Gatekeepers of Publishing: Where are you now?


The world of publishing is changing. This change has been foretold for years, but the seismic shifts have really taken place in the first few months of this year, 2012. The key seems to have been the simplification of the self-publishing process, making publishing an e-book something that almost anyone can do.

There have been strident complaints and dire warnings, of course, and not all of them have come from those institutions and individuals that stand to lose out in the new world. Many writers are warning that the flood of new published books contains a higher percentage of dross, of ill-considered, badly-written, unedited drivel than was previously unleashed.

Well, yes. Obviously.

In the pre-digital publishing age, to get your book into print you really had to do some work. Aside from the initial legwork of putting together the right 100,000 words, you had to impress an agent, likely as not. That agent had to approve of your manuscript enough to take you one, then work with an editor to get your manuscript into the best possible shape. Then the three of you put that manuscript out to tender for publication. Then the whole bunch of you, writer, editor, agent, publisher, would have to start trumpeting the arrival of your baby, and touring the known world to drum up trade.

And the likelihood is, you’d have a to wait quite a while before the money you earn from your book outgrew the advance you’d been paid.

So all this meant being a published author was a tough job, tough to get, tough to keep and really tough to make a living from. It also meant that readers could expect a  certain standard when they picked a book off the shelves. You may not like the story, but the spelling would be right, the grammar would be good, the plot should be without holes, the flow would be right – page eighteen would not skip to page twenty five. The mystic “They” would ensure these things.

But now…. Well, if you download an ebook you have no guarantees. None. Because anyone can upload anything. I know this to be true, because I did it. I took some old stories I had written more than a decade ago, I formatted them with a few clicks of the mouse, made a book cover in less time than the formatting took and uploaded the whole package to Amazon. The whole process (barring the writing, which was already done) took less than a day. I didn’t need anyone’s permission, didn’t have to have my grammar and spelling checked (other than to get rid of Word’s little red lines, of course) and didn’t need to meet anyone’s standards to get published.

And this IS a bad thing. In the process of selling my own ebook, I have bought other people’s. Very few are as good a printed books. Most are worse. A lot worse. Even the one I bought from a company purporting to be an online publishing company, pushing a brand and touting years of experience in publishing had basic errors in typography, spelling, grammar and craft. The story, to be blunt, was rubbish.

So the question is, where are the gatekeepers? If no one is preventing the publishing of bad content, what will stop the flood of sub-standard material? Initially, nothing. It’s new, it’s exciting, and it’s easy. All those people who were envious of J.K. Rowling’s rise from single Mom to multi-millionaire now have the chance to put their talent where their motuhs are. No one is stopping them from writing and publishing their own novels, no one is going to stop publication because they “don’t get how brilliant my novel is”. No, you write that puppy and put it out there. Amazon have even devised the KDP Select scheme to help you promote your book by offering it for FREE for a limited period!

And this is where the gatekeepers will arise. Not in corporate form, but in the person of the public. Because bad content can only sell for so long. People will take all kinds of things for free, but if you’re pushing a bad product, word will get around. Before long, the good reviews are going to be the first things prospective readers look for. We will learn to protect ourselves from bad content, and those who haven’t got the ability to work at their writing will fall by the wayside.

All writers say at some point in their career, that they aren’t doing it for the money. Well, rejoice! For now, if all you want is to have your work published and available, you can do that. You have the freedom to publish and not make a penny. But if you’re looking to become a famous and wealthy author, it’s still going to take work, it’s still going to require knowledge of the craft, study, perseverance and co-operation with other professionals to produce the best possible content.

And once you’re done with the preparation, you either engage ANOTHER professional, or you become your own salesman and work your tail off a second time.

I planned this post in my head yesterday, then forgot all about it until I read the article linked below.

12 responses to “Gatekeepers of Publishing: Where are you now?

  1. I would like to know what the gatekeepers are doing when major publishing house books are released with tons of errors. Harry Potter and Twilight are apparently filled with grammatical errors (I haven’t read them so I can’t comment). This book I have about land hermit crabs, which was supposedly edited by a publishing house, is so bad it is unreadable. People will recognize and support the indie authors that put in the extra time and get it done right.

    Reviews, good or bad, are difficult to get as people don’t go back to the sites where they bought them and provide the input. It would be nice if the sites would send a link to the buyer a week or so after the item is bought to give them a chance to provide a review without having to do more than click a link to go back to book’s page.

    • I’ve read both series, Nan. HP certainly has a couple of typos (in one that’s made it through to the audio versions, a character has his “hand” hidden up his sleeve, not his “wand”…Snigger! I know they had a character who was supposed to be dead appear unexpectedly in a conversation, and this wasn’t noticed until a reader (aged around 11, I believe) pointed it out in a letter to Bloomsbury and triggered a recall and reprint. Don’t remember any problems with Twilight other than the obvious – I’m not a teenage girl and thus I found the whole series waaaaay too dull, slow and ultimately unsatisfying.
      I agree with you wholeheartedly about the reviewing though – it should be easier to return and review once you’ve purchased.

