Sunday, August 12, 2007

Slush and the Numbers Racket, Part II

Some folks don’t like the term ‘slush.’ I don’t find it all that unattractive, perhaps because I’m a fan of the Patrick O’Brian novels, where ‘slush’—the fat that floats off dried and salted meats as they are steeped and boiled to make them edible—is a valued commodity: used as the key ingredient in puddings, employed as a lubricant for gears, and desired by sailors as something to eat with crumbled biscuit.

As I understand it, Macmillan New Writing has received about 7,000 submissions so far, and has published or plans to publish in the neighborhood of 30 of these—about one-half of one percent. (The numbers are easy to quibble about: at least two of the MNW books were preselected from the “long list” of the Richard and Judy competition; and at least a few books scheduled are second novels from authors already published by MNW, so they represent new books but not new, over-the-transom manuscripts.) Depending on how you fiddle them, the numbers suggest about three to five out of every thousand manuscripts over the transom are accepted.

MNW is in a unique position. There are, of course, other imprints that still accept over-the-transom submissions, but MNW is the only imprint that relies exclusively on the slush pile of unpublished novelists for its initial supply of material. It can’t really be viewed as the slush pile in this case, since it is the only pile.

In my previous post, I described how MacAdam/Cage could toss half the novels they received over the transom simply because they were in the wrong category. Obviously MNW can’t do this, since they accept submissions in all genres. This means the pile stays higher longer—but, looked at the other way round, it means that there are also more possibilities in the pile. Few imprints can state their requirements as simply as, “We’re looking for good novels.”

The fact that MNW asks for full, finished novels also adds another hurdle. At least in the US, there are a distressing number of nutjobs who believe that their idea for the story is so irresistable that they need not complete their novel before shopping it around--hell, they don't even need to be able to write with any competency! So they send in a hastily prepared fifty pages--the first fifty pages they ever wrote--and a cover letter (usually announcing that their book is the next Da Vinci Code), assuming that the publishers will be so excited they will buy the unfinished manuscript and even hire a ghostwriter to do 'the technical stuff.' For these folks, needing a full manuscript to submit is more like a mountain range than a 'hurdle'.

Not only are the pickings richer for MNW, but the imprint also has a rare freedom in that it was never expected to be a money-spinner. I’m sure money is always welcome, but the fact that MNW started as a break-even proposition means that the imprint can afford to take risks with novels that don’t fit neatly into marketing categories, or books that hybridize or straddle genres.
With this richer field to draw upon, how many books does MNW find that are publishable? Mike Barnard, in Transparent Imprint, says

I have often been asked how many I think could have been published if we had a free rein…I can probably best answer it by admitting that there were at least a dozen novels I would have published if I had not already had enough material in hand for the period we were working through.

In other words, the number of additional titles he would have liked to have published (about twelve) was only slightly less than the number they did publish (fourteen). Had they published all twenty-six, the acceptance rate would still have been well below one percent. Barnard goes on to add

Like all editors, I am asked whether I think we might have missed any gems that could have become bestsellers. That is an easy question to answer: yes, of course…[W]e all have good days and bad days. We all suffer from colds, headaches, hangovers, distractions of one sort or another. It is probable that something really good has slipped through the net.

Even if we allow for those possible omissions, however, it seems unlikely that adding them to the totals would mean that more than one percent of the manuscripts received were 'desirable' by MNW criteria.

Macmillan’s experiment has demonstrated that there are good novels out there going unpublished. But the numbers also suggest there isn’t a tidal wave of good novels out there waiting to inundate the market. Even with Macmillan’s open system and ability to take risks, only a few of each thousand are considered publishable.

These may seem like dismal numbers, and I suppose they are. Facing the market today, the unpublished novelist is told to find a good ‘hook,’ to stay ahead of market trends, to be prepared to rewrite from an adult novel to YA as needed, to practice laying out a logline, to have an elevator pitch ready at all times, to pay for workshops on writing a killer query letter, to attend conferences and hunt agents somehow without appearing to be a stalker, that physical appearance matters, that you’re better off with a platform even for fiction…It's all politics, we're told, and there are a million things you need to do to give yourself that extra 'edge'.

There's no obvious extra 'edge' to be brought to the slush pile as managed by MNW, and some may find this frightening. Yet it's also liberating, as it puts the whole problem solidly back in your lap. It isn't how you cut your hair, or how well-rehearsed your pitch is, or how you look in a sundress, or whether you can schmooze with Binky Urban. It all comes down to that one hard thing, but the only thing over which you have real control: Write the best book you can.

I presume (or hope) that's why we wanted to write in the first place, so I guess that can be counted as good news.


Neil said...

Unrelated, David, but I thought you'd find this interesting:

David Isaak said...

Thanks, Neil--that was a kick.

MNW reject said...

Hi David, and thanks for making me feel welcome.

I geuss that I'm still a fan of the MNW imprint for all the reasons you said: they genuinely are trying to be reasonable and help struggling authors.

But how can we ever know how much mush is in the slush. Every writer -- aspiring or otherwise -- wants to believe that only bad books don't make it, becasue it's somehow an important belief system you need to have.

I mean if you win gold at the olympics you dont want to be told afterwards that there are good runners out there who just weren't selected to run somehow.

But when writers start getting rejections then you just don't know. It screws up the whole belief system.

But those percentages are certainly interesting and I'm sure they're are about right.

And of course every MNW reject imagines themselves in that small group of 12 good books that were rejected, and flattered as well that it was only 12 such elite books. But that's desperation for you!

And as for stalking agents: I'd certainly recommend that, though in truth I found it no more interesting than stalking normal people.

David Isaak said...

Hey, MNW-R. "Mush in the slush" is a lot of fun to say. So much fun that I may steal it.

I think there is a lot to be said for Sturgeon's Law--"Ninety Percent of Everything is Crap." If good old Theodore Sturgeon was right, then that would still leave MNW with (1 - 0.9) x 7,000 = 700 non-crap manuscripts to sort through at this point of a little more than a year in print. That's a big stack of paper.

I read an essay once by novelist Lawrence Block. He had a chat with an editor who admitted that sometimes he got so far behind that he simply slapped a form rejection letter on every manuscript piled on his desk and had it stuffed into its SASE and mailed back.

Even if a writer isn't in the 90% of everything that is crap, the path from the 10% to publication is filled with events over which you have no control. It sucks--but as you noted earlier, the "lottery" aspect of it all is soemwhat heartening...