The Gatekeepers are dead…long live the Gatekeepers

No, I’m not writing about Ghostbusters.

There’s a huge argument raging right now about gatekeeping for literature. About who gets to do it, how literature will survive without it, about “what happens next?”

On one side, you’ve got independent publishing authors, many of whom are singing “ding, dong, the wicked Gatekeeper is dead!” Publishers used to be gatekeepers for books – they would pick from the submissions they got the books which they felt the public would pay to read. About a decade or so ago, publishers (largely) ditched that role, handing it instead to agents. Agents once had the job of just going over contracts to get the best deal for writers. Suddenly, agents had to guess what publishers were guessing that readers would pay to read. It’s really no wonder that a lot of perfectly good books were getting missed by this convoluted system. It’s not the agents’ fault, or the publishers’ fault. They were all doing the best they could to bring the books which would sell best to market.

But when you’ve got third parties guessing at what second parties guess the first party will like, it’s almost a game of telephone in reverse – and about as messy as telephone usually gets. So indie writer are thrilled by the ability to bypass the agents and publishers as gatekeepers and go direct to readers.

Other folks are not so thrilled.  There are many who worry that the loss of the gatekeepers will cause a deluge of “bad” writing which will flood the market, making it impossible to find good books and turning readers off.

I think both of these groups are forgetting something very important, and that’s who the final arbiters of taste have always been:


Not agents, not publishers, but the people who buy and then read the books.  These are the folks who have always decided what is good and what is not.  And I think they’ll be able to continue to manage that role just fine, as things settle down.  Even with a deluge of bottom-drawer novels pouring out into the market.


Gatekeeping by the Masses:

Crowd-sourced curation actually works pretty well.  We see it in video, with YouTube.  The videos that are not liked, sink.  The videos which some cliques like rise in those groups.  The videos which hit the mass public in some manner rise to the very top.  It’s more or less the same in music today, too, with some indie groups able to compete pretty well for listeners with top labels.  IF they are good enough to be liked by a bunch of folks.  I think we’re just going to see the same thing happen in books.

Lets face it – for every hundred of us who hates having to guess if something is good or not, there is some fraction of the population who loves going out to find the next big thing.  They love being one of the folks who “discovered” a new video, new blog, new writer, new musician.  It’s all about the joy of discovery for the explorer mindset, and the internet provides an almost inexhaustible supply of new material to explore.  It’s these folks who are out there right now looking for the next good bit of digital data so they can tell all their friends about it; who will then tell all their friends, who then tell all theirs…


New Boss: Same as the Old Boss:

What some folks have missed in their worry about change is that the real gatekeeper is not going away.  Or even changing.  The agents and publishers were always acting as gatekeepers for the reader – who has always been the final gatekeeper.  With the importance of additional levels of gatekeeping ading (gone already, some might suggest), what we’ve really lost is the levels of folks guessing at what the real gatekeepers are looking for.

I think readers are a lot smarter and more savvy than many folks are giving them credit for.  Readers know what they enjoy reading, and they’re not going to bother with books or writers they don’t like.  So to the indie writers who glory in the death of the gatekeeper: never forget who the real boss is, the guy who pays your rent.  The reader.  For the folks who worry that the death of agent/publisher curation will cause a dark age for literature – recall that agents have only done gatekeeping for a decade or two, and publishers only for the last half century.  Literature did just fine before that, and will continue doing just fine now that writers are again able to go direct to the primary gatekeeper.


  1. Well said, Kevin. Cream will rise to the top as it always does. But the system is a little more Democratic now, and no one can tell the writer no because the project doesn’t work for them or speak to them or whatever other trite cliche they can come up with.

    • It never was democratic at all before, PJ. Guessing what the constituents want is not democracy. ;)

      I agree. Now, the real gatekeepers – readers – will have direct control over what works succeed, and which ones fail, to a degree that hasn’t been seen in a long time.

  2. A little bit of history helps put things in perspective. How many people are even aware that the multi-layer gatekeeping system has been in place a comparatively short time? As you said, literature managed to survive before there were agents, or even publishers.

