Monday, March 7, 2011

The Myth of the Gatekeepers

Nathan Bransford had an interesting blog post this morning about the 99-cent Kindle Millionaires. As I scrolled down to the comments section, I was waiting to see the word that always pops up whenever anyone is talking about self-publishing and I wasn't disappointed. The very first commenter gave a big thumbs up for anyone brave enough to get around the 'gatekeepers' of editors and agents.

The word gatekeepers always conjures up visions of high stone towers with agents and editors poised at the top with automatic weapons, ready to shoot down any new author who dares to try to enter the traditional publishing world. Here's the thing about gatekeepers like this - there aren't any.

Agents and editors don't exist to keep new authors out of the system. On the contrary, they are hungry for new talent and everyone wants to be the person with the next big thing. They comb their submissions looking for great writing and amazing new ideas. There were thousands of debut children's books published last year (I tried to find the exact number, but it is safe to say thousands.). So if you have submitted your writing and are getting nothing but rejections, it's not because the gatekeepers are barring your way.

It's because your work isn't ready.

Go back to the drawing board. Put that piece away and start working on something else. Go to some conferences or take some writing seminars. Get a great and honest critique group or at least one person who knows what they are doing who can help you get your next book in 'unpassable' shape.

The very first novel I wrote still hasn't sold, and I'm glad. When I look back at it there were so many things wrong with that manuscript that if it had been published, I'd cringe to look at it. Thank goodness for the agents and editors who gave me the time to hone my craft and get my writing up to a publishable level - and allowed me to be proud of that first book.

I'm not a fan of self-publishing. There, I said it. Don't get me wrong, I love my Kindle - the process of thinking about reading a book and actually reading it within two minutes is awesome. It's self-published books whether in print or ebook form that I don't like. I got in an argument with a good friend at a recent conference because he said being a self-publishing hater was downright un American. These people were the pioneers of the new literary frontier, they were taking matters into their own hands, going around the traditional establishment and making their own money. Right. I have no problem with all of that. There is one thing that keeps me from being a proponent of self-publishing: most self published books aren't very good. I have yet to read one that wouldn't have benefited from a heavy-handed editor or frankly, just more time honing their craft.

So what's the problem with that? So there are a bunch of mediocre self-published books out there. Who does it hurt? In my opinion, everyone. Most readers don't take the time to find out who published a book - whether it came from a big publishing house or a box in the author's garage. They just pick up a title and give it a try and if over and over again the quality of the writing is poor, how long is it until they decide that reading is a waste of time? That books today aren't well-written and that they'd spend their time better with Snooki and the gang at the Jersey Shore?

Apply the same principal to becoming a pilot. Let's say you spend a lot of time playing Apache Air Assault on Xbox and you routinely beat all your friends. You decide that you want to be a pilot, but don't want to waste time with flight school or those pesky tests. You put on that pilot's uniform and take the wheel of the nearest jumbo jet. How many planes would have to crash before the flying public decides that train travel is looking more appealing? (Yes, I did just compare writing fiction to something potentially life-threatening.)

I do think there is a place for self published non-fiction books. I know someone who is self publishing a book on a very specific method for playing blackjack and I think it will do well. There is a built-in audience for that kind of book and he has a 'platform' already set up so that people will go looking for his book. Unless you're a very well-known fiction author (or celebrity - don't get me started), that probably won't happen for you. Yes, I know there are a few (a very few) who are making money self-publishing ebooks. but these are the exception rather than the rule and I think that once the curiosity factor wears off, it will get even more difficult.

I do think that this will all sort itself out. I have to believe that the publishing industry will figure out an ebook model that works for everyone that will allow readers to get the books they want and writers to afford to create them. That a great book can still get a lot of traction by word of mouth and that quality writing will triumph in the end.

According to this NYT op-ed piece, 81% of Americans want to write a book. At the same time, only 15% of Americans regularly read books. Gatekeepers or not, to me, this seems to be the real problem.


Solvang Sherrie said...

