There Are No Gatekeepers, There Are No Gates

by | May 12, 2011

As a writer, I’m fascinated with the way language adjusts to culture, and the way that words can be used to express opinions and ideas in so many, many ways.

A few years ago we had the wonderful locution text-walking and you knew instantly exactly what it meant. I had a picture in my mind of someone, thumbs on their smartphone keyboard, walking down a sidewalk oblivious to everything around them.

Expressions like this tells us much more than the simple mashup of two words might imply. Similar to “sleepwalking,” text-walking somehow implies the sleepy nature of our awareness toward the outside world when we’re absorbed by action on the very small screen.

Of course, if you walk the street like you’re sleepwalking while you’re text-walking, you could end up a dead man walking, too. As Michelle Norris said on NPR,

Text-walkers have become a symbol of the multi-tasking age, but they can be a danger to themselves and to others.

This Year’s Winner So Far

It’s not often you get to see one of these new terms being born, especially one within the independent publishing community.

Recently, in a post on Writer Beware, Victoria Strauss quoted editor Rich Adin on the subject of e-book prices. Here’s the quote:

[N]ongatekept authors whose ebooks sell well fail to distinguish between books sold and books read. This is an important distinction. . . I am willing to spend 99 cents for a nongatekept ebook because it is not much of an outlay — it’s like buying a lottery ticket; I am willing to gamble $1 on odds of 6 million to 1 but I am not willing to pay $5.99 for such an ebook because the risk of getting dreck is much too high.

This article stopped me in my tracks. Nongatekept authors? Nongatekept books? That’s a new one.

Adin is referring to the entire system of finding promising manuscripts to turn into books, vetting them, signing a contract for them, editing and producing them. The gatekeepers are the agents and editors and publisher’s marketing staff who decide which books to acquire and which to decline.

These gatekeepers have achieved almost mythic status for writers, and especially for unpublished writers. Writing, re-writing, submitting proposals and queries to agents and editors, accepting the inevitable rejections, and starting the process over are what many writers do.

If the gatekeepers find you acceptable, these writers believe, you will be admitted to the hallowed halls where the creators of culture roam, appreciated and acknowledged by their peers, book reviewers, magazines, newspapers and TV hosts.

The gatekeepers are necessary, according to this story, because if no one passed judgment on these books, if no one weeded out the unfit, the unfinished and the unformed, book buyers might buy a book that is below the lofty standard to which they have become accustomed.

What’s Wrong With this Picture?


The myth of the noble gatekeepers is exactly that, of course. There never were bastions of cultural authority in this country, empowered to pass judgment on their fellow authors. But if you face year after year of rejection, it can be seductive to think there are.

The problem is that this worldview completely dismisses the fact that publishing is a business, and publishers businesspeople. Books that find a home with profit-oriented publishers can be defined this way: books that might sell enough to make the publisher a profit.

That’s the reality of gatekeeping, no matter how romantic it may sound. Publishers who make no profit are no longer in business. The business of business is profit, pure and simple.

Editors are tasked with finding books that can be made into popular products. Certainly many publishers have imprints of more literary books that they know will not create as much profit. But they do lend legitimacy to the rest of the publisher’s offerings.

Indie Publishing

The great threat of self-publishing, the revolutionary nature of authors going indie, throwing off the contracts and rights licenses of their publishers to pursue books and readers directly, without the intermediaries of publishers, agents and acquisitions editors, are all contained in this one term: nongatekept books.

Well, life here among the nongatekept is actually pretty exciting. True, we don’t usually have 5,000 bookstores waiting for our books to come out. On the other hand, there are no trucks pulling up full of returns, either. And royalties of 10% (of net) don’t compare too favorably with the 70% or more our indie authors are earning.

Rather than the tidal wave of crap that’s often been predicted, or the high risk of mistakenly getting “dreck” by mistake in your Amazon order, more and more self-published books are being acquired by these same publishers. They’ve slipped behind the gates. Want to know why? It wasn’t because all of a sudden an editor somewhere decided this book was actually really well written and a great addition to our culture.

It’s becuase the book sold. The author who was unwanted and unwelcome is now greeted with a smile and a contract. Gatekeeping at its finest.

I think this phrase stands in direct opposition to Dave Mathison’s great exhortation, to Be the Media!

