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I Am Not a Gatekeeper

1 July 2018

From literary agent Rachelle Gardner:

People in and around this business have long used the word “gatekeeper” when referring to those in publishing tasked with choosing which books to publish or represent.

Since the rise of self-publishing, it has become a debate—often heated:

Down with the gatekeepers!

Hooray for the gatekeepers!

BUT GATEKEEPERS ARE NOT WHAT YOU THINK.

There is nobody in publishing whose job is to “keep you out.” Are we watching the gate? Yes!—to identify authors we’d like to see published.

Each person who has a so-called “gatekeeping” role is tasked with finding authors to bring in, not authors to keep out. Anyone who acquires authors for an agency or for a publisher is totally 100% focused on bringing in books they believe they can sell.

That’s IT.

You wouldn’t call the women’s wear buyer at Nordstrom a gatekeeper, because you know her job is to bring in clothes she believes her customers will like. Her job is not to keep out the bad, but to bring in the good.

Some publishers, librarians, agents, and acquisitions editors call themselves gatekeepers. Maybe they relish that role because they feel it gives them power. But regardless of what they say or how they refer to themselves, they’re not gatekeepers. They’re selectors. Choosers. They’re salespeople. They’re looking for books they can sell. Period.

Link to the rest at Rachelle Gardner

PG checked the almost-always helpful Wikipedia for definitions:

A gatekeeper is a person who controls access to something, for example via a city gate. In the late 20th century the term came into metaphorical use, referring to individuals who decide whether a given message will be distributed by a mass medium.

. . . .

Gatekeepers serve in various roles including academic admissions, financial advising, and news editing. An academic admissions officer might review students’ qualifications based on criteria like test scores, race, social class, grades, family connections, and even athletic ability. Where this internal gatekeeping role is unwanted, open admissions can externalize it.

Various gatekeeping organizations administer professional certifications to protect clients from fraud and unqualified advice, for example for financial advisers.

A news editor selects stories for publication based on his or her organization’s specific criteria, e.g., importance and relevance to their readership. For example, a presidential resignation would be on the front page of a newspaper but likely not a celebrity break-up (unless the paper was of the gossip variety).

Other people gatekeeping roles are in mental health service, clergy, police, hairdressers, and bartenders because of their extensive contact with the public.

And a quick quote about gatekeepers:

I sat with myself one day and asked, ‘Who is in those prestigious literary circles? Do they represent me? Do they appreciate the topics I write about and the style in which I write? Do those gatekeepers let a demographic like mine through the door?’ And the answer was no.

Rupi Kaur

PG will note that a gatekeeper’s continued existence requires that a lot of people want what is behind the gate.

Agents

37 Comments to “I Am Not a Gatekeeper”

  1. Rachelle Gardner can keep saying she isn’t all she likes. That doesn’t change the reality.

    It’s like indie authors who say they’re not competing with authors. That’s not true. Readers who choose one book over another deprives by necessity income to that rejected author.

    What is true is that there’s so many authors out there that we’re not in direct competition with each other. Therefore, we can help each other because the possibility a bookbuyer will choose between us is infinitely small.

    • What gets me about the whole thing is that it doesn’t even matter. Who says you can’t help your competition? Nothing prevents a person from being kind and helpful, and if I have a competitor in any arena, I’m still willing to show a little kindness or help out if and when I can if the request is reasonable.

      But yeah, agents are very much gatekeepers and I laughed a little reading this post. Choosers, LOL.

    • Actually, I normally agree with this (authors compete with each other) because at any discrete moment, a reader is going to pick one book over another.

      However, assume a very particular genre, say, First Contact Science Fiction. While authors there compete against each other at any one time, over a period of time readers who enjoy that genre will probably sample many of the authors who write in it. Thus those authors share a pool of readers. Their competitors are also-boughts.

      Given that, actively banding together can have positive advantages. “If you like me, you should try Joe!” – “If you like me, you should try Marcia!” “Here’s a sampling of all our writing, cheap!”

