Who are the gatekeepers?

This week’s post is by guest writer Jami Blackann. Jami is an editor and administrative assistant for Greenleaf Literary Services and lives in Seattle, Washington.

Are you the gatekeeper?

New technology can often transform the entire landscape of its domain. In a broad sense, technology makes some aspect of our lives easier, quicker, more accessible. It can have both positive and negative consequences, and often it takes time to understand and evaluate a new technology’s full impact.

In the not so distant past, when it came to determining the quality of books, before ebooks even existed, your access to a novel’s content was limited to the printed page. Publishers and agents sifted out the gems from the slough, and readers trusted that these professionals had the prestigious literary knowledge to provide bookstores with only the very best. Given their vast resources and expertise, publishers were the final arbiters of which books would be released to bookstores. As a writer, if you couldn’t secure a publisher, your only other option was to self-publish, and that was a risky, expensive option frowned upon by publishers and readers alike—and not likely to lead to sales beyond friends and family. Conventional wisdom stated that self-publishers were in fact vanity publishers, as their books had been rejected by the gatekeepers and deemed unworthy of circulation by the major publishing houses. As readers, we trusted those agents and publishers, because, in truth, we didn’t have much of a choice. It was difficult to discover indie books, and if you did find a title that might be worth reading, the cost of the book was likely prohibitive. You could rest assured that the books that ended up in your bookstore were well vetted. In a general sense, you could judge the quality of a book and the skill of an author by its appearance on the shelves. I know I always took comfort in that, and for the most part, I’d say this principle still holds true now.

Enter the ubiquity of word processors, the rise of ebooks, the removed stigmatization of self-publishing, and the ease and affordability of electronically publishing one’s story without the use of a middleman. Authors are realizing they don’t need to go through the time-consuming headache of querying agent after agent, or the frustration of receiving rejection letter after rejection letter. The process of publishing is not so much of a mystery anymore, and therefore more accessible to everyone. It used to be that traditional publishers disapproved of self-published books, but that stigma has since faded.

The industry has transformed in a big way, reminding me of the changes that swept through the recording industry with the advent of MP3s. The surge of self-published ebooks has meant that more authors are being discovered by the reading world. On the other hand, it means that we’re seeing a lot more amateur and unedited material being circulated. Which begs the question:

Who are the new gatekeepers when it comes to evaluating literary genius in the self-published world?

Without those literary gatekeepers, do you rely on the number of purchases? We’ve seen some successful examples of self-published authors like Amanda Hocking and John Locke who’ve made it big without the use of publishers. However, I also know that there are a lot of ebooks making the bestsellers lists that are hardly the epitome of literary brilliance, and yet they’ve become wildly popular. All other things being equal, when you’ve got a brand-new ebook that’s being offered in the impulse-buy $0.99 – $2.99 range—something that would be senseless in the world of traditionally published print books—that changes the amount of risk involved, and that alone is going to increase the number of downloads.

What about online customer reviews by regular readers? It would seem those are our best bet. Goodness knows I’ve taken advantage of the reviews on Amazon.com and BarnesAndNoble.com to help me make my purchases, but are those as reliable as a stamp of approval from an agent or publisher? What about the disturbing rise of paid book reviews? I remember reading a New York Times article in August that exposed the harsh truth about people cheating the customer review system to skew the ratings in their favor.

And what about previously rejected authors who became popular on their own, and then the major publishers took notice when they hit the bestsellers lists? Granted, I think this scenario is rarer than people would like to think, but it does make you realize something: A publishing house is still a business, and it’s going to pick surefire titles that are guaranteed to sell. Usually that still means they’re going to select quality books, but that isn’t necessarily the case. The bottom line remains: Will the masses purchase this book? Will it pay off? They might be looking at a low-quality piece of erotica, but if that’s what the masses want, that’s what will get published.

Perhaps the industry hasn’t changed quite as much as I thought. Perhaps it’s just that we can now see more of what’s always been going on behind the curtain. Technology does make “publishing” available to anyone, which is a huge change, but maybe that doesn’t have to spell doom for the reading community who wants to find the quality stories out there. Ultimately, I think the readers will be the gatekeepers, just as they’ve always been. Not the numbers on a chart, not the essentially anonymous reviews on the Internet, but the readers themselves. Word of mouth, book clubs, newsletters, and of course publishers are still tried and true venues for discovering books, but now these systems have expanded into the digital realm through blogs, social media, crowd funding, and websites specifically devoted to legitimate book appraisal.

I can’t predict how well any of these newer forms will work—it seems as though it involves a little more investigative work on the reader’s part to find trustworthy reviews—but I would hope that something dependable takes shape. Books are being produced and marketed in different ways, and for better or for worse, I see a trend developing in which authors and readers are not so separated from one another. Even the traditional gatekeepers, who might seem obsolete in this new model, are finding ways to adjust. Brick-and-mortar bookstores are focusing on building community for readers, offering goods and services beyond just book sales, in addition to hosting literature-oriented events. Agents and publishers are working intimately with authors and finding new ways to promote them. Literary Agent Jason Ashlock, for instance, recently voiced his enthusiasm about the changing tide, explaining that new channels are forming that will help lower the signal-to-noise ratio. He uses TheRogueReader.com as an example:

In short, The Rogue Reader is a digital publishing channel for outstanding suspense fiction. We select only the very best new voices in the category and introduce only one author a month to our readers. That’s it. We call it precision-curation. […] We believe that there is exceptional value in a highly curated channel that helps readers determine what to read in their favored categories. A publisher that curates well and builds a reputation for doing so is fundamentally lowering the signal-to-noise ratio. Filter out the noise, raise the strength of the signal. With The Rogue Reader we’re saying to readers: These are works of the highest caliber, by break-out writers, who are worth your time.

The traditional hierarchy is changing, and the digital self-publishing system has plenty of its own kinks to smooth out, but I remain cautiously optimistic that readers, authors, and publishers will find ways to adapt. The old gatekeepers will still have their place, I’m sure, but I have to acknowledge that they aren’t the only literary standards out there. It should be interesting to see how it all plays out.