Which would you rather be? Do you think of yourself as nongatekept? Isn’t that a good thing?

I don’t know about you, but I’m not waiting for anyone to tell me whether I can publish a book or not. There are no gates, there are no gatekeepers. You are an author, and you can be a publisher, too.

Dan Poynter says, “Don’t die with a book inside you!” I agree. Photo by Charity Duncan.

tbd advanced publishing starter kit

22 Comments

  1. Jennifer Mattern

    I disagree a little bit on this one. There are still gatekeepers of sorts in indie publishing. Or at least there should be. If someone slaps some text on the page and tries to sell it, there are no gatekeepers involved. And I’m not going to touch it with a 20 foot pole as a reader. But the moment you act like a professional and bring in people like outside editors (and specifically ones experienced in your niche), you have gatekeepers. You shouldn’t be publishing a book if those people tell you it’s crap or just not ready.

    So it’s not that there aren’t any gatekeepers anymore. It’s just easier to kick the gate in when you disagree with them (rightly so or not — and it’s the “not” that leads to problems for the reputation of indie authors as a larger group).

    Reply
  2. Mary Tod

    Your reference to readers as ‘gatekeepers’ is very important. Equally important are the readers’ roles as influencers/recommenders and as collaborators and sources of feedback for authors.

    I wonder about Amazon’s top 100 lists – having read a few books based on list position, I suspect some manipulation is happening. Naive, I suppose, to have expected otherwise!

    Reply
    • James Byrd

      Mary:

      ALL bestseller lists are manipulated, including the New York Times bestseller lists. In some cases, the manipulation is built into the list; they only list certain types of sales. In other cases, authors or publishers can virtually buy their way onto the list, simply by purchasing copies of their own book.

      Amazon bestseller lists are routinely manipulated by authors who carefully time blog posts and create “Amazon Bestseller Campaigns” to drive a lot of sales through Amazon in a short period of time. This tactic artificially drives the book up the list, which gives it tremendous leverage in the Amazon search results and cross-sells, all of which adds up getting put in front of readers.

      But this manipulation has fairly short term benefits. If the book is really good, it will retain its position after the marketing blitz ends and genuine market forces come into play. But most of these campaigns end in a book that slides back down the list into obscurity. “Real” readers weren’t interested after all.

      Reply
      • Mary Tod

        Thanks James … freakonomics at play as always.

        Reply
  3. James Byrd

    Not to be contrary, but there is no such thing as a “nongatekept” book. Indie publications just have different gatekeepers: the readers.

    Gatekeeping has been crowdsourced.

    Although thousands of titles are published every month, buyers never hear about the vast majority of them, no matter how vigorously the author promotes the work. With the volume of books coming out, the “new releases” list is virtually useless. Take one look at the home page of Smashwords and tell me how many of those books even remotely interest you.

    Money isn’t the only issue. Sure, I don’t mind taking a chance on a novel at $0.99, but I don’t have *time* to find the gems in the ore cart. Readers look to other readers to tell them what to buy, so they don’t waste their money and they don’t waste their time.

    That’s where the “top 100” and “most popular” lists come in, as well as the star ratings and reviews. That’s why getting into the top 100 on Amazon is almost a self-fulfilling prophecy. Once you get attention, you continue to get more attention.

    I regularly see writers and publishers whine about the volume of drek in self-published works. The fact is that the drek is irrelevant. You never see it. Only the good stuff gains traction and gets attention. The authors of poor quality work suffer the worst of fates: they are ignored.

    In the end, writing a good book is just as important as it has always been. It is a necessary, although not sufficient, requirement for achieving success as an author.

    Reply
    • Joel Friedlander

      Thanks for your excellent insight James on readers as the new gatekeepers. Right on.

      Reply
  4. Natalie Wright

    Great article; thank you. Here’s an example of the big house profit above all mentality. At a writing conference last fall an editor on the panel explained her house’s weekly brainstorming meetings where they take ideas from popular media for adults and brainstorm ways to translate it into YA books. Like take a popular adult TV series about backbiting women in the suburbs and turn it into a popular teen series (aka “Pretty Little Liars”). She then extolled the virtues of this to the writers in the room as a way to break into the industry. You get no royalties; we (the house) hold everything; you just get a fee to write it.

