which never translate into real sales.

    Where self publishing really is unleashing talent is in niche non fiction – and erotica, as people discover they can read without anyone seeing the covers. But as erotica sales build, watch the mainstreams add erotic imprints and scoop the best talent.

    • Thank you for this very thoughtful response. Much of what you say is absolutely true in my experience, especially in terms of the quality of the books that are being self-published — not only those that are being given away for free, but also those with a price tag on them. It is like all the people who can now make music videos of themselves and post them on YouTube: there will be a few breakouts who go viral and become famous, but most of the crap will be enjoyed only by the relatives and friends of the performer, and perhaps not even by them.

      Where I think you are wrong has to do with the future of the publishing industry, which continues to plod along as though it were still the holy grail and the arbiter of excellence and good taste. Like the music industry before it, it is utterly failing to adapt to the possibilities that exist for writers when it comes to control of our own careers. It is not that the books publishers choose to publish are not of a higher quality in many ways than those that are being self-published today — clearly they are — it is a question of what will happen when more and more established authors realize that they already have a reputation, their books are going to continue to sell, they can hire an editor freelance and get a great production company and marketing system going, all by themselves, and come out far ahead of the game financially if they self-publish.

      I encourage you to read Dean Wesley Smith and Seth Godin as well as my own previous blog posts if you want more information on why the established book production system is caving in. They are not running a viable business model and increasingly, as people continue to buy soap at their bookstores and buy their books online, publishers become an unnecessary middle-person.

  14. I follow the self publishing situation very closely and I know the opinions of Seth Godin, Wesley Smith and Konrath. They all have interesting things to say, and they’re worth listening to when it comes to self publishing, but they are most definitely not worth listening to when it comes to their critique of publishing, not least because two out of three are coming from a polemical stance – they’re actively hostile to mainstream publishing, and are confusing their deep desires to see it fall with what’s actually happening. Seth Godin is a different entity. Of course he likes self publishing – it allows him to leverage a position that he had already built by other means. Anybody who has a ready made non-fiction audience as he does, is going to do well from self publishing. Come to that, anybody who has expertise in a field and wants to build a profile to their peers would be well advised to self publish a book.

    That, however, has no bearing on what’s happening in fiction. Publishing is under considerable pressures for a number of reasons – not least is trying to impose a corporate model on a fundamentally artisanal business, coupled with a bottleneck distribution system – but authors self publishing is not one of them.

    There are some publishers who have been offering very poor terms to authors – romance publishers spring to mind – who may lose their stars to self publishing. Well, they deserve to. Will this hurt them? Nope. They are using digital tools to attract a wider group of authors and to actually offer them help to get to publishable stage, through putting them into low-risk e-prints. If anything, you will witness these publishers expanding as they add genres that are proving themselves courtesy of self pubbers, such as erotica.

    At the high, literary end, there has been an absolute failure of the electronic slushpile to produce anything close to a breakthrough book, despite the many thousands of people who rushed to publish the novels lying in their bottom drawers. It turned out all those rejected books weren’t masterpieces after all. (Having said that, there is some very promising short story work appearing.)

    I am not arguing, by the way, that the new opportunities for self publishing are a bad thing. They’re not. They’re wonderful. We’ve seen a revitalisation of pulp fiction. The emergence of new popular voices. It will force the pulp fiction imprints to rethink their terms. It’s allowed writers to connect with an audience, no matter how small. It’s allowed some new voices to emerge and find mainstream success. Tinier and tinier niches can be served.

    But does this represent an assault on publishing? No. There is no evidence of that, and all the ‘evidence’ so far supplied is wishful thinking.If anything what we’ve witnessed is an expansion of the book market.

    There is a disturbing side to all this, however. And that’s the contempt and rejection with which many would-be authors treat the idea of editors and designers. They are seen as frills, add-ons, unnecessary expenses or, worse ‘middle men’, with their hand out for money without contributing anything to the project. If you wanted to ensure that the e-slush pile never produced anything of great value, ever, that’s the attitude to strike.

    Most art forms have amateur, pro-am and professional strands running simultaneously, which feed one another – the weekend potter, the amateur water colorist who does an exhibition locally, the amateur actor who is the stalwart of their local dramatic society. Sometimes the weekend oil painter breaks through into mainstream success; sometimes the amateur actor gets accepted into drama school; the local theatre may make a lot of money with their slightly wobbly, but much loved farces. What they never do, however, is claim that what they are doing is better than what the professional does or that they are going to bring down the Royal Shakespeare Company with their efforts. It doesn’t reflect well on writers that so many purveyors of pulp fiction believe they have nothing to gain or learn from professionals, and that their efforts are somehow artisitically revolutionary.

  15. It will be interesting to revisit this in a year or two. We are in a period of transition and I don’t think we know what will happen vis a vis self-publication by literary talent or the future of mainstream publishing. You comments are valid, informed and clearly well-thought. Thank you for contributing them here.

  16. Thanks Mary–great wisdom! For the college student who was hoping to land a foot in the door to the publishing world via a slush pile job, do you have any suggestions on where to get started either reading or editing?

    • Don’t give up on that dream — they aren’t dead yet. :)

      But also, you could start reviewing the novels that are available for free on-line (post your reviews on Amazon.com and barnes and noble’s website, etc.) and build a reputation for your reviews over a period of time. That would constitute a credential for a lot of writers, and you could offer your services as a “beta reader” for free to start with then gradually start building your reputation until you can afford to start charging. I think great editors are going to be much in demand in future. You could also start checking out which ones have hung their own shingles out already, and offer to read THEIR slushpiles. I learned almost everything I know about editing from being mentored by outstanding editors (and taking grammar at university, and reading a lot of books about editing, etc.) There is a publishing course at the Banff School of Fine Arts that is highly regarded (and I’m sure there are several on-line masters’ programs that offer courses in editing). The world is your oyster. Unlike books, good editors are not available in unlimited quantities, so they still have a market value. The most important part is to learn to BE a good editor, because no credentials are required and so references from outstanding sources are the key.

      • Thanks so much for taking the time to share your advice. I will definitely be following your guidance. I am already enrolled in an excellent college and on my way–hope our paths will cross one day and if you hear of anyone looking for an understudy, keep me in mind. Warm regards!

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