Friday, 4 May 2012

I Am the Keymaster. Are You the Gatekeeper?

Phew, it's good to get the obligatory cultural reference out of the way so early. But aside from the sexual context of that phrase from Ghostbusters, it also has a surprising relevance to the rapidly changing world of publishing. As writers, our content is the key that will unlock a publishing deal and/or a lot of sales. But who are the gatekeepers and do we even need them anymore?

It used to be so simple – editors were the gatekeepers for publishing and they maintained quality by saying no to 99% of what they were sent. Then agents came along and were, for quite a while, treated as the lowest of the low. Slowly, they gained the upper hand and became the de facto conduit for writers to reach editors. Agents maintained quality by saying no to 98% of what they were sent (and by hyping the remaining 2% relentlessly to whoever would listen). Then sales and marketing and rights and publicity got involved on the publishing side, and suddenly gatekeepers became more like stakeholders, all of whom needed to be satisfied before a book found its way to the shelves.

The move to digital is disrupting this model, and even speaking as someone who works for a publisher, I think this is broadly a good thing. New ideas and approaches are flooding into publishing, and in the long term this will benefit savvy authors. We're starting to see the increased use of revenue sharing, where – instead of an advance – authors take a larger cut of the sales of their product. And a lot of people are bypassing the traditional gatekeepers entirely and self-publishing directly to e-book platforms.

I recently attended the London Book Fair Digital Minds Conference, and it was clear that roles in publishing are blurring faster than anyone expected. In fact, there was a whole panel session on just that subject, with agents, writers and publishers talking about how their jobs are changing. Agent Ed Victor, for instance, began a small publishing imprint last year, for books whose rights had reverted to the author. But now he has seen a niche for publishing books by his clients that have been rejected by traditional publishers. His agency recently inked a deal to sell Dead Rich by Louise Fennel exclusively in Tesco stores and they have a dictionary of popular music on the way. Is Ed a poacher turned gamekeeper, or is he simply adapting to survive in a tough business environment?

What about technology companies? Are they the new gatekeepers? Apple certainly police their app store very closely, making sure that app developers comply with a whole bunch of regulations (which those developers are legally prohibited from discussing with others) and subjecting apps to a rigorous testing process. All of this is designed to foster customer trust, because it should be impossible for an app to break your iPhone/iPad or introduce a virus onto your system. Amazon too – by controlling the Kindle – strive to be the primary channel for e-books, both now and in the future. You only have to look at the ire generated by Amazon's decision to publish their own physical books, to see what an uneasy relationship they now have with traditional publishers.

Do the traditional gatekeepers of publishing still have a place? Well, I'd argue very strongly for the role of editorial in publishing – editors add value to a book from the first time they look at the manuscript. As a parent, too, I find great certainty in picking up a children's book by an established publisher – whether it's age-banded or not. My daughter was recently given a self-published book for free, and I was at a loss to know how suitable it might be. The characters were young, but the premise seemed to be more adult. A quick trip to Goodreads told me what I needed to know, and the book made its way to the charity shop instead.

This last example leads me to an intriguing thought – maybe we are all gatekeepers in the brave new world of publishing? In which case, I'll be accepting submissions of three chapters and a synopsis to the usual address.



  1. Interesting post. I'll give you my synopsis and first three chapters if you give me yours?

    Also hamsters squeak when they are afraid/agitated. I just thought you'd want to know for sure.

  2. I work in a school, recently our head approached me with an e-mail from an author offering a free author visit. He wanted to know if I had heard of them.

    I hadn't but a bit of on-line research told me they were self published. Still no reason to discount a freebie, so I downloaded the book to look at it. I was concerned that the content may be a little adult but couldn't tell without reading. I didn't get chapter 2 because the editing was so poor. Needless to say we didn't take up the offer.

    I do feel sorry for the author though who is obviously working very hard to promote their work. They have been sold a dream by a company promising good quality self publishing that has not been lived up to.

  3. What?! Do I detect a mind shift, a change of heart from you, young Nick? *faints*

  4. Interesting post Nick - I didn't realise Ed Victor had expanded the e-publishing thing - very interesting indeed...

  5. hi Nick, it's good to know I'm not the only one who remembers and uses useless quotes from bad movies! And a very interesting post as well by the way, as an unpublished author it often feels as if we're locked out of some club guarded by bouncers. It would be nice to imagine we could one day make our own set of keys and walk straight in!

  6. Ghostbusters is not a bad movie!