Nothing’s changed in 20 years


Has anything changed in publishing in 20 years, other than hairstyles?

In a moment of boredom at work, I did a bit of web surfing and found this interesting article. It’s an academic piece, but it talks about the low number of manuscripts published each year.

Stephen E. Tabachnick wrote in ‘The Problem of Neglected Litature’ (a 1981 article in College English): ‘A brilliant and notorious experiment, whose implications for literary teachers and scholars have not been realized, was recently conducted by Chuck Ross. He simply typed up Jerzy Kosinski’s novel Steps, which had been published in 1968, had won the National Book Award in 1969, had sole 400,000 copies and was still in print, and sent the typed copy under a false name to fifteen publishers and fifteen agents, as if it were a new submission by an unknown author. Without exception, all — including the novel’s actual publisher — rejected the work, usually on the basis that it was inferior. Ross concludes his case against the selection process of the commercial publishing houses with some interesting statistics. According to him, Viking published only one unsolicited manuscript out of approximately 135,000 that had been submitted to them in twenty-seven years, and Random House’s score was one published unsolicited manuscript in twelve years, out of 60,000 to 70,000 submissions. As Ross comments, he can scarcely believe that more of those manuscripts were not worth publishing.’

This article was written nearly twenty years ago, but the problem seems to be the same: too many unsolicited manuscripts, too many ideas of what is ‘good’, and not enough publishing companies willing to take risks. From a writer’s point of view, I find this distressing and disheartening. As a future publisher, I find this scary – how many amazing books are we passing up on?

But as a slush pile reader, I can easily believe that only one in 135,000 manuscripts is publishable. I’ve just now posted a beauty of an excerpt from the slush pile; one that makes me think, ‘No wonder publishers miss the great works of literature, when we spend all day reading rubbish like this…’

Download the whole article on Jstor.


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