The Fall of Gatekeepers, the Rise of Magnifiers
For better or worse, publishing a book has never been easier. There’s been lots written about this (the rise of self-publishing and digital publishing seem to be the big headline-grabbers in this narrative, to date). There’s another factor that seems less talked about: the proliferation of what I’ll call the “tiny press” or, perhaps even better “the hobbyist press” — miniscule outfits that satiate the creative urges of those involved, but do so in a way that seems — from the outside looking in — deprived of ambition. These folks don’t attract notice (in the way of sales, award nominations, critical acclaim, chatter, etc.), but can chug along for years and years. Kind of like a group of friends who form a band and play once a month at the local bar.
I’m ambivalent about the hobbyist press. The writers and publishers involved often seem — from a distance — earnest, and that’s admirable. Again, from a distance, they don’t come across as bad people, and they’re finding time to pursue something they love. And yet, sometimes, those involved in such enterprises don’t seem so much to be a part of the publishing world as they do some publishing-themed LARP being run right next door to the publishing world.
But I digress…
What I really want to talk about is the fall of gatekeepers. Or, to be more precise, the end of “gatekeeper’ as a meaningful analogy for use in the publishing world. “Gatekeeper” — as a mental construct — worked in the days when the primary problem for aspiring authors was access (to editing, layout, design, and cover art resources; to distribution networks, to reviewers, readers, etc.).
This is no longer the case. If you’ve written a book, chances are you can get all of those things. (Either by doing them yourself or building your own team to help you or by submitting the book to a hobbyist press, or pursuing a more traditional route via large or small press publishing). Mind you, the quality might be great, shaky, or in between. But simply obtaining access to publishing resources is no longer the key problem.
No, the key problem for writers — as I see it — is discoverability. Thus, authors (and, especially, newer authors) don’t need gatekeepers. We need magnifiers. We need people with the skills to attract sufficient notice to our work so that it will emerge as notable and worth buying. This means associating with folks who can supply eye-catching, skilled cover art. This means associating with folks who have the tools to distribute your book to reviewers (both the old school purveyors of taste — PW, Kirkus, influential magazines in one’s field, etc.. — and the emerging legions of book bloggers). Associating with folks who can deliver a solid edit or two so that the aforementioned reviews don’t say things like “great story if you can look past the typos”. Sometimes, it means associating with folks who have been in the business long enough that they’ve established a reputation for only being involved in quality projects.
Now, here’s the funny thing. If we assemble a list of “magnifiers” it will include many, many people and companies and institutions that would have been on a list of “gatekeepers” written ten years ago (although it may also include many new folks, like book bloggers). Big six publishers are magnifiers. Ambitious, quality intermediate-size publishers are magnifiers. In a niche market, a small press or, yes, even a hobbyist press can be a magnifier. Agents can be magnifiers (they give you access, yes, but they primarily give you access to greater magnification and discoverability; think of them less as gatekeepers and more as secondary or tertiary magnifiers).
So, I don’t think a newer author should assume that old school players are going to fade away. I suggest newer authors simply flush the construct of “gatekeeper” out of their mind. Instead of thinking “this person’s job is to be the metaphorical bouncer outside the wild party that is publishing”, think “this person’s job is to boost signals, and to boost all signals is to boost no signal, and therefore his/her inability to take on all comers is a good thing.
Just my two cents. Your mileage may vary. What do you think?