The Loss of Gatekeepers

Many publishers will tell you they are not gatekeepers — at least in the sense of keeping books out. As Rachelle Gardner points out, publishers want to let books in and that makes sense. Unless, of course, you’re one of the authors stranded on the other side of the gate.

Others proudly wear the Gatekeeper badge and remind you why it’s important to keep them around.

Whether you agree with gatekeeping or not, this is an issue that concerns both writer and reader alike.

On the one hand, you have publishers–especially the Big Five–painstakingly selecting those choice few to introduce to an already saturated market. Selection is rare. If you’re one of the lucky few, shortly after celebrating you launch into the painstaking process of building an author platform. Let’s also not forget the large overhead of a publishing house. They pass that on to the consumer with high prices and the authors with a low royalty rate (unless you’re Stephen King). One might say publishers are greedy, but basically they’re businesspeople. And while they are guilty of pocketing most of the earnings on any given book, they also offer professional services such as illustrators, editors, and marketing. Is that worth the pittance they pass on to the author? I don’t know. I’d argue not, especially since many previously traditionally published authors are turning to self-publishing as the rights of older books revert back to them. And maybe, just maybe, the publishers have begun to see the error of their ways. Then again, maybe not. Why offer a 35% royalty when someone is willing to accept 11% royalty?

So we have this fence with the publishers (and other gatekeepers) on one side. On the other side of the fence wait thousands upon thousands of indie authors. Some have been sending query letters for years, hoping to join the ranks of the elite few who make it. Some haven’t (and may or may not even know what a query letter is). We’re all huddled together though, offering support to each other. I’m there too, leaning against the cold iron bars. While I’m vaguely wondering if there’s a floral pattern imprinted onto my cheek, Amazon struts up to the gate and whispers to us, ‘Have I got a deal for you!’

Tens of thousands of writers rejoice and storm down the fence. The barriers are gone. The gatekeepers cast aside.

Welcome to the controversial part of this post.

I like publishers. I want gatekeepers and think we’ll come to regret casting them aside as if they were rotten meat. I know, I know, were it not for Amazon, I wouldn’t have published my first novel so soon, but I would have written it. I would have sent query letters. I would have immediately began the second book and continued with my craft. Whether or not there is a gatekeeper doesn’t define my ability, nor does it define who I am and it sure as hell shouldn’t define my future. Besides, are we prepared for the loss of gatekeepers? Because their absence might come to haunt us in the future.

Let me explain. The book market is saturated at the moment. Not only are there more books available than ever before, many of them are free. There are some readers who refuse to pay for any books anymore. Why fork over five dollars for a book when they can download it for free? It’s estimated that by 2020, fifty percent of the books on the market will be self-published. Now some of those indie authors will fade away over the course of the next few years. Those who are serious about their craft will continue writing, and improving. I plan to be one of them.

It took almost seven years for me to write Ashborne. The story went through three total revisions. Not edits, but revisions full of shredded chapters, remade characters and new plot lines. All in all, it was over 300,000 words between all the revisions. After that, the book went through five complete edits. Five that included checking not just the spelling, grammar usage, comma splices, repetitious words and phrases, British versus American-English spellings, cliches, sentence variation, paragraph variation, balance and removal of weak verbs, but also the etymology of words and whether or not they naturally occurred during the time period I had chosen. At one point, I discovered a character had died twice. I spent hours fixing plot holes. The point I’m trying to make is, by the time I finished that final edit I was a much better writer than I had been when I began the first paragraph. If I had a publishing house behind me hounding me to polish everything one more time, I’d be even better. I didn’t though. Instead, I had my own professional standards and whatever services I paid for; services that in many cases fell short of my expectations. Nonetheless, I will continue. As I’ve stated before, this is more than my hobby, it’s also my career. When the next book hits the virtual world, it will be better than the first. And the next will be even better.

Over the course of the last seven years, indie authors have exploded onto the scene. In case anyone doubts it, we’re not going anywhere any time soon. While I have my own standards and strive continually to improve, I’ve come to realize others don’t share the same philosophy I do, and that’s completely okay. For some, perhaps it’s only a hobby. Other indies are just beginning in their journey, and I understand that as well. We all burst through that gate at different phases of our writing careers. While we celebrate the emergence of all these new voices, we need to remember this surge of talent comes with lowered standards. That’s not to say all indie authors are second-rate, or that indie authors don’t approach their work with professionalism. It is to say that me, or that eighteen-year-old girl I ran across who had published her 39th book, are not applying the same standard of professionalism that a publishing house would. You can argue this point until the cows come home, it won’t change it. It’s like saying you can build a car in your backyard that meets the same safety standards as a car built by Volvo. If you have the combined years of experience from the experts behind you, your end result will almost, not always but almost, always be better than if you didn’t.

Here’s where it gets interesting. I write fiction. Fantasy to be exact. I enjoy it. I also want to explore penning novels in different genres. By the end of the month, I’ll publish a science fiction short story. I have a character from an apocalyptic story running around in my head and one day, she’ll pop up in a story somewhere. When I decide to listen to her. And I’ve been dying to explore steampunk. I do NOT write non-fiction. There are many who do, though. A car mechanic suddenly fascinated with wild mushrooms decides to write books about them. A nurse who’s dreamed of writing a book about scuba diving, complete with safety instructions, though she’s only been twice.

The importance of teaching our children to verify everything they read has never been more important. When the computer became a household staple and the internet a daily playground we passed through, we looked closer at integrity and expertise than we ever had before. Wikipedia quickly became frowned upon, if not downright banned, as a source of information.

But books–books were sacred.

