Do we still need Gatekeepers? Are the lunatics finally in control and running the asylum?

Libby Fischer Hellmann
Libby Fischer Hellmann

Some say the lunatics have taken over the asylum.

Until recently, agents and traditional publishers were publishing’s gatekeepers, deciding whose work was printed and whose was rejected. The growth of self-publishing has turned everything upside down now that anyone, anywhere, can publish, market their books, and call themselves an author. But is all this freedom a good thing?

Let’s look at the repercussions.

Glut of books/ Lack of Discovery

While reliable statistics are impossible to find, Bowker says nearly 150,000—43 percent—of all print books were self-published in 2011. But that doesn’t begin to cover ebooks, which we know total in the millions and are rising exponentially every day.

The question is how many of those books are actually read. And how much do they cost? I’m not going to belabor how the plummeting price of ebooks has devalued books in general – we know it has. I’m also not going to estimate how many self-published books are never read. We know the number is high. Bottom line: we have millions of books available at bargain basement prices that are never read. Being discovered is more a dream than a reality.

No quality control

If you want to write and publish a book, you’re completely free to do so, even if you can barely write your name. Imagine what would happen in other industries if this was the case; most professions demand some sort of training or certification to practice. but in publishing no credentials are necessary. Yes, there are editors, fact-checkers, and people who presumably check to see that plagiarism is not a factor, this story notwithstanding.  The problem is that not all writers take advantage of them.

Relentless Social media

Then there’s the relentless deluge of social media. Every other message these days seems to be “Buy my book”.  Or “Buy her book” or a first sentence or something akin to that. (And yes, I’ve been guilty of the practice myself). But we’re just at the beginning of the digital revolution. What will happen as the industry matures?

Pointing Readers in the Right Direction

Some say readers are already providing the gate-keeping function, democratizing the process and putting it in the hands of the “people.” But the sheer numbers of books being released make it impossible for anyone to thoroughly vet what’s out there. Gems will slip by unnoticed, while others, by virtue of salacious or weird content (Think 50 Shades), will generate buzz.

So, yes. I’m coming down on the side of gatekeepers. I think there SHOULD be some kind of gate-keeper function. But what form should it take? And how should it work? That’s where it gets fuzzy…

Bloggers

To some extent bloggers are already gate-keeping, by critiquing work and drawing attention to quality writing. But their process is hit and miss. There are thousands more would-be authors than bloggers. And bloggers’ TBR piles are already so vast that some aren’t accepting books at all.

Aggregators

51hBus3JmoL._BO2,204,203,200_PIsitb-sticker-arrow-click,TopRight,35,-76_AA278_PIkin4,BottomRight,-67,22_AA300_SH20_OU01_We’ve seen the rise of aggregators like GoodreadsBooklikesShelfari, and Red Room, who play the role of gatekeepers by allowing anyone to rate books, post reviews, and then collect the panoply of opinions in one place. Theoretically, this is a terrific idea, but, like Amazon, these sites are prone to sock puppets and fake reviews and people gaming the system. Plus, some of them (Goodreads) take co-op money from traditional publishers, which confers a kind of Animal Farm “some are more equal than others” status in terms of authors’ visibility on their sites.

Btw, an offshoot of that are what I call “quasi-aggregating” sites like Penguin’s Book Country, and Bookish which are really nothing more than a forum to push publishers’ books. Most of the big 6 publishers have some kind of website like that. Don’t be fooled.

Market forces

Market forces also have a gate-keeping effect. If demand is high for a specific book, it’s fair to assume it’s a decent read. Maybe. There is a follow-the-leader mentality of readers who can’t bear the thought of missing out on the latest and greatest, which can result in a self-perpetuating whirlwind of sales. (Please, God, let it happen to me..:)

Author groups and coalitions

Some authors have taken things into their own hands. The Top Suspense Group, which includes me and fellow crime writers Joel Goldman, Lee Goldberg, Bill Crider, and eight other acclaimed thriller authors, is a good example. We formed Top Suspense to become our owngatekeepers. We have all been traditionally published, have been nominated for, and in some cases, won lots of awards. We want to showcase the quality of our work so we stand out from the crowd.

There are other author groups as well, usually around a particular genre but some, like theIncredible Indie Authors, span several. The benefits of working together are that all members have been traditionally published, and readers can be assured of a decent read. However, that in itself is an issue.

Do you know when a book sucks?

The level of craft involved is so uneven with self-published work that many readers don’t know when they’re reading sub-standard work.

Again, it’s like other industries. If you’re not part of the community, you may not know everything that goes into it. I’ve been writing and publishing over 15 years now, and I can tell by the end of the first paragraph of a book whether it’s well-written. I am seduced by smooth writing, emotional investment, and suspense. If you can get me past that first page, I will read

the first chapter. And if you can get me past that, I am putty in your hands.

