11.05.12 | Peter Cox
That old scoundrel Sam Brannan would have felt completely at home in today’s publishing business. Sam, you may recall, was the original promoter of California’s 1848 Gold Rush. After first cornering the market in picks, shovels and pans (paying a mere 20 cents each wholesale), Sam proceeded to run though the streets of San Francisco shouting at the top of his lungs: “Gold! Gold on the American River!”
Accounts indicate that Sam’s brilliant sales promotion all but emptied San Francisco, as most of its male population departed en masse for the mines—equipped, of course, with a Brannan shovel at an eye-watering $15 a pop. It is hardly necessary to add that while most failed to find their own pots of gold, Sam certainly found his; becoming the Gold Rush’s first millionaire.
Fast-forward 160 years. The industry is different, but the conversations are the same. “There’s gold in them thar slushpiles,” says one publishing executive to another. “If we had £15 for every submission sent in . . . Why, pardner, we’d never need to sell books again!”
Suddenly, it seems as if every Tom, Dick and publishing Harriet is running writing courses, setting up seminars, organising conferences, selling critiquing services, creating writing groups, providing manuscript doctoring and generally trying to monetise the slushpile. Our industry appears to have declared open season on the naïve, sometimes gullible hopes of aspiring writers. It’s the Wild West out there, and someone has to say that much of what is happening now is simply not right.
While many of these offerings are merely guilty of being extremely poor value for money—why anyone would pay hundreds or thousands of pounds for advice that’s available in any how-to book is beyond me—others are less benign.
I set up Litopia well over a decade ago to fill what I felt was not an economic but a social need. Writing is an isolating occupation, and writers work at unsocial hours. They need a supportive community, and that’s what we provided. Until very recently, it was entirely free (we now have to charge a small subscription just to maintain ourselves). Today, we receive a steady flow of new members who have been hurt, misled or generally turned over by other sites or organisations.
“I think everyone out there who dreams of being a writer deserves better than some predatory shark feeding off of their dreams,” one new member said to me recently, after a typically bruising experience elsewhere. Isn’t that the reason we all used to hate vanity publishing; that it raised false hopes, only to cruelly exploit them? So why are some of the biggest names in our business backing ventures like these?
Another member tells of paying a not inconsiderable sum to attend a writers’ conference, only to find that “pitch sessions” with well-known literary agents cost an additional $65 per manuscript! Agents who charge to review submissions have traditionally been rightly viewed as shysters. Why is this kind of behaviour acceptable now?
The slushpile industry doesn’t support authors—it confuses them. “I don’t think I’d ever have got anything published if I’d had all this advice flying at me,” Mortal Engines author Philip Reeve told me on a recent Litopia After Dark, “it’s terrifying!”
Furthermore, the slushpile industry trashes our core business. “You too can be a bestselling author!” is the implied pitch (which is a barefaced lie). By suggesting that anyone can write a bestseller, we denigrate those few and precious talents who actually do. Writing is not egalitarian: most people will never be able to write like Stephen King, no matter how many over-priced seminars they are induced to attend. Bestselling authors are our products. Shouldn’t we be enhancing our products’ specialness, scarcity and hence value? The slushpile industry does precisely the opposite.
And by the way, old Sam Brennan died alone, forgotten, and broke.