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Should Gatekeepers be Bypassed or Embraced?

February 23rd, 2014 · 26 comments

self-publishing-podcast

The Gatekeeper Complex

I recently stumbled across an interesting podcast about fiction self-publishing, titled, appropriately enough, the Self-Publishing Podcast. The show is hosted by three fiction writers who are experimenting with a new model for genre fiction production, based on book series fueled by funnels (think: first volume free).

Something that caught my attention about this show is the tagline read by the host at the beginning of every episode:

The podcast that’s all about getting your words out into the world without contending with agents, publishers, or the other gatekeepers in traditional publishing.

I’m highlighting this statement because I think it captures a sentiment common in the DIY/Lifehacker world: gatekeepers (book editors, admissions officers, venture capitalists, prestigious academic journals, etc.) are obstructing your quest to do interesting and valuable things.

I understand this sentiment: this is a heady time when lots of innovation is happening in lots of fields.

But…

In my career to date in both academia and publishing, I’ve found that traditional gatekeepers play a crucial — and hard to replicate — role that anyone interested in creative work should not be quick to ignore.

Gatekeepers, it turns out, are really good at two things: (1) assessing value in their field; and (2) providing ruthlessly honest feedback on this value (usually in terms of a swift rejection if something falls short).

Students of deliberate practice should immediately recognize the congruence between this function and that of a good coach. I’m arguing, in other words, that gatekeepers can be used to help push your creative skills to new levels.

To provide some personal examples…

  • To prepare to sell my first book, I pitched advice articles to college-focused magazines. The gatekeepers at these magazines aren’t going to send you a check unless you have something interesting to say and you say it well. This helped push my advice-writing ability past the threshold needed to sign a book deal with a major publisher.
  • In my academic work, when I have a new approach or idea I think is important, I start by trying to publish papers in prestigious venues. If it cannot pass rigorous peer reviews, I figure, an idea is not ready to become a major focus of my research (and grant-writing) attention.

Returning to the Self-Publishing Podcast, the hosts of this show are accomplished professional writers who have honed their craft. It makes sense for them to explore alternative fiction publishing models.

(I should emphasize that traditional non-fiction publishing has served me exceptionally well, but from what I understand, fiction publishing is a completely different beast; one in which the self-publishing conversation is more relevant.)

But when I think about the novices listening to this podcast, I can’t help but wonder if they would be even better served if they were told to first strive to do what it takes to sign a book deal with a major publisher, and only then, after honing their skill to a point of unambiguous value, step back and ask, now what do I want to do with this asset?

26 thoughts on “Should Gatekeepers be Bypassed or Embraced?

  1. Ben Lima says:

    I largely agree with this and it is basically true, but I can think of one exception: that is where the gatekeepers as a group, like any other group of human beings, are subject to groupthink or a kind of collective prejudice. I’m sure this is much more relevant to the “fuzzy” fields, as opposed to technical fields such as CS. But in any field in the humanities and social sciences where fashion, taste, subjective feeling and political correctness can come into play, it can be the case that gatekeepers as a group can reject work for less than entirely “scientific” reasons.

    That said, good point.

  2. Dave says:

    Here’s the problem with your argument: who gets to define “unambiguous value?” I hope it’s not one of your gatekeepers, because they’re primarily invested in maintaining the status quo. Their primary motivation is maintaining the world as it exists for them today. And they are frequently biased, lazy, distracted, overwhelmed and disinterested just like all of the mere mortals who aren’t gatekeepers.

    I agree that finding the right coaches, peers, friends is essential to improving your product. However, most people aren’t chilling at Georgetown or living in New York City having lunch with Pynchon. They don’t have access to the resources or connections that you have. The internet has made the gatekeepers, and academia, increasingly irrelevant, increasingly unsettled, because the world has changed. People don’t need to kiss the gatekeepers’ ring any longer.

