Thought Catalog
June 12, 2015

In Self-Publishing, The Gatekeepers Are Dead. Long Live The Gatekeepers!

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iStockphoto / rolindust
iStockphoto / rolindust

‘To Establish Trust With Readers’

Readers aren’t all the same. Readers, in fact, are very different from one another. Some only want to read what everyone else is reading, so they can join a movement and a discussion. Some stick to what’s been adapted to the big and small screen, or what’s hit the NYT and USA Today lists. Some enjoy scouring for hidden gems deep within their favorite genres. Some rely on their social media feeds, or their favorite Goodreads reviewers, or Amazon’s recommendation algorithms.

Hugh Howey
Hugh Howey

This is the author Hugh Howey leading some thinking — as he frequently has done — in the self-publishing author community.

Saying there shouldn’t be any gatekeepers in publishing is to ignore all the readers who prefer to have some sorting done. And these readers vary considerably in how much sorting they like.

Despite what can feel like one long blur-o’-progress, these are moments in which a good line of observation can help us all raise our heads, look around, and take in a moment in the digital transition of publishing and our shared bookish life.

What Howey is showing us, in the context he’s building, is an area of maturation in a sector of publishing that’s less and less easily dismissed as young, hotheaded, and too herd-of-cats-diverse for its own good.

Yes, AuthorEarnings.com’s reports are controversial and even dismissed outright in some quarters. But Howey and his unnamed associate referred to as Data Guy today bring an 18-month analytical presence to anything they do on the strength of their Amazon-sales-page analysis of ebook bestsellers.

We saw this earlier this week in another area: When I canvassed a select list of industry observers for their estimates of the volume and value of the self-publishing market in the States, guess who responded first: Howey and Data Guy were able to apply what they understand from their AuthorEarnings reports to the questions we were asking at The Bookseller’s The FutureBook: their quick and considerably informed response is included in my first report on such inputs. Howey then joined us during our #FutureChat on the topic. (We would, by the way, be very happy to have your ideas in our quick survey on the matter; we expect to have some results Tuesday, 16th June.)

While we — my colleague Philip Jones at The Bookseller and I — had asked Howey and Data Guy essentially to face outward and give us their viewpoints in the wider industry, Howey in his column this week, Gatekeepers for Indie Publishing, is very much facing authors, even facing down some inevitable push-back.

‘Learning Not To Hate The Idea Of Gatekeepers’

This is difficult. The existing and historical gatekeepers have been so completely awful at their jobs, that it has hurt the entire concept of gatekeeping. The existing gatekeepers are bad at their jobs for a few reasons, worth listing here so that we can begin thinking of gatekeepers who won’t suck at what they do.

“Gatekeeper” is well-known code in the self-publishing community for any representative of the traditional publishing establishment whose purpose or effect is to reject aspirational authors for what is deemed an inadequate or unsalable manuscript. The gatekeeper may be a literary agent, an acquisitions editor, the CEO of a great publishing house, a mainstream critic or publication unwilling to look at self-published work, an intern doing first reads of submitted manuscripts at a small press…just about anyone whose job might be described as determining which supplicant gets a green light and which is turned away.

  • It is true that many indies today say that they have determinedly chosen to self-publish and don’t want to deal with the traditional world populated by so many such perceived gatekeepers.
  • It is also true that many indies have had the painful frustration of being rejected in their efforts to publish traditionally — rejected by the gatekeepers — and are struggling to make meaningful progress as authors in the entrepreneurial arena of self-publishing because they feel spurned by the industry. As author-industry analyst Jane Friedman wrote in a recent piece at Writer Unboxed, “By far, the No. 1 consulting request I receive is the author who has self-published and wants to switch to traditional publishing.” I followed this with a write-up here at Thought Catalog, ‘The Overselling Of Self-Publishing’: New Perspective.

Howey, in short, has his work cut out for him. The once-acrimonious tone of a large part of the self-publishing community has eased over time, but the prompts to that anger live close to the emotional surface of a field that Howey estimates may be producing up to 450,000 new titles each year.

What is wrong about the wrong kind of gatekeeping, Howey writes, can be parceled into three ideas. To excerpt them:

  1. The existing gatekeepers confuse their taste for readers’ tastes. What we get are too many works beloved by MFA grads and unpaid interns, and not enough awesome urban fantasy, romance, sci-fi, and fantasy…

  2. The next big problem is that the first two tiers of gatekeepers have no control over what actually gets published…The bean-counters are the only real gatekeepers who matter. [Howey counts responsible agents and editors as those first two tiers which can be overruled by the corporate control level.]…

  3. The existing gatekeeping system has no patience for artistic development. Editorial is a thing of the past, and so is the system of giving budding talent the time to mature and develop a following.

Having named the bad kinds of gatekeeping, Howey then turns to his task: separating it from good gatekeeping, which he asserts that the independent publishing world now needs.

The shame is that they’ve [the establishment gatekeepers] muddied the concept of gatekeeping in general. The problem with gatekeeping, in essence, is that it has to be exclusionary. This goes against the idea of self-publishing, where everyone is allowed access.

