Becoming your own gatekeeper

I’d like to piggyback onto Clare’s topic yesterday, about the role of gatekeepers in publishing. After I posted my comment yesterday, I found myself doing an internal rant about the subject, so I thought I might as well share it here.

Here’s what I really think about gatekeepers: No matter which path you take to becoming published, legacy or indie, you must act as your own gatekeeper.

Lesson #1 I learned when I got published: You don’t get much editing.

When I first got a writing contract, I expected to have lengthy, cozy conversations with my editor about my work. Granted, we lived on opposite coasts, but I expected to get some sort of in-depth discussion about where my drafts needed overhaul. What I typically got, instead, was a one-page email of bullet points. I was amazed by how few significant changes were expected. Even a bit suspicious.

As I met and talked with other writers who worked for Big 6 publishers, I heard similar stories. Here was the bottom line: Agents and editors sign you only if they think you’re already publishable. They don’t take writers who need work.

Of course, a publisher can be wrong about your writing. Sometimes they put it out there, and it doesn’t sell. (We writers like to bemoan lousy covers or inattentive publicity departments for this failure to thrive.)

Now comes along indie publishing. Indie writers will have to become their own gatekeepers. But here’s the truth: We writers  are always our own gatekeepers. We’re wasting our time if we put stuff out there that isn’t “publishable.” We have to be able to know when our work is ready for publication. And especially, when it’s not.

One thing I notice a lot in critique groups: Writers submit  material before it’s ready. Sometimes a writer will turn to me with hopeful eyes and say, “Do you think my piece is ready to send out?” Most of the time I have to say (reluctantly, because I like the person) “no.” What I don’t understand is writers who can’t figure that out for themselves.

When you’re ready to self-publish (or submit to an agent or publisher), you must compare your work to what’s already on the bookshelves. Does it measure up? Are you sure? With my own work, I am extremely reluctant to submit it. Only deadlines have ever forced me to push the Send button. (Knowing when a draft is finished–that’s a blog topic for another day).

I know I’m preaching to the choir here. Most TKZ’ers visit our little blog in the cybersphere because we’re  obsessive about perfecting our craft.

As Captain Picard would say, “Make it so.”


17 thoughts on “Becoming your own gatekeeper

  1. Great insight, Kathryn. 100% correct. It’s up to the writer to ensure the quality of the work, regardless of who publishes it. So often these days, legacy publishers will tell newly-signed writers, “Oh, we’ve just had so many cutbacks in our budget, you’ll have to do all the marketing.”

    And as you pointed out, a good portion of the editing, too. But that should be expected.

    A book is really written from the second draft onward, and a critique group can be of immeasurable help in shaping a final version. Comparing your work to books you’ve read, even comparing it to work you respect in your critique group…these are all tools at our disposal which we, IMHO, are obliged to use.

  2. Thanks, Mike. With the advent of indie e-publishing, we may see a greater percentage of “not ready for prime time” books, because production is easy, and editors and agents can be cut out of the loop. Readers, however, are already finding ways to pick through the online slush pile. Writers who succeed will have to do what they’ve always done–make the work good enough before sending it out.

  3. Ah, yes. I grew up reading stories of Maxwell Perkins at Scribners collaborating with Fiitzgerald and Hemingway. Like the Algonquin Round Table, tales from another era. It’s too bad we’ll never see the likes of Perkins — or the old Scribners — anymore. I let a select few see the ms. of my novel after a second draft, but I’d gone through it at least a dozen more times before I started sending it to agents.

    And with real editing having become a lost art, you are right that writers, particularly indie ones, have a greater obligation than ever to make everything tight and publishable before they foist it on the reading public.

  4. Steven, here’s my concern: Many writers go through dozens of drafts on their own–some even rewrite for years, but the finished work is still subpar. They wind up submitting it when they reach a certain point, and decide they can’t make it any better. In the old days, these writers would get a useful hint after receiving numerous rejections. Going forward, those same manuscripts will be released into a giant cyber-slush pile. I know readers will ultimately find a way to pick through the offerings. But now that there’s a credible way around the “gatekeepers”, there’s an even greater need for writers to insist on top quality from themselves. The gatekeepers won’t be able to slow us down as much anymore.

  5. Every time when I think I’m done, I read another section of Plot & Structure, and back I go again, pushing the marble up the hill with my nose. By the time I’m REALLY done, my characters will be 98 years old. But the eBbook will live forever.

  6. I don’t think one can ever wait until it is all just perfect, not if you want to actually get your story out there. Perfection never comes. No matter how man times even an editor or agent reads it some stuff will get by. I’ve narrated enough books, even award winning highly acclaimed stuff, that still had typos or bad wording in places.

    I have always used beta readers, but at times they’ve not always been as critical as I’d have liked.

    I’ve had two different agents in the past 6 years. One, a known Hollywood agent with several big titles, sucked and tried to literally suck money out of me. The other, a brand new agent with serious experience as a Simon & Schuster editor for English books sold in Europe, did a ton for me both in editing and proofing and so on, and got me on the table at a couple of the big-6 before getting sick and dropping out. I felt bad but hey, that’s the way it goes.