    So, the ratio of crap that gets produced goes from 90% to 99%. And the gatekeepers who aren’t known outside of their cloistered world will tell us the end of the world is nigh. Maybe their world is ending, but the consumer can decide what is valuable.

    I highly recommend this article in the New Yorker:

    http://www.newyorker.com/reporting/2014/02/17/140217fa_fact_packer?currentPage=all

    This guy is wrong too, but it highlights the “hey, there are smarter people than us who can tell us what is ‘good'” approach to story telling.

    Loved your last book and web site, Cal. Hope I get to meet you some day.

  3. Could not be more in agreement. Two days ago, a gatekeeper served me well. He’s an editor with the company that will publish my book The Joyful Athlete. The book has been 15 years in development (not counting 45 years of in-the-field athletic research). I assumed that because I’d gone over the text literally hundreds of times, it was ready to place on Amazon CreateSpace as a “reader’s edition” that I could send to potential reviewers.

    Aha! The gatekeeper, Dayanand Salva, edited in HARD COPY. Which, as an MIT Media Lab study showed years ago, is quite a different beast than editing onscreen. (The study found people make 40 percent more proofreading errors on CRTs/LCDs/LEDs than on hardcopy.

    Upshot, the gatekeeper saved me huge embarrassment, and a second chance to bring my work up to professional, respectable, readable standards. I’m finding up to 20 typos and style uglies per page.

    Gatekeepers are immensely valuable. I wish there were more of them on the Web. An interesting kind of gatekeeper formerly operated at SFGate.com, the San Francisco Chronicle’s website. The online sports section had a wonderful comment system. Users could thumbs-up/down comments, and it became an amazingly civil forum in consequence. Alas, some foot-shooting newspaper middle-manager got together with a clueless graphic designer and decided to make it all look prettier. Now, it’s a spread-out, unreadable, keystroke-intensive, anonymous-looking pretty blah. Gatekeepers of the wrong kind…

  4. Siva says:

    To me, your two examples highlight both sides of the matter.

    #1, I wholeheartedly agree with, since quick and honest feedback would be very useful in any new endeavour.

    #2 is a little less benign, imho. “If it cannot pass rigorous peer reviews, I figure, an idea is not ready to become a major focus of my research (and grant-writing) attention.”
    Given the constraints of your situation, you’ve stated your chosen perspective. Those who oppose gatekeepers often believe that there are other interesting things that could be done, *if only* the gatekeepers didn’t put up the barriers (sometimes based on incomplete knowledge, etc)

    Like you’ve said, gatekeepers certainly can be put to good use, but something like example #2 is *precisely* what many don’t like about gatekeepers. That said, I believe that in a majority of the cases the feedback will be very useful — excepting the small fraction where they might not have the vision to appreciate something truly original.

  5. Carl says:

    In general you are correct. The web was a great place to self-publish in the early days of the blogosphere. Now that the web is crowded, it is worth dealing with gatekeepers even if your work is of good quality. Self-publishing Kindle books may have had a similar window, but the spam masters have been cranking out how-to courses on how to game the Kindle ecosystem for over a year. Self publishing will grow in expense.

    As for quality feedback, it’s great when you can get it. In the field of fiction all too often the writer gets a generic rejection slip of the form “We are sorry, but we cannot use your work at this time…” Back when I was in high school, Isaac Asimov’s Science Fiction Magazine took the time to at least provide a checkbox form with reasons for rejection. They could be brutal, but it was better than the other magazines.

    If I was writing heroic fantasy these days, I would consider bypassing the gatekeepers if rejected simply because the gatekeepers aren’t doing their job well in this field. It stuns me how bad a first novel the publishers will let through. I’ve put quite a few authors on my “do not read” list because of awful beginnings series that got published. Whether they got better later I will not find out. Better to get that potentially crappy first book out as a self-published Kindle work so you can make it disappear later.

