jennybentLiterary agent Jenny Bent made an interesting blog post a few days ago, taking on the question of whether traditional publishers are needed as “gatekeepers” anymore. Not too long ago, the conventional wisdom was that such gatekeepers were necessary to prevent readers from being overwhelmed by a flood of poor-quality self-published dreck. But, as Bent points out, this is changing.

What I’m loving most about the success of independently published e-books is that many of them didn’t pass the "gatekeeper" test–the individual author tried and failed to get an agent or publisher and decided to do it themselves. And now lots of these authors are getting lucrative book deals as publishers struggle to catch up. AND, many of them are turning down agents and publishers because they want to keep doing it on their own terms.

She points out that many publisher decisions about what books to publish and how to market them are made on a fairly unscientific basis, and a lot of the time books that are the hardest for agents to sell to publishers are the ones that turn out to do the best in print.

For myself, I think that Amazon’s self-publishing operation is turning out to be one of the great equalizers. By opening the most successful e-reading platform yet to literally anyone, it makes it possible for anyone to publish a book. And thanks to the proliferation of social networks—unimagined in the early days of e-books—word of mouth begins to take on a gatekeeping role of its own.

People have a tendency to talk more about what they like, recommending it to all their friends, and to keep quiet about what they don’t. In this way, the better titles end up getting more word of mouth, because they’re the better titles. And since self-published e-books are almost always so much cheaper than commercially-published books, they’re selling faster and getting talked about more.

And it’s still just the opening stages of the self-publishing revolution. E-readers are still too expensive for lots of people to have just yet. Who knows how things will look a few years from now?


  1. I think there is a marketplace confusion regarding the value of gatekeeping vs. nongatekeeping.

    Problem 1 is that nongatekept authors whose ebooks sell well fail to distinguish between books sold and books read. This is an important distinction. Using myself as an example, I am willing to read an author’s description of their ebook and spend a maximum of 2 minutes reading the sample online, and then, if the blurb seems interesting and the 2-minute sampling doesn’t reveal horrendous errors, buying the ebook for 99 cents. It just isn’t much of a financial risk.

    So the sale looks good for the author, but should I start reading the ebook and discover that it isn’t worth the bytes it occupies and thus I cease reading it — no one knows. Even if I post a negative review, many other readers are willing to gamble the 99 cents.

    Unfortunately, there is no way to measure whether a book has been bought and read or simply just bought and left in a TBR pile forever, or started and stopped because of discovered inadequacies.

    Which brings us to the second problem: pricing. Books that have gone through the traditional gatekeeping role tend to support higher pricing than those that have not. I am willing to spend 99 cents for a nongatekept ebook because it is not much of an outlay — it’s like buying a lottery ticket. I am not willing to pay $5.99 for such an ebook because the risk of getting dreck is much too high. OTOH, I am willing to spend $7.99 for a gatekept ebook because the risk is generally that I will not enjoy the writer’s style or I won’t be in the mood for the particular genre, not that I will be stuck with dreck (although that does happen; no system is perfect all of the time).

    I would be much more impressed with articles that claim gatekeeping is no longer needed or valued if they gave pricing information and surveyed purchasers to determine whether the ebook was actually read or not. Making the broad-based claims on as little data as is currently done has little value.

  2. Perhaps it depends on what you read, and what your standards are. Personally, I think life is too short for bad books, and there are far more identified high-quality books available than I’ll be able to read in a lifetime. So I’m happy sticking to those, and to new books that the NYT Review of Books identifies as being worth a flutter.

    Searching through self-published work seems like the old joke about an optimist shoveling through a mountain of manure in search of a pony. And just as there are lots of bad writers, there are probably many–if not more–bad readers, who gloss over spelling and usage errors, poor plotting, cliches, triteness, and so forth, and still give excellent reviews. I have no doubt that I may be missing the occasional diamond in the rough, but I’m going to miss enough real diamonds as it is. So I’ll do my looking in the jewelery store rather than the manure pile.

    Also, I consider the cost of pretty much any book to be negligible next to the investment of my time to read it.

    Maybe that’s horribly elitist., but I can live with that.

  3. “Unfortunately, there is no way to measure whether a book has been bought and read or simply just bought and left in a TBR pile forever, or started and stopped because of discovered inadequacies.”

    Do you really think that everyone who bought the latest hot memoir or ghostwritten novel from a celebrity, whether a politician, a talk show host, an actor…, reads it? You know those that get millions in advance and clog the bestseller lists and the remainder tables…

    The 99c impulse buy won’t propel anyone to fame since there are simply too many 99c impulse buys out there, but if the 99c impulse buy resonates with enough readers, it may just do that

    As for typos and editing issues, I know of at least an author who self-published a book – several years ago btw before the Kindle craze – riddled with such and it still sold well enough to allow him to edit his next book professionally, so poor editing is not a barrier to success if the content resonates with enough people.

  4. Rich, there was never a way to measure print books sold against print books read (vs started and abandoned, or placed on the bookshelf to look good and never touched again). I don’t see this as an issue with ebooks either; books sold are books sold.

    Regarding pricing: I’ve read enough professionally-published books to know that some of them aren’t worth the paper they’re printed on, whether they are “expertly edited and proofed” or not. This can be especially true in SF and other peripheral genres. So a professional publisher’s brand in itself does not justify to me a high price.

    Bottom line, I agree that the traditional worth of gatekeepers is eroding fast, and publishing outside of those gatekeepers is not hurting independents like it used to. The only value gatekeepers continue to hold is advertising and placement power… they’re best utilized as PR firms.

