On the Survival of Rats in the Slush Pile

Michael Allen
Michael Allen
Notes for Readers
On the Survival of Rats in the Slush Pile is being distributed free, on
the internet, as a download in PDF format. It is available from
The essay is Copyright © Michael Allen 2005. However, since the
author spent so long writing the damn thing, he is anxious that as many
people as possible should read it. Accordingly, you are free to print out
a paper copy of the document if you wish; that is certainly the most
convenient way to read it. You may photocopy that printout if you wish.
You may also copy the file electronically, send it as an email to friends,
and otherwise make any sensible use of it for non-commercial purposes.
You should not mess with the author's prose, as he is sensitive about
that sort of thing; and you should make it clear that he wrote the essay,
not you. If you are smart enough to figure out how to make any money
out of this thing, please contact the author, as he would like to know
First published on 5 February 2005 by Kingsfield Publications 1
Kingsfield Close, Bradford on Avon Wiltshire, BA15 1AW, UK
Any comments, suggestions, et cetera, should be sent to:
[email protected]
Please use the word 'Rats' in the subject header.

Introduction 5

Aims 5
Publishing from a writer's perspective 6
Dr Nassim Nicholas Taleb 7
The structure of the essay 8
Part 1: The concept of black swans 10
A definition 10
An example: Harry Potter 11
Implications 11
How black swans come about 12
Two observers reaching the same conclusion 13
Part 2: The experiment with rats 16
The experiment described 16
Flaws in the methodology 17
Survivorship bias 18
Nietzsche's error 18
The swimmer's body 20
Casanova: a case history 21
Next step 21
Part 3: The experiment with rats when applied to publishing 22
Applicability and relevance 22

Defining the slush pile 22
The role of literary agents 23
What the slush-pile process is designed to do 24
How the slush pile is dealt with 25
The results of the search through the slush pile 26
Famous rejections 28
Writers hit back 30
Flaws in the slush-pile methodology 31
Survivorship bias 31
Nietzsche's error 34
The swimmer's body 36
Casanova: a case history 40
How reliable and valid are the slush-pile results? 41
A general conclusion 42
The axe man cometh 44
Part 4: Strategies for slush-pile selectors
(agents and publishers) 45
Introduction 45
General difficulties in thinking 45
Is publishing a sensible business? 45

Why are big conglomerates involved in publishing? 46
Factors for individuals to consider 47
Why does anyone work in publishing? 48
How do we find the best books? 49
How to manage the slush pile: reactive procedures 51
Financing the slush-pile operation 51
Providing clear guidelines for submissions 53
How to manage the slush pile: proactive procedures 55
Prices paid 57
Rejection letters 57
Making decisions 58
Part 5: Strategies for slush-pile
contributors (writers) 59
Should writers be in this business at all? 59
Stoicism and dignity in the face of randomness 61
How to proceed, if you really must 62
How to find an agent/publisher 63
A possible way forward 64
The pro-am option 65
The rewards of independence 68

References 70
About the Author 72


This essay has two principal aims: first, to help writers, literary agents,
and publishers to understand the full scale of the difficulties that face
them; and second, to suggest strategies which will enable such
participants in the book trade to survive and perhaps even prosper.
These aims may immediately be thought to be both presumptuous and
unnecessary. After all, you are saying to yourself, people who work in
publishing are all professionals; they know precisely what they're doing,
and they don't need any help from smart-arse commentators.
That is true, up to a point. But there is, unfortunately, a considerable
body of evidence to show that writers, in particular, have a grossly
overoptimistic view of their own chances of achieving success
(however defined); and every year brings a fresh crop of stories about
publishers who have either paid far too much for a book which turned
out to be a dud, or decided against publishing a book which some other
firm accepted and then proceeded to turn into a smash hit. I immodestly
suggest, therefore, that all riders on the publishing merry-go-round
might do worse than spend a few minutes considering the thoughts
which are presented here.
The essay should be particularly useful for writers, because they are the
ones most likely to labour for years, motivated only by dreams rather
than hard cash; and, when their dreams fail to materialise, they are the
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