  6. I’ve heard of (but not yet listened to) that podcast, and I tend to have an over-reaction of agreement with statements like the one you quote. But on the other hand, I also appreciate the gate keepers.

    I’d like to see a middle ground. What I would really like to do is hire my own gate keepers, to help me work through all of the things that a traditional publisher would do (vetting ideas, transforming mediocre in to masterful, etc, copy and structural editing, etc). I know my book could be 100x better if I would invest in these resources. But I’m ok with what I have now.

    I’ve written more about the gate keepers that I’ve run in to and the problems I avoided in my blog post, here: http://lostechies.com/derickbailey/2014/02/23/the-value-of-gatekeepers-in-publishing/

  7. AML says:

    I don’t disagree with the post, but it totally ignores the concepts of ‘nepotism’ and ‘connections’, which have a huge influence on this topic. I can’t tell if Cal is naive, or is just an idealist and pretends the world is a meritocracy.

    1. Study Hacks says:

      I’m probably some of both.

      But in my experience nepotism and connections play a tiny role in most elite fields.

  8. Matthew says:

    I disagree. Tucker Max articulated my thoughts pretty well — specifically regarding the publishing industry, but it could be applied to any industry.

    http://tuckermax.me/the-publishing-business-is-about-signaling-not-publishing/

    1. Study Hacks says:

      I read that article. I think Tucker is reacting to the tiny sliver of publishing that works with literary fiction and Pulitzer-bait non-fictions. The vast majority of publishing is much less glitzy — it’s people who want to publish books that people want to buy.

  9. Joe Bunting says:

    Are they really that good at judging value, though? In the publishing world, at least, this is clearly not true. This post is interestingly timed since a huge amount of data has been released about how much of an impact self-publishing is having on the book selling industry (see authorearnings.com). In the survey, 75% of the bestselling books on Amazon were self-published. While there still isn’t enough data to see conclusive trends, what is clear is that self publishing is gaining market share. At least in the eyes of the market, the gatekeepers dont have an eye for value. And of course there’s the anecdote about Harry Potter, which was rejected 20-something times until a publisher left it on the table where his daughter found it and told him he had to publish it. The gatekeepers in publishing may be able to spot a certain kind of value, but it’s a value only they can define and which is fast becoming irrelevant elsewhere. I like publishing. I like the idea of publishing my work with publishers, but I think most writers are tired of hearing that their work sucks when in reality so much about publishing has nothing to do with value.

    1. Study Hacks says:

      I disagree. The notion that there are tons of great writers being overlooked by simple-minded gatekeepers is more myth than reality. Most agents and editors I know are desperate for more good material to sell and publish. They could care less about “status” or maintaining the “status quo” (a boogeyman of our times). They need to move units or move out of their office.

      1. E.S. Ivy says:

        I agree that you can point to a lot of books the publishers turn down and agree that they aren’t ready to be published.

        However, I think going the self-publishing route isn’t necessarily getting around *all* the gate keepers. It’s more that your exchanging one type of gate keeper – agents and editors – for another – readers. And one reason you might want to do it is that you discover the gate keepers aren’t in line with your thinking. For some writers, it’s the fact that their books blend genres.

        For me, there were lots of things that told me finding a “gatekeeper” in line with my way of thinking was going to be harder than most writers. But I think the last straw was when I heard editors were looking for children’s science fiction – but it had to be set in current day (nothing futuristic), had to be set on Earth (nothing on another planet or in space) and it couldn’t have any science in it. So I was going to have a really hard time placing science fantasies for kids. Not that self-publishing is easy, but it is an alternate path.

  10. Sam says:

    Cal,

    I’m going to bypass the issues with the post in general and focus on the act of pure genius in it: by submitting papers to top conferences you are essentially probing the “market” for current trends. Some of the program committee members are the ones who will be reviewing your DARPA/NSF/.. proposal. If you fail to make them excited by the results in something you are interested in in a “short” conference paper, chances are you will not be awarded a grant of several millions to do more of the same.

