Fling Open the Gates

I’ll begin this with two myths. First, that books and publishing need gatekeepers. This could be applied to oh, so much more in life, but I will stop there. The other, that gatekeepers must have the ‘right credentials’ or indeed, that anyone involved with writing must have them, from authors to editors to… whatever role you choose. I would say that rather, we are too easily impressed with ‘credentials’ and it has come to absurd level in our society. I started thinking about this when I got an email from a librarian list I am on, with a job listing in it. They are seeking, if you’re looking, a Children’s Librarian Assistant. But it’s only fifteen hours a week, and in order to qualify for that lowly position and small amount of time, you must have a bachelors degree. Oh, my, what has our world come to?

I suppose you are thinking that at least in traditional publishers those who make the decisions on what manuscripts are the next, brightest prospect must at least have a bachelor’s degree, then? I mean, if a very part-time library job in a tiny state requires that, surely…

Ah, no. Copyediting is done at traditional publishers by people who aren’t even paid to do the job. Interns like this young lady, who writes breathlessly “I spend the morning copyediting–essentially, proofreading a manuscript that’s been submitted for publication. I didn’t realize how much power I have doing this job.” Danuta Kean, in a scathing article aimed at UK publishers, writes “Temps. Remember them? They used to be the people who came in to cover the donkey work jobs no one wanted or no one had time to do. They also used to be the route into publishing for the vast majority – especially women. Not any more. Now budding publishers are expected to work free in long unpaid internships.” And as for submissions? Well, a Random House intern named Karissa writes that this is what she did, most of all, on top of other things: “ Each day I work closely with the editorial team, participating in meetings about our list and submissions. I proofread and copyedit book material, check indexes, maintain a database of review quotations and read. My reports are taken seriously and my opinions are sought out on proposals.”

It seems fairly clear from those quotes that not only are author’s first gatekeepers mostly very young women who are being treated as slave labor (read some of the quotes on Karissa’s blog about how to survive while making no money), but who have no previous experience beyond, you know, highschool. And we all know what a public highschool prepares you for. Why do we have gatekeepers, again?

Reality is that gatekeeping is not about quality, but quantity. Even my absolute favorite publisher can only publish so many ‘new’ books a year. They have x number of slots, and most of those go to established authors, both best-seller and mid-list. So they are left with perhaps one or two for a new author, someone to take a chance on. And just how many authors are trying to break into the market? Well, you, me, my friends over here, and… a lot. Let’s just leave it at that. Publishers simply can’t offer all of us a place, no matter how good we are. And frankly, there’s only one I’d even consider, given the abusive practices the other traditional publishers have shown publicly and shamelessly.

Which brings us back to whether or not we the readers need gatekeepers to protect our poor lil’ ol selves from those mean nasty indie published books. I mean, the unpaid interns haven’t even had a chance to paw through that manuscript leaving jammy fingerprints, what do you mean the public can buy it? And evil, evil Amazon, treating authors like customers, and allowing them to have options, and control, and stuff. Publishing as an industry seems to have a thing for metaphorical bondage.

I love the things Seth Godin has written over the years on marketing and using the internet to build a personal brand. After all, this is a soundly practical man. In a 2010 LA Times article on the role of gatekeepers in publishing, he is quoted “If an author has the choice of two distribution models, one that costs nothing and has no gatekeeper and the other has lots of gatekeepers and costs a lot of money, a lot of people will go with the free one.” Yes, by all means let’s free ourselves from the notion that we must gave gates, at all. We live in the science fiction future, and with the technology at our fingertips, the possibilities are unbounded. Let the traditional publishers slowly fall to dust while we thrive and give readers what they want, good stories at affordable prices.

I love the metaphor here, the idea of what I’m part of as being just one stall in a teeming marketplace. I’m comfortably at home, not out in the hot sun hawking my wares, but my neighbors are doing the same as I, and when you put it all together, it is a glorious, spicy melange of offerings to the public. Dan Holloway, questioning the desirability of gatekeepers for Indie publishing, “To do justice to the indie community, we can’t treat it as such – a single community with a single way of doing things. We don’t want to build a mall, we want to build a bustling market full of the myriad sensual treats of the Grand Bazaar in Istanbul. And that means not claiming to single out “the best” as though the best saffron were the same as the best silk hijab.”