But there are millions of readers who don’t recognize a well-structured, beautifully written book. They may have a feeling that something isn’t quite right, or that the book isn’t moving along as nicely as others, but if you’re not a prolific reader or writer yourself, how do you know if a book sucks? Now, don’t get me wrong—if a story is terrific, or the characters are unique, I might read on even if the prose doesn’t sparkle and the structure isn’t tight. But my mental editor will be on full alert, and if there are too many obstacles in the way of the read, I will abandon it.

More Questions Than Answers

Of course, I’m just one reader. And one writer. And I’m aware that my taste may be very different than others.’ In fact, when you get right down to it, who am I to judge if a book is worthwhile? And if I’m loath to make myself a gate-keeper, who else should sift through the crap?

It’s a thorny issue. If craft and quality don’t matter, what does? And how do we find it?

I think you can tell that I’m not very sanguine about the future… at least today. So this is where you come in. I need some reassurance. I don’t want to wade through a morass of mediocre writing out there, whether it’s traditionally OR self-published. At the same time, I don’t want to miss out on a gem or two.

Librarians at the ALA  are starting up a recommendation program for adult new fiction this fall. Unfortunately, I get the feeling only traditionally published books will be included.

In other words, it’s the same old, same old. Yes, they’re performing a gatekeeper function…and  that’s good. Yes, I love librarians, but if they’re only considering one portion of the book market, are they really performing a service to the reading public?

I dunno. What do you think? What am I missing?

Please click the book cover to read more about Libby Fischer Hellman’s novel on Amazon.

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  • Caleb Pirtle

    As much as we have always resented the gatekeepers, Lilly, I fear that you are exactly right. The market is indeed glutted with books, and there is no one to separate good literature from hack literature. Then again, I place way too much emphasis on style and editing. Maybe the story is good enough, readers don’t care about style and a clean manuscript. But for the most part, I think they do.

  • frederick lee brooke

    Thanks for this very thorough summary of where we stand today, Libby. I’m as unsure as you and everyone else about the future of publishing, and how to solve the problems related to the enormous glut and the low quality. One thing you neglected to mention is that the traditional gatekeepers played a high risk game themselves. Talk about quality problems … we all know very well that the vast majority of traditionally published books weren’t great books, either. I tried “Big Girl” by Danielle Steel on the recommendation of a friend, and had to grit my teeth to finish it. I just finished my $30 hardcover copy of “Inferno” by Dan Brown and on page 433 you have the word “disappered,” I kid you not. I am simply making the point that while the proponents of traditional publishing also claim the quality of the proofreading and the editing as arguments for their high prices and their own existence, too often they are failing in both functions.

  • Branka Cubrilo

    Libby, you did good research and your comments are spot on. I am sceptic when it comes to self-publishing as often the best critic to self-published author is his/her spouse. I don’t look down on self-published authors but it used to be called Vanity Press. To find good contemporary writers one has to do some research and follow advice of trustworthy friends.

    So sad that our profession can be so easily adopted, a car mechanic or a baker can’t simply decide to be a surgeon and just perform surgeries because he believes he can do it or, even better, just because he likes it.

    Quality control would be essential and YES to Gatekeepers.

  • jack43

    Most traditional publishers have failed. They went bankrupt printing and promoting books at brick-and-mortar stores that closed without paying for them. The few that remain have yet to figure out what’s going on. We need new publishers with new money, entrepreneurs, with new ideas and fresh enthusiasm to partner with authors to sell books in new ways. And, yes, they’ll be the new gatekeepers. From the poor quality of so many books cluttering the market, it’s obvious that we need them.

  • Libby, this is a great, comprehensive post about the state of the industry now. It strikes me that there are already a number of gatekeepers in the Indie world such as curated sites, book bloggers, etc., as you have mentioned. The glut of books is not really the problem because, as you say, many of the Indie books are far from being ready for prime time. Those books have basically no market or are designed to be read by the author’s inner circle of family or friends. The bigger problem is the lack of effective channels for promotion for those authors who have quality books. The top one percent of books are the only ones that stand a chance of good sales numbers. To reach that plateau authors need a dependable avenue where they can get enough bang for their buck so that they can promote their books without losing money. Some of these avenues are opening now for Indies but they are few and far between. And even those sites have their own criteria that makes it difficult for good books to get listed. So if there is a glut to be worried about, it is the one at the top, not at the bottom of the sales curve. I think one of the trends in the next year is a proliferation of sites where a writer can list her book and count on some good sales. At least I hope that is the direction the market is headed.SW

  • IrwinMoss

    I see no single solution to the literary mess we are in. I read reviews and comment, except author blurbs, all of which I ignore. We are in for a very long haul. If I really knew what “market” now means I would suggest that only the market can winnow out the flotsam and jetsom (sp?)we are being deluged with. Will we lose or miss some real talent along the way? Yes, of course. Will some pure junk really sell? Yes. Mickey Spillane proved that. But he was virtually a one of a kind. Clearly at least to me the web which created the problem will be the avenue of change. But the sheer volume is going to make this a slow process, and an essential element I think is that readers must pitch in to help: what titles do they recommend? Which sites and reviewers seem a cut or two above the crowd. During this long long transition (if I am close to being correct) it will be essential that “we” all talk to each other.