      • Terrence OBrien

        Ever hear them say, “Try Joe and Judy first, then me?” The further down the list one is, the lower the probability of a sale.

        Given a sale today or a potential sale in a year, who picks a deferred sale?

      • Felix J. Torres

        In many rational industries coopetition is a regular practice. It is possible (and a common practice) to compete for sales while cooperating towards common goals. It is only fools (and B&N execs) who steer their businesses by how much harm they can do to competitors.

        The easiest decision is when it comes to growing the visibility and/or prestige of the shared business. For authors, job one is to sell their own books (obviously) but job two is helping grow the pool of readers for their chosen genre. The same reasoning lies behind most industry-specific promotional organizations like the ones advertising to promote beef or orange juice or cotton apparel.

        Good business practices apply to most fields and books ade no exception.

  2. My curation is internal.

    Dan

  3. I have to wonder if an apparently intelligent woman actually believes the nonsense in that article.

    “Each person who has a so-called “gatekeeping” role is tasked with finding authors to bring in, not authors to keep out.”

    And what perchance happens to the many not in their chosen few to ‘bring in’? They are kept out.

    Obviously gatekeepers pick out a few people to let in. There wouldn’t be much point to the gatekeeping function otherwise. Is she lying to herself or trying to lie to us? I honestly don’t know.

    • Felix J. Torres

      Could it be that english isn’t her native language? 😉

      Any segregation of “in” and “others” is by definition, gatekeeping. Just ask any nightclub bouncer.

      https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Bouncer_(doorman)

      • Ha! I was thinking about nightclub bouncers on the above comment! Gatekeepers would never keep anyone out on for superficial details, right?

    • There’s also the fact that publishers specifically appointed agents to serve as gatekeepers: how may publishers have submission rules that require you to go through an agent? In what universe is an agent in that scenario anything other than a gatekeeper?

  4. Ah well, and next we’ll be told vanity publishing isn’t.

    If the OP has said ‘no’ to anyone at all then they are a gatekeeper.

    Amazon only tells you ‘no’ if you’re breaking their rules in some way …

  5. Is there any reason why a blog entry dated 07/01/2018 has comments from 2013? No indication it is some kind of re-post otherwise.

    • I noted that as well. I guess nothing has changed since she originally posted the “not a gatekeeper” article in 2013. Nope. Nothing has changed at all….

  6. Deciding who to let in–since so many publishers don’t take unsolicited manuscripts and require agent subs–is a job of the gatekeeper. So, yes, agents and editors are gatekeepers. And I doubt it’s just about the good. If a work is good or very good but not marketable, not what they are looking for, then screw the good. It’s still a business. And if a work is crap but it will sell, they’ll buy it. Still a business.

    Good being subjective and all, where and who are the gods who decide what is “good.”

    Oh, yeah, gatekeepers.

    • Also, agents always clarify that a lot of their choice depends on what they personally liked or got excited about. Since traditionally publishing is overwhelmingly liberal, then it’s natural that stories from a more conservative viewpoint will not resonate with or excite a liberal agent. They never say it this way, of course, but that’s just naturally how it will play out. That’s one of the reasons I decided to go indie, the realization that I’m too conservative to hit the right buttons with most of the tradpub gatekeepers, no matter how good my story might be.

    • She was pretty clear that she’s looking for things she thinks she can sell.

  7. PG will note that a gatekeeper’s continued existence requires that a lot of people want what is behind the gate.

    Exactly. With the added observation that many of us have already snuck in around the gate. We’re already mingling with the inhabitants inside the castle behind the gatekeepers’ backs.

  8. PG will note that a gatekeeper’s continued existence requires that a lot of people want what is behind the gate.

    Exactly. With the added observation that many of us have already snuck in around the gate. We’re already mingling with the inhabitants inside the castle behind the gatekeepers’ backs.

