Gatekeepers and Holes

Last night I wrote a post on the publishing industry and then scrapped it. This morning, Jaime Theler points me to a blog post written on the exact topic. So I’ve decided to try once again.

Rachelle Gardner poses an interesting question, over on her blog. She is talking about Harlequin moving into the self-publishing world. The end result, according to Ms. Gardner, will be a decline in the quality of literature. She even goes so far as to say that “”Literature” as we know it could be a thing of the past.”

She then poses the question, “Am I totally off base?”

Respectfully, I say yes. Way off base. Here is why.

Imagine a wall. Readers are on one side, authors on the other. Authors have great stories in their heads; readers would like to hear them. Under the current system, literary agents, editors, publishers, and business folks have served as the gatekeepers (as Ms. Gardner calls it). They make sure that only certain authors and their stories are allowed through the wall. They must past certain levels of quality before they are allowed to move through the wall.

Rachelle says this is a good thing because there are a lot of authors with bad stories. They have not mastered their craft, and so, the gatekeepers tell us, we the readers don’t want to listen to them.

There is a serious flaw in this line of thinking. The self-imposed gatekeepers are not always the best judges of what is good. I know that is a bold statement, but take a look at this list. Gatekeepers, skilled as they may be, are prone to make errors just like the rest of us. Books like Harry Potter, The Diary of Anne Frank, Catch 22, and Animal Farm, and authors like Stephen King, Tony Hillerman, and Ursula K. LeGuin, could very well have never made it over the wall. Agents and editors do very well at spotting bad books, but I think it’s clear they can often miss the good ones. The really good ones. The paradigm shifting, world changing ones. And who suffers? The readers. How many really good books have never been published because the author gave up after rejection 52?

The simple fact of the matter is that in a digital world, we don’t need gatekeepers. What we need are more holes in the wall. Lots of them.

Look at blogs; 25 years ago, how many people had a medium by which they could share their thoughts with the world at large? Newspaper editors had a medium. Television personalities had a medium. You and I did not. Now, every grandmother and her cat has a blog. True, most of them are poorly written, but you know what? It doesn’t matter. The cream rises to the top without the help of gatekeepers, because in the digital world it all comes down to merit. You create a fantastic blog, and people will come. You churn out mediocrity, and the world will say, “meh.”

I argue that contrary to Ms. Gardner’s statement, tearing down the wall will not lead to the end of literature, but in fact be the beginning of a new, exciting era. Readers will realize there is much more than the same tired fare that we’ve been fed for years by the publishing industry. Authors will realize that contrary to what agents and editors have been telling them, they do in fact have a good story, and there are people out there that want to read their work. Yes, crap will be produced, because crap has always been produced. And in the digital world the crap sits on the same browser as the good stuff. But we all know that there is good stuff out there, and we all know how to find it.

The publishing industry is one of the last industries to be affected by the digital revolution. The record industry, movie industry, TV industry, and newspaper industry have been grappling with this for almost a decade. Now it’s our turn.

And I, for one, couldn’t be more excited.

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13 Responses to Gatekeepers and Holes

  1. Daron D. Fraley says:

    Very well said. As a fellow believer in digital media and the new forums afforded to those of us who write, I agree.

    Not only that, but in my opinion, those writers who do get published, and who then also tame that social media forum for themselves will have the very best success.

    Thanks for the thoughtful post!

  2. Matthew Buckley says:

    After submitting this post, I found an interesting article (thanks again to Jaime Theler) by Michael Hyatt. He says a few interesting things, including the fact that agents and editors often miss good books. He says "we know for a fact that we miss lots of opportunities. So do agents. This is a way for cream to float to the top where it can get our attention."

    http://michaelhyatt.com/2009/11/why-agents-may-be-opposed-to-self-publishing.html

    I've said it before, I'll say it again, in the digital age, it's a meritocracy, and that is a good thing for both authors and readers alike.

  3. Kristi Stevens says:

    I agree on some levels with the idea that quality rises to the top but doesn't this theory imply that the most popular is the highest quality? Gatekeepers can be a good thing.

    It's easy to assume because something is popular it's good stuff. Are the most popular books the highest quality?

    I agree the masses need a platform and digital fits that nicely. I have no doubt that ebooks are the next movement in literary evolution. I'm sure illuminators all over Europe shook their heads in disgust when Gutenberg invented the printing press because that meant anybody could write a book and not just the wealthy or religious. The gatekeeper (aka Catholic Church) who had complete control over what was was written and distributed no longer had control over what was published. But that didn't eliminate the Gatekeeper role, it just changed it.

    I agree that it has become ridiculously difficult to get published. In fact, I think it's downright laughable but I don't think self-publication is the answer. Self publication is expensive. Even if you publish entirely digitally you still need an advertising budget which costs serious cha-ching.

    Look at the list of titles that 'almost' didn't get published. The operative word there is 'almost'. Those titles DID get published and DID reshape the world.

    Getting published requires tenacity. Gatekeepers thin the competition for the writers willing to see it to the end, forcing them to hone their craft in the meantime. The Gatekeeper acts as the refiners fire for the artist. The writer learns to write by being rejected.

