Last week in Snippets, we linked to a new opportunity for unpublished novelists to get their work read and possibly published. In the tradition of Gather.com and eHarlequin, Slush Pile Reader aims to let readers determine the next great work of fiction. So naturally, we wanted to go to the horse’s mouth and get more details on the project.
Johanna Denize, on of the founders of Slush Pile Reader, graciously allowed me to pick her brain on letting readers choose which novels should be published, and how bypassing NYC could benefit authors who might otherwise not have a shot at publication. The answers were informative and surprising.
We are pleased to bring you this Q&A with Johanna Denize.
Q. Tell us about Slush Pile Reader. How did you come up with the concept, and why?
JD: I’ll try not to make my answer too long. There are so many reasons but a very short answer would be that first and foremost we love to read, we love books.
A longer answer would be that every year millions of manuscripts make their round from author to agent, from agent to publisher from publisher back to the author. The majority of manuscripts never even get read, especially since most publishers no longer accept manuscripts if you don’t have an agent. Without an ‘in’ to the publishing world it is extremely difficult getting published. Some say, that if a manuscript is just good enough, it will be discovered. But at what cost? How long should an author have to struggle to have his work read and honestly appraised?
The fallibility of the traditional handling of the slush pile has been proven time and time again when books later considered excellent, and gone on to become best-sellers, have been rejected. For instance, J. K. Rowling’s first book about Harry Potter was refused by twelve different publishing houses. Astrid Lindgren, Stephen King, Vladimir Nabokov and Oscar Wilde are but a few among the many that were repeatedly rejected before finally managing to get published. John Kennedy Toole’s Confederacy of Dunces didn’t get published until after his death and then only due to his mothers unwavering efforts. John Le Carré was refused a number of times. The Diary of Anne Frank was considered not to portray enough feeling and Flaubert’s Madame Bovary was said to be full of superfluous details. The list of odd rejections goes on and on.
We are not saying that we will find every great book out there or even that there are an untold number of great manuscripts that have for some reason or other been rejected by overwhelmed editors, agents and publishers. We are saying however, that it is obvious that some really great manuscripts fall between the chairs today, and what we want to do is catch them. The fact is that the world of literature is an extremely subjective world. An author may only have one shot at having his manuscript read and if the particular editor or agent who reads it doesn’t like it that’s it. Game over.
Slush Pile Reader will change that. Slush Pile Reader gives authors a chance to be read not just by one person but by many. And it is a fact universally acknowledged that collective decisions are faster, fairer, more accurate and more objective. Many different areas of life rely on the wisdom of crowds so why shouldn’t the publishing world do the same? After all, it is the crowds whom all publishers rely on to purchase the books in the end. So why shouldn’t they get a say in which books are published in the first place? At Slush Pile Reader every manuscript gets a fair chance.
Q: Instead of the entire novel, readers will vote on the first 50 pages. Can you walk us through what happens next? Do the SP editors read the rest of the novel and determine its publishability? What happens if the first 50 pages are wonderful, and the next 350 are awful?
JD: We chose to limit the number of pages for several reasons. It takes time to read and we hope that the visitors to Slush Pile Reader will want to read and rate many books. If they get stuck on one that they love (or hate) they might miss out on others. Also, we realize that many authors are apprehensive about exposing their work completely. Even if we do walk our submitting authors through the copyright process and we show them that their work is indeed still theirs, there is still some concern. By only making a certain number of pages available we have noticed in our market research that authors say that they will feel more at ease because of it. Finally, we wouldn’t want to spoil the ending!
Yes, there is a possibility that the 50 first pages are magical and that the rest aren’t. However, that is a chance that we will have to take. Even if the final pages are not as good we will publish it. But then there might be more editing involved. We do make sure that all submitted manuscripts are indeed complete manuscripts before they are eligible for voting. However – I do not think that any serious author wants a book published that is not up to par. And judging from the manuscripts we have received so far there are many serious and talented writers out there. Just like we ask our submitting authors to have faith in us, we have faith in them!