  5. There will always be elitist readers who occupy the safe zone, reading only best sellers and media plugged titles. There will always be other readers who enjoy the exploration of chance, of serendipity.

    I too have bought many ‘professionally’ published and high profile paper books over the years that turned out to be horrendous (according to my taste of course). The myth of quality being dependent on the gate keeper process is being thoroughly vapourised by the new e world order.

    There is however a danger in a discussion like this that people confuse the gatekeeper role of professional publishers with being edited and coy edited professionally. Many self published authors are engaging, and will in the future engage, professionals on a single title basis to edit and copy edit their titles. I see these as having an equal likelihood of being a quality read and I also see these as representing a fast growing proportion of published titles in the coming years.

    Only those self published titles edited by their own authors carry the high risk that Richard refers to above.

  6. @Howard, I would see the difference between “publisher as gatekeeper” editing, and an author paying for an editing pass as this: in the former model, there’s at least one objective person, presumably familiar with basic writing skills, as well as the standards of their genre, who has some skin in the game. They’ve read the material, and think it’s good enough to invest some upfront money. In the latter model, the author is engaging a professional for copy-editing service, and while that professional may pick up typos, poor sentence construction, etc., I’m not sure how much weight the author will put on the copy-editor’s opinion that their book is sagging in the middle, or that their deus ex machina ending is a real let-down.

    As to the idea that bestseller status correlates with the type of literary merit sought by any elitist worthy of the label, the less said the better (in fact, we can simply say “James Patterson,” and leave it at that). As to the idea that things published by any of the hundreds of publishing houses are “safe,” (whatever that means) and the really zesty reading material is to be found amongst the self-published…well, have fun. But I’d rather place a bet with a 10% chance of winning, than a bet with a 0.001% chance.

  7. “She points out that many publisher decisions about what books to publish and how to market them are made on a fairly unscientific basis, and a lot of the time books that are the hardest for agents to sell to publishers are the ones that turn out to do the best in print.”

    Let’s face it. The publishing industry has gatekeepers that choose books that they personally, through their experience, feel may be successful. Sometimes the choice they make may prove right and many times, not. The same goes for a publisher’s marketing strategy.

    In the end, many books that have great potential are glazed over because the agent or the publisher did not have the foresight to see the diamond beyond the rough.

  8. Btw, we shouldn’t overlook, too, agents and publishers choose books selectively, like reviewers (Publisher’s Weekly, etc) review books, but if one were to incorporate money to pay for marketing and advertising into the equation, the selection process goes out the window and they all welcome the greenback over all else.

  9. “And now lots of these authors are getting lucrative book deals as publishers struggle to catch up. AND, many of them are turning down agents and publishers because they want to keep doing it on their own terms.”

    Lots. Many. Really. Name them. Then compare that number to the mass of writers churning out their self published ebooks. The resulting number is… not significant.

    Sure publishers may miss some gems. But the mass of ebooks is just beginning to grow. It will increasingly be like trying to pick out a good singer amid the simultanenous wailings of every wannabee from every season of “American Idol”. Some miniscule few will succeed to live well on their writing, while the remaining 99% will make a few bucks, tell folks at parties they are authors, and then find out to their chagrin that everyone at the party is an author of a self-published book too.

    A good many blogs are better reading than the majority of these ebooks, and no amount of cheerleading on this site for self published ebooks will do much to improve the situation. Eventually things will settle down, and publishers, one way or the other, will still be a major player in discerning quality and creating financial success. And that is not a bad thing at all. Many people buy ebooks because they are free or cheap. But in 3 years, most self-published ebooks will be just so many stale bytes collecting digital dust in the corner, as a good many printed fiction works do. Behold the new revolution, same as the old revolution.

  10. Are publishers so vain to think that in a world with of billions of people that only a handful can tell a good story? It is said that everyone has a good book inside them, so why not let them write it. Who has the right to tell a person that their story is not worth telling.

    Before the masses had the freedom to write and publish as they please, publishers placed a “Berlin wall” in front of this opportunity. The “wall” got higher and higher over the years, discouraging the potential great author from climbing over it. Isn’t it refreshing to see that “the wall” is finally coming down?

    Isn’t it better for the general public to decide what they like rather than having a select few (even if they are “self-proclaimed” experts, which is a discussion for another day) decide that for us all. We already see it on Smashwords…working well and going strong.

  11. I agree, ECho. Publishers have been in the ascendancy for so long. They have been the arbiters of quality for so long they actually believe their own publicity. The history of writing is littered with thousands of great books that were rejected at one time or other.
    We are on the cusp of a huge writing revolution. WIth that of course will come some element of questionable quality. However overall that is a far better prospect than being limited by the personal taste of a few puffed up Publishing types.
    With prices of indie and self published titles settling at a reasonable and fair price, and with readers being able to read samples of titles before buying, the problem for the reader is not really as major a one as publishers and industry insiders would like us to believe.

  12. In the case of sold verses read, consumer feedback helps a great deal. Folks that like the book after paying for it will usually post comments saying so, or email us. So far we have 60% feedback rate on our self-published books. The Kindle store also offers the option for folks to ‘return’ books if they don’t like them. So far we’ve only had 2 returned out of hundred sold, so that is a pretty fair indication of buyers liking the materials, let that our sales are almost purely generated from word-of-mouth/recommendations.

    I do take issue with the insinuation that eSales are hard to track; in years’ past when buying a paper book it was often impossible to ‘return’ a book if you didn’t like it, similar to opened software. Such books then are relegated to yard sale $1 bins, and yet the traditional publisher is still largely unaware of such dis-satisfaction on the part of the buyer, unless they took the trouble to complain or write about it.

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