I go back and forth on this issue because I've read good self-published books as well as crappy ones. But as a former musician, it's so strange to me how music lovers and movie goers look to indies for cool new stuff, but in publishing, indie authors are reviled. I totally follow the logic of your post, but I also don't think it's a foregone conclusion that a self-published book is going to suck. I think that just like with anything else, there are gems to be found, and as you pointed out, niches to be filled. And until big publishers find a way to lower their prices and still make a profit (for the authors as well as themselves), a lot of readers will continue to risk $2.99 on an unproven author instead of $17.99.

Jeanne said...

I think you make some great points, and while I agree with some of what you've said, I have to disagree a little.

Not ALL books are like piloting a plane. Some are like playing with a model plane or even a paper plane. I see much of the self published ebooks not as literature, but as entertainment.

As a reader I don't buy a self-published ebook for a dollar and expect to read Catcher in the Rye. I do it because I want to read about gay bikers or Polyamory or a werewolf falling in love with a robot.

I want to read the stuff that the publishing industry is to scared to take a chance on. To me it is just a dollar, and if it disappoints me at least I'm not out the $9 I spent on high profile mainstream book that I ended up hating.

E.J. Wesley said...

I hear your argument, Cynthia, and think you communicate it well. AND in a less hateful, more reasonable, way than most of the ones I've read (on either side of the issue).

However, I have to disagree with you completely on one point, and it's probably your biggest: "It's because your work isn't ready."

In many cases, you're 100% correct. Agents and editors know the business, and they are certainly good at understanding what works and what doesn't. Unfortunately, they aren't right many times. Not a crime, just a fact. Is it really a good system that allows 1, 10, or even 20 people to decide what a billion readers are allowed to read?

The missteps made by publishing pros, I'd guess, stems from them having to anticipate/judge so many factors aside from writing. Market, author brand recognition, consumer trends, etc. are all things that have to be thought about before they invest in an author/book, and none of them necessarily have a thing to do with the basic question: Is it a good story?

Good stories get passed on all the time. How many said, "no thanks" to Jo Rowling? Amanda Hocking is doing things in terms of sales that any traditionally published author would love to do, and she was told no as well. Granted, someone eventually said yes to JK, and we can choose to believe that Amanda (had she stuck with it) would have eventually landed an agent and a book deal. After all, tens-of-thousands of readers can't ALL be wrong, right?

If that's true, I'm disturbed to ask the question: how many people give up? How many writers, after getting shot down by the industry, have put their stories away. What if Amanda had said, "Well, it isn't good enough to get published. I don't have what it takes"?

While some might say that it justifiably rules out the ones who 'don't really want it', I'd argue that it has probably discouraged some extremely talented voices from being heard. In the end, it has taken the decision away from the people who really count: The readers.

I just don't see any harm in allowing readers to decide what is worthy of being sold for money, and what isn't. It allows writers to write and not worry about markets, trends, and what-have-you. If a writer doesn't take the time to learn the craft, weave an incredible story, or do the other 'musts' for solid writing, it won't sell. Seems pretty simple.

Anyway, thanks for sharing your thoughts. I'm always interested in hearing what authors think.

KevinMc said...

I'm with E.J. I think it's very hard to state "your work is not good enough" if you're rejected by agents/publishers when we see obvious examples of quality literature rejected or nearly rejected. Ms. Hocking has hundreds of thousands of readers who rather disagree with all of the folks who rejected her work. Ms. Rowling got lucky and had the daughter of a brand new small press beg her Dad to publish the first Potter book. But for that random stroke of luck, she might never have published at all.

And those are just two stand-out examples. What about the ebooks making much more modest sales in the 10,000-100,000 range (and there are a LOT of those) which were rejected previously? It's not agent's/publisher's faults. They're trying their best (their jobs RELY on them trying their best!) to find the books they think will sell well. But as gatekeepers, they are only stand-ins for the real gatekeepers.

Which brings me to my next point.

The gatekeepers are dead...long live the gatekeepers. ;)

The true gatekeepers are what they've always been: readers. And with independent publishing taking off like a house afire (about 40% of the top 100 bestselling fiction ebooks on Amazon are indie published), they're moving toward becoming the primary gatekeepers for most books within the next few years.

Writers won't be answering to publishers who are guessing what the readers might like, or agents who are guessing what the publishers are guessing the readers might like (how oddball a setup is that, anyway?). Instead, writers will be answering to the only gatekeepers who really matter: readers. Whose yes/no votes, collectively, will spell success or failure for any book.