    Arguably it’s hard work to obtain the result and write the paper in the first place, but rejected papers can be revised and sent to second tier conferences to boost your CV. It’s basically a fail fast and early approach, where the fast is compared to making a full fledged grant application and getting that rejected.

  11. Carol says:

    I’m a fiction writer who writes short stories — one of the toughest kinds of writing to publish, except maybe poetry. Publishing houses don’t want to publish story collections, and it’s hard to get anyone’s attention unless you’ve had some great publications in literary magazines, and even then it’s hard (but not impossible). I regularly send my stories to journals and endure an enormous amount of rejection. It’s tough going. One editor at a relatively prized lit journal told me recently that they publish one half of one percent of the submissions they receive. I feel sure that the “gatekeepers” at these journals often are not giving my stories a fair shake. They’re so bombarded. It’s deeply frustrating. But self-publishing doesn’t quite appeal to me, at least not yet. In my case, with such ridiculous odds, I don’t at all think that rejection means the work isn’t good. And yet, paradoxically, it seems like a good idea to assume that’s what it means. At least in a little bit. To paraphrase Cal, Is it possible to write a story that’s so good it can’t be rejected?

  12. Sam says:

    I’m an editor – so I’m one of the gatekeepers. One of the most heartbreaking parts of my job is telling people who have tried to self-publish and failed that we can’t do anything with their beloved project.
    Lots of people try to self-publish, hardly sell any copies, and only then come to us.
    We can tell them that if they had come earlier we could have given them useful advice – as well as a proper marketing budget.
    But once a book has failed once, in any format, even we can’t get booksellers to invest in it. So if your book fails self-publishing, there’s no way we can turn it round.
    This is a recipe for heartbreak. Cal’s right: at least do the first one with professionals, and when you know you can do what they do, then do it. Most people don’t even know what we do – which is exactly as it should be. We’re here behind the scenes, to offer the advice and thoughts and input that help the author really shine.

    Are the best-selling books on Amazon self-published? Yes, but are they the books producing the most value? Are they books that make much money? More importantly, will they be remembered, make a long-term impact? And if you are thinking of publishing, remember there are an awful lot of self-published books on Amazon that didn’t succeed.

    1. asrai says:

      I’m super late to the party but i think self-publishers, especially those with only a couple books on Amazon are not failing. They are suffering from not living up to their expectations of having the next best seller. It’s very unusual for a first time time author to have the next big thing.

      J.A. Konrath who is one of the most outspoken self-pub advocates and he makes a ton of money from Amazon alone. He has 60 books for sale. There is a growing number of people who are quitting their jobs to write full-time, but for writers that’s always been the minority.
      Contracts that favor publishers and crappy royalty rates/advances are becoming the new reason that authors are self-publishing.

      I have 7 books for sale. They aren’t great literary books, they are mid-list romance genre novels and not even proper novel length. A publisher would never give me a second look. And even if they had I wouldn’t have published more than a couple books, because I don’t sell that well if you look at one month. But y’know what? I have fans who love my books. I make more than I’d make if I went through the “gatekeepers” at Harlequin, which pays insanely low royalties for ebooks. I make a nice supplemental income from writing.

  13. Art says:

    I think, in general, editors and gatekeepers play an important role, provided they are, as you say, “coaches” who push you improve.

    I was just watching a video of John Mayer speaking at the Oxford Union, when he spoke about this topic. I saw it and immediately thought of this post. Here’s the video (relevant part begins at 6:05):
    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=RppZLyeADaU

  14. AnneL says:

    Gatekeepers can indeed be useful but they are often limited by their need to make money/maintain status and the result is an aversion to risk.

  15. JD Moyer says:

    I’m a “gatekeeper” as a co-owner/A&R person of a music label. But I don’t think of myself that way when I listen to demos. I’m listening for music that inspires me so much that I want to get behind it, help promote and distribute it, take a risk on investing money in promoting it, and so on.

