Gatekeepers: Do We Need Them?

I recently came across an online discussion between a couple of friends of mine and an established science fiction writer. The conversation lasted several days and became a little heated at times-at least, so it appeared to me. What were they talking about? Okay, seriously, I’ll give you exactly one guess.

You don’t need one, you say? Not surprising, seeing as the publishing world seems entirely preoccupied these days with one subject and one subject only.

Indeed, the discussion revolved around the debate between self-publishing and traditional publishing. Let me state clearly that I am not trying to present a comprehensive argument on that subject through this blog post. I would prefer to focus in on one aspect of this debate, which is gatekeepers, and whether or not we have a need for them.

What do I mean by gatekeepers? Let me explain. In the traditional publishing model, writers send their work to agents and publishers, who in turn evaluate the suitability of said manuscripts and judge whether or not they are viable for publication. This, in essence, is gatekeeping. Not everyone can get their books published, because there is a system in place to filter out the books that are worthwhile from the mountains of books which are not. In the publishing world, this mountain of dreck is known as “slush.”

But all of that seems to be changing, and self-publishers are increasingly of the opinion that gatekeepers of any stripe are obsolete. In the modern world of ebooks, in which the Amazon juggernaut will allow anyone to publish anything, regardless of quality or questions of legality (a post for another day, to be sure), there is no one manning the gate. In this cutthroat world, the burden of literary filtration is more and more being placed on the backs of readers.

This is, of course, both a blessing and a curse. The reading market now has more freedom to choose-and more freedom must be a good thing, no? Some readers are well-suited for this brand of freedom, though I would suggest they are a minority. Instead of going to the bookstore and choosing one of the several dozen titles on the bookrack in front of them, readers now must select from literally thousands of books, and they must be increasingly wary and educated about how they go about this process of selection.

There are great resources available to help readers make informed, wise decisions-again, a blog post for another time. But my question is this: should this responsibility fall to the reader at all, and does the average reader want it?

I, for one, would like someone to man the gate. My opinion is influenced by the fact that I am currently in the middle of filtering my way through a massive slushpile of my own. Part of my job this summer is to go through the ten huge boxes of books piled up in my living room, distilling them into a shortlist of ten viable manuscripts (pictured above). It’s hard work, and doing it right requires weeks of intense labor and concentration.

Do I think the average reader values the notion of having someone take on the slushpile for them? Yes. Yes, I do, though I don’t know what form such gatekeeping may take in the future.

Discuss amongst yourselves.

19 responses on “Gatekeepers: Do We Need Them?

  1. ED Martin

    I like knowing that there are gatekeepers as well. As an author on the brink of sending out queries for my first novel, it’s daunting knowing that its fate is in one person’s hand, but that makes publication all the sweeter, knowing that my novel was written well enough to get out of the slush pile.

    As for self-published works, I agree: There are some good finds out there, but it’s almost not worth the effort to sort through all the typos, plot holes, and grammar errors that you find in a lot of what’s self-published.

  2. Brandon M Lindsay

    I think that there will always be gatekeepers, but I think the title is being handed off to entities other than the traditional publishers.

    I am an Amazon shopper, and have been for years. One of the services Amazon offers is recommendations. I have discovered ALL of my favorite musical acts through Amazon, and it wouldn’t surprise me if that’s how I shop for books in the near future. I already do that to some extent now.

    Family members and friends also tell me what they’ve read that’s good and what’s not. So do book review sites. And there are also cover blurbs, which are a way of sorting out potentially good from bad based on who else likes the book in question. These are all examples of gatekeepers, and I’m sure others will pop up when the influence of traditional publishers wanes.

  3. Joe Vasicek

    I agree with Brandon. While there are no longer any gatekeepers keeping things from getting published, there will be a lot more “gatekeepers” on a peer to peer level, deciding what gets talked about and what gets read. Some readers will be adventurous and try out new things, while others will stick with friend recommendations, review sites, and “also bought” suggestions. This strikes me as a lot more democratic and fair (not to mention, more efficient) than centralizing all the power in a corporate entity and making it virtually impossible for anything to get to readers without their approval.

  4. Evan

    Ed: I agree with 100% of what you say.

    Brandon & Joe: Yes, as traditional publishing wanes, alternative gatekeepers will certainly come to the fore. Review sites are great, though I imagine they’ll have to become a good deal more prominent for the average reader to fully take advantage of them. I say this because I personally rarely read reviews for a book unless I already know something about it — hence, I search for a review to see if the book will match my expectations. I don’t often use review sites as tools for discovering new books, but indeed this could be the wave of the future.