See, what I propose is that YOU, my reader, be trusted to decide what is best for you. Not based on what some expert with credentials (a bachelor’s degree earned to work fifteen hours a week, plus another two-three jobs on top of that, undoubtedly, in order to live) says is best for you. Not based on what some poor kid trying to scratch their way up a success-ladder crumbling to dry rot and termites beneath her fingertips says is best for you. But what you think is good. Because entertainment is a very individual decision. Along with a lot of other things I am not going into on this blog, but I trust you are thinking about them, as well as about what you plan to read next.

35 Comments

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35 responses to “Fling Open the Gates

  1. The concept of literary gatekeepers is the consequence of a technological limit that has been in place for so long that those who work within it have come to accept it as inherent.

    Fifty years ago, the mechanics of book printing required a large minimum print run in order to spread the initial cost of typesetting across many printed copies. At that time only a few books could be printed each season, else the cost per book would be prohibitive.

    That is not the case today, but the traditional publishing paradigm is still locked into that model, even though most of the individuals working in the publishing industry have never seen a slug of cold type.

    What traditional publishers don’t seem to realize is that their traditions are actually quite recent, historically. What we are seeing is a shift from a 20th Century technological model that requires manufactured media back to the earlier tradition of artisan media. At one time (not so long ago, no more than six generations) artist production, sales, and distribution of art was the norm.

    Self-publishing is not a revolution, it is a renaissance.

    • Misha, I love that concept, since I am an artist by trade. Thank you!

    • Paul (Drak Bibliophile) Howard

      Slightly disagree.

      Publishers still has a limited number of “slots” for books to be published in a “season/month” because they have limited resources.

      Sure, a modern publisher *can* publish more books in a given period than Gutenberg but that’s because the publisher has more resources than Gutenberg had.

      For that matter, even your “artisan media” model contains limits.

      No way (for example) could David Weber create all the books that his fans would buy even in an “artisan media model”. There would have to be an infinite number of David Webers to do that. [Wink]

      • The point that I was trying to make is that publisher’s control over what books reach the marketplace is not and never has been based on any particular literary merit–it was a consequence of a monopoly on the means of book production. That monopoly no longer exists.

  2. A lot of people in the industry confuse between filters, which we do need(too many books, not enough time) and gatekeepers. which we don’t. The functions are related, but gatekeepers are universal whereas filters can be personalized.

    • I read an article, or a comment, can’t recall which, about a person complaining that Amazon sends him recommendations. Well, do you really want to go through every book in the e-store? Good luck with that… and I usually rely on friends, reviews, and yes, sometimes the recommendations when I’m bored enough. I have a to-read stack of sufficient height that I am unworried about running out of reading material anytime this millenium.

    • masgramondou

      I suspect there may be a role for “recommenders” and/or “promoters” who get a small cut of sales for actively recommending a work to people that they believe will like it. Kind of like the Amazon automated system but with more of a human personal touch. They might even be a brand (or series of brands).

  3. What the gatekeepers have failed to notice is that the fence–the sheer cost of getting a book to a reader–has collapsed. They’re minding their gate. . . and some sheep are still lining up to file through into the safe pasture of Traditional Publishing. The others are gleefully leaping over a few moldering boards and galloping off over the hills. In fact, I’ve heard rumors that they’re leaping over those old boards on the far side of the safe pasture and exploring off into the wilds.

    • *boing, boing!* I used to keep sheep and goats, and trust me, when one found a hole in the fence, they all did soon thereafter… Although we did have a few sheep that were clueless.

      • Yeah, us writer sheep are a little slower than real sheep, and a bit skeptical of those who have never been shorn, err, traditionally published. Must be some goats in the ancestry somewhere . . .

  4. To paraphrase Firefly’s Malcolm Reynolds: most of the world is middlemen, and they don’t take kindly to being eliminated.

    They produce NOTHING. To eat, they must latch onto something someone else produced, and sell it to a third person. So they have to imbue what they do with ‘value’ somehow, because otherwise they wouldn’t eat.

    Chapter 15 of Life on the Mississippi (Mark Twain) is an exceedingly well written (quite short – and worth every word) description of how the riverboat pilots on the Mississippi had a monopoly, and controlled every single bit of shipping on the river – it sounds exactly like what BP would like to do, and thinks it has actually BEEN doing – until the railroads came in, and freight no longer had to go down the river on barges, and the monopoly disappeared.

