Are you the gatekeeper?

Recently, I’ve seen a spate of articles and comments on various social media sites extolling the necessity of being traditionally published before you venture into the world of indie publishing. After all, these posts contend, how can you tell if you really are good enough if you don’t first make it through the gatekeepers of a few publishing houses that have been controlling the way things have been done for decades? If you can’t find yourself an agent and can’t get yourself a traditional publishing contract then you simply need to accept the fact that you aren’t good enough to be a writer and you shouldn’t be filling up the digital shelves with what can only be classified as dreck. Oh, these same folks will admit there might be an exception or two to this but they are so few and far between as to be non-existent.

Well, to those folks I say bollocks. For one, that sort of stance forgets the fact that traditional publishers have only so many slots a year they leave open for new authors. It is an arbitrary number, determined by the economics of how many new titles they plan to put out, how many of those will be filled by their best sellers, how many will be filled by their mid-list writers and how many will go to the lucky few to get past the gatekeepers. Even editors, when they are willing to be honest, will tell you there aren’t enough slots for all the good books they see come across their desks. But still, those who are terrified of indie publishing and its impact on the business say you should go the traditional route AND get a contract before going indie.

Of course, there is another reality they so conveniently forget, or at least overlook. Many traditional publishing contracts now include a clause that gives the publisher the right of first refusal. That means an author can’t go indie without first giving their publisher the chance to publish that work. Often those clauses have no time limit on how long a publisher can sit on a “submission” so that bit you want to take indie can wither and die on your publisher’s desk. Worse case scenario — and this has happened — the publisher will cancel your contract and demand your advance back and all because you dared self-publish something that had nothing to do with the project you were contracted for with them.

But there is something else those who say we should go the traditional route and make it past those gatekeepers before branching out on our own forget — those self same gatekeepers have their own tastes and they have been told by the powers that be in the accounting offices what sells and what doesn’t. They are looking for particular types of books based on buying trends. Nothing wrong with that, at least not on the surface. But traditional publishing, unlike indie publishing, is a slow process and what the trend might be today, when the editor accepts a book, probably won’t be the same as the trend in a year or more when that traditionally published book finally makes it to the shelves. An indie author, however, isn’t constrained by such things as going through the corporate ladder or being tied to a publication slot a year or more out because the publisher can only put out so many titles each month.

The landscape of publishing is changing. I think we can all agree upon that. With that change has come a change in the gatekeepers. Once upon a time, those gatekeepers were the publishers. Then, with the need to cut costs on the corporate level, publishers gave agents the role of gatekeeper. Don’t believe me? Ask yourself this then. If the publisher is the gatekeeper why require an author to submit through an agent? That agent decides what is “good enough” and that means decides if they like the work and that, my friends, is based on personal taste, bias, etc. They become the first gatekeepers under the traditional method. They also take a huge bite out of your potential income as a result.

But under the new landscape, who are the gatekeepers? They are, in my opinion, the readers. They are the ones who decide what to spend their money on. They decide what sort of stories they want to read. They are the ones who leave the reviews on Amazon or other online stores where they bought the book. They are our audience, our customers and the ultimate judge of whether or not we are good enough.

But that doesn’t mean we can relax and throw anything we want up on Amazon or iTunes or B&N as an ebook and forget about it. We owe it to our readers, to those who are paying good money for our work, to give them our very best. That means we accept as indies that we have many more hats to wear than the traditionally published author. We are not only the creator of the work but also the bean counter and front office and so much more. It is our job, our duty if you will, to make sure we have a professional looking cover. We need to make sure our work is well edited and formatted in a way that reminds our readers of a “real” book. If that means hiring an editor and someone to format and convert our books for digital and print formats, we need to do that. The alternative is learning how to do it ourselves. We are those one man shops of old where we do it all.

In other words, we are publishing’s jack-of-all-trades. Or we should.

We owe it not only to our readers but to other indie authors to look at our work with a critical eye and not hit the publish button too soon. Cedar wrote a post yesterday that should be a cautionary tale for all of us. It’s fine to be proud of your work. It’s great to want to publish it. But make sure you have someone look at it first who will tell you the truth, no matter how brutal it might be, not only about your writing but your cover and your marketing plans. Every time someone publishes something that is less than the same quality of a traditionally publishing book, there will be a chorus of nay-sayers lining up to point fingers and declare that all indie published books are horrible, awful pieces of dreck.

