Publishers as gatekeepers

One of the arguments made on behalf of mainstream publishers in the Amazon-Hachette war is that publishers act as gatekeepers — keeping the junk out of the market and using their editorial skills to improve the books they do let into the market.  Here’s a writer offering up a paean to these gatekeepers in the the pages of Publishers Weekly:

In a market of unlimited book options, how does an audience make choices? At the moment, most of that burden is carried by the book business. The publicity and marketing campaigns and cover designs and flap copy—the things that publishers do—are not just methods of selling books; they’re also readers’ main tools for discovering books. The same is true of the curating and merchandising in stores, and book coverage in the media. Without reviews, staff recommendations, and endcap displays, unlimited choices aren’t narrowed down—they’re overwhelming.

Second, if all books become cheap or free to readers, then writers are unlikely to earn much (if anything). Who will want to write if writing doesn’t pay?

Third, without the gatekeepers, those who do write will create books that are worse—and not just authors whose dormant genius must be drawn out by patient editors, but all authors. Every book that doesn’t first have to get past a gatekeeper or two, or 10, before being put in front of the public will be worse.

He then goes on to describe how much his manuscript was improved in the process of being submitted to agents and publishers.  Well, your mileage may vary; mine certainly did.  As I’ve mentioned elsewhere on this blog, the editorial support and advice I got while I was part of the mainstream publishing world ranged from trivial to nonexistent.  Editors didn’t have the time or the interest or the talent to make my novels better.

Two further points.  First, the main idea behind being a gatekeeper is to keep out the bad stuff. But of course fallible human beings are making judgments that could well be wrong.  The most poignant case of this was John Kennedy Toole’s amazing A Confederacy of Dunces, shunned by mainstream publishers and only published by an obscure university press years after his suicide at the age of 31.

Less poignant, but of more immediate interest to me, is my novel The Portal, which my agent several years ago declined to market, deeming it unpublishable.  So now it’s out there in the self-published universe, and the rave customer reviews are starting to pile up.  Here’s one of many:

A Terrific Read! I wasn’t sure what to expect when I started reading this. Would the promising story idea deflate once it got past the initial set-up, as so many other books do? It definitely did not, and stayed entertaining all the way through – I could not put it down. I have kids around the same age and I really felt for these boys – they’re lost and are doing whatever they can to stay alive, stay together and hopefully get home. Glad the book was complete in itself, but it would be great to see them have more adventures like this. Overall, two very enthusiastic thumbs up!

(The semi-poignant part of this saga is that in the years after my agent rejected it I managed to lose the final draft — no hard copy, no soft copy.  Luckily, my friend Jeff managed to hang on to the final Word file.  Apparently he had more faith in it than I did!)

The second point is that gatekeepers are going to let stuff through that they shouldn’t.  Not all books that come out from major publishers are worth reading, or are as good as they could possibly be. The two most recent Jack Reacher books could certainly have been improved — one by going through another draft, the other by being tossed into the wastebasket.  But apparently the publisher doesn’t care — they just want a Jack Reacher book every year.

I don’t know anything about Emma Donoghue, but her latest novel, Frog Music, is a historical mystery and apparently very different from her previous “worldwide bestseller,” Room.  The Boston Globe hated it, the New York Times hated it, and lots of Amazon and (especially) Barnes & Noble customers also hate it.  My guess is that her publisher, Little Brown (part of Hachette), was hoping for another Room, but this is what the author delivered to them.  So they were stuck publishing something they didn’t much like.  (Also, the Kindle version costs $12.99, which suggests that the e-book pricing wars haven’t quite started yet — it’s actually a buck cheaper at B&N.  So I’d just like to mention that you can buy pretty much all of my e-books for the price of one Frog Music.)

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5 thoughts on “Publishers as gatekeepers

  1. I’d like to make a couple of other points in support of letting the market decide the fate of a book. When gatekeepers control what gets published, it’s their tastes that dictate what choice readers have. All well and good if editor’s and publisher’s tastes mirror those of the general public and if their decisions are based totally on merit.

    Unfortunately, as you alluded, publishers have a vested interest in putting their resources into marketing the books that will return the most profit. The science fiction/fantasy/paranormal genre is a good example of this. Back when Anne McCaffrey was writing Pern books, Dragons were one of the hot themes. Her books were well received so write a book about dragons and you had an edge when it came time to pitch to an agent or publisher. Vampires, on the other hand, were a tough sell. Then came Anne Rice and close on her heels Laurell K. Hamiltion. Suddenly vampires were popular. How much did that help Charlaine Harris and Stephanie Meyers when editors read their manuscripts. We’ll never know for sure, but my bet is that writing to an existing audience made it at least a little bit easier for the publisher to make the decision to buy the books.

    I’m not saying that any of those books are substandard; they’re all well written, entertaining reads. I just wonder if there weren’t a few dragon or space opera stories that were pushed aside because sexy vampires were the new, hot genre.

    Publishing is changing and it’s much too late to stop the train. Will the ride be bumpy for everyone involved? Most certainly it will. Brick and mortar stores, publishing houses, writers and readers will all take their lumps. But, I’m a big believer in the free market and being able to make my own decisions about what what reading choices I have.

    I’ll readily admit that their are many books for sale that should never have seen the light of day. The novel I wrote certainly needs improvement. But then, I’ve read more than a few really bad books over the years that were traditionally published, many by the larger, well known houses, so how has that changed? What needs to happen at this point is the development of a trusted and reliable review system. One that doesn’t lend itself as much to both fake glowing and fake damaging reviews while at the same time allowing legitimate readers to give an honest assessment of a novel. That will come. It will never be perfect, but it will happen.

    Change is never easy, but when it comes on the heels of true innovation and offers the rewards of easier access to the market for suppliers and increased choice to the consumer, then it’s a good trade.

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    • I completely agree. The gatekeepers are there to make a profit. That may often mean working with an author to improve his book. But not always. And some books that aren’t in fashion will never get through the gate.

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  2. On this sudject id like to know your opinion of the design side of publishing, as an illustrator its fun to design covers and images for the self publishing markets but the briefs often cant pay the bills in the long term. Big companies hold the money to allow concentrated design. If they dnt just use graphic design stock images.
    In self publishing your books how have you found it getting a finnished design?

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    • Hi Jennifer,

      That’s probably worth its own blog post. I have worked with an e-publisher who provides design services if you want them. They did most of my covers, using stock images manipulated in various ways. Three of my covers were drawn from scratch by an artist I know, who did the covers for fun (for an example, take a look at the cover for Dover Beach on this site). The main difference between self-publishing and the mainstream publishing world is that I have control over the covers. In the mainstream world, I wouldn’t see the covers until they were done, and I had no say in them at all.

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