    The publishers in the big houses are screaming that only they can get your book before an adoring public – even as their monopoly vanishes into the mists.

  5. Ben Hartley

    Thank you for pointing out the difference between qualifications and credentials. To be qualified is to be able to do something; to be credentialed is to have convinced (or bamboozled) a third party to put it in writing.

    • Ben, I’m currently half-way through earning a piece of paper that will enable me to make more money than I could without it. By earning, I mean paying out lots of money. But to write my books, I refuse to allow anyone to tell me I am not qualified because I don’t have a piece of paper that reads “creative writing’ or iliterature’ on it.

  6. This also partially explains why there is so little being written that is for men. If most “gatekeeping” is being done by unpaid young women then their tastes will dominate the field. Young women seldom like the same sort of thing that Middle aged men like as an example

    • You know, I hadn’t thought that through, although it had struck me that the unpaid interns all seem to be college-aged girls. I think it’s a very likely possibility, and anyway, are there any men in publishing anymore? It seems all I ever hear about are women, either the very young or the dried up bitter sorts.

      • In their vernacular, Men’s voices are Passe’, they don’t need to be heard any more because they were heard so much in the past.

        Asimov’s current editor is a woman, and the magazine has gone to hell. No more Allen Steele Coyote stories, now it’s a repository of Grey Goo. I’m still way behind, but one of the most recent stories I managed to force my way through (I paid for it, I must finish reading it) has a little girl on a tidally-locked planet lose her faith in her heroic father who fought against the monsters from the other side of the terminus line. The kickers added at the end? The monsters were really just primitive indigenes, Her brother became a solder like her dad and died pointlessly, but SHE became a sort of cultural anthropologist and explored the ruins after they were wiped out, and at the very, very end, she is casually revealed to be a lesbian. I guess that was insurance to make sure the story got bought.

        Viewed through the lens of the Human Wave, it was just so blisteringly obvious the mindset and message behind the story, and so much of it seemed needlessly tacked-on.

        • And they flail their arms and declare publishing is dying… I can’t imagine why.

        • Synova

          I can see where, at some time in the past, that would have been a “speculative” type of story… where the assumptions of the day are questioned.

          Sort of like how Bambi is an entirely different creature relative to the common wisdom when it was created than it is when viewed today. Or, oh, Black Beauty was when it was written.

          Today, if one were to write a story that questioned assumptions and common wisdom the monsters in the story would have been real, and dangerous, and eaten the girl at the end.

          • …and it wouldn’t be published.

            The last few pages of that story almost seemed like a tacked-on checklist to add Liberal Cred to it.

            I used to have a dream of getting a story in Asimov’s, but I think now that dream is dead.

      • Dorothy Grant

        There are still some men, but like working at a pharmacy – once sufficient women are in place, the corporate culture becomes decidedly male-unfriendly. Full of harassment, too, but who would be so …unmanly… as to report being harassed?

        Sadly, it doesn’t have to be this way. If the women in the field were smart enough, and wise enough, and clever enough to focus on the target market of readers instead of the Golden Gut Feel of what’s good, they’d be much more successful.

    • Also the publishing industry is in chase of the “young” same as Hollywood. this is stupid — Hollywood can do that. date movies, down time, etc. — reading is something you do either VERY young, or after you find time in your middle years.

      • I realize I’m not the norm, making time to read even while I go to school and work. But it’s important to me. The college kids I go to school with largely do not read, so pursuing them as a market share – unless it’s a book they are required to read for school, and even then most of them go for Sparknotes – is ludicrous.

  7. TXRed

    *Gasp!* You mean publishers should treat readers like grown-ups and let people choose what they like to read!?? But, but, what about socially meaningful, soul-searching tales of existential angst set in underserved communities? People will stop reading what’s good for them and start looking for entertaining stories! Heresy! Smelling salts! *thud*

    • You sure you want me to come over there with smelling salts? I hear they’re pretty nasty…

      I decided that I’m going to pattern my publishing house (hey, it is so, even if it’s a treehouse right now!) after Baen. Trust my customers. Give them value, and fun reads, and…