Do we need Gatekeepers?

by Clare Langley-Hawthorne

Recently the concept of a ‘gatekeeper’ seems to have become a pejorative term for the agents, editors and other players in the traditional publishing world. With the advent of ‘indie’ publishing we’ve seen a lot of negativity surrounding the concept of ‘gatekeeper’ and for some, I think, the concept itself seemed outdated and irrelevant. 

I’ve come across two recent posts, however, defending the ‘gatekeeper’ – one by author Chris Pavone (see In Praise of Editors, Agents and every other Gatekeeper in Publishing) and the other by book editor Daniel Menaker (see The Gatekeeper. In praise of publishers who move readers and units) and they raise some interesting points in praise of the profession. I do believe that my own books benefited from the rigour imposed by this ‘gatekeeper’ model (both in terms of books acquired and not acquired:)). Along the way I always felt my writing improved from each round of revision and feedback. That of course, doesn’t have to happen within a traditional model – there are many fine independent editors who can apply just the same level of rigour to an author’s work (I just haven’t used them so I can’t really speak to this experience). 

I thought it would be interesting to get your take on both these ‘defences’ of the gatekeeper model and to see how TKZers felt the current state of the industry helps or hinders authors in terms of both curating the best work possible and getting readers to connect with writers (and books) that they might enjoy. There’s no doubt in my mind that the book world is now an incredible crowded one – one that I personally find hard to navigate as both a reader and a writer.

So what do you think?
Is there still a place for the traditional gatekeeper model? 

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26 thoughts on “Do we need Gatekeepers?

  1. The guy on Slate let fall an extremely revealing jewel: top editors hope to find the next hot selling author, without the dismal sales baggage most authors carry around with them.

    If you are an author, you will have books that sell and don’t sell! I think gatekeepers are valuable, but sometimes I think a bar is set waaaaay too high.

    • Lessie, I think you put your finger on a point that is seldom mentioned in the “mainstream” media. Publishers today are totally invested in chasing the great white whale–unpublished writers whose first work will become monster best sellers. That business model leaves other published writers–those of us with respectable sales numbers, but not NYT-list level–out in the cold. What is left for us to do? I think it’s clear that most former-mid list authors are becoming g “hybrids” of traditional and indie publishing approaches. The big surprise is, many of us find that we are making more money under the new business model.

  2. I’ll not buy another self-pub work. The “fit and finish” standard has too much variation for the product’s enjoyment.

    I’m certain when I buy from Random Penguin or St. Martin’s or a small house like Salt, I get a product free from fundamental issues which are distracting.

    Now, occasionally someone puts a safety on a revolver and I have to throw the book across the room; but, there is a lot less of the “description from the reflection” sort of writing with which to contend.

    If the book has sold to a reputable publishing house, I’m pretty certain someone with an English degree, a clue basket, and some experience has vetted the product. It matters.

    More, I’ll pay for the assurance.

    There’s always an exception, of course. Easier to spot though. That “bestseller” tag on the jacket is a warning, not an inducement.

    • Interesting – I do find as a reader there is no way I can trust what I see on Amazon to be a ‘good read’ unless I either know the author, trust someone who recommended it or it comes from a reputable house (and even then there are disappointments!)

    • Whelp, I was listening to a big thriller from a big author from a big publishing house on audio and this gem clunk out:

      “The impact was like the impact from a freight train.”

      That is only one of the many many gems in this story. It could have easily been 2 hours shorter.

      So, I guess somebody left their “clue basket” home that day. I read a combo and discover good and bad in both. If the sample sucks, I move on, but I never say never.

    • Sorry Jack to hear that you will never buy another self-published book.

      I just published my debut novel (self-pub) and did everything I could to make sure it met the standards in the traditional publishing world. I ran my story through my writers critique group and beta readers. I also hired a macro (substantive) editor, copy editor, book cover designer, formatter, and after that, I proof read my novel a number of times before I hit publish.

      I do agree though that there are many self-published books that do not pass the test.

      As an ethical author, I have never paid for a review or traded reviews. I’m hoping that through independent reviews and sample chapters on Amazon, readers can discern which self-pub books are worth buying.

    • Diana, I check the free sample for trad or self-pub books before I purchase. It helps me decide. I’ve found some wonderful self-pub books this way.

      Blessings on the sales of your debut novel ~ Wendy ❀

  3. Having attempted to slog through the loads of crap out there in the world of self-pub, I’ve gotten to the point that if I don’t know an author personally, I won’t try them unless they’re with a traditional publisher. And I say that as someone who’s hybrid–I have both trad pubbed and self-pubbed work. As a reader, I thank goodness for the gatekeepers. As an author, I thank goodness for my editors and agent. Trying to find qualified editors who will be sufficiently hard on my self-pubbed work was the most difficult part.

