Have Publishers Outsourced Their Slush Piles to Literary Agents?

It is now a given that you can’t submit work to a major publisher without going through a literary agent, for there are no more publishers’ slush piles. Publishers have also outsourced most aspects of production – editing, design, formatting, printing, distribution, proof reading, marketing and publicity – to “contractors.” What are publishers left with? Are they just the brand and deal maker, hanging on to the famous six-course lunch in the six-star hotel with their six-figure earning author, along with the frequent overseas trip to international book festivals to flog movie and foreign translation rights for their backlist? An odd business, publishing. No one knows where the money lurks in its labyrinthine world.

The publishing journey begins in the slush pile, where the golden egg may lie, the masterpiece that precipitates those lunches and foreign boondoggles. If a publisher insists that all new work must come through a literary agent, then that publisher has sacrificed his future income to the tastes of the agent, who usually looks for quantity over quality, given that their income is a percentage of what the lowly writer makes. This says to me that this publisher doesn’t really care for their content as long as it makes money. So, if money is the driver, other probabilities can also be extrapolated:

  1. The author must be of an age where a stream of future novels is a possibility and a requirement. They must live up to the brand the publisher will invest and build around them.
  2. Authors who do not produce sales will be dropped, pronto. Remember, quantity, not quality, is the driver. Dear Author, you will never get a second chance at making a first impression.
  3. The publisher is hostage to the agent, removed from their prime supplier who is the author.
  4. The publisher may try to claw back brand identity by insisting that only certain types of work be submitted via agents – e.g. YA fiction, Marginalized Voices, Chick-Lit etc., yet the nuances of quality will be lost to the publisher if deserving works within these genres are passed over by agents in favour of more popular, lower-denominator faire.

As a small publisher, I don’t outsource anything other than printing. I spend a lot of time with the slush pile, mining for that golden egg, even though my pile has started to grow in recent years. I try to respond to every submission, for, being a writer myself, I understand the hope and sweat behind each of those efforts. With the weaker ones, my response is brief, providing constructive feedback on where the work could be improved; but for the ones that are just missing the mark, I go into a detailed critique that some editors would charge fees for under the description of “manuscript evaluation.” Some in the latter group of writers have taken my feedback to heart and returned in subsequent years with a more robust submission that I have proceeded to publish; others have thanked me (or cursed me) and gone on to publish elsewhere. I know this level of “free” involvement is risky and non-remunerative in the short term, but it is also the reward for being in publishing, for with the right encouragement, good work can be salvaged and showcased.

I don’t know where the money in publishing lurks, even though I have been in this game for over a dozen years, but it must begin with finding a hidden masterpiece in the slush pile. Therefore, this is the area of publishing I’m least likely to outsource, even if I am so lucky as to become a bigger name one day replete with those six-course lunches and foreign trips, and even though the rest of the publishing community goes off in the opposite direction.

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