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Who is the keymaster and where is the gatekeeper?

by Amanda S. Green

No, I’m not talking about Ghostbusters.  Although it might be time to watch the movie again.  This post has been bubbling around, trying to take form for several weeks.  Kate’s post this past Sunday, and the comments to it, brought it to life.

A little background first.  When I first got my kindle, I was a skeptic.  I love books.  I love the feel of them, the look of them, etc.  I couldn’t imagine reading on anything like the kindle.  For one thing, I spend so much of the day sitting before the computer that the thought of reading on some sort of device simply didn’t excite me.  Then I got the kindle and very quickly realized that I preferred it to physical books — at least when reading for entertainment.

It didn’t take long to realize something else.  The errors in spelling, punctuation and formatting I’d started seeing in hard copy books seemed to leap off the digital page.  There is something about reading on my kindle — or on my tablet — that seems to accept the errors that have gotten past the copy editors and proofreaders.  Was it because there were more errors in ebooks than in hard copy books, or was there another explanation?

A figurative stroll through different e-reader related forums quickly revealed I wasn’t the only one asking these questions.  Even now, two years after receiving my kindle, the question is asked in the kindle forums almost weekly.  Speculation runs from laziness by legacy publishers to too many people thinking they are the next great writer waiting to be discovered and who are taking advantage of the ease of self-publishing digitally.  The truth of the matter is a bit more complex.

When it comes to problems seen in e-books put out by publishers, the first occurs when titles are scanned and then digitized.  This process often creates OCR errors where letters are altered.  This usually occurs near the margins and is easy enough to spot — if the file is proofread.  Unfortunately, it appears that many of these titles aren’t proofed before being put on sale. I’ve seen a couple of examples where the OCR errors were so bad, the text was almost unreadable.

The bulk of errors in e-books seem to come from the lack of proofreading and, to a lesser extent, copy editing.  This occurs, despite what a lot of the complainers in the different fora believe, in both indie and legacy published titles.  It occurs in indie titles, especially those that are self-published, because authors are, on the whole, their own worst editors.  It occurs in legacy published titles because they have cut back on their employees so much that they now rely on the authors and agents to do much of the editing and proofreading that editors used to do.

So, how does this relate back to Kate’s post and what are we, as authors, supposed to do?

Simple, we follow the guidelines, especially the one that almost every publisher includes: make sure your work is as close to publishable as possible.  That means more than having a good story.  It means making sure it is formatted according to guidelines.  It means having beta readers who know to look for more than misspelled words and comma faults.  It means, if necessary, hiring an editor to go over your manuscript before submitting it.

There are reasons for guidelines that go beyond making it easy for the editor to read the submission.  First — and this is very important — your ability to follow the guidelines is the editor’s first impression of your work.  Take the guidelines for Naked Reader press for example.  The very first thing listed under “guidelines” is the fact that we have set submission periods.  So, if you send something outside of the submission periods, I know you haven’t read the guidelines.  The same goes if you fail to send a synopsis of your novel or if all you send is the synopsis.  We want both.

Now, back to Kate’s post and some of the comments.  Part of any publisher’s guidelines are how to format your submission.  NRP uses standard manuscript format:  double spaced, one inch margins, 12 or 14 point Courier or Times New Roman.  Simple, right?

Apparently not.  We get titles that are single spaced.  We get titles without first line indents.  We get titles where there are additional spaces between paragraphs.  We get submissions that don’t have a cover email with the information asked for: name, contact information, publication credits.

NRP hasn’t gotten to the point yet where we are refusing to look at submissions that don’t meet our guidelines.  I know of a number of other publishers and agents that have.  I will tell you, though, that a manuscript not formatted according to guidelines starts with a strike against it.  Why?  Because I have to wonder about an author who doesn’t care enough to follow them.

So, it is up to the author to make sure he’s followed the guidelines just as he’s done all he can to make sure he is submitting the best story he can.  Frankly, this is true whether the author is submitting a title to a publisher or he’s publishing it himself.  If there is a reason for not following the format guidelines listed by a publisher, tell them.  Or at least send an email and ask if it’s okay.

