The Failure of the Gatekeepers

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One of the arguments that many of us have made in support of traditional publishing has been the role that traditional publishers have played as gatekeepers. Gatekeeping means more than just making sure that a manuscript is literate; it includes making sure that it is original.

Increasingly, traditional publishers are failing at this aspect of gatekeeping. They are failing to detect the plagiarized book. A recent article in The New Yorker, “The Plagiarist’s Tale” by Lizzie Widdicombe, explores this problem. If you haven’t read the article, it is well worth reading.

In this case, the publisher failed to recognize that the entire book was made up of takings from numerous books. But not only did the publisher fail, so did numerous others in the chain, including the author’s agent. And in reading the author’s writing history, over the years many persons missed his plagiarizing, including the editors at the Paris Review.

If gatekeepers are failing at this fundamental task, what purpose are they serving that warrants anyone caring about their future survival? I understand missing a plagiarized paragraph here and there, but in the book that is the subject of the article, it appears as if hardly a single paragraph was original to the author.

For me, traditional publishers as gatekeepers served three primary purposes. First, they weeded out those works that really belonged in the slush pile and were not worthy of going further, even though they occasionally missed some gems. Second, they nourished writers who deserved being nourished thus enriching our culture. Third, they weeded out plagiarism. I don’t mean the one-paragraph-in-500-pages-of-manuscript kind; I mean the one-paragraph-on-each-page kind — the blatant plagiarism.

With the advent of ebooks and self-publishing, the first role has pretty much disappeared. There are so many publishing house labels that it is nearly impossible to know whether the publisher is a giant or a mouse. Smart self-publishers are creating their own “publishing houses” to publish their books. The result is that there is no weeding of books in the marketplace because books rejected by an established traditional publisher are now published by a new “publishing house” — and few readers know that they are buying from the slush pile until they buy the book and start reading it, only to discover that the book should never have found its way out of the slush pile and into the retail book market.

The second function, that of nourishing new writers, has been falling by the wayside in the last decade. Financially, traditional publishers are struggling (at least so they claim; it is hard to give too much credence to such cries when I read that a publisher had nearly a billion dollars in profit in 2011) – the competition has turned fierce. Reading is down as are traditional book sales. Fewer blockbusters are being published so there are fewer blockbusters available to generate the kind of income needed to nourish nonblockbuster authors. And authors are increasingly going their own way because they get to keep more of the money and don’t need to worry about publisher rejection.

That leaves the third function, the weeding out of plagiarists. Alas, publishers are failing in this role as well. I think there are many causes for this failure. The editors that traditional publishers hire are under the gun to publish books that make a profit and increase the publishing conglomerate’s bottom line. The accountants have taken over from the craftsman and the editor’s ability to keep a job and a steady paycheck is dependant on satisfying the accountants.

In the olden days of publishing, a book was rarely published before it was ready to be published. Publication dates were flexible; if an extra round of editing by a professional editor was needed, it was done. The consolidation of the publishing industry into the conglomerates changed that. Now publication dates are fixed in stone, regardless of whether a book is ready or not. The result is increasing numbers of errors that slip by and the inability to gatekeep for plagiarism.

Also in the olden days, editors were trained to recognize possible plagiarism. Perhaps more importantly, editors were widely read themselves and thus suspicious based on their own broad reading. A book editor, in the olden days, was not an entry-level position. One rose to it; it was a position of prestige. It attracted people like former first lady Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis and master writer Bennett Cerf. Today, the editor is closer to, if not, an entry-level position. The glamour of being an editor at a prestigious traditional publisher is gone — gone with the consolidation of the industry into a few international conglomerates whose first interest is the quarterly bottom line.

Consequently, traditional publishers are no longer fulfilling their role as gatekeepers. In the absence of fulfilling that role, what purpose do they serve? Many ebookers today would say traditional publishers serve no role at all and should follow their dinosaur ancestors into oblivion. Perhaps they are right. Perhaps the time has come for the breakup of the conglomerate publisher and the return of the smaller, independent publishers, the ones who made publishing a great profession and brought great literature to the reading public.

(Via An American Editor.)