    I’m not “blocking” artists from getting distributed. I’m just picking the ones I want to get behind and help. You can’t “bypass” me because I’m not in your way. Anyone can release their own content … the question is do you want help doing it?

  16. Kim says:

    I think your idea of using gatekeepers as a sound board for improving your work really depends on whether of not they are highly interested in publishing valuable work and not simply just focused on the amount of profit they gain from your work.

    For example, the game industry has some publishers that are notorious for being more primarily focused on making huge amounts of profit and keeping a formula like EA, Ubisoft, Activision, etc. Then you have publishers like Nintendo and ATLUS who really want to invest in publishing fun, interesting and well-made games. You want publishers like that to filter your work.

    Heck, I can also point to example in the art world: the saloon era. Your paintings were either genre paintings that fit certain specifications (i.e. how big your horse or horse rider was in proportion to the painting), or they were nothing. Part of the reason why the avant-garde movements were such significant parts of art history was because they allowed artists to make art beyond the scope of saloons.

    Really, it comes down to knowing your gatekeepers. Are they interested in keeping a formula for the sake of making large amounts of profits or keeping the status quo? Or are they really interested in interesting ideas that are executed well and are willing to invest in them?

    1. Kim says:

      But yes, not all gatekeepers are created equal.

      Game-wise, for example, look at the Dungeon Keeper mobile game published by EA. It was basically a shell of a game. You couldn’t really do anything in Dungeon Keepers unless you kept paying money for more content and gameplay. Why on earth was a product like this published, from a big publisher no less?

      And compare that to some of the games published by Nintendo and ATLUS such as Eternal Darkness: Sanity’s Requiem and Digital Devil Saga 1 and 2, respectively. Albeit, they’re based off of different gameplay models. However, their main contrast with Dungeon Keeper is that the focus was on refining compelling, solid games first and everything else comes second, not the other way around. Both of these publishers are also big, well-established publisher. (To be fair though, ATLUS didn’t become big ’til the recent years, but now we’re just getting into the semantic.)

      The boogeyman of our times (publishers who are interested in profits, status, status quo) that you mentioned in the comments still very much so exists. It just depends on which industries you’re looking at and again, who your gatekeepers are.

      I think the real danger your article seems to be pointing to is falsely accusing publishers who aren’t really the boogeyman, which seems to be a common mistake that novices make. Though I’m probably pointing out the obvious, my additional suggestion to your advice for newcomers to seek out a major publisher is to do you your homework. Research the market trends of whatever industry you want publish in, and take a good look at the track records of the major publishers they’re looking into.

  17. I should probably hop in here to clarify the SPP’s position on gatekeepers. We keep our tagline punchy up front because hey, it’s all about the taglines, but we don’t actually believe in the idea of “no gatekeepers.”

    There are, in short, more gatekeepers in self-publishing than ever. They’re called “readers.”

    When you appeal directly to your audience, you can’t just toss crap out there and say “I’m self-published; screw you; I can do what I want.” Not if you expect to have a career. You have to please readers, which means writing the stories they want to hear, that they enjoy, that are well-crafted and free of mistakes, with covers that promise what the book delivers and catch the eye, with logical follow-ups, that have good, value-based prices, etc.

    What we object to is the idea of the arbitrary gatekeeper… someone in a position to keep you from appealing to the people who may otherwise have given you a career. JA Konrath tells a story about his book “The List” being rejected by a traditional editor. Joe thought his readers would like it, and self-published it. He turned out to be right.

    We also believe in and advocate hiring your own gatekeepers, in certain less-than-fatal ways: editors, proofreaders, beta readers, etc.

    Just wanted to clear up our position on that, because there IS indeed a “it is because I said so” mentality in many self-publishers, and that ends up filling the workplace with a lot of garbage that probably could have used a little gatekeeping.

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