So, who are the gatekeepers?

The reality is that we, the authors, are the first gatekeepers. We decide if what we have written should be let loose in the wilds of the book buying public. Then we open our gate to our editors and they decide if we are right and the book should be released or if it needs some more work. It is up to us to decide if that editor is correct but this, I remind you, is the time when we put ego and dreams on the back burner and look at our work and the suggested edits with a clear eye and do what needs to be done. The editor isn’t always right but they also aren’t as close to the story as the writer is and can see the holes we know were filled, at least in our minds.

All that said, the final gatekeeper is the reader. That is something traditional publishing, on the whole, has forgotten. There are a few exceptions, Baen being one of them, to that. Those publishers listen to their readers and know that to remain viable they have to keep the core fans happy while, at the same time, expanding their readership. Unfortunately, most publishers, especially the Big Five, see their role as dictating what books should be out there and what reading trends should be continued long after they have run their course. How else do you explain the fact there are so many indie authors writing science fiction, fantasy and certain sub-genres of romance who are making livings from writing in genres all but abandoned by traditional publishing over the years?

So remember this. The ultimate gatekeeper is your reader. They are the ones paying money for your work. They are the ones who will recommend your work to their friends and family. They are also the ones who will drop you like a hot potato if you fail to hold the trust they have put in you. You owe it to them to put out the best project possible and that means thinking twice before hitting that publish button. Have you done all you can to make sure your book is the best it can be? Is your cover appropriate not only to the story but to the genre? Have you used the best tags to make your books findable in a search? Does your blurb enticeย or intrigue your reader or turn them off so they won’t even look at the preview? Unless you can answer yes to these questions, you are not ready to approach, much less pass, the ultimate gatekeeper — the reader.

58 thoughts on “Are you the gatekeeper?

  1. Someone I respect once gave this advice: before going indie, be sure you’ve written at least 500,000 words of fiction (lifetime) and are getting personalized rejections on a regular basis. This was how you knew you were at “entry level” professional craft. I thought that sounded like pretty good advice. Almost nobody can write a good book or story in the very beginning. Of course, Kevin J. Anderson summed it up perfectly: publishing has now been made easy, success is still as hard as it’s always been. (grin)

    1. Brad, I totally agree with the 500,000 words bit. The personalized rejections are more difficult for someone who only writes novels. Most agents use form rejections or, if you are “lucky” will reject with a personal only after you have offered up at least a couple of rounds of rewrites — with only the promise of maybe getting a contract with them. Since Baen and only a couple of others accept unagented mss, getting a personalize rejection from a publisher is even tougher. KJA is absolutely right. We just have to keep striving for that brass ring and that means improving our craft as we go. ๐Ÿ˜‰

      1. Well, I only got a couple of personalized rejections from agents – although one of them did so with regret, saying that my book (he had read the whole thing and loved it) just wasn’t “marketable” to the publishers he knew in New York. But I had been blogging extensively at that point for five years, which worked out to well over 500,000 words, PLUS all the other scribblings that I never showed to anyone.
        But I already had a pretty good idea that I did have an audience out there, so I did a fund-raiser on the blog for my first novel … and now, nine books later, I believe that I have got the hang of it all.

      2. I’d agree those are good criteria, however, I’ve heard 1 million words to get good. Also a personalized rejections requirement assumes the author is trying for trad pub, and puts the burden on them to try for trad pub first when some may already know it’s not for them, unless they try for Baen, because of the corruption and/or limitations of trad pub. And it’s still just opinions of the gatekeepers. Though it is casting a wider net, fishing for personal rejections as opposed to a deal, it’s still just these peoples’ opinions.

          1. Among artists, they say you have a thousand bad pictures you have to get out of your system before you’re any good. If a picture is worth a thousand words….

    2. Thanks for the tip, Brad. You’re among the folks whose advice I always consider, because you’ve paid your dues and have a genuine ‘One hand reaching for the next rung on the ladder; one hand reaching down to help others up’ ethic.

      I’m going to take issue with a couple aspects of your comment, though. ๐Ÿ™‚

      First, I think the 500,000 words/regular personalized rejections rule is contingent on the writer’s talent and specific circumstances. Hard and fast word count benchmarks smack of the old 10,000 hour rule that’s been pretty thoroughly debunked. Some writers might be ready to go pro sooner. Some may need more practice. Some will never gain proficiency no matter how hard they work. That’s life.

