Friday, February 11, 2005

On the Survival of Rats in the Slush Pile

Here is an important announcement. Well, it’s important to me, anyway.

Over the last two or three months I have been working on an extended essay about the many problems involved in writing and publishing. Its title, as you can guess from the heading of this post, is On the Survival of Rats in the Slush Pile.

For better or for worse, the essay turns out to be far too long to be posted here – even if I split it up into various parts. It runs to 72 A4 pages: about 24,000 words. So instead of posting it here I have decided to make it available as a PDF file. It’s free, of course.

If and when you download this file, you will be able to print it out – which is certainly the most convenient way to read it. You may also copy the PDF and email it to a friend if you wish. In short, you are welcome to enable other people to read the essay if you would like to.

What’s the essay about? Well, it’s about the problem of randomness (chance) as it affects writers and publishers.

Some years ago I came to the conclusion that success for writers and publishers is governed by randomness to a far greater extent than is generally recognised. This conclusion has recently been echoed by Nassim Nicholas Taleb, with his work on ‘black swans’ (random events) in the arts.

The effects of randomness in publishing create serious problems for all those who work in the book trade. In the latter part of my essay I therefore go on to suggest some practical strategies which can be employed by writers, agents, and publishers; these strategies naturally cannot guarantee success (I’m not that clever); but they may help players in the book-trade game to survive and perhaps even prosper in what is increasingly a turbulent environment.

If you’re already prepared to give the essay a try, you can find a download page here. If you want to know more, the introduction to the essay is reproduced below.



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 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 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 who are slush-pile contributors, i.e. writers.

(End of Introduction)

Still interested? To reach the download page, click here.


Mover Mike said...

I read all but four pages and I stopped at "the long tail". It reminded me of Hugh Hewitts BLOG and in it he wrote about "the long tail". To me this means if I link to 300 blogs in this tail and some number of loyal readers of each of these blogs comes to my site, I have become a site with a large number of visitors, without being recognized by the Instapundits of the world and inheriting their traffic. I think self-publishing or small-publishing could work the same way.
Mover Mike

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