Last month (1/30/2010) there was a great article in The Wall Street Journal  entitled, “The Death of the Slush Pile” by Kathrine Rosman. It told of the depressing straits in publishing, how an unknown–unless extremely lucky–can’t  find a publishers. No publishing house is reading unsolicited manuscripts. Most film producers won’t read anything that comes from a new writers, unless they have an agent. Why? Well, film and television executives are afraid of being sued for plagiarism. There is the 1990 case where Art Buchwald sued Paramount, alleging that the studio took his idea and turned it into the movie, “Coming to America.”

Also publishers and movie executives say they can’t avoid to hire young college graduates to read through the mail. And since 9/11 and the aftermath, remember the anthrax scares? Well, everyone is afraid to open the mail.

It doesn’t get any easier (getting published) at place where unsolicited work is read. The Paris Review gets roughly 1,000 short stories submitted every month. Of those read by at least two people, the literary journals publishes one slush pile piece each year, or you have a .008 chance of having your story see the light of day.

Of course, we have the exceptions. Harry Potter was submitted to 12 publishers (by an agent) before it found a home. In 2003, Stephenie Meyer sent a letter to Writers House saying she had written a 130,000 manuscript about teenage vampires. A young assistant, who had the job of looking at a 100 such letters that arrived every month at the agency, didn’t realize that YA should be about 40,000 to 60,000 words, and had Meyer sent in the book. The rest, as they say, is history, (or pure dumb luck).

Simon & Schuster has an automated telephone greeting telling writers that they don’t accept submissions unless they come from a literary agent. They tell new writers to go to the library or bookstore and get a copy of the Writers Market and find an agent. But HarperCollins, in 2008, launched Authonomy.com a Website slush pile where writers can unload their manuscripts, readers vote for their favorites, and then HarperCollins editors take a look. About 10,000 manuscripts have been loaded on the site and so far HarperCollins has bought four of them.

As Hannah Minghella, president of production for Sony Pictures Animation, told Katherine Rosman in her WSJ piece, “It does create an incredibly difficult Catch-22 on both sides, particularly for new writers wanting to get their work seen.”

That reminds me, Joe Heller’s novel Catch-22 was turned down by more than 50 publishers back in the 1950s. When it was finally published it became a best seller and was made into a movie. That novel is still in print.

Publishing has never made much sense as a business, and just this week I read an encouraging piece in the New York Review of Books by Jason Epstein who launched the trade paperback format in the US back in ‘52 when he was an editor at Doubleday. In 1963 he founded The New York Review,and in ‘79 co-founder, with the late Edmund Wilson, they started Library of America. In 2007 he went onto co-founded On Demand Books. 

So Epstein has been around publishing longer than any of us and he knows what he is talking about. He begins his long essay on publishing in the New York Review of Books by writing: “The transition within the book publishing industry from physical inventory stored in a warehouse and trucked to retailers to digital files stored in cyberspace and delivered almost anywhere on earth as quickly and cheaply as e-mail is now underway and irreversible.”

He points out that today we are experiencing “a technological shift orders of magnitude greater than the momentous evolution from monkish scriptoria to movable type launched in Gutenberg’s German city of Mainz six centuries ago.”

The fear today by publishers to a digital future is because of the “understandable fear of their own obsolescence.” Then goes onto say, “[T]he huge, worldwide mark for digital content….is very large, very diverse, and very surprising: its cultural impact cannot be imagined.”

What this means is that we can forget the slush pile, forget the agent, forget the publishers and digitally produce books about our volunteer days. There is a wide world of readers here at home as well as back in our host countries where the students we had in class, the friends we made, all will have the chance to read the stories we are telling of the time when we were  in the Peace Corps.