I hear you saying that you have decided not to submit to a publisher but are going the self-publishing route.  After all, you have a great novel.  You’ve done your homework and know there are free programs out there to help you create your e-book.  So why worry about format guidelines and submission processes when you can take your e-book directly to the public?

As an author, I understand the sentiment.  It’s hard to get a publisher these days, especially a legacy publisher.  It’s even harder to get an agent — something you need to get your foot in the door at most legacy publishers.  It really is easy to understand why so many writers are choosing to do it themselves.

What many of them seem to have forgotten is that the same rules for submitting to a publisher apply to self-publishing.  You have to have a well-edited, proofread manuscript in a format readers are used to.  That means beta readers, proofreaders and, if necessary, professional editing.  It also means cover art and GOOD cover art.  Readers will tear you apart on the boards for bad cover art, or for generic cover art.  If they don’t like the font you use for your title, they will let you know.

Despite what you hear from a lot of bloggers, despite the fame of some indies like Amanda Hocking, there is still an onus about self-published work.  If you doubt it, read the boards.  See how many people won’t buy a novel originally priced at 99 cents because they know it’s by an “indie” and won’t be any good or will be so poorly formatted as to be unreadable.  Check out threads like those asking why indies keep shooting themselves in the foot by not having their novels professionally edited or formatted for e-books.

Don’t get me wrong.  As quick as they are to condemn a poorly written or poorly edited/formatted book, they are just as quick to praise one.  So, what does that mean?

It means he writer is not only the keymaster — the creator of the story — but is also the gatekeeper.  It doesn’t matter if the novel is going to a legacy publisher or is being self-published.  It needs to be as clean — as well written, edited and proofread — as possible before submission.  You are the master of your story.  Don’t be afraid to act the role.

In other news around the industry, check out what Kris Rusch and Joe Konrath have to say about the future of traditional or legacy publishing.

What do you think about the keymaster/gatekeeper roles and about the future of publishing?

Oh yeah, everyone be sure to wish Dave a happy birthday!

Cross-posted to The Naked Truth and to my blog.

19 Comments
  1. Happy birthday to da Monkey and very good post, Amanda.

    August 28, 2011
    • Thanks, Sarah, and I’m tossing a few coconuts Monkey’s way for his birthday!

      August 28, 2011
  2. HB, Dave.

    Amanda, yes, a timely reminder that we all need to keep to a high standard. Even when our eyes are glazing over, because we’ve been over the manuscript _so_ many times, already.

    August 28, 2011
    • Pam,

      C’mon, you know when you reach that point, you have to step away. If you are in the editing phase still, you have probably been over-editing. If you are in the proofing phase, try Dave’s trick — I think Dave does it — of going from the last line forward. Believe me. Your eyes can’t glaze over then.

      August 28, 2011
      • Well, my eyes tend to glaze over halfway through the first pass . . . And I reverse read Lawyers of Mars. The idea of doing a whole novel is scary, so I’m doing just the parts I added since Pogo proofed this one. The next one, I’ll have to do the whole thing.

        August 28, 2011
  3. Ellyll #

    Happy Birthday, Dave. 🙂

    And thank you, Amanda. As a reader, I go nuts when I come across badly formatted or not proofread books. (Yep, I’m one of those Eats, Shoots and Leaves people.) As an aspiring author, I need to keep that in mind.

    August 28, 2011
    • Ellyll, welcome to the club. It has been a hard lesson to learn with the kindle that I can’t throw it against the wall if a book drives me crazy. That is the only drawback to a e-book reader.

      I’ve added a layer to my editing process, both as a writer and as an editor. I convert — or mail to my kindle — the file in question and read it one last time there. It is amazing the errors I missed on the computer screen that now seem to jump out at me.

      August 28, 2011
  4. 'nother Mike #

    Happy Birthday, Dave!