  2. I can see both sides of this argument: As someone considering self-publishing as an option, I am grateful for the lack of gatekeepers looking only for celebrities to add to their cue (plus I would hope you and other readers would NOT think my offering was rubbish); but I have indeed read many offerings that are rubbish via this new option.

    Until the publishing industry changes to be more flexible in terms of its contracted authors — not only signing 100 celebrities for every 1 “undiscovered” source, for example — I still think self-publishing is a wonderful thing. I just wish it were easier for readers/downloaders to separate the wheat from the chaff, if you catch my drift…

  3. Unfortunately many of the changes in quality of editing were already becoming evident in the pre-digital publishing era. A novel marketed as pulp fiction three decades ago often had more stringent editing than the novels, textbooks, and nonfiction works in technical areas I have read over the last decade or so. The same goes for newspaper and magazine publishing.

    I have been noticing the steady decline in editing in all areas of publishing since the 1970’s through today. The rate of decline has obviously been accelerating with digital publishing, but market forces were working to reduce quality of output for quite some time. Editors seemed to have been replaced by spellcheckers even before digital publishers decided to task the writer with all editing responsibilities.

    It is basically market forces that have gradually made editors an expense that could be cut. As you point out, it may be that market forces will help separate the chaff from the higher quality writing that is still being produced. One can only hope (and vote with one’s wallet).

    • That’s certainly my hope. The same is true with publishing as with everything else – you don’t HAVE to buy everything, or read all the books. The difficulty comes with choosing something you haven’t read before, or from a new author. In the good old days, you could say “This is published by Random House, and I’ve liked other books that came through them….”. I think the reviewer is going to wield more power in this new democratic age of internet recommendation. Some reviewers are going to accrue huge pushing power as they become accepted as good judges of quality content and more people turn to them for pre-approval.

  4. Fantastic post, old friend! And timely; I’m ready to self-publish the book version of my blogs – finally!
    Thanks for the input… just when I needed it the most!

  5. In close to thirty years of buying books at a rate greater than some, less than others, I honestly cannot say I selected a title on the basis of the publishing house. A few times I mail ordered titles on the basis of the lists on the back pages of a novel I had just finished and liked, but that is about it (I guess that also shows that I grew up reading by the light of candles made of rendered dinosaur fat).

    I am finding that a lot of paperbacks that I buy are quite amateurish in comparison to what I remember; slick covers but deeply unsatisfying content.

    I now hit the bargain bins for mental junk food; if I don’t like it I can toss it out and not take a major hip-pocket loss. On the other hand, if I DO like it, I can go hunting other work by the same author – this is similar to the Kindle Select program (I have very few ebooks, but I’m slowly picking up the bug), where I can get a taster, and then go hunting again.

    I think there are a couple of excellent review pages around that are building a reputation as gate keepers of quality, and I think this is probably where the discerning readers will eventually gravitate. If the reviews turn out to be paid promotion, and they buy crap as a result, the review page can kiss it’s click-revenue goodbye!

    For the foreseeable future it will be low level market forces dominating, rather than monopoly publishing cartels. That may change, but it will be some time before it does.

  6. Thanks Andrew. I didn’t mean to suggest that the Publishing Houses themselves would generate groupies, but the fact that a book had been accepted for publication by one of those respected houses would mean it had reached a level of competence and quality by implication.
    Watch out for that e-book bug, though. It’s very tempting to keep purchasing the bargain e-books, but all those single dollar purchases add up frighteningly quickly. Still, you can get ten e-books for the price of a hardback….

    • Yep, I get that about the publishing houses. The thing is, the talk about ‘gate keeping’ seems to be a meme pushed by the publishers themselves, and J A Konrath is making the neat counter-argument that anyone with access to the web can make their own decisions on the quality. At a dollar or so, you can easily keep a ‘trash bin’ full of stuff that you loathe, and never go back to that author again. At $20 a pop (in the Australian paperback market) it gets very costly to do that!

      • I always found “gatekeepers” to be a perjorative term, whether it’s used about publishing or getting a job. Since I’m working at both at the moment, it certainly feels like a negative thing: The gatekeepers stand between me and a job in whatever field I go for, and the gatekeepers of publishing are cruelly preventing me from becoming a millionaire….
        E-publishing has certainly made it possible for everyone to publish, but that doesn’t mean that everyone SHOULD. I do think there is a need for some kind of quality control, but I prefer the idea you advanced, of it growing from the customer base, rather than being imposed from above.

      • 😉 yeah the rotters are stopping me from becoming a millionaire as well. I just don’t understand it.

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