To me, that just makes sense. Let the readers decide if there is an audience for a book, or not. They're the ones best suited to do that, especially with the layers that have been built up between them and writers coming down.

CJ Omololu said...

I think that the readers decide now, even with the traditional publishers. So many books with lots of money behind them don't 'make it' while others hit the NYT Bestseller list largely on word of mouth. I'll grant that the reader is the ultimate gatekeeper and as such we owe them the best product we can craft.

I doubt that ebooks will become a free-for-all, at least I hope not. And most self published books, ebook or not, don't come near the 10-100k range. Amanda Hocking and Christopher Paolini are always the two examples brought up as successful self-pubbed authors, but I'd rather not get into specifics here. It's true that these two people are very successful. Two.

If all writing goes the way of the self pubbed author, writers also won't get the support of competent editors and agents who can make their books the best they can be. I can't imagine writing in a vacuum - it's a collaboration and that's what makes an okay book great.

40% of the top selling Amazon ebooks are indies because they can sell them cheaply (which refers back to the original Nathan Bransford post). Is it going to come down to price? Why should I bother polishing and learning craft when I can whip something out, post it right away and sell it cheap and the public won't expect much? Jeanne said that she doesn't expect to spend 99 cents and get Catcher in the Rye. That to me is a little sad.

Tim Holmes said...

A great deal of your concern seems to the great deluge of unedited drivel that will make the quality writing impossible to find.

What is needed then is not someone to slow down the publishing of writing, but some way to determine which of this writing it worth noting and which is drivel. We already have mechanisms for this, you note them yourself. As for the poor person picking up the random book hoping to get something they'll get caught up in, I think it'd be a hard argument to make that this would be any worse than today.

I would argue the software has already shown one such situation... Software exists as both a publisher model and a self-pub model. This is thanks to the low investment needed for bits and the low friction of Internet software sales. Surely there's a need for a large publisher investment in a serious large scale software solution for some needs, and yet small scale solutions exist, thrive, and exhibit some of the highest (and lowest) quality standards on the market. The analogy isn't exact, but it works well enough.

I imagine if the world of publishers does go away, I can imagine writers hiring their own editors to work on their books. I could extrapolate on what the effects of that would be for another hour or two I'm sure.

Finally, why should you try to write well if you can whip out garbage that sells reasonably well? Well, that's not really the equation is it... First, you write well because you want to, not because it sells well. Second, garbage writing doesn't really sell that well, and if it does, perhaps one should consider the judgement of those judging other's reading interest. And third, if one does write just for the money, then writing better would, in theory at least, earn you MORE money.

Lastly, it may not be wise to overestimate the overall quality of books that get through the publishing system. Certainly there have been innumerable stories of the publisher who got turned down over and over until... How many stopped trying and burned their manuscripts, stopped writing forever, and just gave up?

Linda Austin said...

Publishing is a business and they may say they want new authors, but they need the tried-and-true, the celebrities and others with platforms whether their books are really that great or not. Those are what sell and can make $ to support risks of new blood. Agents are inundated with manuscripts and must look for reasons to quickly weed them out whether by query or first few paras, and most books taken in by trad publishers fail anyway, so why not take a chance with indie-pubbing. Problem is we need impartial reviewers of indie-pubbed books. I do my part.

CJ Omololu said...

I may still disagree, but I love the thoughtful arguments. Okay, the 'writing garbage' comment was tongue in cheek and maybe unnecessary. The software model would work better for me if 81% of the American public thought they should/could write an app. More than the stories of people who gave up are the stories of the people who didn't and through the process of learning how to write well ended up with wonderful writing careers. If you can't handle rejection at the agent-querying stage, then the rest of process will be painful because every step of the way involves rejection.

Linda, your comment was the reason I wrote the post. I'm a member of the Tenners, over 200 debut authors in 2010, and I don't know any of us who had an 'in' either with an agent or publisher when we started. We wrote, rewrote, subbed and resubbed until we found someone who loved our manuscript as much as we did. They do need titles that are pretty much guaranteed, but every year, major houses take on debut authors who have no connections. I'm glad that reviewers like you take on all kinds of books - maybe that will help to be a balancing factor.