    • Thanks, Catana. I think putting things into their historical perspective can be useful. I think there’s a little bit of “OMG it’s always been this way and now it’s not” panic going on. It’s a change, sure. I just don’t think it’s any cause for panic.

      It’s in the middle of the most chaotic system where the greatest potential for growth and success occur. Don’t fear chaos and change – look for the opportunities that always appear.

  3. The only possible kink in the ointment is that “deluge of bottom-drawer novels” you reference.

    The noise will be an issue, I think.

    Did you read Amanda Hocking’s blog post from a few days ago? lmk if you need a link. She wrote about how hard she works at marketing . . .

    • Kirsten, I keep hearing that deluge is going to be a huge issue. How books will collapse under the weight of bad product, just like YouTube and iTunes did.

      But YouTube didn’t. Well, they’re not a business. Not a company trying to put out professional material. But what about iTunes? Hey, ANYBODY with a podcast or a garage band can put themselves up on iTunes. And they do, thousands of them. It doesn’t seem likely that Amazon will have any more issues than iTunes.

      I have read Ms. Hocking’s blog. And I’m sure she does work hard at marketing. So do most traditionally published authors. Most books gets *precisely* enough marketing money from a large publisher to get on bookstore shelves. Not a penny more. Almost all books published traditionally today rely on their authors for marketing, if there is to be any. Many do OK without any author marketing effort. Of course, a lot of indie published books sell thousands of copies without any marketing effort, too.

      *shrug* It’s really a crap shoot. Some books get zero marketing and do great. Other books get pushed hard and flop. I’m with Dean Wesley Smith at this point: I think your best marketing as an indie is your next book.

      • We have so many more outlets to find out about good new works that it could actually drown out really good new works. However, I agree that this, like you suggest, is actually the responsibility of the reader and always has been. To find good, interesting works can be suggested by publishers/booksellers, etc., but it is not their duty to force you to read anything.
        The deluge theory reminds me of the many restrictive ballot access laws on the books in many states in the US. Many who don’t want to change the laws to open up more claim there will be a deluge of new parties and it will become unmanageable. However, where states have opened up their ballots, there has NOT been that deluge. It just didn’t happen.
        It is purely fear or possibly even fear mongering elitism that causes us to suggest a deluge.
        This is kind of like the music industry has been for years where there are all kinds of local and regional indie/unsigned artists who clamor to get with a big label and some who just want to stay indie. Their works reach their audiences anyway. Maybe not to the extent they want, but there only so much musicians or likewise, authors, can do about that.

  4. Just wanted to say thanks for adding a voice of reason, with more numbers, on Robin Sullivan’s post about Barnes and Noble at Write2Publish! Sadly, there are those who’ll stop reading the minute they see the words “cost,” “financials,” “expenses,” etc. Not having the facts and figures kinda hampers one in drawing conclusions about anything involving a business, eh? ;-)

  5. I agree. Let the readers decide what they want, with no guesswork or manipulation from agents and publishers. I don’t think we will see a crash even if there is a glut. Not only is the market nigh-inexhaustible, but the readers have access to many reviews of any given book, usually including several right beside the “buy now” button.

    The new system is much more democratic, and that alone is worth a lot to me.

  6. Would like to say that one of the other Gatekeepers has been librarians. They are more on the side of the general public, not necessarily the publishers, per se, but they acted as guardians of literature promoting certain works over others at times and suggesting new and old works to readers. The public used to listen to them more than publishers for suggestions.
    However, this has diminished as well. Not only is the public turning to librarians less for suggestions, it seems many librarians have given up that responsibility as well. Now many libraries have, uhfortunately, just become places to go to get free Internet access.

    • Depending upon how things go, we could see libraries pick up a new lease on life from digital publishing. Already dozens of libraries around the country are doing ebook lending, and I think that will continue to grow. When readers can just log into the library from home, or from work, or heck, on the bus someplace or in an airport 1000 miles from home…! I think there’s a real possibility for libraries to become centers for loaning books again.


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