Friday, August 10, 2007

Slush and the Numbers Racket, Part I

Editor Pat Walsh (see earlier post on his book) claims that at presses where both slush and agented submissions are read, the slush gets short shrift. (Try saying that last bit aloud several times.) In addition to his dictum that bad manuscripts diminish the chances of the good ones in the pile (“One fresh clam will not undo the ills of a platter of bad ones”), he also claims that even when a gem is found in the slush, it is treated with little respect.

Now, it might seem that finding a gem in the slush would be an opportunity for celebration. Chances are it can be acquired for a very modest advance, be contracted for without conceding many subsidiary rights, and, all-in-all, be published at very little risk. But for an editor to push a slush-pile gem means putting his or her reputation behind the book—behind a book that no one else has recommended. This just isn’t how deals are done. Strange as it may seem, it is safer careerwise to get involved in an expensive bidding war for a book that ends up losing money—after all, how can you be blamed when you bought a book sponsored by an uberagent and fought over by your competitors? You may have been wrong, but so was everyone else…

Walsh gives some other insights into how slush works. He claims that at MacAdam/Cage when they get together to go “slush-diving,” the pile of submissions can be reduced by half just checking to see if it fits one of the categories they publish; they don’t typically publish romance, science fiction, Christian, or New Age fiction. (Though one is tempted to note that their best-known book, The Time-Traveler’s Wife, would have to be described as both science-fiction and romance, and therefore doubly not on their category list.)

So, the list can be cut by 50 percent just through sorting by category. Walsh claims the pile then gets reduced to 10 percent of its original height by reading no more than a page or two for basic competence and interest. MacAdam/Cage receives about 3,000 over-the-transom manuscripts each year; already, with only a superficial look, the pile is reduced to three hundred. These three hundred (which are usually submissions of the first three chapters) are looked at more carefully, and reduced to “a handful.” It is out of these that full manuscripts are requested.

What is perhaps more interesting is that Walsh claims the company receives about a thousand manuscripts a year from agents. MacAdam/Cage typically publishes around 26-29 books annually (they are still growing), so this is a very interesting statistic. Even if MacAdam/Cage published nothing from the slush, this means less than three percent of the submissions they receive on a referred basis are selected. But, looking through their backlist, about twenty percent of their books are additional books from authors they’ve already published.

Subtract books submitted from their current list of authors (and perhaps a tiny contribution from the slush pile), and his figures suggest that, even with an agent submitting your book, MacAdam/Cage has only a two percent chance of taking your debut novel.

Under this arrangement you are far more likely to be accepted if you have an agent; but even with an agent, your chances (two percent is, what, one in fifty?) can’t be described as high.

And, of course, most agents reject 99 percent of the submissions they receive. All in all, looking at the numbers, I couldn’t advise anyone to take up the fiction habit in the expectation of publication.

Lucky for all of us who read, then, that writers aren’t a terribly rational bunch.


MNW reject said...

Actually, though all that should just be more depressing to wannabe writers, it in fact gives me hope as though all those rejections were merely lottery tickets with the wrong numbers on it.

David Isaak said...

Hi, MNW R, and nice handle!

There is indeed more luck and randomness involved than most people care to admit. And, if you check out my next post, I note that MNW find themselves turning down books they would like to publish.

There usually isn't much real information in a rejection from any publisher, but writers study rejections like a Roman soothsayer crouching over the entrails of a chicken.

Jake said...

Rationality is overrated anyway.