Marat said...

While I agree that many of the self-published selections available are not of first quality, I don't see that publishing with a so-called "reputable" publisher is always a guarantee of quality, either. I read a lot, from textbooks to fantasy, from hard-core tech to science fiction. I have seen many, and I repeat, many such professionally published works that are rife with errors in grammar, usage, spelling, etc. Where is the high-quality work in those cases?

On the side of self-publishing, however, I would make an analogy with movies. The Notebook was a well-done, serious movie that got much of the acclaim it deserved. We'll call that the "professionally published" side. On the other side of the coin is, for example, the movie Push, which has no pretensions of being an art film, nor an Academy Award nominee, but it does succeed at that which drives its existence: entertainment. Let's call that the "self-published" side.

Both sides have legitimacy; each side, however, achieves vastly different goals. That is not to say that there is no crossover. There are certainly mainstream books meant to entertain; e.g., Stephen King's novels. There are also assorted self-published books meant to be high-quality. John Grisham, for example, self-published A Time To Kill, and has gone on to great success.

All I am saying is please do not make generalizations, because that hurts those good writers who choose for whatever reason to self-publish. After all, there was a day when publishing had to be self-publishing, because there were no publishers. I hardly think Doubleday had anything to do with publishing Shakespeare's plays, or Homer's Iliad.

For some authors, self-publishing is the only viable way to get their work in print; and for some, leaving a legacy for family is every bit as important as any financial gain.

Michelle said...

Fascinating all around.

I must add that the fact that $17.99 is considered expensive for entertainment that'll last many more hours than a movie, a play, or a ball game, but people barely blink at wasting that on a martini and a bowl of nuts kinda bugs me. Priorities and values seem out of whack. (Mine included in many cases, by the way.)

I think the advice of editors and the eyes of many can really help shape a book for the better. My work is greatly improved by input. If I published my own stuff, like Cynthia said, it wouldn't be nearly as good. As for the great writer who's missed? Maybe. Many good actors, musicians and painters toil in obscurity, too, I guess, but if you ask me to choose between and self-published and not, I'd still go through something that's been vetted. Gotta get my $17.99 worth, right?

CJ Omololu said...

Michelle, I'm sending you an e-hug. <>

Anonymous said...

I've worked in publishing for 20 years. There *are* gatekeepers. They decide who comes through the gate and who doesn't. And it isn't always about whose work is better -- it's usually about whose work is more *salable*. It's a business, not a "whose work is better" (or "more ready") contest.

Publishing companies are putting more and more of the work off on the authors (from marketing to editing) and doing less and less for midlist authors (better find your own typos). And if your next two books don't sell increasingly more copies than your first, then you are back on the outside of the gate. When that happens, self-publishing may start to look good to you.

CJ Omololu said...

With all due respect, I disagree. Elbows deep into a complicated revision, poring over notes from my editor as we hash out this revision with a view to the next one and a heavy-handed copy edit makes me glad I have these industry professionals on my side - they have as much stake in the outcome as I do. As I read more and more poorly written and unedited self-published ebooks I'm more convinced than ever that self publishing won't look good to me.

KevinMc said...

Self publishing doesn't have to - and shouldn't - mean poorly produced. But just like some blogs are filled with insightful and interesting commentary (like this one, actually), and others are complete junk - the same is true of indie music, indie movies, indie comics - and indie books as well.

The fact that any garage band can upload their MP3 to iTunes has not turned iTunes into a disaster area, though. ;) Nor has it kept those indie bands actually capable of creating good music from making a living that way.

Ditto books. There are *great* self/indie published books out there. Most of them look as polished as anything NYC produces. Most people who read them never know they were indie published.

And there's a whole steep spectrum from there to the junk at the bottom of the pile, the stuff nobody ever reads.

The real gatekeeper here is the reader, though. It's the reader you have to convince, today. If you write a great story, get the book edited properly, format it nicely, put a slick cover on it, write a strong blurb, and publish it under your publishing business name - then virtually no one who reads it will ever know it was published by the author. Nor will they care.

Your professionalism = your success. If you lack professionalism...? Well. ;)