      Second, seeking the blessing of tradpub editors in general seems like a questionable practice considering the decline in traditionally published SFF novel sales and magazine circulations. Of course, this objection admits of exceptions, too. There a few acquisitions editors I could name who still know how to pick winners.

      Like Amanda implied, writers have easier access to direct reader feedback now than ever before. So writers wishing to skip the rejection carousel can seek out trusted beta readers, hire a professional editor, and then let the readers tell them what still needs improvement. Which they will. ๐Ÿ˜‰

    3. This is exactly why my first book (inspired by Sarah’s A novel in 13 weeks over 13 months ago and still not finished) is deep back-story for the series I want to write: I don’t want to ruin my universe by having an awful first book. This way, when it is not very good (being the first), it can just be ignored and the series will not suffer for it.

      That said, my name will still be on it, so I want it to be the best that I can manage, now.

  2. I have a Cat story that will probably never go up on sale. It is too preachy, heavy-handed, and unfunny. If you reverse the sexes of the characters, it borders on award willing wyminist fiction. Will my fans like it? No, not based on what sells and the comments I’ve gotten. Could it be rewritten? Probably not, so why damage my reputation by letting it out of the gate?

    1. I have a couple of stories that I wrote for myself, for fun, and that I thought would never see publishing. Then I showed two of them around to my beta readers out of curiosity.
      They loved them, which surprised the heck out of me. So they’re both going to go out as YA books, the first one as soon as I get the cover done (so hopefully next week).
      Now I did rewrite them both over the winter when I was stuck on things for my current series, so the writing quality did improve, but still, I was writing them for my own personal enjoyment, cliche’s and all. Who knew that other people would like it, right?

      1. I have a couple like that. Of course, I blame Sarah for making me put them out there. I blame Sarah for everything that has to do with my writing. ๐Ÿ˜‰ She was the first one to really push me to stop tossing stuff in a drawer or under the bed.

          1. It could be the highlight (lowlight?) of LibetyCon’s Filk session (also known as “the song that got Filk banned from LibertyCon.)

            1. At LibertyCon? The filkers would revolt, and the general membership would take up the rallying cry, “I may not like what you sing, but I’ll defend to the death your right to sing it!”

    1. You need to WRITE!! You’re not writing enough, it’s the doing that makes you better. And I still think the Dr. Mauser should be your first book, because all it needs is a rewrite, not a complete new start.

      1. I’m going to disagree. Put your first novel aside, and start something new. Rewriting isn’t the same as creating new words, and new worlds. Start something else, taking everything you’ve learned so far. Put out more stories, get more feedback, and don’t look back. In five or six years, pull your first novel out of the hard drive, take a look at it, and be surprised by how easy it will be to go “Ah, this is salvageable! I just need to…”

        But to gain that wisdom, you need to practice. So write!

    2. I agree with John that you need to write. Not only does writing more help improve your craft — if you are taking it seriously — but numbers do help your sales. Mine went up once I hit the double digits with novels and “boxed sets”.

  3. Who lets those pesky readers decide what they want to read, anyway? How dare they buy and enjoy books by authors who haven’t been officially vetted? They are the real problem–if they’d just read what they are supposed to read no one would have to worry about the the self-publishing problem.

    1. You say that tongue in cheek, at least I hope it is with tongue firmly planted in cheek, but I have actually seen some of those supporting the demise of indie work say exactly that. They don’t believe readers are capable of deciding what is good or bad and what they do or do not want to read.

      1. That’s the problem with satire these days–it’s tough to lampoon people who seem so dead set at becoming parodies of themselves.

        I’ll come up with something that I think is taking their arguments to the point of absurdity and damned if they don’t outdo me the next day.

  4. I think at some point, you’re going to have to take the plunge and publish. If you listen to too much criticism, you’ll never pull the trigger.

    Amazon gives you some tools to learn a little if what you’re doing is worthwhile. At the beginning level, you can see if people are “reading through”, and following your reading.

    My first publication was six weeks ago. The fourth of the series went live this last Sunday. Despite some comment on the first review about editing {Pat Patterson’s review by the way. Thanks Pat, very helpful review} people have read all four novels. It looks like 80% of those that read the first novel have read the second. The sales and borrows are growing on the third. And even though there has been no notices sent out or “follower” promotion, the fourth has had two sales and one borrow.

