Tuesday, March 08, 2005

On the Survival of Rats in the Slush Pile -- Part 5

Continued from yesterday. Here is the last part of my new essay on writing and publishing. Please remember that, if at any point you decide that you would like to have all of this essay available in one lump, you can go here and download the whole thing as a PDF file. You can then print it out, pass it to friends, et cetera.

Part 5: Strategies for slush-pile contributors (writers)

Should writers be in this business at all?

Part 5 will broadly follow the pattern of Part 4, and so we begin by asking ourselves whether writers – specifically novelists – are wise to be in the publishing business at all.

The evidence assembled in Part 4 demonstrates that publishing is not a business that anyone in full possession of the facts should go into unless there are special circumstances: such as the possession of a private income, or an overriding desire to be involved with books. I am not going to repeat the argument here. What is instructive, I suggest, is to compare writing with other potential careers, even those of a modest kind which might be thought to be below the dignity of someone capable of writing a novel.

Consider, if you will, a possible career in the motor trade for a young man; and, for a young woman, a career in hairdressing. For either of these two forms of employment, it is easy to obtain suitable training at modest cost. The job can be done by anyone with average intelligence. There are thousands of firms throughout the UK which offer job opportunities. And in order to remain in employment all one has to do is turn up on time and perform to a minimally demanding standard. Given hard work and a little initiative, you could end up with your own business and do rather well. There is no winner-take-all mechanism in the motor trade or hairdressing. Randomness will undeniably play a part in a career in either field, but that role will normally be a minor one.

None of these happy circumstances apply to a young person who wishes to earn a living as a novelist. For a novelist it is not easy to obtain adequate training (I am not impressed by what I have seen of degrees in creative writing). The job of being a writer requires exceptional ability and aptitude, plus years of practice. Job opportunities are limited and the competition is huge. Randomness is the dominant factor in determining any degree of success which may be enjoyed. Even if some form of contract is obtained, it is unlikely to provide enough money to live on, and there is no guarantee of continuity of employment, however committed you may be.

In other words, there are no sensible reasons, as has been demonstrated over and over again in this essay, for seeking to become a professional novelist (or even an amateur one, of which more will be said later). However, these are personal decisions and they must be made by individuals. And individuals who have read thus far in this essay will be aware that any decision to try to become a professional writer cannot, by definition, be rational; it must be emotional, which means that it is dangerous.

Let us consider the dangers.

If there is one thing that can almost be guaranteed about being a writer, attempting to work through traditional book-publishing channels, it is that the process will involve a great many negative emotions: anger; frustration; bitterness; a sense of injustice; jealousy; depression; despair.

It is obvious just from the names of these powerful emotions that they are undesirable. But just how undesirable and damaging they are is often underestimated. A finished novel is the product of several hundred hours of hard work, and the physical and psychological consequences of having it rejected, over and over again, are far from negligible.

Taleb points out to us that scientists have examined the physical impact of the negative emotions which are aroused by situations such as rejection. He refers us to Sapolsky, whose work reveals that prolonged stress, such as that experienced by ambitious writers trying to juggle too many balls at once, causes or intensifies a range of physical and mental afflictions, including depression, ulcers, colitis, heart disease, and more. The glucocorticoids released at times of stress tend to hamper the formation of new memory and brain plasticity.

Typically, highly negative experiences have an effect on the mind and body which exceeds (by an estimated magnitude of 2.5 times) the positive effect of a good experience. So if, after fifteen submissions, a writer finally persuades an agent to represent her, which is a positive emotional event (of sorts), then our writer is still likely to be left in emotional deficit.

The very process of writing a novel is likely to have a far-reaching impact on several areas of the writer’s life. The girlfriend or boyfriend may not be enthusiastic; your employer may wonder why you are so anxious to leave at 5.00 p.m.; and your bank balance may be depleted by various expenses. When achieving even the most minimal success takes much longer than you hoped – and it will – you will be subjected to well-meaning but painful interrogations by your family and friends.