    After those debacles I hired a pretty good free lance editor out of pocket for my stuff, did the best I could with what I had and jumped into the self-pub pool with both feet. Things have gone pretty good for me doing it alone. My next book, due out in a couple months, has been edited by the same editor for a reasonable fee and will be self-pubbed as well.

    Without those checks and balances, either the agents or the editor, or even the betas I don’t think I could’ve made my books as readable as they are now.

    By the way…over the weekend I learned that somehow, somewhere word got out on a freebie I ran for the weekend and nearly 14,000 copies of my ebook 65 Below got slurped into kindles world wide…most of that in 1 day.

    I felt pretty good about that…got a free special on my book Faithful Warrior to see if I can replicate that action this friday/saturday 29-30…here’s hoping

  7. I don’t think comparing to other published authors works very well to determine whether your own manuscript is ready. If you don’t know a fault is a fault, how do you know that the author you’re comparing to did it wrong? We mostly don’t know what we don’t know. That’s why we need editors in the early stages to teach us, and in the later stages to point out where we’ve forgotten the lessons or lost our way.

    And I have to agree with Basil. The hardest lesson for me to absorb when I went from school into the workplace as a technical writer is that the documentation doesn’t have to be perfect, it has to be good enough. When it’s time to ship, you lock down the product and send it out the door. Drove me crazy at first because I couldn’t stand going out with known flaws, but that’s the reality of doing business.


  8. Great comments from everyone and I agree writers must be responsible for their own quality control. For me (and I know it’s a weakness!) I find I need validation from someone with industry experience that it truly is publication worthy. That is often many iterations beyond when I and my beta readers thought it was ready!

  9. I love your post, Kathryn. Very, very true. Most days I trust my judgment on whether my book is ready for an editor’s eye, but there are days when I doubt EVERYTHING. Authors are weird.

  10. What is it they say? When you think you’re finished walk away from your work for a week–or two if you have the time, then read it again. The distance of time reveals so much we missed before!

    Gatekeeper. Mentor. Champion. Foe. We as authors are all of these for ourselves. Great post, Kathryn!

  11. Great post, Kathryn.

    For me, every writing session begins with rewriting the previous writing session. By the time I slog through to the end, the “first” draft–which is actually sort of the hundredth draft–is in pretty good shape. Then it gets its first reading from my wife. I make appropriate changes.

    Then it goes to my agent, who gives it a thorough read. We agree on changes to be made before we submit, and on which ones can wait until after the editorial pass. (This choice is the great gift of having an established publishing record. For first submissions, all conceivable edits need to be completed prior to submission.) I make appropriate changes.

    My editor is next, and her read generates a long and very detailed editorial letter. There’s usually a long telephone conversation after that. I make appropriate changes.

    I cash the delivery & acceptance (D&A) check.

    Pause two months. I submit the outline for the next book (or the proposal for the next contract). I cash the signing check.

    Next come the copy edits, which prompt another read-through by me, and typically quite a few more changes. Tweaking, mostly, with lots of deletes.

    Pause another few weeks. I get the page proofs, and my last chance at changes. Generally, there are more than the production editor wants, but production editors are by nature kind of cranky. (Arthur, you’re a prince!)

    Finally, after all of that, there’s a book. Given that I thought it was pretty great when I submitted it, I’m always shocked and grateful at how much better it is after it’s been through the grinder.

    Maxwell Perkins may be dead, but in my experience, over the course of four publishers (maybe five, if you count a reorganization), the process of collaborative creativity is still very much alive.

    John Gilstrap

  12. John – that is an awesome compilation of the process. Even with the small press that have my work, I was surprised at the editorial letter. It uncovered a tic I didn’t even know I had and challenged some of my jargon. The result, which has one more round of line-editing to go, is much better for it.


  13. Congrats on the downloads for 65 Below, Basil! Think how many people are right now becoming familiar with your work.

    Jim, sorry I violated the Prime Directive of only 1 Star Trek reference per week! Oops, I just did it again!

    John G., Terri, I know there is wisdom in the editorial letters. New writers can’t rely on those for injecting quality into the work, however. If there are major issues from the get-go, an unknown writer will simply get a rejection. When we’re under contract, they have to help us fix it, lol.

    I guess my real concern boils down to the fact that many people in critique groups can’t seem to judge their own work. They want to send it out way too soon, or when they get stuck.
    “I’ll just send it out and see what happens,” they say.
    The answer? “Nada much.”
    Now those books will be floating in the Kindle Free queue.

  14. KS, I agree that comparing one’s writing to published work isn’t a foolproof way of determining writing quality. I don’t know what the answer is. I observe people who can spot the flaws in other people’s writing, but can’t analyze their own. Maybe there’s a built in set of blinders that every writer needs to learn how to overcome. Or maybe the Internet is getting us so used to so much quickly written copy, we simply don’t demand as much of ourselves anymore. Or maybe I’m getting my knickers in a twist over nothing, lol!

Comments are closed.