Q: What format are the novels going to be printed? Mass market paperback, hardcover, POD, e-book? What kinds of marketing and distribution will the SP books have?
JD: It will not be mass market paperback, it will be hardcover and/or trade paperback.
Like so many segments of various industries, there are in the publishing industry professional companies and independent individuals that perform a wide variety of services and have done so for countless years – distribution is one such area. Even the larger old school publishing houses rely, to varying degrees, on different service providers for printing, distribution, proofreading, editing, marketing, public relations, etc. Like traditional publishing houses we will enlist the services of those who have experience, capacity and know how. Distributors distribute, printers print and Slush Pile Reader have readers select which manuscripts to publish – that is what we do. The rest we will, like many other publishers, leave to the experts. Since the first manuscripts we publish will be crucial not only in establishing the author, but also Slush Pile Reader as a publisher, our intention is to do more or less whatever it takes in terms of marketing.
Q: What are some of the efforts you plan on making for each released novel?
JD: As for the initial books we will be marketing Slush Pile Reader along with them and the first author will almost get two campaigns for the price of one. As to budget and specifics, I am sorry but I can’t go into that for so many reasons…. Top secret really! But I want to make it clear that if we do not do a good job with the marketing of our books they will not be bought and that is not in our interest nor in our writers interest. So I do believe you will be pleasantly surprised when the day comes!
Q: Can you explain what will happen after a book is selected for publication? Will there be an editing/revision process, etc.?
JD: Apart from the selection process, which greatly differs from how manuscripts are selected for publishing today, Slush Pile Reader will operate like any other conventional publishing house. When a manuscripts has been selected by the readers, we will start a traditional process of editing (depending on the specific manuscript), proofreading, layout etc. like any other publisher. Depending on the response we get from readers and the media we will set a number for the first printing. The books will be available for purchase in bookstores, on and off line – anywhere where any other books can be found. The book will be marketed just like any other book – the difference being perhaps that Slush Pile Reader will put a lot of effort into promotion from the get go – we will not wait and gage the reaction to see if the book is “worth” a greater effort as traditional publishers often do, since Slush Pile Reader will already know that the readers at http://www.slushpilereader.com/ want to see the book in the stores!
Q: Can you give us an idea of what kind of range you might be talking about? What’s the fewest number of books you might print? What’s the most for a first run?
JD: Depending on the response we get from readers and the media we will set a number for the first printing but we are aiming for a first print run of 5000-10000 copies of selected manuscripts. You ask about the most and the fewest number we really can’t say. I mean we certainly want to publish and sell as many as possible (doesn’t everybody?) but it all depends on the readers reactions. So we do not want to limit ourselves to a set number of books.
Q: What sort of advances/royalty rates can an author expect once their book is selected?
JD: For our publishing contract we will be adhering to the”Model Trade Book Contract and Guide”as issued by the Authors Guild and have their guidelines and recommendations as a basis in the contract signed with selected authors. The author will get an advance based on the number of copies printed and the royalty rate set out in the contract. Royalty will be calculated on the retail price and in line with recommendations from the Authors Guild. We are very keen on making sure that authors who sign with us are satisfied with their contract. After all, with out the author there is no book.
Q: How long will voting last before a novel is selected? How will SP prevent writers (and their friends) from “stuffing the ballot boxes?
JD: The time allocated for voting will depend on the number of manuscripts submitted and the number of readers. We need to reach a certain level before a manuscript can be said to have enough yea-votes. As we are new this will have to develop as time passes and we can not yet give an exact time-frame. In regards to both the time and the voting process we are working with experts formulating a way of weighing votes, the yes and no votes, as well as a manuscript’s time on the site. All in order to make the manuscripts chosen the ones that are in fact the most desired by our readers. Also, out programmers are implementing all kinds of filters and weights that will counteract illicit voting.