    • Not quite. The existence of a gatekeeper demonstrates that there is a greater number of people wanting what is behind the gate than are able to fit through the gate unaided. That has nothing whatsoever to do with any or all of:

      * the relationship of either sample to the entire population (given the relative sales numbers of “lit fic” versus Regency romance, one would expect rather different publisher behavior than is apparent in the marketplace)

      * the criteria for getting through the gate (just take a look at a photo from any meeting of the Association of Authors’ Representatives and you’ll get lots of hints, ranging from attire to skin color to gender distribution to age to…)

      * the accuracy of gatekeeper determinations, which is admittedly a form of “counterfactual analysis” or “alternate history” (and for further reflexiveness, compare Roth’s The Plot Against America to any of a dozen or so ghettoized “science fiction” novels covering similar territory five years either side of Roth’s publication date… including comparing their ultimate sales figures)

      * the relationship of the gate itself to what those outside the gate trying to get in either want or have to offer (the line to get in to Studio 54 during the height depths of disco)

      In short, the implication that the fact of a gate/gatekeeper necessarily has anything to do with anything other than preexisting power relationships is incorrect.

      • Not quite clear on your point above. If the gate/gatekeeper is the barrier to “publication,” then we can now simply walk around the gate to get there.

        • Authors keep using that word. I do not think it means what they think it does.

          “Publication” in its narrowest sense means “intentionally making a communication available to a public.” That’s the standard for defamation claims. It’s the source of the name of the “publishing industry.”

          It is not, however, what is meant by most authors or the general public. It is, admittedly, shifting; but at least at present, having a work available exclusively on a single platform/in a single location doesn’t count as “publication.” Instead, the default (no longer universally so; the meaning has shifted even in the last decade) is that it’s not “really” publication unless it’s
          (a) available from more than one commercial venue (both Amazon and B&N, for example) and
          (b) nonunique in source (that is, more than one work/author available in that venue)

          Most authors of my generation and older would have difficulty with even counting Amazon. And so, for that matter, would Ms Gardner herself (I’m quite familiar with her agency’s client base… and customer base).

          Changing the meaning of “publication” or “publish” in the middle of the argument brings back not-too-fond memories of Vantage (a “legitimate” old-line vanity press)… and of Dorothy Deering, Northwest Publishing, and their ilk (the 1980s and 1990s were flush with publishing con games). Don’t fall into that trap — like Ms Gardner did in her statement, which makes sense only if one changes the definition in the middle of the statement.

  9. Terrence OBrien

    Each person who has a so-called “gatekeeping” role is tasked with finding authors to bring in, not authors to keep out.

    Each bouncer who stands at the rope line in front of the night club is tasked with finding patrons to bring in, not patrons to keep out.

    • I tried to parse that sentence and failed.

      • Ashe Elton Parker

        If you mean the OP’s sentence, she’s basically denying there are gatekeepers at the same time she’s admitting there are gatekeepers all over the place in Tradpub.

  10. stockholm syndrome

  11. Agents are gatekeepers for certain. Who is she kidding with her post? Fortunately for many authors, we don’t need those gatekeepers anymore. The walls are down in publishing. With the advent of self-publishing, we can put our writing in front of the readers without the gatekeepers. Hooray to Amazon! But as a result, the gatekeepers’ income is dwindling, so Gardner is trying to make nice. She and the other agents might want to rethink their jobs descriptions, maybe include promotion packages for writers, instead of keeping to the antiquated mode of selling to publishers exclusively. Playing with semantics is not a solution.

    • Felix J. Torres

      Some agents with hybrid clients do help them self-publish.
      It’s called agent-assisted self publishing and it’s a sort of halfway house for authors that don’t feel competent enough to go full Indie or are unwilling to learn the ropes.

      It’s not terribly common but it’s been around for most of the decade. One of the better discussions can be found here:

      https://www.janefriedman.com/amazon-white-glove-program/

  12. Ashe Elton Parker

    They’re selectors. Choosers. They’re salespeople. They’re looking for books they can sell. Period.