    • A feel that hybrid authors I would trust when they have brought out ‘indie’ as well as traditional – others it can be a crap shoot:)

  4. I think gatekeepers are necessary until a writer becomes capable of accurately judging the quality of his or her own work. I have been a member of many critique groups, and sadly, most of the writers in them felt ready to submit their work before it was anywhere near ready. While they were almost universally able to judge the readability of writing by others, there seemed to be a blind spot for their own work. I’m wondering if that’s because we hear and see our own writing according to the way it plays out inside our heads. It’s having a gatekeeper inside one’s brain that counts the most, I think.

    • But you have already had your work published, Clare. You know very well how high the bar is raised, and I’m sure you’re a good judge of whether a new manuscript meets that standard, or not. It’s the never-been-published-before writers who may lack that perspective. Those writers are particularly vulnerable to the temptation to self-publish before their work is ready.

  5. I think there is a fundamental misunderstanding of gatekeepers verses editors here. for me, an editor (story editor, line editor, copy editor, etc) is a vital function of the writing process, necessary to the production of a quality literature, whether published traditionally or independently.

    Any writer not employing at least a single editor (I contract with two–a story/line editor and a proofreader) does so at their own peril.

    As for the gatekeeper, the acquisition editors and the agents, that model imploded a long time ago when the publishers basically outsourced the slush pile to the agents, thus turning them into freelance employees of the publisher and away from being the advocate for writers and their work.

    Secondly, the publishers and the acquisition editors created the vacuum that Amazon and e-publishing filled when they (trad. publishers) stopped looking for what was good, or even what would sell, and instead only focused on finding the next big, multi-million dollar (Fill in the blank) author, already formed. Gone were the days of working with and growing an author and their audience, gone was the mid-list. So yes, in my opinion the old gatekeeper model is dead.

    As for who’s the arbiter of what is good now? Finally, its the reader. I believe, as a reader, it is easier now than ever before to determine what is good (to me) than it has ever been before.

    Look at the tools available, a lot of them are the same; good, quality covers, well-written blurbs, chapter samples and taglines and pull quotes. Same as before.
    If those are all good quality, professional and engaging, its a pretty safe bet the rest of the book will be too.

    All of that is available just like it used to be in bookstores, add to that, we also have customer reviews, author pages, links to publisher websites, author websites, best seller lists drilled down to “top five book in mysteries that mention a mosquito.”, elists and subscription lists like BookBub and Book Gorilla and review sites like GoodRead and Shelfari and LbraryThing. There are so many more ways to judge the quality of a book before you buy.

    Is there a lot out there–sure. But that’s a good thing. Believe me, if you see a book that’s presented well; good cover, good blurb, you read the sample and it grabs you, chances are you’ll find it to be a good book, regardless of how it came to sit on the shelf.
    Add to that, look at how many releases the author has; if there’s only one or two they’re either just starting out or they’re a flash in the pan that gave up because it started to get to hard (especially if their last release was over a year ago) and do they have print as well as ebook editions? All indicators of a pro working at their business.

    The quality’s out there, and its in a lot more places, bookstores all over the world. You’ll have to do some searching, but I much prefer that (as a writer and a reader) than having all those choices blocked like a bill in Congress by some arbitrary gatekeeper who’s got no clue what I might want to read.

    • Well said, David!

      I am amazed at the talk against self published books. I am sorry, but I read both traditional and self published works and I can honestly say 9O% of the time, I enjoy the self published books a lot more.

      I have seen, many times, a popular self published author dominating the indie world, readers love them, anything they publish is an automatic buy. Then they get picked up by a publishing house, and suddenly that author’s readers aren’t happy their work anymore. The ratings go down. No longer is that author an auto buy, readers start waiting for reviews before deciding to buy. Why? Because the “gatekeepers” think they know what readers want. So they take that author’s work and make it into what they think it should be, and then the author gets the backlash. I can name many authors that I have seen this happen to, but I’ll refrain.

      There are some god-awful self published works out there, true. But there are also a lot of authors who take pride in their work, good covers, professional editors, formatting and marketing.

      As you have listed above, there are so many ways to tell if a self pub work is good or not. So it’s sad to see people writing off all self pub books because of a few bad experiences.

      Lastly, just because a book is traditionally published doesn’t guarantee it’ll be good. I have read traditionally publish books riddled with errors, some way too long, dull, boring or formulaic.

  6. David DeLee is spot-on. Editing is crucial, but gatekeepers who want a percentage are not. I’ve found a hand full of new favorites over the past few years by giving unknown (to me) self pubbed authors a try. Of course, the vast majority are dross, but those books get deleted from my Kindle before I’ve finished the first chapter.

