09 December 2003

Reading Raw Sewage

As Yog (Jim MacDonald) has noted (this is pretty close to an exact quote), "POD publishing means that everyone can now read raw slush!" For every purported success story of POD publishing, there are thousands of failures—because getting a book printed through a POD printer is not publishing. It is at most a vanity press operation. That the publishing industry is seriously screwed up is not really open to argument. Sturgeon was an optimist: more than 90% of everything is crap—and that's just for the published stuff. In the slush pile of unsolicited (and even of solicited) manuscripts, it's probably well over 99%.

So ignore that Xerox commercial—still running after two years—in which the professor at the front of the class proclaims that "everyone has the right to be published," but that not everyone can—followed by a student disagreeing with him because Xerox's neato technology indeed makes it possible to be published quickly and easily. (I'll ignore the deceptive misuse of the term "published" in comparison to "commercially published" for the nonce.) Freedom of speech is one thing; freedom of intellectual pollution and meaningless treekilling is another. I have to read enough raw sewage as it is from other lawyers. I really, really don't need more from wannabe authors who not only are not ready for prime time, but haven't even bothered to get themselves ready for the late-late-late show by learning something about publishing before trying to get published.

It is a harsh reality that writing—whether fiction or otherwise—is hard work. It can be extremely rewarding work; but it is work nonetheless. Those who won't put in the work merely generate another form of solid waste, even if all too often it manages to get consideration for publication. While I represent authors in the publishing world, I believe that more transparency in the process and greater intellectual honesty from everyone involved is in the authors' best interest, both individually and as a group. Ironically, the greatest transparency is probably in speculative fiction, one of the least-respected commercial publishing categories. The cautionary tale of Myrtle the Manuscript is a funny, but all-too-accurate, description of the process for short fiction. It's quite similar for book-length works, whether fiction or nonfiction—it's just that the manuscripts are longer, and therefore cause more back problems among mailroom staff. Even in academic nonfiction…

And now for something completely different: a short bit of irrelevance from the depths of my nonfaulty memory (I've got notes!)… Not long enough ago, at a top-twentyish Law Review not so far away (two-and-a-half miles, in fact, but that's beside the point), I was an Articles Editor. The Articles Editor who was sticking around in town over the summer, unlike my two colleagues. Which meant I was in charge of the slush pile. Said Law Review publishes, on average, twelve articles per year; due to an anniversary commemoration, we were doing an extra issue, so we had sixteen slots for articles of ordinary length. Keep that number in mind.

We received 947 submissions for those 16 slots. They averaged 70 manuscript pages—plus notes. All three of us had classes. I had a family (two small children) and a graduate assistantship; my two colleagues had summer clerkships. In other words, we had very little time. Thus, triage of this forest of wounded and dying trees became necessary.

Fortunately, we had some mechanical guidelines that winnowed the pile down considerably. Keep in mind that these are professionals, who aspire to academia; that means there is no excuse for most of these problems. Of those 947 submissions, six were on the blacklist (from authors who would never be published by that journal due to past misconduct of some nature, usually involving mistreatment of the technical staff) (aside: any editor/publication/publisher who claims not to have a blacklist of some kind is lying; some are formal, some are not, but they all exist). Of the remaining 941, 86—an ironically appropriate number—blatantly violated the guidelines printed in the front of each issue of the Law Review. They might have been book reviews; they might have been case comments. (I may have been excrutiating in my recordkeeping, but there was/is a limit.)

Of the remaining 855, 317 were not in editable English. At the beginning of the process, the three of us had agreed that this was an objective criterion on which we could agree: that we would not rewrite articles. Our general rule was that if we could not understand what the argument of the article would be after reading the introductory section and conclusion, particularly if the prose was awful, the article went bye-bye. Considering that lawyers make our living in and around the written word, there's not much excuse for this, either.

Let's see, we're down to 538. We arbitrarily rejected everything that did not meet the substantiality standard for student notes—thirty manuscript pages, or about 5000 words. We figured that if law students had to write that much to fulfill minimum requirements (and most wrote far more), those trying to get into the more-prestigious "articles" part of the journal had to at least meet the same requirements. Thirty-two more out the window, leaving 506.

Although we didn't have anchovy-pizza slush parties, we did dispose of a lot of the other articles pretty darned quickly. Unlike some law reviews (particularly those from other top-twentyish schools and conversely those toward the "bottom"), we didn't note the institutional affiliation of authors during this review. That varies from editorial board to editorial board; since the three of us, unusually for a board, all had substantial life experience between undergraduate education and law school, we were perhaps less impressed/influenced by institutional affiliation than others might be. Articles were rejected for reasons ranging from balance ("we've already got two other articles on bankruptcy, and they're both better") to poor reasoning ("if we, as supposedly ignorant law students, can spot the basic logical flaws underlying this argument, we're not going to publish it!") to the whimsical ("this article is 300 pages long, has 900 footnotes, weighs six pounds, and ultimately concerns management of forest products"—a sense of irony is apparently not required to get onto a law school's faculty). In about seven instances, ideology came into play. I'd be lying if I said that ideology never influences anything! That is, ideology influenced the outright rejection of about seven almost-seriously considered articles that were otherwise flawed; so far as I remember, we rejected no "good" articles on an ideological basis, but of course that's a subjective assessment.

We eventually issued 27 acceptance letters and phone calls to yield 16 articles. (Unlike the world of commercial publishing, academics are extremely aggressive in their simultaneous submission of manuscripts.) So perhaps Myrtle had it easy. Only the details change in commercial publishing; the publisher at which I was formerly employed went through a similar process with unsolicited manuscripts, although a much higher proportion of manuscripts at that particular publisher were directly solicited.

Raw sewage—and, as noted, there's no excuse for much of it coming from purported professionals with the written word. Now imagine that process at a commercial publisher considering unsolicited manuscripts from authors without even as much skill in English (on average) as lawyers (on average). But don't do so alone, at night, in a bad neighborhood; very few horror movies could possibly be that frightening. I can almost hear the creepy music as the mail is delivered to the overworked editorial assistant… especially the POD-printed-and-bound manuscript arrogantly masquerading as ready for publication as is… it's picking up the chainsaw… No! Don't look under the desk!