But there are worse things than being rejected. The worst thing that can happen to a writer is for her to become the author of a black swan before she is old enough, and experienced enough, to understand how she came to achieve that success.

The creator of a black swan is placed under enormous pressure to repeat the triumph. The pressure comes from her publisher, from the critics, from readers, booksellers, family, friends, spouse, children, and half a dozen other sources. And our writer sits at her desk and the paper remains blank.

In its most extreme form this pressure can prove fatal. In 1974 John Leggett wrote a book about Ross Lockridge and Tom Heggen (Ross and Tom). In post-war America, both these men had huge successes with their first books. They became rich and famous. But neither man could figure out what to do next; they became depressed; they committed suicide.

Stoicism and dignity in the face of randomness

Taleb tells us that, in the ancient world, the stoics’ prescription for peace of mind was to do what one can to control one’s destiny; for the only thing that Madame Randomness does not control is your behaviour. In the end, however, randomness will have the last word; and therefore the sole solution left to us is dignity.

What this means for writers is that it would be wise not to degrade yourself with empty hopes; neither is it dignified to whine when a publisher drops you after two books, and your agent refuses to return your calls. And perhaps the most dignified choice of all, for a writer, is to decline to participate in a circus where so much is determined by chance.

The whole business of submitting yourself to the slush-pile procedure is likely to be both painful and damaging; and it is more damaging, frankly, for those who understand how random it is than for divine innocents, who at least retain the delusion that the system is administered by readers whose judgements are reliable and valid.

How to proceed, if you really must

The evidence so far assembled in this essay surely suggests that writing a novel, with a view to getting it published through the mainstream publishing system, is a foolish thing to do. But we all do foolish things, some of us in full awareness of the consequences. (I once had a friend who decided that, despite the risks, smoking cigarettes was a sensible course for him, because it calmed his nerves; he died of cancer in his early fifties.) So, despite all the drawbacks and disadvantages of trying to launch a career as a writer, some will persist in trying; and if you really must go down this ill-advised route, you should at least equip yourself with a good map.

The first thing to do, and the easiest, is to cure your chronic ignorance of the facts of publishing life. Those of us who write may be fools; but at least we should be well-informed fools. This state of affairs can be achieved by reading the trade papers for a couple of years, and by reading some of the books mentioned in the references section of this essay.

Having done that – and it cannot, unfortunately, be done overnight – the next step is to clarify your goals. It is unlikely, on the whole, even with Madame Randomness on your side, that you are going to be able to achieve fame, literary reputation, and lots of money, all at the same time. There are exceptions, of course (e.g. Hemingway), and one of the most frequent errors on the part of writers is to assume that they themselves will be one of those rare exceptions. (If you want to know why this is an error, consider this: when we get into a car to go to the supermarket, we do not, generally speaking, assume that we are going to be one of those rare people who get killed in an accident.) So you need to decide, as precisely as possible, what it is that you hope to achieve as a writer; and, at the risk of mentioning it too often, I have to say that my book The Truth about Writing will be helpful in this regard.

Having sorted out your goals, and having armed yourself with a good working knowledge of how the business actually operates, you are then in a position to formulate a career plan. Most ‘business plans’ are a form of fiction anyway, and this one is likely to be even more divorced from reality than most. But it will do no harm if you set out on a piece of paper what you plan to do, over a period of say five years, and with what result. With a bit of luck you will see immediately how unrealistic such plans are, and save yourself a great deal of trouble.

How to find an agent/publisher

No writer can hope to enjoy any sort of serious career unless she is published by one of the major firms. And so the problem, assuming you have written a novel, is how to persuade one of those firms to publish it.

As we know, the big publishers have abandoned the slush pile; some of the bigger agents have either followed suit or will do so shortly. There remain, however, a number of reputable literary agencies which are still willing to consider unsolicited submissions.

There are good ways and bad ways to approach these people, and if you seek advice on how to do it, read (agent) Carole Blake’s book From Pitch to Publication.

Some commentators on the publishing scene maintain that before long writers will be obliged, perforce, to approach literary agents via an intermediate fee-charging service such as the Literary Consultancy – an organisation which has already been mentioned.