  7. David DeLee: ” … the publishers and the acquisition editors created the vacuum that Amazon and e-publishing filled when they (trad. publishers) stopped looking for what was good, or even what would sell, and instead only focused on finding the next big, multi-million dollar (Fill in the blank) author, already formed. Gone were the days of working with and growing an author and their audience, gone was the mid-list. So yes, in my opinion the old gatekeeper model is dead.”

    David is so right.

    The real conflict here is trad-pubbed authors trying desperately to maintain their ivory-tower-esque closed society. The barbarians were always at the gates, but thank God they had the gatekeepers to beat them back!

    Now, with the advent of self-pubbing, the barbarians avoid the gates altogether and enter through the side door, much to the dismay of the elitist NY-pubbed authors, who see their private club being infected willy-nilly by hordes of unwashed indie writers.

    To be sure, a lot of self-pubbed books are “crap” (a favorite word commonly used by the New York-pubbed writers), in dire need of a decent editor and a real cover designer. Also, many are in need of a good writer, truth be told. But you know, that’s the free enterprise system at work. The bad stuff is weeded out and withers on the vine, while the good stuff rises on its own merit.

    This, by the way, is NOT how gatekeeping works, where much good stuff is weeded out arbitrarily by 21-year-old junior assistants who, in rejecting everything, are terrified of recommending something their bosses might not like. A lot of other good stuff is killed at the gate because the agent “doesn’t know what to do with this book, even though it’s good”, or he/she has a “full client list” (oh, no, I certainly don’t want to make any more money). And yes, a lot of it is rejected due to poor writing.

    But you know, the poorly-written books will soon be discovered by readers who bother to read the Amazon samples. The samples are usually long enough to expose bad writing and this is the gate through which untalented writers seldom pass.

    And speaking of readers (which agents rarely do), how many of them have been deliriously pleased by reading Hugh Howey’s books, or those of HM Ward, or Russell Blake, or any number of other indie writers who have found wild success? Those readers would’ve been denied access to these books (and many, many more just like them) by the gatekeepers.

    To repeat what David said, the gatekeepers are ONLY interested in the next James Patterson or Nora Roberts, not in an author whose novels will require actual effort on the part of a publisher. And it’s this constricting attitude which is opening the door to self-publishing ever wider.

    • I agree that readers act as great quality control but I do think it’s hard to find the good stuff out there given how crowded the market is:)

    • With regard to ferreting out the “good stuff,” I have found it useful to download book samples (from Amazon, I admit it!). If an author/book hasn’t grabbed me by the end of a downloaded sample, I simply move on.

  8. I dislike the term ‘gatekeeper’ because it is, or has become, a negative way of describing a curation process. Yes, it’s a flawed process, even more so now that trad publishers are struggling to stay afloat in a sea that is rough and capricious.

    But the majority of readers, i.e., the masses, aren’t necessarily that good at curation either, and that scares the heck out of me, and I think it should scare all writers who care about becoming the best writers they can be. If poorly written books can achieve stellar financial success, and beautifully written books languish, what point will there be for any of us, other than personal pride, to continue perfecting our craft?

    This is not to say that we could or should do away with self-publishing. I applaud the freedom self-publishing offers to writers whose projects are worthwhile but perhaps not commercial enough for trad publishers, but what many writers forget is that every freedom comes with (or should come with) a correlative responsibility, and I think that responsibility is to “the order,” to create work that is the best we can possibly achieve or at least to create professional work (from text through to cover).

    But I’m old-fashioned, I guess.

    I think there are other curation processes that may save the day: e.g., a myriad of legitimate contests and legitimate reviewers (some bloggers, for example), and whatever other process comes along. Perhaps some new curation process, other than the masses, will emerge so that discerning readers who seek special books will be able to find them. I hope so.

  9. Having thirty “commercially” published books to my credit, I’m now entering the indie waters, but finding, to my dismay, a huge mess of every editor’s slush pile for the taking on the big A. I take the time and pay the money to edit my work, and I wish others would do the same. Gatekeepers? As far as looking for the next bestseller? Don’t miss them. Editors and proofers and professional cover creators? Absolutely necessary. I only wish everyone who hasn’t been through the traditional process would use them.

  10. Clare–
    Like almost everything else, how a writer views traditional literary gatekeepers depends on his/her experience with them. I’ve had agent gatekeepers–two of them–who took on my work, but failed to get me a deal. Years later, after submitting the same novels to the rigors of good editing, I came to see that the two agents in question were probably what’s known as throw-it-against-the-wall agents. They liked my writing well enough to take me on, but either didn’t know enough, or didn’t care enough to help me refine the manuscripts first. They just threw them out there to editors, and hoped for the best.
    So, based on my experience, the only gatekeepers I have solid respect for are reliable independent editors.