5 Comments on The Failure of the Gatekeepers

  1. Wholesale plagiarism is not new. On meeting the young man assigned to edit my first novel, I was asked whether it was all my own work, since there were no mistakes in spelling or grammar and the whole work seemed suspiciously polished. It seemed that the firm had, shortly beforehand, been on the point of publishing a crime novel whose author lived “abroad”. It turned out to have been typed out by a trusty in the library at Wormwood Scrubs prison (his typewriter and paper having been kindly supplied by the UK taxpayer). I didn’t have the heart to ask whether the publishers had got their advance back.

    This was in 1977. As for the “prestige” of a publisher’s editor, in London they were regarded much like authors, as a regrettable but necessary expense. The fellow in question hadn’t read beyond the third chapter of my book: he explained that over the weekend he’d been preoccupied with a burst water-tank in his roof.

    Having undone nearly all his suggested revisions, I told him the rest of the book was all right and we went to the pub.

  2. A timely article, given what’s been found out. I’m still of the mindset that the traditional route is the best way to go. However, as you’ve pointed out, the old ways are changing. It’s the wild west in the book publishing business.

  3. I’m not sure what all the fuss over plagiarism is really about. There are millions of perfectly good books already written which people won’t read simply because they were published in the wrong decade. If presenting them as new creations can get them to be read and enjoyed then what’s the harm?

  4. Thanks for the link to the New Yorker article; it’s a fascinating story. I could never plagiarize a whole book like that–not because of my upstanding moral character, but because I literally would not have the skills. I’ve never had a head for memorization, and it’s tough enough to sew together pieces of my /own/ work, never mind quilting together passages from other people.

    I self-published my first novel, but it wasn’t because publishers rejected me (which they couldn’t, because I never submitted it to them). It was because I don’t like other people taking my work and pretending it’s their own to do with as they please. I’ve read too much about the big houses to trust them. For example, they play games with contract clauses to cut understood royalties (e.g. Harlequin), or they insist they have rights the author never gave them (e.g. the Julie of the Wolves lawsuit). From my point of view, the way a lot of traditional publishers make money is no better than plagiarism: they think they’ve bought me and my work, rather than getting my permission to print and sell the copyrighted material.

    A big reason self-publishing is taking off is because writers are tired of being yanked around. I know authors who have been told to erase all traces of originality or character from their manuscripts, to change their voices from witty to syrupy sweet or bend the plot over backwards to fit the popular mold. In the article linked here, the same thing happened to the Quentin Rowan, and that’s how he ended up stealing from so many people. He wrote a glib parody of 1960s Bond knock-offs. The publisher wanted a hardcore thriller instead, and they gave him a few measly months to pull it off. So he hit the books and handed them exactly what they wanted: scenes lifted straight from the Bourne series and similar novels.

    I don’t blame the publisher entirely. After all, nobody /forced/ “Q.R. Markham” to choose to plagiarize. He did it because, frankly, he’s a terrible writer–the excerpts from his upcoming memoir make me cringe. But they weren’t entirely innocent, especially since they failed to catch such an obvious ploy. When you ask writers to write the same thing as everyone else, to appeal to mass audiences for big bucks and Hollywood adaptations, it’s only a matter of time before people just start cutting and pasting instead of taking a chance on a new idea, just to be squashed down again.

  5. Excellent article and a good reminder of what the traditional publishers’ role is or rather what it should be. Just one little point of disagreement: it’s not true that reading is down, that fewer books are sold – in print, yes, and regarding printed fiction yes. But not if you look at books in ALL formats, including e-books. Fiction nowadays is increasingly read on e-readers and more and more people are reading. The latest stats for the US (covering the 2004-2008 period) show an increase of some 16 million people more who are reading, and most of them young people in the 18-24 age range. I can’t remember the exact numbers, but that’s the gist of it. The trend in reading is up, not down.

    If I’m right, then traditional publishers are wrong to run scared and not spend money on searching out new authors and taking advantage of the Digital Age that would enable them to set up inter-active sites with their readers and authors…Because the market is actually expanding, taking ebooks into account, and so are te opportunities. But if they keep closing the door on new authors, publishers shouldn’t be surprised to see self-publishing ballooning and that is only, ultimately, done at their expense: self-published authors take a piece of the cake for themselves!

    Fort the rest of your article, bravo!

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