Wednesday, June 08, 2005

Rats in the Slush Pile: on randomness in publishing and marketing

I’ve been reading Eric Mayer’s responses to Michael Allen’s lengthy essay, On the Survival of Rats in the Slush Pile. While I was morbidly fascinated by Rats itself, my opinion is that first-rate work tends to be noticed. If agented, it’s often noticed immediately by publishers who hire smart, discerning editors (another boggy phrase). But as an editor peers into a category that’s a bit lower, choosing becomes more difficult. The world is awash in competent and well-written books. Shall it be apples or oranges? Does it make any difference which book or apple one picks if they’re all of comparable caliber?

Even at the ‘very best’ houses, an editor will admit that some books are lesser but “fill out” the list. The choice of those books is, to some degree, random. This isn’t so much because editorial taste is random but because it doesn’t make that much difference which book one picks out of a pool of relatively equal books. People who edit magazines often have a harder time choosing the final third of the contents from a heap of manuscripts; the first third was obvious, the second third fairly clear.

Of course, much that is ephemeral and rides the spirit of the moment is chosen and praised. That’s a given. And there's a certain randomness and luck there. Moments flee by quickly.

Where I believe randomness comes into play most fully is in how a book sells after it is published. Nothing can entirely make up for a publisher not pushing a book, no matter how good it is. And most books don’t get pushed. Almost all books depend on the ARC and the review copy. Will some of them be noticed anyway? Will great reviews even make any difference? Will the author’s kicking and struggling for notice do anything other than distract from the next book to be written? Will Lady Luck run her fingers along the spine and open the book to the title page and begin to read? All that’s in the realm of the random.

Much randomness is due to the material whirl of our times: a sort of kaleidoscopic confusion. The nineteenth century believed that taste was a subject matter that could be mastered. We, on the other hand, often rejoice and revel in bad taste and promote the sheerest trash. That everybody knows it to be so doesn’t make the reader’s effort to find a good book any easier. (On the other hand, a well-written commercial book is better than a tedious high-falutin' one, so there is trash and there is trash.)

As for publishing stories and poems in magazines, I think much randomness is eliminated by careful choice of venue. Hurling things out the door may result in some sales, but picking thoughtfully is key. Key, that is, once the story is as good as it can be. I’ve been guilty of thinking a story or poem done and deciding later that it needed to be expanded or made over or deposited for quick mulching in the nearest landfill…


  1. This is pretty much the conclusion I come to. Mary and I sold out first novel by finding exactly the right publisher at exactly the right time. (They were just starting up and the editor liked historical mysteries) I think, in Rats, Michael Allen was mostly talking about publishers' inability to ascertain what will sell well, and as you say here, the randomness of what does sell when it is published. However, since he talks about Harry Potter being rejected by everybody outright and other such examples, it is somewhat unclear to me. I hope he'll elucidate because he really seems to know what he's talking about.

  2. It would be interesting to see what would happen if all books were given a reasonable push, rather than much too little or much too much. What if the blockbuster "brand" had only the same amount as that given to mid-list titles? When hell freezes over, we'll get to find out.

  3. What we need is more CATS in the slush pile.

    --Lady Azure's Secretary


Alas, I must once again remind large numbers of Chinese salesmen and other worldwide peddlers that if they fall into the Gulf of Spam, they will be eaten by roaming Balrogs. The rest of you, lovers of grace, poetry, and horses (nod to Yeats--you do not have to be fond of horses), feel free to leave fascinating missives and curious arguments.