    I’m a little wary of peer-to-peer gatekeeping, as it might end up being a better gauge of popularity than quality. Anyone who’s a great marketer could make their book popular, even if their book isn’t very good.

    A friend of mine recently used the term “Amazon Idol” to describe this trend. I’m not sure if he coined that himself (in which case, brilliant!) or if it’s already been floating out there for some time, but the analogy is apt. American Idol routinely judges popularity over quality, and I’m worried about that happening in the publishing industry.

    But, of course, to take that analogy one step further, American Idol *does* employ professional gatekeeping in order to wittle down its field of contestants to those who actually have a shot. Imagine if the judges didn’t do that, and the viewers had to sift through all those line-ups of crazy people themselves before coming up a winner. Shudder. And counter to the efficiency argument, how would that be *more* efficient than having professionals weed the field?

  5. Joe Vasicek

    I guess it comes down to how much you trust readers as a whole to be judges of good quality. And it’s important to remember that this isn’t a zero-sub game. Just because someone else’s book is successful doesn’t mean that yours won’t be. Quite the opposite, in fact–and that’s been true since long before ebooks came onto the scene.

  6. Joe Vasicek

    Also, while promotion and marketing may sell a lot of people on the first book, if it sucks, the next book will tank. Because of this, I think a lot of the “Amazon Idols” will self-destruct after a few months, since even the heaviest marketing push will not sustain sales for a crappy book–and that’s true even in the print world, where the Big Six have a lot more weight to push around (Snooki comes to mind).

  7. Colette Vernon

    A year ago, I would have taken the other end of the argument, but as I’ve attempted to search through the e-book venues, find recommendations by people with tastes similar to my own, and generally just wade through the muck…I say, “Hooray, gatekeepers!” As you mention, their form may change, but I think gatekeepers will always be needed.

  8. Evan

    Agreed, Joe. The Amazon Idols have a limited shelf life. But wait! Are you saying you didn’t enjoy Snooki’s book!? Should’ve won a Pullitzer, if you ask me…

  9. Brandon M Lindsay

    Perhaps there should be some sort of certification process for quality writers, like an SFWA (or insert your genre’s initials here) for indie writers, so that they could get some sort of stamp of approval that ensures that the reader isn’t getting garbage. I’m sure that some industrious and passionate individual, or more practically, group of individuals, could evolve the review process into something along those lines. A lot would need to go into developing such a process, of course, and such an entity enacting it would need some degree of prestige, which not many indie review sites have right now. But I think such a thing could be feasible once things shake out.

    Regardless of how we may pine for the days when publishers provided gatekeeping, such days will soon be behind us. One thing we could do is figure out ways to keep gatekeeping around without stifling the efforts of those who want to put their works out there, even if they aren’t great. People will always want to read good books, and I’m sure a reliable method for separating the good from the bad will arise soon.

    I thought Snooki’s book did win the Pulitzer. Was that not right?

  10. KylieQ

    As a reader, I want the gatekeeper. As it is, I’m struggling to find anything worth reading (is it just me or has quality decreased in the last year or so? once upon a time, I would rarely come across a book I couldn’t bear to finish; now it seems every second one I buy is not worth either my time or my money). As a writer, my goal is to get past the gatekeeper. And as someone else said above, it will be all the sweeter for making it past.

  11. CJ

    I agree- gatekeepers are needed desperately. I like Brandon’s idea; sort of a Good Housekeeping seal of approval for e-books.

  12. KDAlex

    It’s interesting that you mention the thought of certification, Brandon.

    There is an independent author writer’s association, but I’m not quite sure what they do aside from being the “reuters” of the alternative press market…they’ve done a good job through email blasts to share the news of the shakeups.

    It also seems like they offer assistance for pointing alternative press writers into places where they can make their product more professional, kind of like how the watercooler at absolute write was forwarding out some of the good agents and the bad.

    I think they’re currently in the process of creating a “certification” system to help filter out some of the crap.

    A guy I went to college with self published his literary spec-fiction novel and paired with several like-minded authors to create an “imprint” of books that fit into the same mold as his novel.

    It’s kind of like a gate-keeper, but not. Or maybe it is? I really should check out that book…

    Writer’s Digest also does an annual awards thing for self published, small press, and so forth and so on.

    =)

  13. David C

    Gatekeepers, by all means! I don’t have time to read everything. I don’t have time to read even the first chapter of everything out there. And frankly, the fact that many readers like a particular author/work is not to me an automatic indication of quality.

    There are certain authors and/or reviewers out there who, if they say they found something interesting, I would take a chance on a new author.