The Literary Consultancy will arrange to have your manuscript read by a professional. More to the point, if your work is judged to be of a high enough standard, the Consultancy will then recommend the book to one or other of the literary agencies with whom it has links. The present referral rate is reportedly 1 out of every 20 manuscripts read. I find this figure surprisingly high, but then perhaps the Literary Consultancy attracts an unusually competent class of writer; and besides, referral to an agency probably does no more than indicate to the agency that reading the manuscript may not be a complete waste of time.

There are numerous other ‘reading agencies’ which charge a fee for assessing your manuscript. These vary from the entirely honourable to the totally fraudulent, whose sole purpose is to part fools from their money.

A possible way forward

So far, this essay has not done much to encourage the view that writing novels is a productive use of one’s time. However, thoughtful and informed readers may well be ahead of me in realising that, in the first decade of the twenty-first century, there is another set of strategies which could be pursued by those afflicted with the writing bug. These strategies require a clear head, which alone is a requirement that may put them beyond the reach of most, but I want to say a word about them here.

Let us suppose that a wildly ambitious young writer, full of ideas for wonderful novels, has prepared herself for a writing career, as indicated above. Such a person, if possessed of the power to think clearly, can hardly fail to be aware that the idea of becoming a full-time professional writer is a chimera, achievable only through the improbable workings of randomness. But this same young writer might recognise that there is a much more workable scheme of things.

Suppose (she says to herself) I acknowledge that I am never going to be another A.S. Byatt or Jilly Cooper (according to taste), but that I nevertheless decide to go ahead with writing novels as a spare-time occupation. There are, after all, some eccentric individuals who spend hundreds of hours making a scale model of a steam railway engine or a nineteenth-century sailing ship. Such people undertake these mammoth tasks, occupying several hundred hours, without any expectation of becoming famous or rich. Why should I not approach novel writing in the same spirit?

To which the answer is, No reason at all. Except that it requires quite exceptional powers of rationality, and the ability to quell, for ever, even the tiniest hope that publication (in the traditional sense), fame, glittering prizes, and untold wealth will follow. I have never met anyone capable of this, but such a paragon may exist.

Yes, it is possible for an individual to work in this way. And when the novel is finished it can be put on display, in just the same way that a model steam engine might be put on display. The novel can be ‘exhibited’ on the internet. It can be printed up in book form and given away, or even sold – provided that the writer does not expect to sell many copies.

There are some observers who see a bright future for what is now called ‘disintermediation’ – the process whereby texts are delivered from author to reader (like this essay, in fact) without the need for a publisher or a bookseller in the middle. In principle, there is no reason at all why the quality of work distributed in this way should not equal, or even exceed, the quality of much formally published work.

The pro-am option

Demos, an independent UK think tank, recently published a report on the ‘pro-am phenomenon’. A pro-am is someone who works in a particular field as an amateur, but who nevertheless works to professional standards. The pro-am may make some income from a given activity, but it will not be the individual’s sole source of income. The Demos report has shown that pro-ams are today making significant contributions in a number of fields, as varied as astronomy, theatre, and open-source software.

Those for whom writing is seen as a means of establishing their identity are unlikely to be satisfied with this strategy. But, for those who already know who they are, it is certainly an option; and it is one which can be exercised at any time, for example after retirement.

The pro-am approach is in fact the way in which I myself have operated over the last few years. My first novel was published in 1963, and over the next twenty-odd years I had five other novels published by firms in the UK, USA, France, and Denmark. In the 1990s, after a gap of some years, I was in a position to start writing fiction again; but, although I was represented by a leading agent, I discovered, unsurprisingly, that modern publishers were not interested. My solution was to start my own small press, Kingsfield Publications, which I use chiefly as a vehicle for my own work; the books are published under various pen-names according to their character.

As a result of my long experience of writing and publishing, I am in a position to ensure that I can write, design, and oversee the printing of trade paperbacks to a fully professional standard. Kingsfield Publications succeeds in selling a limited number of copies of each book, chiefly to the UK library trade. Because of the low set-up cost of modern print-on-demand technology, most books generate a modest profit. I know that the books are read, because I receive income from the public lending right scheme.

