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Peter Cox

The Slushpile Business

Ripping-Off Writers Is The New Gold Rush

Sam Brannan. Made a mint from the Gold Rush.

Sam Brannan. Made a mint from the Gold Rush.

This man didn’t.

This man didn’t.

I can’t count the number of writers I’ve met who tell me, often with the rueful smile that only hard-won experience can convey, how they were seduced into parting with serious money and a major investment of their own time… to no effect whatsoever.

It seems to me that our business – by which I mean Greater Publishing and every manner of beast that parasitizes upon it – has entered the Gold Rush phase.

Indeed, I suspect 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.  That’s one heck of a mark-up.  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 motivations are similar.

Today, it seems as if every Tom, Dick and publishing Harriet are running writing courses, setting up seminars, organising conferences, selling critiquing services, providing manuscript doctoring and generally trying to monetize them thar slushpiles.  Our wider industry appears to have declared open season on the naive, often 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 even thousands of pounds for advice that’s available in any how-to book is beyond me – others are less benign.

Conversations in Litopia reflect this reality all the time.  “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 wrote, after a typically bruising experience elsewhere.  Another member told 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 viewed as shysters.  Why is this kind of behaviour acceptable now?

Folks, we as an industry used to despise vanity publishing.  Because it’s morally wrong!  It raises false hopes, flatters the talentless, 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 said on Litopia After Dark, “it’s terrifying!”) and then rips them off.

The slushpile industry is alive and well and very profitable.  But like any parasite, it will eventually kill its host. “You too can be a bestselling author!” is the implied pitch to many courses or conferences (which is, of course, a bald-faced 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 the publishing industry’s products.  Shouldn’t we be enhancing our products’ specialness, scarcity and hence value?  The slushpile industry does precisely the opposite.

Anyhow, do your MFA if you really must.  Get that 2-year degree in Creative Writing if you feel it will boost your confidence a bit.  Do the seminars, buy the courses, go on those writing retreats… and then, when you’re spent out, and as disillusioned as many of the writers I’ve spoken to, you can come and join Litopia (it’s free!) and really get down to work.

Oh, and by the way.  Do you know what happened to Sam Brennan?

He died alone, forgotten – and broke.