Confessions of a Big Six Editor: The Triumph of the Slush Pile

Thanks to everybody who came by and/or commented on last week’s post on Amazon reviews. You gave the blog its own Black Friday, with a record 1200 hits on Friday alone. 9000 visits, 140 comments, and counting. It’s now our #1 post of all time!

But I seem to have seriously miffed a lot of professional reviewers who thought I was lecturing THEM—telling them not to give negative reviews.

Major, major apologies, reviewers! NOT what I meant to say at all.

Without negative reviews, the positives wouldn't mean a thing.

NOTA BENE, SCRIVENERS: BOOK REVIEWERS ARE DEITIES WHOM WE ALL LOVE AND ADORE. They are our helpers, not the enemy. They are the new gatekeepers. To learn more about how phenomenally important they are, read my post THE NEW GATEKEEPERS and my interview with book reviewer Danielle Smith here

The purpose of my post was to tell the non-Amazon-savvy readers in my own demographic they now have more power than they realize, and that it’s easier to exercise than they may think.

But it seems the non-savvy Boomer was me. I talked about review conventions that are kind of obvious to anybody who’s been to Amazon a few times, but are apparently (sotto voce) THE FACTS THAT MUST NOT BE NAMED. 

I didn't know. Seriously. Sorry.

But, since humans are always more likely to be more vocal with complaints than with praise, I will continue to urge fans to support their favorite authors and reviewers. 

If that gets me more cyberbullying, so be it. I still think that if you love a book, it's good to say so. And it only takes a minute. 

As I said in last week’s post, if a review is useful, whether positive or negative—say that too. Good reviewers need our support just as much as good authors. Publishing is a business, and professionalism should be rewarded.

I also want to apologize to any Boomers who got their feelings hurt when I said some of us don’t automatically think of leaving an Amazon review and may not be acquainted with online review conventions. Ruth and I are both Boomers ourselves, specializing in what Ruth laughingly calls “biddylit”—that is, women’s fiction for grown-up ladies--many of whom tell us they're terrified to leave reviews.

I assumed this was because most of us born before 1965 treat tech as a second language, and don’t have the automatic tech instincts of Millennials and Gen X-ers, but to the Bill Gateses and Steve Jobses (we’ll miss you, dude) out there: sincere apologies.

Yes, the whole durn computer/Interwebz thing was invented by us Boomers. Yay Mickey Mouse Club, the Beatles, and Woodstock!

A number of people argued that, with Amazon becoming one big slush pile, the reviews should have stricter guidelines.

I agree. 

There’s no doubt a lot of not-ready-for-prime-time stuff is getting uploaded to Amazon every day, and (OK, I'll whisper it: A LOT OF AUTHORS DO GET FAUX RAVES FROM THEIR SISTERS AND THEIR COUSINS AND THEIR AUNTS.) Those are just as unhelpful as the ones written by trolls who leave semi-literate 20-word negatives for 1000s of books they’ve never read. (Which, BTW, happens to Big 6-ers as much as indies.)

The Kindle revolution means that we bypass the gatekeepers. Which turns us—the readers—into gatekeepers.

So how do we tell if a book is part of the Konrath’s tsunami of crap  or a brilliant new find?

We have to learn a new set of skills. 

Readers can learn which one of these is more positive:

“*****5-stars: The author is a friend from church who got me to write this in exchange for bringing her tuna surprise hot dish to the Sunday social, and I guess her book is OK if you like a bunch of filthy sex in a romance novel.”

“**2-stars: This is the most brilliantly written romance novel I’ve ever read. Strong, believable characters, eye-opening insights, and a page-flipping story, but hey, it’s a romance--not exactly A la Recherche du Temps Perdu.”

But unfortunately the Amazon algorithms can’t read between those lines. They only read the stars, so that leaves more work for us, the readers. A 3-starred book is going to be way harder to find, but keep looking.

As a customer, you can also look at the book description, the blurbs and, if you’re in the US, get a hefty sneak peek into the book—usually several chapters.

That makes you a new version of the old gatekeeper: the publishing house slush reader.

So who is better to teach us than Ruth Harris, former slush reader for Bantam?

Ruth went on to become a senior editor at both Bantam and Dell—and then publisher at Kensington, as well as the author of a whole lot of NYT bestselling novels. She knows the business from all sides.

In this piece, she reminds us of three hopeful things:

1) Great careers DO start in the slush pile.

2) There are a lot of seriously clueless people out there, so if you can read and write English, know how to follow directions, and are taking your meds, you’re way ahead of the game.

3) Somebody does actually read your submissions, (although nowadays that somebody is unlikely to be paid.)

by Ruth Harris

Back in the twentieth century when I started out in publishing, publishers did not insist that all submissions be agented, and direct submissions, aka the slush pile, served as training wheels (more like hamster wheels as it turned out) for young editors.