    Will the best quality work find a place in the publishing world if authors self publish? Will their books be read if they are dependent on their social network footprint?

    I don't think so.

    If anything I think it gives the famous, wealthy and highly connected an even bigger advantage. Look at the blogs that are wildly successful, most of these bloggers had a strong influence over society before the rise of the blog world (Huffington Post is one example).

    I fear this move toward self publication hurts overall quality of the publishing world. In this new paradigm the loudest voice, not the best wins.

  4. Matthew Buckley says:

    You bring up a good point, Kristi, about populatirty vs. quality, but look at movies. Transformers 2 was a stupid movie. I personally think New Moon will be a stupid movie. I doubt either of these films will ever make a list of 'all time greats'. But Transformers raked in over 400 million in ticket sales, and I expect New Moon will do nicely as well.

    If critics had their way, those movies would never have been released, and millions of people wouldn't have been able to enjoy them. Sometimes we're not looking for incredible literature, sometimes we just want a rip-roaring good read.

    There will be a lot of self-published books that aren't literary works of greatness, but there will be a lot of people who will enjoy them anyway. And should gatekeepers stand between us in the first place? If the author thinks their story will sell, why not let them try?

    You mention that the key word is 'almost'. And I agree. However, do you really think that there aren't great book out there that the gatekeepers missed? Don't you think that there might be other great books, books that might have changed the world, but the authors didn't press on for long enough?

    And I disagree about this being a way to the famous and wealthy even more power. While it's certainly easy for thme, there are also hundreds of examples of people like Heather Armstrong at dooce.com. She went from being a Utah Housewife to Utah Housewife who blogs, and is now listed on forbes "Most Influential Women in Media". Not everybody will enjoy her blog, but the beauty of it is there are no gatekeepers who make that decision for us.

  5. stacy says:

    I don't have a problem with true self-publishing. The problem that most of the people I've seen posting right now about the Harlequin problem is that they're going into *vanity* publishing and *calling* it self-publishing. They're attaching the Harlequin brand to it and, in very misleading ways, telling people who submit to them that they might, someday, attract the attention of a traditional publisher (Harlequin)–and taking their money in the meantime.

    There are a lot of changes happening in the industry right now, and I think many of them could turn out to be good things. But I think it's important to be up front with people who decide to go the self-publishing route. Howard and Sandra Tayler have a lot of great advice on this–going into it with eyes wide open, understanding that if you go that route, you'll have to do everything a publisher does, etc. These seem to be being glossed over by the new arm of Harlequin in favor of platitudes about becoming a "real author" or a "serious author," etc.

    A lot of people don't understand the publishing industry, and think that they *have* to pay to get published, and this kind of thing feeds that misconception.

  6. Matthew Buckley says:

    Good points, Stacy. the Writing Excuses podcast also does a good job talking about self-publishing, and the pitfalls authors need to be aware of.

    Michael Hyatt also addresses some of your points in the article I linked to above.

  7. Kristi Stevens says:

    My comment probably sounded like I'm opposed to self publishing. I'm not. My husband has self published several climbing books so I know how tough it is to get those books into the hands of readers.

    I agree with Stacy. I think Harlequin is practicing shady business practices with this new Horizons program.

    It seems to me that market is already so crowded I'd just assume keep some of the Gatekeepers in place so I can shovel through all the…uh…stink to get to the good stuff.

  8. Jaime Theler says:

    This has been a great discussion! (You're welcome for the links, btw.)

    I can see both sides to the issue. Not all horrible manuscripts will get self-published, either, because you have to fork over money to do it. And those self-pubbed books won't be sharing distribution space anyway. Most people I know that self-publish have to work their tails off to even get word out about their books, so I don't know that this will be the death of publishing as we know it. But on the other hand, those books won't go through the quality checks that happen in the traditional publishing process, either. So there is a case saying it will lower the bar for books.

    As you can see, I go back and forth. It will be interesting to see how this all shakes out.

  9. Chuck says:

    Just watched a video that was published on Reason TV, moments ago, and it reminded me of this conversation. The piece gets into self publishing and the biases that exist there and then weighs that against the authors need, or desire, to just get his work out there.

    It's political commentary, as things on Reason.tv are meant to be, but it still might be of interest to you on the subject of self publishing.

  10. Julie Wright says:

    Very well stated!! I like the idea of gatekeepers, however I believe the public tribunal is a good gate keeper. I read a lot based on word of mouth recommendations. The gatekeepers of agents and editors are not always right. I've read some books that are absolute crap published by major publishers. And I've read unpublished manuscripts that are amazing and I watch as the authors work to try to sell these amazing manuscripts only to find all those gates to publication closed and locked.

  11. Chuck says:

    I know this topic is a bit old and beat up already, but I was just listening to a piece on this topic and thought of this thread again.

    The Mises Institute is an Economics outfit that prides itself particularly in the Austrian School of Economics theory (laissez faire) so I thought this was interesting to hear from an economist of that mindset.

    This economist seems to believe, in an Ayn Rand form of thinking, that if the product is good enough, people will pay for it. Furthermore by self-publishing you can get more work out there for people to notice and then be drawn into your other works with.

    FWIW

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