Gatekeepers have always served a crucial function, albeit a function we (readers) might not have paid much attention to until recently.
I liken gatekeepers to dams. Manmade dams serve multiple functions. They keep the good contained (e.g. robust populations of fish), and they also give us a way to control water flow and prevent disaster.
In Texas, we get a LOT of flash floods.
Rainstorms almost always hit hard and fast—too fast for the ground to have time to absorb all the water. Flash-flooding can do tremendous damage…which is why we build dams.
When a storm hits and dumps six inches of rain in a half hour, the lakes and rivers rise at terrifying speeds.
The dam is what keeps that water contained until it hits a dangerous level. At that critical point, the dam starts slowly releasing so many millions of gallons of water into special canals and floodplains to prevent the lakes and rivers from breaking their banks (or the dam).
Without a dam, the lakes and rivers could rage out of control and wipe out everything nearby—homes, businesses, animal habitats, etc.
Gatekeepers Contain the Good
I spent most of my youth—and my babysitting money—in a B.Dalton or a Waldenbooks. Back then, I had no idea how much I took for granted.
Sure, I ran into my fair share of bad books, but bad books back then meant something entirely different.
A ‘bad book’ in 1987 was one that didn’t resonate, or, for some reason, failed to hook my interest. Maybe the characters were too shallow or the plot was too predictable. I might have put a book down because I didn’t care for the voice or style.
All that time, a book being ‘good’ or ‘bad’ was almost always wholly a subjective construct, a matter of opinion.
Thanks to gatekeepers, I never had to quit reading because a book had so many typos I couldn’t concentrate. I never once gave up on a book because the horrendous grammar made my brain bleed.
If I read a mystery, I could expect the story to possess an actual mystery plot (structure).
Bad thing happens–> MC gets involved–> clues here–>red herrings here–> ends with mystery solved.
I couldn’t have imagined I’d one day pick up a mystery written by an author who didn’t even know mystery possessed its own unique structure (yes, that has happened).
Authors understood genres and knew where their stories would fit and why and the standard expectations from readers. Today?
The Modern ‘Bad Book‘
The digital age changed everything. And before anyone shouts me down, I believe self-publishing has done a lot of good.
The problem, however, is we may have hit a point that self-publishing could start doing irreparable harm to our industry. A bad book from 1999 is not the same creature as the bad book of 2019.
Gatekeepers caged the bad book in 1999 and put it down before it could bite anyone, unlike the bad book of 2019.
Nope, that sucker’s laying eggs.
It’s a series.
To put it bluntly, it’s always been an uphill battle to get people excited about reading.
In an age with texting, social media, video games, YouTube, Candy Crush, and Netflix, it’s possibly harder than ever.
But, here’s some food for thought.
Twenty years ago, teachers, librarians, publishers, authors and readers bemoaned how people didn’t read. Yet, when I was a kid almost ALL the books in stores and libraries had passed the gauntlets of the gatekeepers.
Think about it. Publishing had to hustle and pray for readers even when the pool of books to choose from had all been thoroughly edited, proofed and vetted.
Now, people still aren’t reading, but the pool of books is a) exponentially larger and b) the general quality is embarrassingly low.
These days, I’m not putting a book down because of a stylistic preference. I’m throwing books across the room because the author didn’t bother doing basic research—research that didn’t even require a trip to a library.
Just GOOGLE it!
Many of these ‘authors’ skip learning the most rudimentary basics about how to write fiction (or even non-fiction).
Then, to give me a paper cut and pour lemon juice in it? They flood my email with marketing and newsletters. What’s worse? They don’t write or edit their newsletters any better than the tripe they package as books.
Seriously. I wish I were exagerating.
Here are two screen shots (below) from an actual author newsletter. I received this in my business email last week (a newsletter I didn’t sign up for, for the record).
This author’s newsletter promises to show me how to make the most of my time, but the author doesn’t even value my time enough to run a simple spell check.
The industry push for authors to churn out this massive, unrelenting barrage of content has piled up into a tidal wave that’s now careering across the publishing landscape faster than the speed of wifi.
LOCK THE GATE!
Y’all know what tsunamis are full of?
Trash, junk, dead things, garbage, fecal matter, disease, and pretty much anything dangerous, deadly or disgusting.
Literary tsunamis aren’t much different…except they keep coming bigger and bigger with no sign of stopping (short of unplugging the Internet).
Gatekeepers & The Literary Tsunami
We NEED gatekeepers. Just last year, there were over a million novels self-published.
Before the digital age, publishers only released a certain number of books per year per genre, and for good reasons.
Limiting titles gave them time to perform proper editing and proofing. It also prevented over-saturating any one genre, or flooding the market with too many choices.
Perhaps the author querying actually had a fabulous vampire book. Problem was, the agents knew they wouldn’t be able to sell it to an editor, because the publishers had already bought five other vampire books.
Agents don’t make money unless an author makes money. For an author to make money, her books have to SELL.
It was already a challenge to sell a vampire book with three, five or even ten other competitors that same year.
What about now? With three hundred other vampire books released in the same year? Or three thousand?
