… 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.