At present, it is a fact of life that pro-am novels produced in this way cannot provide a writer with even a modest living. Neither will they attract reviews in major newspapers, so it is difficult to build a reputation.

However, there are signs that this situation may change. A number of observers have begun to talk about the long tail, by which is meant that vast body of work which exists behind what might be called the short head.

In publishing, the short head is the blockbuster world of the big publishers and the big retailers. But there is already a long tail, in the form of the backlists of orthodox publishers; and an even longer tail, in the form of ebook and print-on-demand reprints of long-forgotten masterpieces and even pulp. This long tail will almost certainly grow larger as individual writers become weary of trying to break into the mainstream and begin to offer their work through less orthodox channels.

Some observers believe that the long tail will eventually constitute a larger part of the market than the short head (if it doesn’t do so already). And the readers, bless their hearts, are beginning to realise that finding something to read is no longer a matter of going down to the nearest W.H. Smith and seeing what is piled up near the door. They are beginning to learn that finding a ‘good book’ requires a little work, and the internet is the obvious place to start.

The theory is – and it seems eminently credible to me – that users will increasingly recognise that the internet provides a vastly increased pool of choice; and the search engines will allow them to explore their own tastes in ways hitherto not available.

Individuals with access to the internet, whether their interest is in music, videos, or books, are not limited to the current bestseller list which is being plugged by the big retailers.

What is more, they may discover, as they explore the various niches, that they actually prefer what is available in some obscure corners of the web to what is effectively forced upon them by the blockbuster/winner-take-all conglomerates.

It is forecast, by a certain number of wishful thinkers, that the long-tail effect will lead to the disappearance of winner-take-all dynamics. It is said, for instance, that the big TV networks will close down. I seriously doubt that. The big TV networks, and the big publishers, will remain big. But they will suffer reductions – reductions in the number of customers and the size of their profits.

As and when this situation develops further, it will be possible for many pro-am writers to find a small, but appreciative, and possibly passionate, audience for their work. They are unlikely to grow rich or to become famous in the old-fashioned sense; but they may supplement their income to a useful degree, and they will be known, worldwide, to those who share a particular set of tastes.

The rewards of independence

The rewards of this new strategy, though limited, should not be underestimated. Perhaps the most important of them is that the pro-am approach allows writers to write exactly what they want, when they want, in whatever form they want. These are rare privileges, unknown to those who play the corporate game.

In short, the pro-am writer seems to me to have the best of all possible worlds – subject to a couple of caveats. The pro-am has to be mature enough to be genuinely satisfied with the rewards of that status. (Daily meditation on the so-called ‘rewards’ of the corporate alternative should help.) And she has to be calm enough to be unfrustrated by the limitations of working on time-consuming projects in her all too finite amounts of spare time.

At present, many of those who write blogs and publish their own books live in the same over-hopeful frame of mind as those young ladies who, in the 1950s, used to work in Hollywood drug stores, in the expectation that at any moment a big-time producer would walk in and pick them to star in his next movie. In other words, they live in a dream world.

All such dreams should, in my opinion, be abandoned.

Let us suppose, just for the sake of argument, that some big-time editor reads a self-published novel and decides to offer the writer a two-book contract on the strength of it. So what?

If the publisher is exceptionally rash (and we have evidence that some of them are), then a large sum of money may be involved; in that case it would make sense to take the advance and run. But in the average case, the advance offered is likely to be the usual pittance; the book will be given the usual minimum support; and after two or three such books, which fail to generate fire-storms of enthusiasm, the writer will be dropped.

Is that experience worth all the accompanying hassle? I suspect not. In the twenty-first century, therefore, the really smart writers – the ones who have mastered their skills, who learnt to understand the publishing business, and who value their sanity – they are not going to succumb to these blandishments. The mature and confident writer will recognise that she does not need to have her work validated by some all-too-fallible editor. And so, when our emancipated writer does receive an offer from such a source, she will smile politely, and say Thanks, but no thanks.

