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Considering Rats in the Slush Pile
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I prefer writing short blogs and since my original attempt for this piece got out of control, I ditched it. I did put some thought into the thing, which means it is very dry indeed. However, I’ve been in a blogging slump and my last entry ties right in with my musings here so I'm going to try something different, for me, and devote five entries in a row to the same topic. I will try to post these early enough so that you might at least have something to put you to sleep in the evening.

Some time ago Michael Allen, at Grumpy Old Bookman, made available a remarkable essay/argument/philosopical discourse about the publishing industry which seems not to have garnered the notice it deserves, perhaps because it is so long (72 pages) and closely reasoned that it defies even accurate summarization, as I will soon prove. Perhaps the essay made such a strong impression on me because I’ve been reflecting on where Mary and I have been with our writing and where we might be going. If you are writing for publication or considering it, you owe it to yourself to study On the Survival of Rats in the Slush Pile. It can be read in installments on Allen’s blog or downloaded as a pdf file.

The official site describes the essay as follows:

Book-world commentator Michael Allen has a reputation for revealing the painful truth about writing and publishing. In his latest extended essay, Allen uses the ideas of the mathematician-philosopher Nassim Nicholas Taleb to demonstrate that success for writers and publishers is governed by randomness (chance) to a far greater extent than is generally realised. This creates serious problems for those who work in the book trade. Allen therefore goes on to outline some practical strategies which can be employed by writers, agents, and publishers; these strategies naturally cannot guarantee success, but they may help book-trade participants to survive in an increasingly turbulent environment.

The title is derived from a hypothetical experiment Taleb conducted with rats to demonstrate “survivorship bias.” As Allen describes the term:

“Survivorship bias involves mistaking what you see for what is really there. The tendency is for human beings to see only the survivors of some set of circumstances, and to ignore those who, for one reason or another, disappeared or dropped out as events proceeded. We often find ourselves earnestly discussing the traits in a cohort of survivors when, in truth, those traits are no different from those in a much larger population; if you consider the circumstances carefully it may be apparent that the survivors emerged as a result of sheer randomness, rather than through the possession of some special qualities.”

For example, you might conclude that a devout Christian survived a shipwreck thanks to his or her religious beliefs, until you consider that there were other devout Christians on board who drowned. (The rats in the title of Allen’s essay come from Taleb’s hypothetical experiment which involved rats and radiation and illustrated the fallacy of supposing that those rats who survived were necessarily the strongest, or survived while others perished for any reason except chance.)

Allen argues that there is far more randomness involved in achieving writing success than is commonly recognized. The reason this randomness is seldom acknowledged is because the only reports we get are from (or about) the lucky rats (the liter-rat-i?) who survived the slush pile, went on to succeed, and naturally chalk it up to their own tireless nibbling and exceptional tails rather than simple good fortune. We seldom hear from the equally talented and diligent rats who just weren't so lucky.

Judging by what I've learned in my few years perched on a low rung of a ladder in the publishing industry granary, On the Survival of Rats in the Slush Pile is the most accurate analysis of the writing profession (if it can really be called a "profession") I've come across.

In the next few days I intend to relate some of the thoughts it sparked off, regarding my own experiences.

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