    The point being that this suggests that something is holding readers’ interest even though there has been no real promotion. And that there are a couple of minor flaws evident in the first novel for a couple of readers.

    How do you find this out without actually publishing?

    1. I know it was this blog and Sarah Hoyt’s that got me to finally take the plunge and decide to go indie. I made the decision early enough that I can actually map out what sequence I want to finish my stories in and start working on the side skills as well as save up for a good copy edit. The upside is I can plan what I need to do. The down side is I don’t have a finished backlog, just a waiting to be polished one.

      1. For me, it was Sarah. Not her blog, but her.

        She urged me to put something up and stop waiting for “approval” from folks other than readers. I did, and somehow that novelette did freakishly well.

        Frankly, it was the best writing move I ever made. While I have been published by someone other than myself now, I now have a lot more confidence in my writing, so I don’t get discouraged by rejections. I know I’m going to get paid for it, one way or another. ๐Ÿ™‚

        1. You know those pointy boots? She got them from Dave Freer and Eric Flint. They switched off kicking my brilliant prose until I actually started getting a grasp of crafting a story. My ego got a little bruised, but the skin toughened up nicely.

  5. I am my own gatekeeper.

    Those vaunted readers? They won’t see a word unless I release it as ‘good enough’ for me.

    The problem with the old system is it did not encourage people to be responsible for their own quality enough – they were urged to find an editor who would fix them and bless them, even before they sought out an agent.

    So the habit of kowtowing to someone else was established early.

    Except for those pesky folk who wrote fanfic – uncontrollable.

    And then ELJames and such.

    Stories (like information) don’t necessarily want to be free, but they sure want to be out there where someone might pay them attention.

    Psst. I have this story, see…?

  6. Gatekeepers by definition keep out the unwelcome. The trouble is, they get to decide, not the end user, ie the paying reading public. They are seeing all their power and control stolen away from them by indie, so naturally they must fling as many negatives at the concept as possible.
    What independent publishing has managed to do is remove the gatekeepers and replace that function with the more realistic one of quality control.
    I’ve been working with several indie authors, mostly doing first and beta reads. Just finished one 255 page novel, found one glaring error that fortunately was easily corrected, liked it so much that I volunteered to do a full copy edit. Took me several days. I averaged about one minor correction per page, stuff that most readers would pass over, but the sort of things that drive a grammar nazi bonkers. I had forgotten just how much work a full intensive copy edit can be, but as I said, I loved the book and know that it won’t get low reviews once posted, at least not for punctuation, spelling, and grammar issues.

    1. You hit the nail on the head with your first sentence, Uncle Lar. It is also something some folks seem to forget. They forget what will happen when those vaunted gatekeepers suddenly decide their flavor of the issue du jour is no longer what they want.

    2. sort_s_ of things, _sorts_ of things that drive a grammar nazi bonkers … oh wait … nevermind …

      1. Consider it my little Easter egg gift to all the retired English teachers out there. Totally intentional.

  7. Hugh Howey have traditional publish banging on HIS door. He did pick one to publish the dead tree version of his novels, but retains ALL other rights. His first big hit Wool is now being adapted into a movie…

    1. Same with Andy Weir. And David Dalglish and Michael Sullivan started indie and now have trad-published work.

  8. I love all of this but you are underestimating the fear ๐Ÿ™‚ I’m getting my stuff out there sound and the day I decided to go Indie, the fear swelled and now I’m convinced everything is crap and I should run it by more beta readers.

    1. On a related note: I got a chance to play around with an Autocrit license. This is obviously never going to be a substitute for a human editor or beta reader (duh!) but it’s pretty good at catching mechanical things, like repeating phrases, excessive adverbs, filler words,… Take its recommendations with a grain of salt, but it could be very helpful in cleaning up copy before a human editor gets to see it, so (s)he can focus on the meat and potatoes rather than on petty annoyances.

    2. Oh, believe me, I’m not underestimating the fear. That fear is with me every day, especially on those days when I’m staring at the Amazon KDP dashboard with the publish button laughing in my face.

      1. Ha! Right now I’m figuring out all the stuff on the business side of things, so I have an excuse to put it off a bit longer. And I’m starting with short stories so I don’t have to worry about the book quite yet ๐Ÿ™‚ I figure easing me into it will help with the fear.