    This was offensive on so many levels (such as the outright theft of someone else’s intellectual property; the message that they aren’t looking for new ideas, just trained monkeys to type out a manuscript; a way for the house to pay even less to the author). But it hit home the clear message: We’re not interested in your brilliant, creative, new ideas or stories — We want a sure thing that we know will make us lots of money (even if we have to steal it from someone else). Still boils my biscuits just thinking about it!
    I was just getting ready to go through the process of vetting with my first novel when I began following you and other indie authors. I quickly decided the heck with it. I’m going to publish it myself and not wait 2-3 years to see it out – IF I could get it through the gate!
    Thanks for your inspiration and advice; always great info.

    Reply
    • Joel Friedlander

      Natalie, thanks for that story. It’s remarkable to look back over the history of modern publishing and notice that the one group that is continuously, routinely treated the worst of all is the writers and content creators that make everything else possible. Now, it’s starting to be a different game, and I believe your decision to go indie will pay off for you in the long run. Best of luck with your project.

      Reply
  5. Piotr Kowalczyk

    This article is so inspiring, Joel!

    We don’t need gates and gatekeepers to move things forward, but some of us may lose a way. That’s why we need mentors and leaders, like you are, who’ll show us the way.

    Reply
  6. Bob Mayer

    I’ve been both. Traditionally published for 20 years with over 40 books and hitting all the bestseller lists and now indie published with 10 books in top 100 categories and one title crashing top 100.

    The Gatekeepers just this year published Snooki, Lady Gaga’s boyfriend, etc. 90% of first novels failed in traditional publishing fail because they throw them against the wall, hoping against reality, one sticks. They do nothing to really make it stick except print it and distribute it.

    Except they no longer hold the key to distribution, thus are no longer gatekeepers because the gate might be there, but there is no wall on either side.

    So there is a gate still, if you want to be traditionally published, the problem is the traditional publishers don’t quite realize they have a gate standing by itself.

    Reply
  7. Luc Prévost

    Oui, la Révolution.
    Boum Shakalaaa!

    Reply
  8. Courtney Cantrell

    Thanks for this, Joel — for the encouragement to us self-pubbed/indie-pubbed writers, for the clear summary of the hows of publishing, and for an introduction to new terminology! I love the introduction of new words. For me, the most recent one was “sleeptweeting.” ; )

    My writers tribe and I thought for years that we would go the route of querying agents, waiting and hoping, weeping and gnashing teeth, and then finally getting published. Instead, we’ve formed our own indie publishing company and are publishing our own/each other’s novels.

    My first novel just came out last month. It’s a thrill to know my book is already in the hands of readers (who are actually reading), instead of in a slush pile or in a to-be-edited-next-year stack.

    Vive la revolution! ; )

    Reply
  9. Mel Nicolai

    It seems to me that Rich Adin makes a very straightforward and practical point: $.99 for x the unknown is 1/6th as painful as $5.99, when x turns out to be dreck.

    It’s probably true that your chances of getting dreck are higher with the nongatekept than with the gatekept, but the sad fact is, your chances of getting gatekept dreck are high enough to make most of the gatekeepers look like nitwits.

    As you say, “Adin is referring to the entire system of finding promising manuscripts to turn into books, vetting them, signing a contract for them, editing and producing them. The gatekeepers are the agents and editors and publisher’s marketing staff who decide which books to acquire and which to decline.”

    I haven’t read Adin’s article, but from the quote there is no reason to assume he subscribes to the “myth” you mention. It may be true that some writers think the gatekeepers stand watch over the “hallowed halls” of culture. But I doubt if most writers are that naive. Nor is there anything in Adin’s quote to suggest that he has dismissed publishing as a business. (I suspect most writers are not attempting to enter the hallowed halls of anything. They’re trying to be successful, to sell books.)

    I agree that the “myth of the noble gatekeepers” is exactly that, a myth. But to conclude from this that there are no gates or gatekeepers is to prescribe another myth. The fact is, there are gates and gatekeepers. The gatekeepers are precisely those people and industries to which you say Adin refers. They are not protecting culture, they’re trying to protect their own income. And as commenters Michael Marcus and Mary Tod point out, many of them have a dismal track record. The industry is, to a high degree, inept. The problem is, and this is a problem that indie and self-publishing will obviously not solve, is that, inept or not, the publishing industry is able to sustain itself by producing massive quantities of dreck. Dreck, from a strictly business point of view, may not work the self-publishing author, but it seems to work for the publishing industry.

