Welcome to the Slush Pile

This is a piece I originally wrote for the Unthank School of Writing Blog. It’s about the e-pub revolution, and the need to impose some quality control to stand out if you’re taking that route. I also gave our courses a plug at the end. When we posted this one of the comments was ‘Wanker,’ which I thought was a bit harsh. See what you think, anyway.

I think it’s time we explored self-publishing on this blog. I’ve helped enough people through it professionally, and for the first time in my writing life I’ve eschewed traditional publication to put a book out myself, Shark Alley. This was a project I wanted total control over, from content, structure and visual style all the way down to final word count. I also wanted to release it as a free online serial, which I was never going to get a publisher to sign off on. Also, to be honest, self-publication is presently the most realistic option for most new novelists out there. It was never easy to get traditionally published at the best of times and, believe me, these are the worse. So, if you’re going to go DIY, just remember: Do it Big, Do it Right, and Do it with Style…

No one can deny that there has been a revolution in commercial publishing in the last decade. The advent of high quality and affordable print-on-demand services, the popularity of portable e-readers, and easy online sales distribution has radically re-aligned the position of the individual author relative to the traditional publishing industry in the global marketplace. For the first time since the Romantic period, when writing became a ‘profession,’ authors no longer have to beg and bargain their way past a legion of Kafkaesque gatekeepers representing an industry in which the honour of being published is often considered reward enough, with little or no profit returning to the writer.

While in mainstream publishing it has never been harder for an early-career novelist to break through, first by securing an agent and then a publishing deal, for the independent author it has never been easier. Technology allows you to write, design and publish your novel yourself, with no need at all to go through agents and publishers, and you can sell digital and print-on-demand copies on Amazon alongside the latest releases from the major publishing houses. E-readers, tablets and smart-phones have increased demand for accessible and affordable fiction, and many agentless authors are now bestsellers on Amazon, often earning more than their mainstream counterparts. Self-publishing authors are no longer hobbyists, but sole traders producing and selling their product themselves, with almost total control over the means of production. The gatekeepers are looking increasingly redundant; the walls have come down

But, as with all revolutions, there is a downside. As hundreds of thousands of new self-published novels go on sale every year, unboundaried by literary ability, editorial revision or good taste, for the first time ordinary readers can see what the agents and commissioning editors have been dealing with for years: the ‘slush pile.’ Major literary agents receive about two hundred unsolicited manuscripts a week, nearly all of which do not cut the mustard commercially or professionally. The narratives tell and not show, characters are two-dimensional and dialogue flat, the pacing is glacial, the plot digressive, and point of view and verb tense consistency indeterminate. Often these manuscripts are clearly first or early drafts, the amateurish construction compounded by typos, formatting errors, repeated words and spelling mistakes. In publishing terms, these manuscripts are not fit for purpose. This is not because the industry is elitist, it is because professional readers can tell at a glance when a book isn’t very good, hence the office slush pile, a mass and unmarked grave for poorly written manuscript novels that will never see print outside of a vanity press.

At least, it’s been that way until now. With the self-publishing boom, the slush pile has seen print at last, and it’s growing every day. Contemporary readers are not so much spoiled for choice as swamped with popular fiction, most of it mediocre and garden variety. There is so much that it is difficult to see the wood for the trees and, like the agent’s assistants, readers now make purchasing decisions at a glance in an infinite online bookstore, often influenced by reviews and recommendations on Amazon and Goodreads. Surveys show repeatedly that very few consider the publisher the arbiter for quality – the book’s either good or it isn’t, and readers are delighted to voice their opinions online.

How to Write a NovelAs an author, whether your goal is traditional or self-publishing, you have to find a way to rise above the public and professional slush piles. The key here is Quality Control. However intelligent, articulate, and well-read you are, you are not born with the ability to write a competent and page-turning novel off the top of your head. You have to learn and practice, as with any other skill. Writing is a craft that can be an art, but the muse is a myth. If you want your book to soar above the slush pile then take the time to learn what you’re doing. This is where we come in. The Unthank School of Writing is committed to quality at all levels. Our teachers are all published authors, editors, publishers, and professional lecturers, and they will support your literary goals – whatever they are – and teach you the skills you need to achieve them. Our results speak for themselves: no writer prepared to study and practice has taken one of our courses without significantly raising their professional game. If you want your book to succeed in such a crowded and brutally Darwinian marketplace then talk to us. We are not cashing in on a commercial trend. We are professional authors, editors and publishers with eminent academic backgrounds in creative writing. Look us up. We know all about quality control.

Dr. Stephen Carver is the Head of Online Courses at the Unthank School of Writing, and a distinguished writer, editor and critic. He teaches the online USW courses Becoming a Writer and How to Write a Novel.

You can contact Stephen directly at: stephen.carver@unthankschool.com


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