Friday, August 18, 2017

Gatekeeping is a Bi-Product, Not the Goal

Every once in a while I see complaints about self-publishing, or for self-publishing, and there’s one commonly thrown about idea that completely contradicts my experience in the writing world: traditional publication was created to filter out bad writing.

But was it? Because I don’t see anyone who would willingly subjugate themselves to that. Why the hell would I let someone randomly designate themselves the gatekeeper of literature and put my book through that process?

Traditional publication was created due to a need, not some self-imposed judge saying, “I will now decide if you’re good enough to be read by others.” Even today when we have a variety of options, no traditional publishing house considers itself the filter of good and bad. It just says, “This is what I want to invest in.”

Books cost money to make. Self-publishing became popular when ebooks tore down the majority of required costs. Nowadays, it’s entirely possible to get a manuscript to the public without spending one dime, though many people would question the wisdom of that budget. Fact is, money is key.

The evolution of “traditional” publication was all about the green. In order to get books out there, you had to be able to avoid a means of printing and the paper it went on, bare-minimum. Those with the talent or energy often didn’t have the funds to do this, so they pitched their work to those who did, convincing them to either support the arts, or that they could make their money back. Very symbiotic, quid-pro-quo type relationship. It became a standard due to the mass expense of publication. To this day, a large traditional publisher can easily spend 50,000 dollars per book launch, outside of the writer’s advance.

Travel writer Laurie Gough wrote a piece titled, “Self-Publishing: An Insult to the Written Word,” arguing, “The important role that publishers fill is to separate the wheat from the chaff. If you’re a good writer and have a great book you should be able to get a publishing contract.”

Except I’ve never had an agent or acquiring editor say that was their job. In fact, I’ve heard many, many say the exact opposite.

The agents I’ve spoken to admit that they would pass on books they liked or books they thought they were good. Sometimes it was by chance, “I just signed something else too similar,” or it was not right for them, “I wasn’t passionate about it.” The most common argument is that many agents and editors aren’t just looking for something well-made, but something they can sell. If they can’t think of a pitch for it, many won’t sign it. They are not issuing their stamp of approval on each and every manuscript; they are looking for people they want to work with, for manuscripts they care about, and something that can make pay everyone’s bills.

There are a select number of slots for each agent. Think 5-7 books picked up a year by an agent who receives 400 submissions a month. They’re going to pass on things that are good, even if they loved it. They need to bite off only what they can chew, and the less books they have, the more dedicated to each they can be to each one.

And think about it: imagine depending your entire year on making six sales alone—living in New York no less! You had better have faith in them instead of wasting your time on something that gets you nothing. Agents make money only when authors do, and most of them don’t have a “day” job to supplement a failed sale, so they have the world to choose from, they’re more likely to make a safer bet or something they really, truly love. A merely good book isn’t necessarily going to cut it.

I’ve never heard someone claim they see themselves as a gatekeeper of literature. I’m positive they’re out there, but many agents recognize their weaknesses and strengths, understand subjectivity and personal tastes, and will admit that even if they had picked up Harry Potter, they might not have been able to make it hit the big time like it had; a lot of success is about timing and luck. Who knows what might have changed if J.K. Rowling had a different agent or publisher?

I see a lot of villainizing of the traditional route, and while I admit it’s not all sunshine and kitty cats—and for some the worse option—it’s not this clinical series of pretentious evaluators telling you, “HOW DARE YOU TRY AND BE AN AUTHOR?!” It’s a business filled with all different types of personalities, different goals, and different methods, and it’s important to try and find what is right for you. Not all agents are good at their jobs, not all publishing houses make good offers, and it’s important to be savvy rather than idolizing or demonizing them.

Self-publishing isn’t this magical process in which true art is made either. Lots of it is half-baked, impatient people rushing through plots, skipping over character arcs and editing, ending whenever they hit some arbitrary, low wordcount to slap it up online. Despite that not all traditionally published books are good, picking up a random novel from Brown is not going to be the same as picking up your friend’s debut novelette written in a week. There are some self-published writers I am absolutely devoted to, far, far better than the mediocrity I’d find in from a random grab in a bookstore, but the vetting process and gatekeeping of traditional publication does give me an initial boost of trust that indies struggle with. In traditional publication, when it’s bad, it’s bad, but in self-publishing, when it’s bad, it’s a mess of delusional gibberish.

I mean, the gatekeeping gives a little more credibility to the authors just by virtue of the process. Several people had to see something in it while no one—not even the author—might like a self-published work. Yes, just because you can’t get a manuscript published doesn’t mean it’s not any good, and just because something got picked up doesn’t mean that it’s something special, but there is a sort of Russian Roulette of taking a chance on a self-published book that isn’t the same for traditionally published.

Regardless, I hear both self-publishers and traditional advocates claiming that the gatekeepers were put into place to filter out the crap, and I don’t think anyone’s actually made that claim. I, for one, would not trust a person who said, “I have chosen the good books for you,” as evidenced by my reaction to my school assignments in high school. Who gave them the right? I would have to see the gatekeepers have gatekeepers before I took a system like that seriously.

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