One of the most glaring weaknesses in the modern publishing business model is the lack of stopgaps to control the flow.Kristen Lamb (quoting herself)
We cannot keep dumping the slush pile on readers and task them with hooking the book we all want to read.
Why not put them in a boat and ask them to reel in a nice swordfish to hang on the wall while riding on a tidal wave of cars, homes, and overturned septic tanks?
Readers as Gatekeepers
Let’s suspend reality for a moment and pretend that the million books self-published in 2018 were all the same quality as books in 1987. Cool.
But it’s still over A MILLION NEW BOOKS.
In the comments on the last blog, there was a lot of discussion about readers as gatekeepers. I totally agree that the old way of gatekeeping was far from perfect. A lot of excellent books (authors) fell through the cracks.
Self-publishing has breathed new life into old genres and resurrected the short and long forms from the dead (e.g. poetry, essays, short stories as well as epic high fantasy, epic historical, epic any story that requires 120,000+ words to tell).
Alas, despite all the good, we must face the bad.
There’s a reason the last runaway breakout novel was in 2012. I firmly believe the success of Fifty Shades of Grey spurred an explosion in self-publishing (the bad kind).
This Literary Power Ball Winner not only encouraged green writers to skip even learning the craft, it also attracted scammers, counterfeiters, and algorithm con artists.
All this aside, though, I find it more than a little appalling that we (writers) should expect our consumers to be in charge of quality control.
It’s like opening a restaurant, and instead of the owner checking inventory, he makes it the customer’s responsibility to ensure the chicken they ordered isn’t rotten.
Author Gatekeepers & First Line of Defense
WE are the first gatekeepers. It’s OUR duty to learn our craft and create a product worthy of a spot in the marketplace. Authors hold a moral obligation to make certain we’ve done all we can to ensure our product is fit for reader consumption.
Anyone who’s a new (pre-published) author? Take classes, read craft books and study writing blogs. Get professional feedback. Trust me. You’ll save time and money by learning how to write well.
For those who self-publish? Self-publishing means you’re the publisher and you make all the profit, but also incur all the expenses.
***Just so you know, editing and proofreading are two completely different things.
There are various types of editing we might need—substantive editing, developmental editing, line-editing, etc. This is NOT cheap (though it is a business expense).
Y’all can look here for the industry standard rates. Make sure to check websites and organizations who keep track of scammers and seek recommendations from people you trust,
Normally, I’d recommend Preditors and Editors, but they’re rebuilding their site. In the meantime, y’all can refer to The Science Fiction Writers Association’s Writer Beware page.
An excellent editor can make all the difference in the world and keep us from publishing too soon.
Editing will be expensive if your MS requires a lot of substantive or developmental editing simply because it takes incredible skill, patience and TIME to repair flawed plots or faulty character arcs.
Keep in mind that it takes an average of 12-15 hours to read a book. This is the time it takes to read a fully polished work.
With a draft, we (editors) have to slow down…a lot. And, when I edit, I will read that book at least three times. This is why I rarely do long edits. Most writers aren’t prepared for the expense…and I’d also rather play in rush hour traffic.
Granted, there are ways to mitigate this cost.
Sure an editor can fix typos, punctuation, subject-verb disagreements, remove echoes, repair punctuation, and evict passive voice, but that only makes the bill that much bigger.Kristen Lamb (quoting herself again #NotWeirdAtAll)
Knowledge is power, and skill is a GIANT EDITING DISCOUNT.
Publisher/Mega Author Gatekeepers: The Next Line of Defense
I made this suggestion years ago, but it seems the only one to somewhat listen to this suggestion has been Audible (which is Amazon-owned).
Our author brand is our lifeline. A brand is any time a name alone drives sales. Traditional publishing is in big trouble, but they do have a way to recover. They still own almost all the current household brands.
Ditch the ghostwriters/’coauthors’ approach and start authentically investing in the next generation of authors.
Thus far, in my POV, publishers have just been been devaluing their mega-brands and mega-franchises.
In an effort to keep pace with Amazon, the remaining publishers have been using ‘coauthors’ to pump out a gazillion titles all bearing a household name.
Sometimes, this ‘coauthor’ gig means the mega-author oversees the book and the process (e.g. James Patterson). Other times, the ‘coauthor’ is pretty close to a ghostwriter (unless Robert Ludlum has been sending messages from the other side since he passed away in 2001).
The problem isn’t necessarily with using a known brand to help sales. Rather, my criticism has to do with presentation.
If you look at the covers, these books are continuing to build brands that are already household names, while the writer (who probably did most of the work) earns only a small spot at the bottom.
Robert Ludlum passed away eighteen years ago. He doesn’t need anymore help building his name. But Joshua Hood? Joshua sure could use a break.
Same with this book (below). The cover ALREADY states James Patterson is The World’s #1 Bestselling Writer. Great! So why not throw Brendan Dubois a bone? Too much to ask?
Granted, they’re doing a little better. This is the latest James Patterson and we can actually see the coauthor’s name.