    3. Nah, she’s not underestimating it, she’s just on the other side. Look, every poster (except me) on MGC has put their manuscript in an envelope and email, and sent it off to get rejected. And they’ve all (except me) pushed that publish button. It’s like taking that first dive off the high board, or giving a speech in front of a crowd, or asking someone to marry you: before, focusing on the fear, and focusing on the spectres of failure/embarrassment can be paralyzing. Afterward, it’s like “Oh, well, doing that wasn’t near as bad as fearing that.”

      The function of your fear is to keep you safe by never letting you do anything, go anywhere, try anything new, make new friends, or grow. While it’s wise to pay attention to your fear enough to note that you’re going to triple-check your safety harness straps, it’d be a shame if you let it freeze you at the bottom of the zip line, or keep you from climbing the rock face, and enjoying life.

        1. He’s asking what you’ve published, under what pen name, as you said you’re ‘getting stuff out there.’ Because he plugged you into amazon and got no hits on the search (since you haven’t hit publish yet.)

          So get your stuff published already, because you have people looking for it! ๐Ÿ˜›

          1. Ohhhh, I rea wasn’t sure if he was talking to me. ๐Ÿ™‚ I’m working on the covers with Oleg this weekend and I’ll put Amazon author page on my to do list because I forgot that one ๐Ÿ™‚

  9. Off-topic, but I thought you might find it interesting.

    I’m not quite sure how to explain this, but somehow your posting about the gatekeeper raised a question for me about just what kind of metaphorical process underlies that term? I.e., if there’s a gatekeeper, then clearly there’s some kind of inner place, which the gatekeepers protect, and the outer wilds, where they keep those who haven’t qualified, I guess. So apparently those wishing entry to the inner sanctum approach the gatekeepers, where they are examined or otherwise checked, and the gatekeepers determine whether or not to let them pass into the inner sanctum, right? Kind of a real-life example of Maxwell’s demon, I suppose.

    The trick, then, is trying to decide whether this is a good model for publishing, either in the traditional form or the newer indie world. I suppose one could argue that the older tradition in publishing, when printing a book required a fairly hefty upfront investment, led to a type of gatekeeper who decided whether or not they would make that investment for a particular submitted book. Agent, slush reader, editor, someone acted as a filter, supposedly choosing works that at least in their judgement were more likely to repay that initial investment. Add in the costs of distribution, real world bookstores, and all that, and yes, getting a book out through the various filters along the way was an accomplishment. I’m not sure I would say there was one group of gatekeepers, though, so much as an organization of filters.

    But when we look at the new world of indie publishing, things have changed. Admittedly, for the individual writer, there’s still an investment, at least in time and effort, to get the book ready. But publication, at least as an ebook, is pretty low cost. Just get the files ready, and Amazon and others will happily let you get into the wide open field. No gatekeeper, per se. Now, if you want to make a success, well, perhaps we should talk about reviews, about social networks, about spreading the news. In fact, I don’t think we have gatekeepers so much as we have broadcasters or reviewers. You don’t need to get past the gatekeepers, because the inner sanctum is a wide open field, with a thousand flowers blooming. You may need to intrigue the crowds, and get their attention in a good way. You need some noisemakers and cheerleaders, happily lifting your flower up a little so that it stands out.

    I suppose one way to put it is that the digital revolution has killed the gatekeepers, but now we need cheerleaders and volunteers directing traffic more than ever before.

    1. It depends on what the inner sanctum is. If the inner sanctum is a published work, then yes, the inner sanctum is wide open. If the inner sanctum is a reader’s library, then the inner sanctum is still closed. It’s just being mobbed by people of various skills and tactics. In that case the reviewers become the gate keepers, amazon’s rating and search become other gate keepers. “No you, that way, Enter by any of these three gates.” “Hey, this guy’s good, at least give him an interview” and the final gate keeper of the reader “Hm.. interview says no.”

  10. A good post, but thereโ€™s a terrible caveat: Every writer submits their best work. The writer thinks itโ€™s salable, and the beta reader who vetted it cannot articulate the problems, or thinks itโ€™s salable as well. There are no magic formulas, no process, no critique group, no credentials program to keep you from making a fool of yourself. Ultimately you have to shove that manuscript into an envelope and send it off, or go indie. Thatโ€™s the only way to tell if what you think is actually so.

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