Monday, February 28, 2005

On the Survival of Rats in the Slush Pile -- Introduction

Regular readers may recall that a couple of weeks ago I mentioned that I had recently completed a new essay on writing and publishing, with the title On the Survival of Rats in the Slush Pile. This essay is on the long side: it runs to 72 A4 pages and about 24,000 words. So I decided to make it available as a free PDF download. Yes, folks, it's FREE, so you can't go wrong.

That was a couple of weeks ago. Which means that the info has dropped off the bottom of the Previous Posts list to your right. So I was going to mention it again at this point.

However, it has been pointed out to me that some readers don't really want to go to the bother of clicking over to some other page, reading the download suggestions, and then downloading something that they probably won't print out on paper anyway. (This despite my telling them that printing it out is much the most convenient way to read the thing -- but who pays any attention to me?)

So, it was suggested to me that, to give readers a chance to get a taste of the essay, to dip into as they wish (or not), I should post the whole damn thing right here on the GOB, in reasonably sized chunks, over a period of several days. Which is what I am going to do.

This suggestion was made to me, by the way, by no less a personage than M.J. Rose. Ms Rose it was who, just a few short years ago, more or less invented the whole business of plugging books on the internet. She is a published novelist herself, runs a blog called Buzz, Balls & Hype, which she is smart enough to offer in two different places (thus proving her mastery of technology), has written ebooks on how to buzz your book, offers online courses in same, probably runs five miles before breakfast, sleeps about two hours a night, and is a nominee for this year's Booker. OK, so I made that last bit up, but the rest is true. Anyway, when M.J. makes a suggestion, the smart thing to do is to pay attention.

So, Rats in chunks it is. Beginning today.

Please bear in mind that, if at any point in reading what follows, you decide that you can't wait several days to read the rest of this amazing essay, or decide (sensibly) that you will be better off reading something that long on paper, then you can still, of course, go to a page on my Kingsfield Publications web site where you can find a download link.

Meanwhile, here, to be going on with, is the introduction to the essay. Part 1 follows tomorrow.

Introduction

Aims

This essay has two principal aims: first, to help writers, literary agents, and publishers to understand the full scale of the difficulties that face them; and second, to suggest strategies which will enable such participants in the book trade to survive and perhaps even prosper.

These aims may immediately be thought to be both presumptuous and unnecessary. After all, you are saying to yourself, people who work in publishing are all professionals; they know precisely what they’re doing, and they don’t need any help from smart-arse commentators.

That is true, up to a point. But there is, unfortunately, a considerable body of evidence to show that writers, in particular, have a grossly overoptimistic view of their own chances of achieving success (however defined); and every year brings a fresh crop of stories about publishers who have either paid far too much for a book which turned out to be a dud, or decided against publishing a book which some other firm accepted and then proceeded to turn into a smash hit. I immodestly suggest, therefore, that all riders on the publishing merry-go-round might do worse than spend a few minutes considering the thoughts which are presented here.

The essay should be particularly useful for writers, because they are the ones most likely to labour for years, motivated only by dreams rather than hard cash; and, when their dreams fail to materialise, they are the ones most likely to suffer psychological and physical damage, as a result of powerful emotions such as anger, bitterness, and frustration. It will do no harm at all for these people to have a clearer idea, at an early stage, of the nature of the problems they face.
By ‘writers’ I mean, for present purposes, novelists. Much of the essay will be written in terms of the problems facing novelists, but almost everything that I have to say will also apply to writers of non-fiction; and much of it will be relevant to playwrights and screenwriters.

The essay is written in the context of book publishing in the UK, but the position is not, I suggest, very different anywhere else in the world.

Publishing from a writer’s perspective

Without writers there are no books. Without books there are no publishing firms, no leisurely lunches on expenses, no specialist book printers and binders, no book-trade van drivers, no librarians – and not even any readers. The whole of the book trade begins, therefore, with writers; with their hopes, fears, ambitions, and funny little ways. For that reason alone we should take a close look at this bizarre species.

Nearly all writers yearn to be published; not only do they want to be published, but they burn to be successful. They want to be rich, famous, and worshipped by the critics; they look forward to an orderly queue of admirers forming outside their bedroom door.

Writers recognise, of course, that this happy state of affairs cannot come about overnight; but in the early days, when hope is intense in their bosoms, they can see no reason why it should not be achieved by 4 p.m. next Thursday.

From a statistical point of view alone, such hopes are fundamentally absurd, and the material in this essay will explain in some detail why it is that writers are unlikely to be successful in achieving their ambitions.

The essay is prompted by my dismay, which has intensified over several decades, at seeing so many intelligent, sensitive, and hard-working people waste so much of their time on the largely futile business of trying to write and sell novels. (I have written about a dozen myself, without, so far, igniting any huge fires.) It irks me that human beings are so slow to learn, and, having learnt, are so ineffective at passing on what they have learnt. This essay is therefore my attempt to remedy what I see as certain deficiencies in the educational process, at least as far as fiction is concerned. I shall eschew, as far as possible, offering advice; but the facts, when explained, may suggest to readers that some courses of action are far more sensible than others.