    There are two–count them, two–publishers of science fiction and fantasy that consistently produce novels of a level of quality that I will take a chance on a new author from them.

    Outside of that, I’m left with chance discoveries in browsing a book store, and the success rate there is in single digit percentages of keep vs. recycle.

    My guess is that for new authors it will eventually boil down to certain reviewers providing a stamp of approval for the new e-book authors they’ve found.

  14. John Wiswell

    It depends on the constructions of the new gates. If we have platforms with straight interface between author and publication, then you can’t have editorial gates. You can erect your own by selecting certain book bloggers, reviewers, critics and friends you listen to, essentially setting up a gate on the other side of publishing. But I’d become very wary of gatekeepers within the platforms themselves, like if Amazon were to create an in-house “Amazon Selects” program favoring and/or downgrading things based on chosen taste-makers.

    Ideally, I’d love to have really smart folks with keen eyes for what will engage and satisfy me at various points in the publication process. I’d worry, though, about the installation and practice.

  15. Star Ostgard

    I want gatekeepers. Professional gatekeepers. I don’t/can’t trust Amazon recs because a lot of those are fellow self-publishers pulling a rah-rah act. Nor do I want to hunt through the internet for review sites that actually have people who know what they’re talking about, or having to find out who the heck is writing this review.

    A book that’s self-published may be good. It may be excellent. But I’m not about to slog through the thousands of self-published books out there to find it. At least sticking with commercial publishers (ie, the professional gatekeepers), I’ll know someone besides “Mummy” liked the book and someone besides “best bud Ralph” edited it.

  16. Evan

    John: I’m also wary of an “Amazon Selects” type of gatekeeping system. There’s too much of a conflict of interest present for the sales platform to also select content.

    So, yes, Star: Professional gatekeepers (ie., legitimate, well-respected digital publishers) should start popping up. Maybe they will grow out of some of the more successful review sites out there. Maybe they will grow out of groups of formally traditionally-published authors creating their own brands. Theoretically, anyone with influence in their genre and credibility with their readership could fulfill this kind of gatekeeping, brand-building function.

  17. Star Ostgard

    John: I’m also wary of an “Amazon Selects” type of gatekeeping system. There’s too much of a conflict of interest present for the sales platform to also select content.
    So, yes, Star: Professional gatekeepers (ie., legitimate, well-respected digital publishers) should start popping up. Maybe they will grow out of some of the more successful review sites out there. Maybe they will grow out of groups of formally traditionally-published authors creating their own brands. Theoretically, anyone with influence in their genre and credibility with their readership could fulfill this kind of gatekeeping, brand-building function.

    Let’s not forget that there are already professional gatekeepers for e-publishing – commercial publishers. They don’t just publish print books. And not all e-books are self-published. So I’ll go with those already in place for now, and wait to see if something as good develops in the future.

  18. Evan

    Yes, Star, you are right about that. I do, however, see a couple of feasibility issues regarding long-term digital success for the current commerical publishers.

    1. These businesses, facing heavy losses on the print side, may ultimately be forced to fold. They have a lot of financial baggage that new start-ups won’t have, so a part of me thinks it’s more likely that seasoned *individuals* from the current, print-dependent business model will form new, smaller digitial publishers, rather than entire companies making the transition.

    2. A lot of the big print publishers right now don’t seem entirely savvy to the changing nature of the industry. Of course, we’re currently in mid-transition, so this is admittedly hard to gauge. They’ll have to re-examine a lot of old business practices, though.

    I could be wrong, of course. It’s all speculation, and it *is* fun to speculate…

  19. Star Ostgard

    Yes, Star, you are right about that. I do, however, see a couple of feasibility issues regarding long-term digital success for the current commerical publishers.
    1. These businesses, facing heavy losses on the print side, may ultimately be forced to fold. They have a lot of financial baggage that new start-ups won’t have, so a part of me thinks it’s more likely that seasoned *individuals* from the current, print-dependent business model will form new, smaller digitial publishers, rather than entire companies making the transition.
    2. A lot of the big print publishers right now don’t seem entirely savvy to the changing nature of the industry. Of course, we’re currently in mid-transition, so this is admittedly hard to gauge. They’ll have to re-examine a lot of old business practices, though.
    I could be wrong, of course. It’s all speculation, and it *is* fun to speculate…

    What was it Mark Twain said, about the rumors of his death? Print publishers are dying right and left – have been for decades. You’d think they’d realize that one of these days. 😉 They may have been a bit slower to get their ducks in a row – but considering what’s come from those who jumped on the e-publisher bandwagon just because they could, I’m more than happy to wait for the established commercial pubs and see it done right.

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