Such a writer will be entitled to feel truly proud of herself; because she at least, of all the many writers in this world, will have set aside childish things. She will have become an adult at last.


This essay is not intended for publication in an academic journal, and so I have not peppered it with footnotes giving the source of every statement or statistic. You may be assured, however, that every ‘fact’ or figure that appears here has previously appeared in print somewhere, and has at least some likelihood of according with reality.

The major publications which are referred to in the text are listed here in alphabetical order by author. All are recommended for further reading.

Allen, Michael. (2005). Grumpy Old Bookman – Essays and Criticism. Wiltshire: Kingsfield Publications.

Allen, Michael. (2003). The Truth about Writing. Wiltshire: Kingsfield Publications.

Bellaigue, Eric de. (2004). British Book Publishing as a Business since the 1960s. London: The British Library.

Bernard, André. (2002). Rotten Rejections. London: Robson Books. (There are various earlier editions in both the US and the UK.)

Blake, Carole. (1999). From Pitch to Publication. London: Pan.

Epstein, Jason. (2001). Book Business. London: W.W. Norton & Company.

Klebanoff, Arthur. (2002). The Agent. London: Texere.

Taleb, Nassim Nicholas. (2004). Fooled by Randomness. London: Texere.
Taleb, Nassim Nicholas. (2004). Fooled by Success: the Black Swan and the Arts. A paper presented on 24 September 2004 at the Arte-Scienza symposium, Rome; available on Taleb’s web site, www.fooledbyrandomness.com.

Taleb, Nassim Nicholas. (2004). On the Invisibility of the Drowned Worshippers. A draft chapter of Taleb’s forthcoming book on black swans; available on www.fooledbyrandomness.com.

About the Author

Michael Allen’s principal career was in education, first as a teacher and then as an administrator. Prior to retirement, he held the post of Administrative Secretary of the University of Bath. He has a PhD in education and is a former Fulbright Fellow.

In parallel with his career in education, Michael has had a long record of achievement as a writer. He was first paid for writing a newspaper article in 1955, and since then he has published 11 novels, a collection of short stories, and three non-fiction books; he has also had work produced on the stage, television and radio.

Michael is a former Director of an academic publishing company, Bath University Press, and he currently runs his own small press, Kingsfield Publications. He writes a more or less daily blog, the Grumpy Old Bookman. A variety of posts from this blog are now available in printed form: see above.

For more information try the following web sites:





Malcolm R. Campbell said...

Your essay replaces the prospective magic of authorship with the verifiable and replicatable realities of a prospective writer's odds of success. Such doses of reality may keep most of us reasonably sane.

Yet, I see a catch-22 paradox here. If we (writers) put aside our childish hopes, we may lose our ability to write. And while our new knowledge may increase the odds of publication, perhaps--without the magic--we will have much less to say and will then become famous and acclaimed for little or nothing.


Malcolm R. Campbell said...

Your essay replaces the prospective magic of authorship with the verifiable and replicatable realities of a prospective writer's odds of success. Such doses of reality may keep most of us reasonably sane.

Yet, I see a catch-22 paradox here. If we (writers) put aside our childish hopes, we may lose our ability to write. And while our new knowledge may increase the odds of publication, perhaps--without the magic--we will have much less to say and will then become famous and acclaimed for little or nothing.


Archer said...

I downloaded the PDF, and it is a good read. I suspect that you are right about everything. Nevertheless, I do expect my fifth or sixth novel (learning narrative technique being the slow job it is) to command an advance of $750,000.00 or so. I also expect the book to top the New York Times bestseller list for at least a year, during which time I will tour the United States at my publisher's expense, fighting off beautiful graduate students at every airport. This analysis does not even include the royalties, or whatever you call them, from the movie deal--and considering that the movie Titanic grossed over a billion dollars, I think I can quite reasonably expect to quit the practice of law and purchase the Mideast, which I intend to turn into a paradise of peace and plenty.

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