In Self-Publishing, The Gatekeepers Are Dead. Long Live The Gatekeepers!

Image - iStockphoto: rolindust
Image – iStockphoto: rolindust

‘To Establish Trust With Readers’

Readers aren’t all the same. Readers, in fact, are very different from one another. Some only want to read what everyone else is reading, so they can join a movement and a discussion. Some stick to what’s been adapted to the big and small screen, or what’s hit the NYT and USA Today lists. Some enjoy scouring for hidden gems deep within their favorite genres. Some rely on their social media feeds, or their favorite Goodreads reviewers, or Amazon’s recommendation algorithms.

Hugh Howey
Hugh Howey

This is the author Hugh Howey leading some thinking — as he frequently has done — in the self-publishing author community.

Saying there shouldn’t be any gatekeepers in publishing is to ignore all the readers who prefer to have some sorting done. And these readers vary considerably in how much sorting they like.

Despite what can feel like one long blur-o’-progress, these are moments in which a good line of observation can help us all raise our heads, look around, and take in a moment in the digital transition of publishing and our shared bookish life.

What Howey is showing us, in the context he’s building, is an area of maturation in a sector of publishing that’s less and less easily dismissed as young, hotheaded, and too herd-of-cats-diverse for its own good.

Yes,’s reports are controversial and even dismissed outright in some quarters. But Howey and his unnamed associate referred to as Data Guy today bring an 18-month analytical presence to anything they do on the strength of their Amazon-sales-page analysis of ebook bestsellers.

We saw this earlier this week in another area: When I canvassed a select list of industry observers for their estimates of the volume and value of the self-publishing market in the States, guess who responded first: Howey and Data Guy were able to apply what they understand from their AuthorEarnings reports to the questions we were asking at The Bookseller’s The FutureBook: their quick and considerably informed response is included in my first report on such inputs. Howey then joined us during our #FutureChat on the topic. (We would, by the way, be very happy to have your ideas in our quick survey on the matter; we expect to have some results Tuesday, 16th June.)

While we — my colleague Philip Jones at The Bookseller and I — had asked Howey and Data Guy essentially to face outward and give us their viewpoints in the wider industry, Howey in his column this week, Gatekeepers for Indie Publishing, is very much facing authors, even facing down some inevitable push-back.

‘Learning Not To Hate The Idea Of Gatekeepers’

This is difficult. The existing and historical gatekeepers have been so completely awful at their jobs, that it has hurt the entire concept of gatekeeping. The existing gatekeepers are bad at their jobs for a few reasons, worth listing here so that we can begin thinking of gatekeepers who won’t suck at what they do.

“Gatekeeper” is well-known code in the self-publishing community for any representative of the traditional publishing establishment whose purpose or effect is to reject aspirational authors for what is deemed an inadequate or unsalable manuscript. The gatekeeper may be a literary agent, an acquisitions editor, the CEO of a great publishing house, a mainstream critic or publication unwilling to look at self-published work, an intern doing first reads of submitted manuscripts at a small press…just about anyone whose job might be described as determining which supplicant gets a green light and which is turned away.

  • It is true that many indies today say that they have determinedly chosen to self-publish and don’t want to deal with the traditional world populated by so many such perceived gatekeepers.
  • It is also true that many indies have had the painful frustration of being rejected in their efforts to publish traditionally — rejected by the gatekeepers — and are struggling to make meaningful progress as authors in the entrepreneurial arena of self-publishing because they feel spurned by the industry. As author-industry analyst Jane Friedman wrote in a recent piece at Writer Unboxed, “By far, the No. 1 consulting request I receive is the author who has self-published and wants to switch to traditional publishing.” I followed this with a write-up here at Thought Catalog, ‘The Overselling Of Self-Publishing’: New Perspective.

Howey, in short, has his work cut out for him. The once-acrimonious tone of a large part of the self-publishing community has eased over time, but the prompts to that anger live close to the emotional surface of a field that Howey estimates may be producing up to 450,000 new titles each year.

What is wrong about the wrong kind of gatekeeping, Howey writes, can be parceled into three ideas. To excerpt them:

  1. The existing gatekeepers confuse their taste for readers’ tastes. What we get are too many works beloved by MFA grads and unpaid interns, and not enough awesome urban fantasy, romance, sci-fi, and fantasy…

  2. The next big problem is that the first two tiers of gatekeepers have no control over what actually gets published…The bean-counters are the only real gatekeepers who matter. [Howey counts responsible agents and editors as those first two tiers which can be overruled by the corporate control level.]…

  3. The existing gatekeeping system has no patience for artistic development. Editorial is a thing of the past, and so is the system of giving budding talent the time to mature and develop a following.

Having named the bad kinds of gatekeeping, Howey then turns to his task: separating it from good gatekeeping, which he asserts that the independent publishing world now needs.

The shame is that they’ve [the establishment gatekeepers] muddied the concept of gatekeeping in general. The problem with gatekeeping, in essence, is that it has to be exclusionary. This goes against the idea of self-publishing, where everyone is allowed access.

Here comes the trickiest bit: Howey must draw a line between what is okay and what is not okay about gatekeeping:

Initial access to the market is not the same as equal access to all parts of the market, and this is where we need to start thinking about the positive aspects of gatekeeping.

Having started his essay with praise for BookBub, the discounted-book direct-email promotion service, he stresses that BookBub works because it’s curated. As the service’s site describes its process:

BookBub members choose the genres they want to receive, and our team of editorial experts hand-selects each book we feature from our pool of submissions. Ensuring that our members only receive top-quality content in categories they like keeps members coming back to BookBub again and again to discover new books and authors.

Read More

There’s more: Read the full story at Thought Catalog

By Porter Ander­son

Writing on the Ether: In Self-Publishing, The Gatekeepers Are Dead. Long Live The Gatekeepers!

Originally published by Thought Catalog at



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