Furthermore all votes are logged and will be especially reviewed for winning submissions.
We will also look into how many books that will be published in a certain time-frame. Naturally we aim to publish as many titles, and print and sell as many books as we possibly can, but of course we will have to go by what people actually want. This will be much clearer as we launch the full site and can judge from the response of the readers and authors as well as the general interest in the project. If there is a demand for only one title a year that is what we will publish and if there is a demand for 200 titles a year then that is what we will publish.
Q: Writers are justifiably suspicious of startups and e-presses, as a number of them have gone belly-up in the last year. What would you like to tell authors to reassure them about Slush Pile Reader?
JD: This is hard for all start-ups, regardless of business, and is kind of a Catch 22 (Incidentally Heller’s manuscript was also rejected with the words “Apparently the author intends it to be funny possibly even satire but it is really not funny on any intellectual level.”). A start-up is by definition something completely new and there is no previous record by which it can be evaluated. All we can do is to be as open and honest as possible as to what we want to do and how we plan to do it and why. We have put everything we have got into Slush Pile Reader and it is our dream to make it work. We will work extremely hard to make it the best. Also, we have the writers who have already submitted their manuscripts to us to consider – they have put their trust in us and we do most certainly not want to let them down. We appreciate their confidence in us so very much.
We believe very strongly that this is the new way of discovering talented authors and that Slush Pile Reader can help these authors meet their readers. Hopefully more authors will put their faith in us and together we can accomplish something quite spectacular and perhaps little by little make an impact on the wonderful world of literature!
Apart from our dedication to the project there are certain distinct advantages to submitting a manuscript to Slush Pile Reader. Firstly, we will accept your manuscript for consideration as long as it is complete. We do not require you to go through an agent and we do not demand that you wait for a few months to, if at all, hear back from us. At http://www.slushpilereader.com/ you simply upload you manuscript and people can start reading, /critiquing/ and rating right away. Even if you do not get published through us you will have the opportunity of receiving objective feed-back from a large number of unbiased readers. A problem with having to rely on your friends and family, not just for authors but for most people, is that these people more often that not are well intended and tend to be nice rather than objective. At http://www.slushpilereader.com/ you will get to know what people really think for better or for worse – and have excellent feed-back to help you in the future.
Another distinct benefit, and this applies to us, the publisher, as well as the author, is that the manuscript selected for publication will have been read, in part, by quite a large panel of readers. This will help us project sales as well as define marketing measures based on readers actual reactions. Before the book is even printed and sent out for reviews we, and the author, will know who the readers are and what they think. That readers like the book and want to read it is already clear, otherwise it would not have been selected.
Q: Will you restrict the number of entries per genre?
JD: No, we do not plan to. As time goes by manuscripts will be moved around on the website according to rating, number of reads, and time on the site. We will also shuffle the manuscripts randomly so that all manuscripts get a chance to be more visible. If we get many submissions from genres not on our site (i.e. in the ‘other’ group) we will probably expand our list of genres to accommodate this. One reason why we have an initial pre-site is so that we can gage writers and readers reactions and opinions to Slush Pile Reader. If they have strong opinions and suggestions we will take them into consideration as we develop the full site. In fact we have had some very poignant tips from a few visitors and their ideas have led to some changes already. We hope that Slush Pile Reader will be a site where the visitors choose to be active contributors. We plan to have ample opportunity for discussion- concerning not only the submitted manuscripts but also concerning writing and reading in general, tips and advice and anything really that concerns books! We more than welcome everyone’s suggestions as to how we can make Slush pile Reader the best it can be for the readers and writers who frequent it!
Q: Anything I didn’t ask you that you want writers and readers to know?
JD: We are looking for authors!
The project is still in it’s initial stages and we are looking for authors who want to get published. We are also looking for authors and readers that want to check out the site and let us know what they think, in specific or general terms. There is still time to influence how Slush Pile Reader will operate.