What the Dreck?

Slush Pile

The Dreaded Slush Pile

Two popular terms among authors and readers make me cringe every time I see them—which is much too frequently. There are some very strong opinions about this subject, too.

  • dreck
  • slush pile

These terms generally refer to the ‘worst’ of the books, but this definition by itself creates some problems.

  • There is more than one way to define the word ‘worst.’ Do you mean editing, subject matter, sales rank, very short books, web content disguised as books, or something else entirely?
  • Thus, some authors take this the wrong way. “Are you talking about my book?”

Any one of these things, by itself, doesn’t necessarily make a book bad:

  • Maybe an author has a fantastic story, but on a low budget, chose not to invest in an editor without knowing if the book would sell. Given a choice, I’d rather have a great story that needs editing over a lousy story with superb editing. (But there are many excellent stores with good editing to choose from, so this isn’t a decision that we really have to make.) My point is that editing alone doesn’t imply that a book is bad.
  • Similarly, if the book simply has poor formatting, it could still have great content. I wouldn’t call a book poor just because it could use some tender-loving formatting care.
  • A miserable sales rank—or no rank at all—doesn’t make a book lousy. Maybe the cover and blurb aren’t attracting attention, but the story is amazing. Perhaps the author didn’t attempt any marketing. Or maybe there is a very tiny audience for the book. These things don’t determine that a book is poor. (Just that the author isn’t getting rich from that particular book. At least not presently—for all you know, it could have sold like hot cakes when it first came out, but just hasn’t sold in recent months.)
  • How about a very short book—just a few pages? If the information is valuable, people will want it. If it’s very well written, what’s the problem? The beauty is that customers can decide if that appeals to them. More people writing short books doesn’t mean that other books won’t sell. It doesn’t mean that shorter books are selling. Kindle Unlimited makes it easier for customers to reach 10% of shorter books, but Kindle Unlimited doesn’t encourage customers to download shorter books. Why borrow ten very short books? Customers spending $120 per year may be more inclined to get the best possible value for their money. But let’s just say that shorter books do start selling more. This means that those books are appealing to customers. If those short books truly are dreck, customers will stop buying them. So if they sell frequently, they must not be dreck just because they’re short.
  • Perhaps you’d like to judge the content as dreck—e.g. certain kinds of romance novels, sales pamphlets, get rich schemes. Return to my last point. If it’s selling and continues to sell, apparently it’s satisfying readers. How can you call something dreck if readers appreciate it? Because if there is something that you’re sure is better, then wouldn’t readers also agree that it’s better and stop buying the ‘dreck’? But again, even if it’s not selling, that doesn’t necessarily mean that the book is bad.
  • There are, indeed, books that we may agree are lousy. Maybe we can judge by the intention of the author. If the author made a poor effort, and was just hoping to turn a quick buck, perhaps that could properly be classified as lousy. If the author tries to deceive readers, does that make the book lousy? If the author recruits dozens of reviews to make a book seem far better than it actually is, when the author knows that nobody would have bought the book otherwise, can’t we call that book lousy?

The worst of the worst, however you want to define them, are important for two good reasons:

  • When a reader experiences a book that turns out far worse than the reader was expecting, it leaves a significant impact on the customer’s reading experience (and it tends to change the customer’s book buying habits).
  • When one of the worst books sells, it frustrates authors who have worked very hard to master their craft and publish a quality book.

Not all mention of the ‘slush pile’ stems from good intentions, though:

  • Some authors feel a sense of superiority and mention the slush pile with a sense of arrogance and disdain. This isn’t expressed as the frustration of an author who worked hard, but comes out as an “I’m better than you” feeling.
  • Some authors feel a sense of inferiority and mention the slush pile to feel better about themselves.
  • It may be in the financial interest of traditional publishers to advertise the slush pile as often as possible, hoping to create a perception that self-published books aren’t worth reading so that more customers will, hopefully, buy traditionally published books.
  • Editors and book formatters may advertise the slush pile, hoping to encourage authors to hire their services. (Editing and formatting are important. I’m not saying you shouldn’t pay for such services, just that this might be one of the motivations for advertising it.)
  • Some readers want to feel superior in terms of what they are reading. For example, they might feel superior reading literary works, and thus denounce everything else as dreck.

Personally, I feel that not enough people read. A greater selection improves the chances that everyone can find a book that he or she would like to read.

Here are some truths about the ‘dreck,’ including reasons that I cringe every time I hear it mentioned. (Am I a hypocrite for mentioning it here? My hope is to help improve the perception, and that some good may come from the following points).

  • Every indie author who mentions the slush pile or dreck is marketing a poor image for indie books, which in turn hurts his or her own sales indirectly. Oops!

  • The worst books aren’t in the way of better books. Lousy books that don’t sell quickly fall in the rankings and fall down into the depths of obscurity. Why worry about lousy books that are hard to find?

