On Gatekeepers

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I had a totally different blog for this morning planned, but  Dragon Award Winning Author Nick Cole got me thinking, as he often does (and on a totally off topic note, I’d appreciate if you’d nominate Star Realms: Rescue Run for Best Military Science Fiction and Fantasy for this year’s Dragons). This is mostly aimed at writers, but I’ll try to keep the jargon minimal for fiction readers who may be interested as well. Here’s a few points to remember when you’re looking at gatekeepers in fiction:

  1. Gatekeepers don’t necessarily know what readers want or like. 

I read slush for a long time for a really good Science Fiction and Fantasy Magazine. I was your first line of defense gatekeeper against stories getting published. I’ve been there, I know how it is, I knew what kind of stories to throw up the chain and what to rid of (to be fair, most are worth ridding of). However, something happens to gatekeepers in those positions if you do it for even a few months. Even the best intentioned, best people fall prey to this, and it’s because they’re reading hundreds and thousands of stories day after day. Gatekeepers get jaded.

What occurs at that point, is the very people who are making decisions as to what is worthy for print lose a sense of wonder and a sense of fun for the art. Only things that “stand out”, which is a very personal decision, make it through. It’s not necessarily that a piece is better, or that your piece isn’t worthy of being read. This one person’s filter, who is specifically looking for certain kinds of twists and certain words not to be in a piece, who is tired and angry from reading dozens of terribly written stories already, might not see your work in the right light.

Their opinions also have nothing to do with what readers like.

I have an example from my own work, Star Realms: Rescue Run. There’s a couple of big puns in play in the naming conventions that I put in solely because it amused me, and to see if it could sneak past editorial without them noticing. It’s terrible, I know, but if an author can’t amuse himself, who can he amuse?

I had a few people read over the work before turning it in. A big name NYT Bestselling author read it, and hated it. Said that naming convention threw him out almost immediately and he couldn’t get over that in the book. That small of a thing can be murder for a story in the eyes of a “professional reader” — who aren’t your target audience. I’m going to let you find the pun for yourselves rather than spoil, because it’s half the fun.

Real readers had the opposite response. When the book came out, I had a dozen or so readers send me messages laughing about how amazing that naming convention was. Not one complaint (so far!). Conclusion: Writers, editors, agents, they’re jaded. If anything pops out and sticks out and not in the way they like, they have a mental reject pile. A lot of the time, it has nothing to do with quality or interesting entertainment. They are not the same as real readers, they don’t have their pulse on what readers who aren’t jaded like as a consequence. Remember that.

2. Gatekeepers don’t necessarily help you gain readership. 

This is different from point 1 because it’s all about marketing. There’s a perception that if you get published by Penguin or Tor or whoever, you’ll automatically gain some readership that you wouldn’t otherwise. Yes, you may get a couple copies in Barnes and Noble, but remember there’s another level of “book buyer” gatekeepers who pick up what they think looks good out of those publishers. Unless there’s a heavy marketing push, and if you’re unknown that’s highly unlikely to happen, you’re in the same spot as anyone else.

So what do they do? What do publishers, agents, editors do that’s so special? I don’t mean to hammer everyone in the profession, and I definitely do think it’s important to get other sets of eyes on your work, but when it comes to big, professional publishing houses, what is it going to get you?

Probably not a lot. Several years ago when there were bookstores everywhere, maybe there was relevance to this. Now that everyone’s online, it’s better to have your own platform. You’re not going to get a ton of marketing money from them (if any). You’re not going to have a publicist work harder than a couple email blasts out to reviewers who are already inundated with thousands of books. You’ll have an editor and a nice cover for the book — which, if you pony up a few bucks yourself, you can get that yourself just as easily.

3. Gatekeepers don’t necessarily help you gain validation 

This is the big one. Most people are interested in having an agent so they can say they have a professional agent. Most people want Tor to publish them so they can say Tor publishes them. It provides a professional validation that in theory sets them apart, but only in a few people’s perceptions.

The truth is, most readers have no idea who publishing houses are, who agents are, how the business works. They know they like good stories. A person on the street will be equally impressed if you hold up your book with a professional looking cover. It saying Random House on the spine does nothing to move that needle for the average person. The validation here is only appealing to other professionals who “haven’t made it” while you’re talking at a bar with them about your work. A handful of people who aren’t buying your books and don’t matter. Its tangible value is absolutely zero.

My conclusion isn’t that no one should have their books published by big publishers. At a certain point, the distribution model does matter, but it matters far more after you’re already there than if you’re at a point where you still need help arriving, And if you’re already there… you’ll have to do the math as to whether the publisher taking 50%, the agent taking 10-15% after that is worth the reach that Barnes and Noble (since there pretty much are no other physical booksellers) gives you. Obsessing over the gatekeepers and whether they’ll like you or your work, it’s pointless. Focus on finding readers and entertaining them, and you’ll find yourself winning.

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6 thoughts on “On Gatekeepers

  1. Very good points. It’s especially important to note that the first line of gatekeepers, the slush readers, will often have very little in common with the average customer. The few publishers that still look at unagented manuscript mostly use interns, who tend to skew female, liberal, and with ‘refined literary tastes.’ That means that certain types of manuscripts are going to have to have two strikes before they read the first page. Add another strike for being a member of a disfavored class (i.e., white male heterosexual), and it’s no wonder there are large market segments not getting serviced by traditional publishers, with some exceptions like Baen.

  2. Pingback: the decline of gatekeepers | Rod Walker, Science Fiction Writer

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