In Salon Magazine, Laura Miller brings up the conundrum of self- and e-self-publishing turning the Internet into one huge slushpile. (The slushpile, for those who don’t know, is the publishing term for the stack of unsolicited manuscripts on a publisher’s desk, 99.9% of which are guaranteed to be absolute rubbish.)
It’s a problem that has received plenty of play in e-book circles over the last few years, with increasing frequency now that e-book devices are actually starting to take off. When everyone is publishing everything they want to publish, how can anyone find anything they would actually want to read?
You’ve either experienced slush or you haven’t, and the difference is not trivial. People who have never had the job of reading through the heaps of unsolicited manuscripts sent to anyone even remotely connected with publishing typically have no inkling of two awful facts: 1) just how much slush is out there, and 2) how really, really, really, really terrible the vast majority of it is. Civilians who kvetch about the bad writing of Dan Brown, Stephenie Meyer or any other hugely popular but critically disdained novelist can talk as much trash as they want about the supposedly low standards of traditional publishing. They haven’t seen the vast majority of what didn’t get published — and believe me, if you have, it’s enough to make your blood run cold, thinking about that stuff being introduced into the general population.
There have been various responses to this concern; Miller mentions one of them in the article in the person of former Salon editor Scott Rosenberg, who brought up the idea of bloggers, pundits, and other authorities familiar with some subsection of e-publishing recommending good titles. (Mediabistro does this, with its Best Online Fiction Directory.)
And when I interviewed Dave Howell of Alexlit, he told me that one of the original design ideas of Alexlit’s automatic book recommender had been to help people pick out self-published stuff as easily as pro-published. (Of course, given Alexlit’s current state of affairs, this seems unlikely to happen any time soon.)
But I think the true answer isn’t quite any of these. I think the real solution to the slushpile problem hasn’t happened yet. But it will. As soon as there’s enough money involved, someone will come up with a way to solve the problem.
It might be a collaborative filtering recommendation system like Alexlit, it might be some other way to harness enough eyes to make bugs shallow. For instance, what about a collaborative filtering system that signed up volunteer slush-readers, polled them for their story preferences, and randomly assigned them a self-published e-book to read and rate in return for payment or some other reward? If you got enough participants, it could start to get pretty accurate.
Mark my words: the slushpile scenario will only be a problem until someone finds a way to make money by solving it. And the more people adopt e-books, the sooner enough money will be there to make it happen.