  11. I have a friend who has a small indie publishing company. She’s meticulous about editing work before it goes out and she’s good at what she does.

    I’ve had some friends suggest I publish with her just so I can get my book out there and move on to something else. Maybe I’m being Pollyanna, but I think I can publish traditionally. I don’t want to publish just so I can say I’ve been published.

    I’m done buying self published books. I buy them because someone tells me how great they are and then wind up wanting to throw them at a wall. Someone publishes a 600-page historical romance because they got irritated when an agent told them to cut it in half and then begs me to buy it. I glance at it on Amazon and it’s plain from the sample pages the agent was right. It’s completely overwritten, but now all the friends and everyone else within shouting distance is supposed to buy it.

    Someone posts on a forum they need help with a query/synopsis/first chapter that they’ve paid three different professionals to edit and they’re still not getting results with. Well, I hope you didn’t pay much, because it’s still pretty rough.

    Apparently, according to how many people are posting on various writing hastags on twitter, everyone and their dog is an editor now.

    I’ve got a full with an iconic NY agent now. This is the third R&R with her. Yes, it’s a pain in the butt, but the work has improved immensely each time. She might still decline it, but I don’t regret it at all. I’m learning and it’s improving.

  12. There is…but not for me any longer. I spent over thirty years with the gatekeepers and lived in poverty. The horror stories I have of those thirty years still haunt me (and I’m a thriller/mystery/horror writer and usually love horror stories…just not these). No matter how hard I worked or how much I wrote, 4-18% royalties never gave me enough to even begin to live on. I lived in poverty and worked full time outside the home; suffered self-doubt and thought I was a failure. Then in 2012 I started self-publishing and – voila!- with only 6 new eBooks I began to finally make really good money and get fantastic feedback in reviews. Now I’m impatiently counting the days until 15 of my 23 novels’ full rights finally revert back to me so I can self-publish each one! In 2010, before I knew about self-publishing, I stupidly signed 5 year contracts for all those 15 older novels. I can’t wait to get them back as I barely make anything on them. I WILL NEVER NEVER NEVER sign my rights away ever again to a publisher. I’m through with the gatekeepers forever. Author of 23 novels, 2 novellas and 12 short stories, and a 2012 & 2014 Epics eBooks Awards *Finalist* for The Last Vampire-Revised and Dinosaur Lake, Kathryn Meyer Griffith rdgriff@htc.net

  13. I totally believe there is a place for agents and publishers. If my querying had resulted in an offer from an agent I felt was a good fit, I would have taken it. The model is slow to react, like steering an iceberg, but it does react.

    I only roll my eyes at trad pub and its hand-maidens when they automatically turn up their noses at indie as the great unwashed.

    I didn’t get that offer. Some were the dreaded silence, some were polite forms, one snotty form, and 2-3 exchanges with agents who regretfully told me that it came down to business. Old days, a good book would have gone in the trunk, possibly to never been seen again. Or I could put it through the paces of a professional editor and talented cover designer.

    Am I ripping up the universe? No. Going the trad route would have been no guarantee either. An agent I follow avidly and consider a personal friend handed off the oldest contract in her portfolio, a client who almost a decade later, still didn’t have a sale. Her new agent placed her with a reputable small press in less than six months. The first agent didn’t fail as a gatekeeper, it came down to business.

    Awesome for everybody involved.

    But the ultimate bottom line is that the queue for the gatekeepers is very long and the portal is very narrow. It isn’t always the “best” book that gets through, it is the book that is best for the current market. Most agents might sign 5 per year out of 20K queries. Editors sign even fewer.

    Business.

    So, responsible writers set up their own gatekeepers. Honest beta readers and a pro editor that is willing to earn their fee and not pet writer egos. My editor made me better, along with suggestions from writers all up and down the scale.

    There is no good or bad, just different. I have a friend doing very very well in trad pub. Her books are high concept literature with a sardonic twist. She hit the market with a good book at a time when literary fiction was on the upswing. That is awesome.

    My book would have never seen foil-stamped hardback at the front of the store. A gatekeeper would have put me straight with a pulp press and the wire racks of the drug store. I have more in common with a 70s car chase movie that literature. Equally awesome. However, those markets have all but disappeared, so we turn to indie.

    I’m going to channel Chuck Wendig here with there is no right or wrong, only different options.

    Gatekeepers have value in all their forms. Writing is a solitary endeavor, but book production isn’t.

    Terri

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