Here comes the trickiest bit: Howey must draw a line between what is okay and what is not okay about gatekeeping:

Initial access to the market is not the same as equal access to all parts of the market, and this is where we need to start thinking about the positive aspects of gatekeeping.

Having started his essay with praise for BookBub, the discounted-book direct-email promotion service, he stresses that BookBub works because it’s curated. As the service’s site describes its process:

BookBub members choose the genres they want to receive, and our team of editorial experts hand-selects each book we feature from our pool of submissions. Ensuring that our members only receive top-quality content in categories they like keeps members coming back to BookBub again and again to discover new books and authors.

‘The Goal Here Isn’t To Serve The Authors’

The Howeyan proposition, then, is that in order to achieve deserved discoverability in a densely crowded marketplace, independent writers may need to think about accepting some form(s) of gatekeeping for the right reason — because readers need and want it.

Howey:

Remember, the goal here isn’t to serve the authors. That can’t be the focus. The goal of a promo list like BookBub is to serve the readers. As soon as you fail to do that, you lose their trust, and now the program is worthless. Some authors seem to be looking for a BookBub that does less vetting, that will take anyone and anything, and somehow still provide a massive sales boost. This is impossible. There are readers who want gatekeepers, and figuring out how to reach those readers requires new ways of thinking.

And “new ways of thinking,” Howey recommends, might mean developing a board of certified author-service professionals whose efforts would have the effect of vetting material before it reached the audience, providing curatorial levels, filters, to raise up good work and, well, to close the gate on some bad work.

Some lines from how he envisions this:

A network of IndieCertified editors, formatters, and cover artists would be listed on a single site for authors to employ…Not only would this sort of collective assist writers in finding top-notch talent whose production schedules aren’t completely packed…it would also earn titles a stamp of quality assurance, so readers interested in such vetting would know that the work has been edited by a professional with a proven track record (or proven ability). This would allow an email blast system like IndieDeals to know the work had already been checked for the basics of quality assurance.

And there it is. Howey is describing a Good Housekeeping Seal of Approval. Clap those fins if you like, but this is the beginning of one discussion — I’ve heard others, less formally and visibly articulated — that might come under the heading, “How Do We Help Readers Find The Good Stuff?”

‘Between Censorship And Complete Lack of Quality Control’

From the outside, it might seem almost amusing that so many creative, intelligent people would need to debate such concepts with such trepidation. But this is a glimpse at how dramatically the independent-authorial movement broke with the traditional industry when digital tools began making it possible for writers to publish without publishers.

Howey goes to the mat to anticipate negative response. This may be the paragraph he labored over longest:

Keep in mind, this is all about the readers. This isn’t about giving every hopeful cover artist or editor free entry. Some people will be denied, and yeah, that sucks. It should pain any of us artists to think about rejection in the indie world. And it should give us pause to consider the creation of tiers, or haves and have-nots. The last thing we should want is to become like the big publishing houses, where our works are stale, formulaic, and all the same. But there’s a broad space between censorship and complete lack of quality control. A very broad space. We should be able to stake out some territory here without crossing offending lines.

See what I mean? To the mat. Howey is keenly aware that no-gatekeepers is held a sacred tenet by many in the independent sector.

He also, however, is a man whose own career has many more textures than generally are credited to him. While he stands as a persistent advocate of self-publishing as a worthy and solid choice for authors, his books are published by some 30 traditional houses. He is deeply “hybrid,” to use the industry term no one particularly likes, and has been adamantly complimentary to publishers who treat him as a partner, not the hired help. His own success has, we can imagine, given him lessons in collaboration if not compromise that make such black-and-white battle cries as “no gatekeepers!” impractical if the self-publishing arena is to find its right readership.

Philip Jones
Philip Jones

You can get yourself a lot of dirty looks if you mention that the ease of digital publishing has led to a glut of the marketplace. But perhaps the more palatable way to think about this problem is to remember Jones’ comment to BBC Radio 4 host Samira Ahmed on Front Row late last month:

The issue is not about the number of books being published or the number of books being written — which I think is a cause for celebration, actually, rather than worry. The concern is that the number of people reading isn’t growing. Because obviously there are now lots of new things that people do with their free time. So [it’s] fantastic that more books are being written, in a way, but a worry that the market isn’t growing.

As we focus this weekend at The FutureBook on how difficult it is to estimate the output and value of the independent market, it’s good, then, to be reminded by Jones and by Howey that the expansion that may really count is in the readership. It’s not “too many books” until it’s “too few readers.” And that could well be where we’re headed if ways of signalling quality to consumers aren’t identified and accepted as a major key to bookish commerce in the future.

Howey likes to talk of the consumer base as a pie seen as too small by the establishment:

It’s important to remember that the pie of readership is not limited or fixed. If readers begin to enjoy their pastime more, while finding consistently great deals, they’ll have both the motivation to read more and the means to purchase more titles…

Going after readers who prefer vetted materials is a way of expanding that total pie, especially for indie authors. And doing what it takes to win those readers over will likely increase engagement from other types of readers. The next goal should be to figure out how to win non-readers over and get them hooked. Indies should be thinking about these issues a lot. TC mark