Publishing’s gatekeepers: still life in the old dogs
Whenever there arises any discussion about publishing there are two predictable responses from the self-publishing camp (with whom I have pitched my own tent). The first is that self-publishing allows authors to thumb their noses at those evil gatekeepers to the literary world, traditional publishing houses; and, that self-publishing frees authors from the rapacious exploitation of those same publishing houses. Frequently, these two catch-cries are underscored by a reminder to publishers that the world has changed and they are now dinosaurs, operating under an obsolete and doomed model.
I’m not entirely happy with the term ‘gatekeepers’ since it carries with it a pejorative implication, if not intent. Stripped of its purpose to insult and alienate, it does, though, have some connotations which I quite like, most of all a suggestion that there is some discernment about the selection of what gets published and what doesn’t.
Gatekeepers are neither self-appointed guardians of literary worth and value – a collective St Peter – nor are they are jealous bouncers standing guard at an elite club. They are often a curious paradox, jaded and sceptical, yet at the same time deeply – occasionally, passionately – committed and always searching for quality work to publish. They are overwhelmed with submissions but the sad fact is that the vast majority just don’t make the grade. Yes, worthy things do occasionally fall through the cracks. But the ledger is more than balanced by the number of submissions they receive which are not up to scratch but in which they see enough to adopt and nurture, investing time and effort in making the books the best they can be. They are not altruists but they can be believers in potential, not just actuality.
They are also a first test for any author. Consider: if a manuscript is sent to 50 publishers and each rejects it, is it likely that there is a conspiracy against that book or the author – or that 50 experienced (and fallible) professionals are wrong that they did not see the literary or even commercial possibilities? Or is it, perhaps, that the manuscript is not ready; or even being ready, is not as good as the one other in the slush pile chosen over it? For the authors with only one book inside them, that rejection is a tragedy; for the writer, it is a painful setback which they will strive never to be repeated by making their next book better.
Such gatekeeping is a filtering system, and largely a commercial one – but not solely. While they are few, there are publishers who will take on a book even when they realise that its commercial possibilities are limited. It may be that they think it has enough intrinsic worth to publish knowing they are likely to make a loss, or because they see it as the first step to a rosier future for both of them.
Setting aside for the moment all of the parts of the process gatekeepers bring to a book, they also provide one invaluable component: an objective reader. Any of us who have written a book are faced with the burning question: Is it any good? And who is to tell us? I couldn’t wait for the very first professional media review of my first book not foremost because I wanted the publicity but because I wanted someone totally unconnected, with no vested interest in me or my feelings or my future as a writer, to say tell me whether they thought it good or bad. I didn’t need the answer so much as the opinion. When an author self-publishes that is truly the first time such an opportunity arise. When an author submits a manuscript to a publisher, at least that opportunity arrives before the work is at the mercy of the reading public.
It is true that any author can source all the other parts of the process required to take their book from manuscript to finish process: an editor, a proof reader, a cover artist, a typesetter, a designer to put it all together, a publicist, a marketing manager; there are companies that will provide them, for a fee. Of these, though, the one that these gatekeepers provide that is most invaluable, the most difficult to find and would almost certainly be too expensive if the same amount of time was spent as when provided by a publisher, is an editor.
A good literary editor isn’t a proof reader. A good editor works with an author to hone and develop a book. A good editor spots inconsistencies in plot, character and detail; eliminates redundancies and points out where there is a lack of clarity, or where the book meanders, all while respecting the writer’s purpose and integrity. It is a long and often painful process. For my three books to date, I was fortunate enough to be able to secure the services of one of the best freelance editors. Not only had she worked for most of the major publishing houses, on both sides of the Atlantic, but she had edited books for several recipients of a number of prestigious literary prizes, including the Booker prize. We had our differences, and there were disagreements but I loved the process. Not all publishers will offer someone of the same calibre but someone nonetheless who will be able to stand farther back from the text than the author can and make constructive suggestions on how to bring out the best in your creation.
Perhaps our expectations of what the book ‘product’ is will change in time, and all the other elements required for print books will diminish in importance. At the moment, though, they are necessary and gatekeepers provide them as part of their service. Some authors complain that publishers don’t consult them over the cover or, indeed, over any part of the post-editorial process. I think that’s unfortunate but at least they do take the burden of those things from the author.
Authors will always have to do their share of marketing. Today, that share is greater than it used to be. But even small publishers will arrange advanced copies to be sent to reviewers; they will have lists of appropriate online reviewers and bloggers and even contacts at bookstores for signings. They won’t have much money; they will do this on a shoestring, and money for straight advertising will be absent for all but the most high profile authors or titles. These are still considerable benefits for any author.
They are able to offer these things because they do keep an eye on the gate. They have limited resources and can only use them effectively when they don’t try and stretch themselves too thin.
The gatekeeper system is not perfect but overall it works pretty well. One of my biggest gripe against it is that we now have two gatekeepers: agents and publishers. Getting an agent is as hard today as getting a publisher was 50 years ago. And it is almost always essential. They aren’t without value: they are a filtering system for publishing houses and from experience I know how deluged with submissions publishers can be. On the author side, they can be invaluable in getting the best deal, handling the very complex issues of secondary rights and guiding authors so inclined as to the market suitability of their manuscript. On the downside, they have become the gatekeepers to the gatekeepers. The first time I attended the Frankfurt Book Fair as an exhibitor, I was taken aback by the impenetrable citadel that is the Literary Agents Hall, with its extra security and inviolate appointment desk. They seemed more remote than any publisher I had met.
It’s worth reading the blog, What’s a publisher for? posted by Nosy Crow, an independent publisher of children’s books and apps, as any example of how hard publishers can work to keep the gates open, not closed.