    Just one early morning thought. The gatekeeper analogy assumes that there is a golden field which contains only good critters (roughly). But there have been other approaches — open range, for example, where we used branding to help indicate these are our critters. Which probably will bring up the tragedy of the commons argument, except I’m not sure there’s any way to overgraze the digital fields.

    Open range ranching versus the gatekeepers?

    August 29, 2011
    • Oh wow. I know I twist analogies into poly-dimensional pretzels but this takes the pastry.

      The gatekeeper analogy usually refers to entry to the promised land where the worthy author gets the good things he/she/it deserves. It’s not exactly a model and like any analogy it falls over as soon as you look too closely at it.

      Maybe the early morning didn’t have enough caffeine? Because this sounds way too much like the kind of nonsense I produce before I’m awake.

      August 29, 2011
      • 'nother Mike #

        Hey, I didn’t mention the bellwether and wolves and other critters that came to mind… sometimes I think I shouldn’t try to think metaphorically, it just turns into a ball of sticky beeswax that picks up all kinds of things 🙂

        Yeah. I should filter my early morning thoughts more thoroughly before posting. But… it almost makes some kind of sense, I think?

        August 29, 2011
        • If you’re going to get that weird, you should avoid metaphors altogether. Metaphors are NOT your friends.

          August 29, 2011
    • Um… Everyone calls them gatekeepers. The branding was what I thought that Agents would devolve into — sort of imprimatur+ some publicity. Turns out … no, they’d rather become the field that’s going away. Okay fine then.

      August 29, 2011
      • 'nother Mike #

        Sure, sure. But gatekeepers means only some are let in, and others kept out, right? Which sort of felt (in my early morning blur) like a fenced field. Which reminded me of open range. Just playing with the analogies. I mean, gatekeepers feels like limited resources selection of the best thinking, while open range — let them all in! — seems more to match the digital fields.

        August 29, 2011
        • Gatekeepers WERE limited selection. Open range… fits that better, but you know, there is the tragedy of the commons, hence the branding.

          August 29, 2011
  5. But the limiting factor is not the grass, but rather the readers’ tolerance for digging through dreck. Those brands need to glow in the dark, attract compass needles and be trackable by GPS.

    August 29, 2011
    • 'nother Mike #

      Which probably brings us back to diamonds in the mud, or something like that. Maybe the gold rush(es)? But the folks panning, digging, and so forth do seem to be turning up some things. Kind of need people who can trumpet about what they’ve found (sort of like a blog full of like minded authors, helping to draw readers? 🙂 Of course, part of the problem is that while one reader is looking for diamonds, someone else is hunting rubies — and feels cheated when the first one starts yelling about hitting paydirt. Filters for the dreck…

      August 30, 2011
  6. Ric Locke #

    On the original point — it’s not so much that the Nook, Kindle, &ct. accentuate errors. It’s that any format change does that.
    When proofreading my own work I constantly shift formats and file types, from .doc to .rtf to .html, and now to .mobi and .epub using translator programs, and look with both native applications and text-only editors.. Every time I do such a conversion cycle I find errors that didn’t show up in earlier looks.
    It’s work, yes, but I think publishers like NRP who insist on “classic manuscript format” are missing the boat a bit. What they should be looking for is authors who shift formats around. In my experience it gives a better chance of finding errors.
    Regards,
    Ric

    August 30, 2011
    • Ric,

      We want the standard manuscript format when something is submitted to us for a very simple reason — consistency. When a short story or novel comes to us through the submission process, we aren’t reading it for errors. We are reading it to see if it is a story we want to publish. I don’t care how many times an author shifts formats around before he submits it to NRP. But I do want it to come to us in something at least resembling our guidelines.

      As I said, formatting guidelines are for consistency. We want the story to be the focus when we open a file, not how it looks. As an author, you can do whatever you want format-wise before you send it to us. Just don’t send it to us on the digital equivalent of pink paper with glitter falling out.

      August 30, 2011

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