    Reply
  10. Mary Tod

    An astonishing statistic (and I can’t find the actual number at the moment) is the percentage of books published by “gatekept” authors that lose money for the publishers who select, edit, market and publish them – and of course the authors themselves make nothing beyond their advance. Publishers seek the holy grail of a runaway best-seller but, if the statistics are accurate, they do not seem to have the tools to predictably find new best-sellers. This would be like Pepsi or Apple or Citibank creating a new product and flinging it into the market without any consumer validation testing.
    By the way, authors taking the self-publishing path also need to test market their product, find potential readers, engage with them, write for them and so on. If they want to make money that is!

    Reply
    • Michael N. Marcus

      >>This would be like Pepsi or Apple or Citibank creating a new product and flinging it into the market without any consumer validation testing.<<

      Major consumer brands with big research budgets make expensive mistakes, too, like the Ford Edsel, Crystal Pepsi, New Coke, Apple Lisa and Newton, Microsoft Bob and Kin, IBM PC Jr.

      Citibank needed billions of taxpayers' dollars to keep going, but probably not because they offered checks in unpopular colors.

      Everyone makes mistakes. Self-publishing authors probably make less-expensive mistakes than big companies.

      Reply
    • Joel Friedlander

      Great point, Mary. In marketing circles I’ve heard this called “hope marketing.” You create the product (or book) and send it out, hoping that enough people will buy it to cover expenses and perhaps make a profit. It’s a widely-used but poor model for business to follow.

      The blockbuster mentality of many media companies, including book publishers, is the natural progression of this kind of marketing. Publish enough books and something is bound to score big. Which one? Who knows? And you often get the feeling that it doesn’t matter, as long as something generates profit.

      One of the great things about independent publishing is the ability of the author/publisher to maintain a close connection with her own readers. In itself, this fact alone will help lessen her reliance on “hope” when it comes time to publish and market her book.

      Reply
  11. Jean Ann Geist

    I love the ring of being a nongatekept author! It sounds so…independent! As a self published author, I have the freedom to market “outside the box”! I sold over 100 books at my recent book launch at Bowling Green’s Annual Art Walk, have another 90 placed in indie bookstores as well as nontraditional markets, such as gift and specialty shops, along with Amazon via the Amazon Advantage program. I just placed three with the Wood County Historical Museum gift shop and am hoping to get f’ive or so in our county hospital gift shop. In addition, I am giving presentations on self publishing to libraries throughout the area. Would any of this have been possible if I were “gatekept”?

    Reply
    • Joel Friedlander

      Jean, I’m thrilled at what you are accomplishing with every initiative to spread the message of your book. Congratulations!

      Reply
  12. Lena

    I’m thrilled that the opportunity to publish whatever you like is available to do so. I thought it was unbalanced that some terrible work often gets published traditionally because one person thought it was great. While other’s can’t get an agent’s time or one yes. Now the gates are open and you don’t need an agent to be successful. It’s subjective thinking on the agents part and that’s how it’s always been. It will still continue to be that way, I’m just happy there are other avenues now.

    Reply
  13. Maria (WriterGig)

    I agree with you — as I write my book and begin the self-publishing process, I am grateful to live in an age where there need not be any gatekeepers.

    Reply
  14. mnm@ablecomm.com

    The highly experienced and well-paid gatekeepers make lots of mistakes.

    Most books that pass through the gates don’t sell well and don’t make much money, or lose money.

    Many agents and publishers reject books which are later accepted by other agents and publishers — and do sell well and make money.

    Many books that are accepted and sell well are garbage — like Sarah Palin’s books, and autobiographies of 15-year-old starlets.

    Authors and readers must remember that acceptence or rejection by the gatekeepers is based on perceived profitability — not literary merit.

    Also, the sales level that would bankrupt a large traditional publisher can be quite nice for a self-publishing author.

    Michael N. Marcus
    https://www.BookMakingBlog.blogspot.com
    https://www.Self-Pub.info
    — Create Better Books, with the Silver Sands Publishing Series: https://www.silversandsbooks.com/booksaboutpublishing.html
    — “Stories I’d Tell My Children (but maybe not until they’re adults),” https://www.amazon.com/dp/0981661750

    Reply

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