What if there was a way to maintain/build James Patterson while simultaneously building/grooming David Ellis to one day be just as big as Patterson?
Wait, there is! I blogged about it in 2012.
My idea is an all-round winner for all. The mega-authors maintain their legend status and use their influence as a nursery to grow the next generation of household names.
Legacy publishing can put out quality books, revitalize their stable of authors, and make readers super happy.
My main gripe with the current pseudo-ghostwriting approach is that there’s no solid consistency. I never know what I’m going to get.
For instance, I used to read a lot of James Patterson books. Unfortunately, it got to the point that the voice (and even quality) varied so vastly from book to book that I simply gave up. I didn’t have time to mess with a grab bag approach.
As to Ludlum, when a monarch dies he/she passes on the crown. In publishing, why should a mega-author get to keep his or her ‘crown’ forever, even after leaving the mortal coil?
Admit it. Kinda unfair. Okay a LOT unfair.
If Kylie Jenner Can Do This, New York Can
If Kylie Jenner can put her brand on everything from tooth whitening strips to lipgloss to clothes, then NY can do something similar.
Use brand trust in a good (modern) way.
The Slush Pile Sorting Hat is a disaster, and Jason Bourne only has so much mileage left. Use the big fish to protect the little fish until they can get strong enough to thrive on their own.
Work Smarter Not Harder
Audible is doing it. If they can have a Reese Witherspoon Book Club, then why can’t traditional publishing have a Stephen King Masters of Horror Club?
***Not that I am dissing Reese Witherspoon’s taste in books, but I want to read what makes Gillian Flynn, Tana French, Neil Gaiman, or J.K. Rowling stay up all night reading.
Anyway, agents locate the books and pitch them to the mega authors (or their agents). Then, the mega-author gets to say yay or nay on a book they’re endorsing.
The new authors have the honor of landing THEIR books in a premium line. What’s better is that the new author has a far greater chance of selling a lot of books.
Bookstores can even shelve these designer lines in the same areas to make it easy for readers to discover a new favorite author.
With a nudge from a big brand, the new author can build his/her own name, brand and reputation until it’s successful.
These designer lines could include everything from short works (novellas) to longer works (series). The main difference would be the unknown author’s name would be in GIANT font.
The literary gene pool gets fresh new author DNA. The megas make a percentage off of royalties in their line (and can also write their own books). And the best news?
We now have a new form of gatekeepers, so readers will have at least ONE place they can look for a quality read. Algorithms are vulnerable to fraud and can be gamed. This method, however, allows authors to once again earn a respected title.
I have more ideas, but we’ll leave those for another day.
Suffice to Say…
Self-publishing can continue on. If our MS doesn’t make it past the gatekeepers then we can see how it fares self-published.
But the idea of reaching out to trusted names and letting them assist as gatekeepers holds a lot of appeal (does to me).
Just reimagine Oprah’s Book of the Month. Make it J.K. Rowling’s Book of the Month. Can’t hurt to try. The mega-authors then can be part of the solution to this growing problem.
Seriously, if I am a trusted brand, I’d be really picky who received my endorsement. And I’m fairly certain that if I recommended great new books/authors? My existing fans would love me for saving them from the tidal surge…the glowing one that’s teeming with three-headed
What Are Your Thoughts on Gatekeepers?
I LOVE hearing from you. Maybe y’all have some ideas to throw out about how we can add some sort of quality control. I know the old way had a lot of flaws but this new way is giving me apoplexy.
Let’s crowd-source this problem, LOL. It’s certainly an issue that needs to be remedied.
***Btw, if you look to your right in the sidebar, we have some brand new classes coming up. Bad Lamb Academy is replacing W.A.N.A. so I can merge all the sites in one spot. And, since I am a well-known troublemaker, Bad Lamb works.
Refuse to behave.
Anyway, I’m teaching a BRAND new class about How to Write Mystery, Suspense & Thriller this coming Thursday, and I recruited a fabulous instructor to teach an Introduction to Science Fiction on Friday. We also have more classes next week. Recordings are included for free.
Y’all will meet Maria Grace next post! She’s not only a brilliant craft teacher. She’s published twenty-three novels and is crazy good at the business of this business.
Short notice, I know. But we’ve been working eighteen hour days moving everything into one spot to make it easier on everyone.
Just FYI, I’m extending the CLEARANCE sale a little longer, until new classes begin. We need to test the new Event Espresso license and this site’s functionality (we’ve updated everything). If you need a good plotting or character class, NOW is the time to get it.
I have to free up space on our servers. All my classes are detailed and average 2-3 hours. These are On Demand classes you can watch at your leisure and have fun while you learn (for classes, scroll down).
****For NEW classes, look in the footer.
This not only is to help you guys get the training you need (affordable summer school), but it will open up room for the new recordings of new classes.
Please take advantage of the sale! I rarely drop prices this low.
After July 17th, these classes will no longer be for sale (and will be slated for deletion).
Some, I will offer again later in the year. Others? I won’t be offering again the same way (will be likely splitting them into two classes because they ran long).
Thanks so much for your support!
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