Monday, June 20, 2011

There Are No Gatekeepers, There Are No Gates

by Joel Friedlander

As a writer, I’m fascinated with the way language adjusts to culture, and the way that words can be used to express opinions and ideas in so many, many ways.

A few years ago we had the wonderful locution text-walking and you knew instantly exactly what it meant. I had a picture in my mind of someone, thumbs on their smartphone keyboard, walking down a sidewalk oblivious to everything around them.

Expressions like this tell us much more than the simple mashup of two words might imply. Similar to “sleepwalking,” text-walking somehow implies the sleepy nature of our awareness toward the outside world when we’re absorbed by action on the very small screen.

Of course, if you walk the street like you’re sleepwalking while you’re text-walking, you could end up a dead man walking, too. As Michelle Norris said on NPR:

"Text-walkers have become a symbol of the multi-tasking age, but they can be a danger to themselves and to others."

This Year’s Winner So Far

It’s not often you get to see one of these new terms being born, especially one within the independent publishing community.

Recently, in a post on Writer Beware, Victoria Strauss quoted editor Rich Adin on the subject of e-book prices. Here’s the quote:

"[N]ongatekept authors whose ebooks sell well fail to distinguish between books sold and books read. This is an important distinction. . . I am willing to spend 99 cents for a nongatekept ebook because it is not much of an outlay — it’s like buying a lottery ticket; I am willing to gamble $1 on odds of 6 million to 1 but I am not willing to pay $5.99 for such an ebook because the risk of getting dreck is much too high."

This article stopped me in my tracks. Nongatekept authors? Nongatekept books? That’s a new one.

Adin is referring to the entire system of finding promising manuscripts to turn into books, vetting them, signing a contract for them, editing and producing them. The gatekeepers are the agents and editors and publisher’s marketing staff who decide which books to acquire and which to decline.

These gatekeepers have achieved almost mythic status for writers, and especially for unpublished writers. Writing, re-writing, submitting proposals and queries to agents and editors, accepting the inevitable rejections, and starting the process over are what many writers do.

If the gatekeepers find you acceptable, these writers believe, you will be admitted to the hallowed halls where the creators of culture roam, appreciated and acknowledged by their peers, book reviewers, magazines, newspapers and TV hosts.

The gatekeepers are necessary, according to this story, because if no one passed judgment on these books, if no one weeded out the unfit, the unfinished and the unformed, book buyers might buy a book that is below the lofty standard to which they have become accustomed.

What’s Wrong With this Picture?

The myth of the noble gatekeepers is exactly that, of course. There never were bastions of cultural authority in this country, empowered to pass judgment on their fellow authors. But if you face year after year of rejection, it can be seductive to think there are.

The problem is that this worldview completely dismisses the fact that publishing is a business, and publishers businesspeople. Books that find a home with profit-oriented publishers can be defined this way: books that might sell enough to make the publisher a profit.

That’s the reality of gatekeeping, no matter how romantic it may sound. Publishers who make no profit are no longer in business. The business of business is profit, pure and simple.

Editors are tasked with finding books that can be made into popular products. Certainly many publishers have imprints of more literary books that they know will not create as much profit. But they do lend legitimacy to the rest of the publisher’s offerings.

Indie Publishing

The great threat of self-publishing, the revolutionary nature of authors going indie, throwing off the contracts and rights licenses of their publishers to pursue books and readers directly, without the intermediaries of publishers, agents and acquisitions editors, are all contained in this one term: nongatekept books.

Well, life here among the nongatekept is actually pretty exciting. True, we don’t usually have 5,000 bookstores waiting for our books to come out. On the other hand, there are no trucks pulling up full of returns, either. And royalties of 10% (of net) don’t compare too favorably with the 70% or more our indie authors are earning.

Rather than the tidal wave of crap that’s often been predicted, or the high risk of mistakenly getting “dreck” by mistake in your Amazon order, more and more self-published books are being acquired by these same publishers. They’ve slipped behind the gates. Want to know why? It wasn’t because all of a sudden an editor somewhere decided this book was actually really well written and a great addition to our culture.

It’s because the book sold. The author who was unwanted and unwelcome is now greeted with a smile and a contract. Gatekeeping at its finest.

I think this phrase stands in direct opposition to Dave Mathison’s great exhortation, to Be the Media!

Which would you rather be? Do you think of yourself as nongatekept? Isn’t that a good thing?

I don’t know about you, but I’m not waiting for anyone to tell me whether I can publish a book or not. There are no gates, there are no gatekeepers. You are an author, and you can be a publisher, too.

Joel Friedlander is a self-published author, a book designer and blogs about book design, self-publishing and the indie publishing life at He's also the proprietor of Marin Bookworks, where he helps publishers and authors who decide to publish get to market on time and on budget with books that are both properly constructed and beautiful to read.

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