In the course of this exercise, I hope to minimise the frustration and despair, and to maximise the profit and enjoyment, not only of writers but of all those involved in the book trade.

I shall try, as far as possible, not to apportion blame or to make too many criticisms of individuals who are doing their best in difficult circumstances.

Between us, we shall, I hope, develop a sense of proportion, and, above all, a sense of humour; the latter is an essential attribute on the part of those who wish to contemplate the vagaries of the book business while remaining sane.

Some of the facts and ideas which are set out here have already been presented to readers in other media: either in my blog, the Grumpy Old Bookman, or in my book The Truth about Writing. (Note: full details of this and other major publications mentioned in the text can be found in the references section at the end.) There is, however, much new thinking on offer in this essay, and it has largely been inspired and stimulated by the work of Nassim Nicholas Taleb, who is the author of a book called Fooled by Randomness.

Dr Nassim Nicholas Taleb

Taleb is one of those rare creatures, someone who has a successful track record in the business world and yet is comfortable, and respected, in academia.

In the world of high finance, Taleb has held a number of senior posts, including that of managing director and head trader at Union Bank of Switzerland, and worldwide chief derivatives trader at CS-First Boston; he is currently Founder and Chairman of Empirica LLC, a research laboratory and financial products trading house in New York.

Taleb’s educational background includes an MBA from Wharton and a PhD from Université Paris-Dauphine. He is a Fellow in Mathematics and Adjunct Professor at the Courant Institute of Mathematical Sciences of New York University, and Visiting Professor of Risk Management at Université Paris-Dauphine.

Taleb first came to public attention as the author of Fooled by Randomness, the subtitle of which is ‘The Hidden Role of Chance in Life and the Markets’. When first published, this was selected by both Amazon.com and the Financial Times as one of the best business books of the year, and is published in 14 languages. It has, however, a relevance far beyond the world of business.

Taleb’s intellectual interests lie at the intersection of philosophy, mathematics, finance, literature, and cognitive science. He specialises in the risks of unpredicted rare events (‘black swans’), and as an essayist he is principally concerned with the problems of uncertainty and knowledge.

For more information visit Dr Taleb’s web site; the URL is www.fooledbyrandomness.com.

The structure of the essay

Part 1 introduces the reader to the concept of black swans, as defined by Taleb.

Part 2 describes a hypothetical experiment with rats, which Taleb uses as a means of illustrating a number of erroneous ways of thinking and arguing. The chief error is perhaps that of falling prey to survivorship bias, which means that the observer sees only the survivors of any particular course of events, and fails to take adequate note of the characteristics of the many other participants.

In Part 3, we note that Taleb’s experiment with rats is in many ways analogous with the slush-pile procedure, as traditionally carried out in the offices of publishers and literary agents. We then proceed to review Taleb’s various forms of faulty thinking, as they apply in the context of writing and publishing; in particular, we try to learn how to think clearly about publishing issues, a skill which is in notably short supply.

The evidence assembled in Part 3 demonstrates beyond question that randomness plays a major part in publishing; specifically, we learn that, provided a manuscript reaches a certain basic professional standard, it is randomness which thereafter determines the ‘success’ of that book.

The fourth part of the essay is intended to provide practical assistance to those who are involved in looking for suitable books to publish (slush-pile selectors). Starting from the most basic of questions – Is publishing a sensible business for companies or individuals to be involved in? – we move on to consider both reactive and proactive procedures for managing the slush pile.

Part 5 outlines a similarly pragmatic approach that may be applied by those are slush-pile contributors, i.e. writers.

DON'T FORGET: if you want to read this essay in full, you can go to a page on my Kingsfield Publications web site where you can find a download link to get the whole thing in PDF format.

13 comments:

Richard Grayson said...

An excellent monograph.

Barbara Quinn said...

Michael,

I enjoyed the first part so much that I downloaded the rest onto paper, which is most unusual for me. At 72 pages I preferred to have something in my hands. I'm going to mention the piece in my newsletter which goes out to a substantial group of readers and writers who subscribe to The Rose & Thorn Literary E-zine (www.theroseandthornezine.com). The part about penurious writers paying for agents didn't work at all though! Best, Barbara

Anonymous said...

The black swan
with the shadow of blood on her neck,
glides on the still cadence of the lake.

Beneath the mountain,
the dreams die.

MSchannon said...

Excellent article & well worth the effort to read and understand it.

The inability to predict human behavior is a relatively new phenomenon that the business world finds incomprehensible and terrifying.

Dave Snowden, director of IBM's newly created Centre for Action Research in Organizational Complexity, wrote an article, "Complex Acts of Knowing" in the "Journal of Knowledge Management," Vol 6, No. 2, 2002.

He makes an excellent distinction between complicated things, such as airplanes, which can be broken down into specific component parts and known in their entirety--and complex things, such as people and human systems.

We can never fully understand complex things because there are an infinite number of variables (chaos theory, and the Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle apply).

Therefore, predicting which book will make it and which will languish is literally impossible.

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