Thursday, October 26, 2006

Writer Beware

I want to alert writers to a scam. It’s particularly insidious and so prevalent as to be almost universal. It’s called the slush pile and unpublished writers should avoid it at all costs. The common belief is that submitting manuscripts and query letters to agents and publishers will expose new work to those portions of the industry, but I’m probably not alone in telling you that most professionals regard unsolicited materials as something marginally above junk mail.

The received wisdom is that these portions of the industry are absolutely inundated by the sheer volume of unsolicited work, which means that they will actually thank you for not contributing to their burden. Logically, they don’t even want to have to sort through the quantity of material they already have on hand.

I can understand the temptation to contribute, however. For most writers, it is the only way to ensure that their work gets seen by someone in the industry. For a desperate writer, any doorway will work, no matter how slim the chances of entry actually are. Instead of appealing to emotional or intellectual arguments, though, I’m going to take an old school approach towards making my case against the slush pile. I’m going to run the numbers.

Industry best practices tell us that submissions should contain the following: 1 cover letter, 1 manuscript excerpt of ~30 pages, and 1 self-addressed stamped envelope (SASE). For best results, 30 of these submissions should be sent out every 90 days.

Now for the important question: what does all of that cost?

Current rates for photocopies run somewhere between four and ten cents per page. I’m going to split the difference and use six cents as a thumbnail. At this rate, making 30 copies of a 30 page manuscript will cost you $54. If you do that four times a year, then you can expect to outlay $216 for copies, on an annual basis.

Believe it or not, but that’s the cheap part of the equation. 30 pages of paper weigh slightly more than one pound. The United States Postal Service website helpfully tells that the media rate for anything under two pounds will run you $2.07. Sending 30 of these will cost you $62. Sending 120 of them will cost you $248 for the year.

Simple math points out that the process of preparing and mailing your 120 submissions will cost you $460 on an annual basis. That’s without adding in the cost of regular envelopes ($19 for a box of 500), document envelopes ($27 for a box of 250) or return postage ($46.80 for 20 stamps) – all costs provided by Staples. And that also does not take into account the time spent doing the research for which agents/publishers to send submissions to.

If you did the same thing for twenty years (assuming no change in postage rates), you could expect to lose $9,000. And I do mean lose. The money spent in the submissions process is not tax deductible. After all, you are not actually in business for yourself when you do this. That’s the whole point.

The rough ballpark figure for the number of publishers currently in business stands at about 80,000. At the rate of 120 submissions a year, you could expect to spend almost seven hundred years submitting your work. I’m going to guess and say that there are 20,000 agents currently in business. If you just limited your submissions to that group, you could submit 120 queries a year for the next 126 years before you go through the entire list.

But do these numbers make the slush pile a scam? Well, the really important questions about scams are “who benefits?” and “who loses?” After all, in traditional scam operations, someone profits from the gullibility of the desperate writer. And here, the writer definitely loses. In this case, however, the only real monetary gainer is the United States Postal Service. But there are other beneficiaries, as well.

For example, if most agencies and publishing houses allow a slush pile to form, then it stands to reason that these companies would hire someone to sort through that pile. That means that there are somewhere in the neighborhood of 100,000 people whose jobs depend on the slush pile. And, while the odds are not good that you will be rescued from the slush pile, the odds are very good that one slush pile sorter in that 100,000 will find something worthy of further examination at least once a year.

From a financial viewpoint, this is spectacular. It saves the agents from actually having to go out and bird-dog new clients – that actually takes hard work and research. It is much easier to allow prospective material to come knocking of its own accord. That means that an agent can merely sit down and sort through all submissions until they find something they’re looking for. It may take a while to do, but for 15% of an advance for a successfully placed author, the search ends up paying for itself in the long run. And all that has to happen is that prospective authors have to be convinced that submitting to the slush pile is better for their careers than self-publishing.

The truth is, however, that contributing to the slush pile is not good for the careers of most writers – for the simple fact that most people who contribute will not actually get careers out of the process. For the vast majority of these people, contributing to the slush pile is nothing more than a long-term money sink. There is not even the prospect of actual feedback as a tangible result for participation. Most authors will never know if they were rejected because their work was bad or because it simply wasn’t what that particular professional was looking for – or even if it was rejected because the reader got to it at 4:30 on the Friday before a holiday weekend.

Self-publishing, on the other hand, asks the very basic question: “If you can afford to spend $460 a year on your writing, why not make enough money to enable you to write off your expenses?” Submitting to the slush pile does not offer that compromise in any way, shape or form. For the vast majority of submitters, the slush pile offers nothing – no reward and no feedback; just the satisfaction of knowing that you are supporting the system.

Self-publishing – a process that has recently achieved an effective start-up cost of nothing – has become a viable economic alternative. It may not provide great rewards, but compared to absolutely nothing, a four dollar royalty check from PublishAmerica at least provides the basis for a tax break. One scam may not necessarily be better than another, but the cost/benefit analysis tends to favor the one that actually pays out if you are willing to apply serious hard work.

Of course, the slush pile will never really die for the same reason that people will always play the lottery. There will always be someone stupid enough to believe that a long shot is a better bet than actual effort.