  • When a self-published author says derogatory things about other authors’ books, how does that affect his or her image? Brand a positive image for yourself. It might even help your sales.

I’m not saying that we should ignore books that have problems.

Here are some positive ways to address this issue:

  • Don’t advertise lousy books.

  • Don’t use the words ‘dreck’ or ‘slush pile.’

  • Do find a few excellent examples of self-published books and advertise those instead of the bad ones.

  • Don’t put other authors down.

  • Do find indie authors who are producing quality books and bring those authors up.

  • If you know a friend or acquaintance who is a newbie author, offer some helpful tips that will result in a better first book.

  • Occasionally share tips in your social media posts that would help fellow authors produce better books

  • Help motivate self-published authors to perfect their books.

  • Do your best when you self-publish. Do some research. Seek feedback. Don’t view your first book as an experiment. You only get one chance to make a good first impression.

Chris McMullen

Copyright © 2014 Chris McMullen, Author of A Detailed Guide to Self-Publishing with Amazon and Other Online Booksellers

  • Volume 1 on formatting and publishing
  • Volume 2 on marketability and marketing

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13 comments on “What the Dreck?

    • If your poetry is any indication, you not only have a way with words, but ideas, too. Plus, I bet you already have a fan base ready to go through your blog. 🙂

      (If you put the same Design into your book, too, as you do into your poems, from the image to the layout, you should be able to handle the non-writing aspects of publishing, too.)

      • I am so humbled right now. Your opinion means a great deal to me. It is something I have been considering as my illness has kept me from going back to work and my contract expires before long. I need to think about doing things I can manage from home, just so I hang onto that sense of purpose. Thank you for encouraging me.

  1. Honestly, I’ve never heard the word ‘dreck’ and the last time I heard ‘slush pile’ was when discussing the old days of submitting to publishers. Never really see them on the Internet, so I didn’t realize they had this ‘power’.

    I have to admit that I’ve been a frustrated author back when I started. It still happens from time to time for brief moments. Usually when stressed or frustrated in general. Maybe it’s simply part of the ‘artist ego’. You have such faith in your own work that there’s always a glimmer of jealousy toward those who hit the next level before you. At the very least, there’s a sense that you did something wrong even if you didn’t.

    • It’s easy for writers to get frustrated, especially those who work very hard and feel like others may be achieving quick-n-easy results, or when they’ve spent years mastering the craft and see more basic writing tend to sell. It’s probably true of art, in general. I think the ego can get involved when the artist strives to make something better, which is a necessary motivation, then becomes convinced that it IS better, and wants the critics (and sales) to agree. That criticism can be yet another frustrating factor (and so can the sales figures). The challenge is learning how to vent this frustration in positive ways, or turn it into something positive; but writers are creative, and so just need to channel some of that creativity toward this.

      • True. One thing you mention is the quick-n-easy route. I think this turns up more often now. At the very least, we’re more aware of it being done. A trend hits and you’ll see a gaggle of indie authors leap onto the bandwagon. Maybe it isn’t as much as it used to be, but I remember years ago I kept getting told by fellow authors to stop fantasy writing and get into vampire romance. After that, people were telling me to write something like the Hunger Games. This probably stems from an idea that you can get your foot in the door on a tend and THEN write what you really want. Personally, I find it risky because you can corner yourself in the genre that you don’t really like and your fans won’t let you out.

        Going back to the post topic, are slush piles still common? It seems with the rise of indie authors, the slush pile might not be as big a thing.

      • Trends change fast, so if you stop what you’re doing, think of an idea, and carry it out, by the time your book is out, it’s competing with several other new releases, and a new trend may have evolved. If you write what you enjoy and that happens to catch on, then you’re really riding the wave.

        I think the slush pile is being used more now to refer to the bottom (in various regards) self-published books (or some go to extreme and think of nearly all indie books in this derogatory fashion). To the dismay of publishers, what they once referred to as the slush pile, which used to be part of their rejection stacks, is now generating numerous sales, collectively, as their competition.

      • I think it’s the same mentality as trying to beat the traffic in the morning. People always think they’re one of the few who thought about leaving an hour early, but you soon find that there are more cars on the road than you expected.

        So we’re talking about the term ‘slush pile’ and not the actual, traditional concept of a collection of books that were submitted and not accepted. I wonder how dismayed the publishers really are though. I think there is a growing mentality that they are seeing the indie author culture as a place to find new talent with a built-in fan base. They get to see how an author handles reviews, interacts with other authors, the work they put into marketing, and other aspects that they wouldn’t get from a simple query letter/submission.

      • Absolutely, the wise editors, publishers, and agents are looking for how to use indie authorship to their advantage. That’s exactly how they should be thinking.

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