Beginning a new job at Bantam, I was assigned a desk in the secretarial bullpen where a monster stack of manuscripts waited for me. My job was to read them to see if any might be worth passing on to one of the older, more experienced editors.

Conscientious and wanting to impress the senior editor who was my boss, I began to read, at first assiduously finishing one manuscript (I had learned by then they were referred to as “ms” in written communications) after another.

The quasi-literate (they were the ones who loved "big" words and used them incorrectly), sub-literate and illiterate were sandwiched at random between the religious visionaries, the sexually shall-we-say peculiar, and the politically febrile.

There were the demented, the deranged and the delusional, submissions from jails and penitentiaries.

Most of all there were would-be writers who had never met a comma or, sometimes, even a paragraph, who had no idea how to shape a scene or introduce a character much less write a line of dialogue that any human being might actually have uttered. To those wannabes (that word didn’t exist then), quote marks also often seemed a galactic mystery as did sentences containing both a subject and a verb.

I was no literary snob and my reading choices embraced the entire range from Willa Cather to Mickey Spillane—but the slush pile did me in.

No matter how fast I plowed through the mss (that’s the plural of ms), attaching Bantam’s form rejection letter to the top and placing them in the required SASE (Self Addressed Stamped Envelope), the pile never diminished.

Every morning and every afternoon (two mail deliveries a day back then) the mail room guy dumped another stack of mss on my desk.

They were typewritten, smeary, sometimes single-spaced, sometimes sans margins, punctuation or paragraphing; some were hand written, scrawled in old-fashioned school notebooks, the kind with the marbelized black-and-white cardboard covers. They were held together by rubber bands, string, yarn and, once in a while, ribbon.

The pages were occasionally pristine but more predictably smudged, dog eared, defaced by icky, unidentifiable substances, or dotted with coffee stains and cookie crumbs left by previous editors who had read—or made a valiant effort to read—the submission in question and, as they say in the trade, “passed.” 

I quickly learned to read the first one or two pages, maybe scan a few more, then flip to somewhere around the middle to see if anything had improved and, if any shred of hope remained, look at the last page or two to see if a more careful reading might be called for. (Dream on.)

The only further communiqué from these would-be authors was an occasional complaint that they’d left a piece of white thread on page 125 and, when the ms came bouncing back, the piece of white thread remained in place.

Why, they wanted to know, hadn’t the entire ms been read? How could we (the nameless editors because no one ever signed a name to a form rejection) reject their masterpiece without reading it in its entirety?

Let me count the ways.

I moved on and so did the slush pile: to agents who weren’t about to pay a young assistant to get the slush sorted—by now, it was their unpaid interns who slogged through the mess. (As opposed to the mss.) There was to be a double benefit: publishers no longer had to pay salaried employees to sift through the slush pile and, in the bargain, submissions had now been vetted before appearing on an editor’s desk.

As time passed, we arrived somewhere in first decade of the twenty-first century and reading the slush pile had gone from paid labor to unpaid labor.

A sort of progress, I guess, but one last glimmer of progress beckoned:

The Internet.

The quick and easy upload that earned Amazon a 70% cut every time a 99c book was purchased. Amazon had managed what once had seemed the impossible: it turned a huge time and money sink into a profit center.

Or, as my Mom would say: Someone had finally figured out how to turn shit into Shinola.

And guess what? The same problems that beset me years ago at my piled-to-the-rafters desk persist today in cyber-ville.

About the only thing that’s different is that today’s digitized slush pile comes sans icky unidentifiable splotches and the coffee stains and cookie crumbs left by previous readers.

...and the little piece of white thread on page 125.

PS: Lest you think me excessively bitter and cynical, I will add that the SP is not absolutely, totally 1000% hopeless.

There are writers who have made it out. Stephanie Meyers (Twilight) was rescued from an agent’s SP. Philip Roth back in 1958 from a Paris Review SP (you can look it up on Google). And, IIRC, Kathleen Woodiwiss, one of the queens of the Bodice Rippers, was originally pulled out of the SP as was Rosemary Rogers. At Avon. By a talented editor who knew what Freud didn't: she knew what women wanted.


Please Note: We are very much aware there are lots of thoroughly professional indies, who are producing work as good or better than what was vetted by those slushpile readers of yesteryear. (Ruth is self-pubbing these days, and Anne is with two small publishers.)

But because self-pubbers aren’t vetted, it’s up to you the reader to learn to weed out the bad ones—but I’ll bet you won’t have to read as far as that “white thread” page to spot them.

How about you, scriveners? Do you feel competent to do your own vetting, or do you think interns do a better job? Do you want your book to get the stamp of approval of the Big Six before you’ll feel OK about seeing it for sale?

This week, MWiDP is launching its second Saffina DesforgesPresents anthology: Kindle Coffee Break Collection. Anne's story VIVE LA REVOLUTION appears in the anthology (caution: very noir Hollywood humor there. For fans of dark satire only.)

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