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Slush Pile Roulette?
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[This is the third of five entries in which I reflect a bit on Michael Allen’s long essay on randomness in the publishing industry, On the Survival of Rats in the Slush Pile.]

According to Michael Allen:

“...success in the arts, and particularly success as experienced by writers, is a random event. It is not determined by hard work, who you know, or talent (not, at any rate, above a certain level).

Part of this randomness arises from the manner in which publishers select books. Allen writes about the typical slush pile procedure in gruesome detail. Clearly it often proves inadequate to identify books which will sell. The book one publisher rejects out of hand becomes a bestseller for another.

While Allen concentrates on the proven inability of publishers to identify books with sales potential, he doesn’t (I think) focus on the question -- which may be of more interest to beginning writers -- of how much chance is involved in simply escaping from the slush pile. For many of us, that is the primary hurdle with subsequent sales being an afterthought.

I would say that getting from the slush pile to the editor’s desk, is not a matter of sheer chance, nor is the task quite so futile as one might guess from the numbers that are bandied about. You know kinds of numbers I mean. Publisher X gets 2,000 manuscripts a month and buys 1.

Obviously, if nothing but chance were involved, at those odds, the wager wouldn’t be worth the cost of the postage. But if you are writing seriously, for real publication, browse some of the endless sites on the web where amateur writers post their work. It will be evident, at a glance, that the vast majority could be of interest to only the writers themselves or their friends and family. No matter how flawed a publisher’s slush pile procedure might be, it can hardly fail to immediately winnow out such submissions. I once ran in the same 5K road race as Olympic marathoner Steve Rogers. But that didn’t mean I was truly competing with him. In fact, out of maybe 500 entrants, only a dozen good runners – all much younger than Steve – presented any competition. (Similarly, I once sent a story to Analog when I was twelve years old...)

Actually running is a rather poor analogy, because Steve Rogers certainly possesses real physical attributes that I don’t, whereas, no matter how dreadful a piece of writing might appear to one reader, or 99, or 999, there might, somewhere in the world, yet exist an editor who will see things differently. Still, some writing is so devoid of original ideas or even an elementary ability to use language correctly to convey the writer’s thoughts (whatever they might be), that the chances of anyone paying for it must be vanishingly small. Not that we’ll be able to agree on exactly which examples fall into that category. The experiences Mary and I have had submitting to magazines seem to indicate that more than luck is involved. Mary sold to Ellery Queens Mystery Magazine, as a total unknown, straight from the slush pile. Once, you might put down to luck, but between us, we both had many other articles and essays (admittedly, most of what we were writing at the time was nonfiction) plucked from slush piles.

I’m not a statistician, but I’m pretty sure that when results defy chance often enough, it indicates that there’s something other than chance going on. If someone bets heads on a flip of his coin, he might win or lose any given toss, by sheer luck. But if the coin comes up heads thirty times in a row, you’ve got to figure he’s using a two-headed coin.

Perhaps all is not so dire as it seems, depending on what you hope achieve. Given my normally gloomy disposition I’m feeling like a lucky rat...partly in that I didn't read Allen’s essay before Mary and I attempted to sell our first novel because I would surely have concluded (and perhaps correctly) that writing for publication is a fool's errand, decided to apply myself to a more sensible course of action, and we never would have seen our books in print.

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