At University my professors issued projects without impunity. Sometimes they would specifically say something like, ‘you can use any printed source from the library.’ I may not have agreed with everything in the books I found in the library, and yeah, some doozies made it into the publishing world, but if you were a chef trying to write a book about something for which you had zero expertise, beware the gatekeepers. If I’m suddenly seized by a desire to teach you how to microwave people, a publisher would step in and say, ‘Umm, yeah, don’t think so buddy. Nice try.’  And if you tried to publish a Pedophile’s Handbook, you’d quickly be sent along your way. Basically, you had to prove you knew your subject. You had to prove you had a platform. You had to prove you weren’t advocating violence or harm. In some cases, God forbid, you even had to prove you were an expert. Not in all cases, I’ll grant you that, but in most cases. Now, there are NO gatekeepers. We’ve destroyed the gate. No one checks your facts. No one asks, ‘Are you sure you’re well-versed in the aftercare of heart surgery patients?’

Honestly, I sympathize with librarians across the world. How will they decide what to stock? How do you create standards when everything is fair game? When my daughter begins turning in school reports, she can use whatever source she wants to, because there are no checks and balances on books anymore. That saddens me.

We need gatekeepers. If you’re an indie author, you might hate them. Perhaps you continue to feed a little self-righteous anger. No one begrudges you that. But they are not the only evil we should be worried about. I’m keeping my eyes on powerhouse Amazon. Do you remember the movie The Patriot? (Loved that movie!). I read the daily battle notes and I’m reminded of a quote: ” . . . why should I trade one tyrant three thousand miles away for three thousand tyrants one mile away?” Except, it’s reversed. Why trade the tyranny of three thousand publishing houses for the tyranny of one global distributor?

Don’t get me wrong. I like Amazon. I’m eternally grateful to them for opening the gate so that thousands of authors, myself included, could publish our stories. Even if I wasn’t an author, I’d support and applaud them because they said the masses were just as important as the elite. But just because I’m grateful doesn’t mean I shouldn’t be concerned about both parties in the Amazon vs. Hatchette battle. I’ve seen blog after blog touting how the indie author wins if Amazon wins. Are we really that short-sighted? There is no way I want ONE company in control of the publishing, distributing, and pricing of books. This is a recipe for disaster. And to give one company the power to withhold your books because you didn’t give them your lunch money sounds vaguely reminiscent of schoolyard bullies.

So, what’s my solution? I don’t know. I honestly don’t. Is there a solution where the author wins?

And can we have gatekeepers without creating an elitist environment again?

These are the two questions rolling around in my head today. It’s a busy place up there.




Published by casblomberg

Cas Blomberg is a native-English speaking writer who lives in Stockholm, Sweden.

3 thoughts on “The Loss of Gatekeepers

  1. Cas, that is a stonking good post. Much of what you write sounds familiar – especially the rewriting and “fixing holes” and the 39th book by age 18, and the British vs. “American” spellings. (In early drafts, I fell into that latter trap!) I won’t even begin to try to address all you note. You’ve delved into the issues so fully already.

    I will say I don’t know that there’s ever been a time when a “good outcome” has been out there for authors. My uncle is a long-published HarperCollins fiction author. (He does NOT know I have written a novel and intend to write more of them; but that is another, decidedly personal story.) He has an established readership, but much of his back catalog is out of print. He wants to get the rights back to many of his earlier books; and I’ve suggested he get them on Kindle when he does. They need to be available or no one can buy them! He knows what the Kindle is, but overall, technologically, he is an author “of the 1980s/1990s.” He’s also now in his young 70s – he doesn’t even have an author site. He doesn’t “quite” understand that, nowadays (as with so many other businesses), in many ways your author web site is your “shop front.”

    Myself, I wanted to write the books(s) I wanted to write. And I work hard to make them good ones for readers. If anyone desires similarly to write (via self-publishing or chasing a traditional publisher), my best advice is…. write the book. Don’t worry about the other side…. yet. Fretting over publishing is a waste of time when you don’t have a manuscript. Write! Write! Write!

    There had once been those “gatekeepers” preventing us from reaching any readers whatsoever. So there had been “vanity” presses. Today, we may self-publish and we will reach readers, even if only a few. But that’s how journeys begin: with a first step.

    My wife has told me that I must consider myself an author; that that is now my career (for now, at any rate). Just because I don’t sell Stephen King levels of books does not mean I am not an author. Nor you. Thus far I’ve sold more of my first novel than I had thought I would – not thousands of course, but enough that I feel positive about where I’m headed.

    Based on what I’ve heard over the years from my uncle, I’ve decided to try to find an agent. Authoring is sales. Success in sales in any field is about piling ups “nos” until someone finally says “yes.” I well-know I will have to keep at it and be tough-minded about it. If one says “We’ll pass,” or doesn’t reply, find someone else. Keep at it.

    Can I support myself writing? Absolutely not. But does that mean doing so impossible someday? Who knows? Achieving anything worthwhile requires work. Above all, the product needs to be something people want to buy. Many people won’t buy books any longer; but many people still do. Hundreds of millions of them around the world.

    No one is going to hand us money. Anyone who seeks to write needs to remember that reality at the outset, and manage expectations. If we keep them low, as we exceed them we’re thrilled! 🙂

    1. Aww, thanks! And thanks for such a detailed comment. It’s fascinating to hear about your uncle and his experiences. It’s also interesting to see how the world has changed during his writing career. When we’re seventy, what will the publishing/author/reader playground look like? I’ve heard so many stories of established authors fighting to get their rights back. I hope he does succeed in getting them up on Kindle. Who knows whose life he might touch with his words if they were available again?

      I didn’t begin calling myself a writer until I had finished the third revision. I think when I saw the finished product it hit me. When I looked back and realized the growth that had taken place. Then I called myself a writer. As you say, it’s our career and it begins one step at a time.

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