    Every one of these is just a euphemism for “gatekeeper” in the world of books. Period.

  13. To extend the very apt nightclub bouncer analogy further, the nightclub would of course have to have a surcharge on those allowed entry to pay for the bouncers. Not perfect, but then we have to account for the fact that the costs of this gatekeeping function were, by the publishers insistence on only taking manuscripts from agents, shifted to those authors chosen for publication.

    PG, the final comment of your post sums it up neatly. A different analogy illustrating this aspect better analogy would be two bridges, side by side. One is a toll bridge and has been there for many years. The other is new and has no toll. Both of course lead to the same place.

    • More like, someone is still trying to profit by running a toll bridge after the river dried up.

      • Which can still work out for the owner of the toll bridge–crossing dried-up watercourses is no picnic–but they’re definitely going to see a decrease in business.

    • Felix J. Torres

      The costs aren’t borne solely by the “selected” authors.

      Some agents have always charged “reading fees”, “submission fees”, and other excuses to charge dreamers and some who didn’t use to are now adopting the practice.

      http://www.sfwa.org/fees/

      As their main revenue streams dry up, many agents are looking for alternatives.

      • @Felix. You are absolutely correct of course. I left this out because I’m not sure how widespread the practice has become. But as you say, in a declining “profession” we can certainly expect the practice to spread. I tend to think literary agents as we know them are headed for extinction. Certainly their remuneration model is. To the extent that there was any value in paying 15% of earnings to an agent most of it was in getting a foot in the door. Managerial type services and legal services, which most agents were not qualified to provide in any event, are in most industries usually provided on a fee for service basis. A good bookkeeper, accountant or even a personal assistant and a good lawyer should be more than adequate for authors making a living from their work and not wanting to do things themselves. There may remain a niche market for a one stop shop but I expect it would be on a flat fee basis rather than a percentage. After all, most people don’t agree on paying their accountants or lawyers a percentage of their income for their services, nor would most lawyers or accountants want to take the risk of accepting fees on this basis.

        • … After all, most people don’t agree on paying their accountants or lawyers a percentage of their income for their services, nor would most lawyers or accountants want to take the risk of accepting fees on this basis.

          True enough. And while not exactly equivalent, one of my best friends is an entertainment attorney in Hollywood. He works on (A) flat fee or (B) hourly basis. He would never consider working for a percentage. “10% of nothing is nothing,” he’s told me more than once.

          • It’s the same problem with the royalty share model for indie audiobooks.

            I wonder how the 15% for agents thing got started. It seems like it could have been reasonable back in the day, when an agent really was working for the author, and they could say, “You get 15 percent of whatever the final negotiated amount I get paid is,” and if it’s a one-time payment, that’s not so strange or problematic. Kind of like a real estate agent’s fee. But what the whole agent fee payment structure is now–especially with the agent being the one to receive the payment and then cut a check to the author, which is bonkers if you think about it–is a clusterf**k of lunacy that is rife for abuse and turns the whole agent/author relationship on its head.

            Someone should write up a history of how the author/agent/publisher relationship started and how it transitioned to what it is now. I think an easily referenced document like that would go a long way in giving newbie writers the correct perspective on their place in this business.

            • Felix J. Torres

              It’s fairly simple:

              Every imprint you see in the BPHs catalog used to be a separate and distinct publisher, each with its own preferences and processes. Hundreds of them and the better agents had contacts at most of them and knew who was more likely to buy what. When they lucked into a particularly attractive title, they would hold auctions with dozens of participants.

              They used to offer a necessary and useful service even with publishers that accepted unsolicited/unagented manuscripts.

              Now, with the BPHs having consolidated the industry to where some 90% of the market for manuscripts has vanished there is less value in agent services. A “hot” property getting “auctioned” these days means it is offered to two or three of the BPHs who then make one lowball bid each.

              Corporate publishing has become a bulk business, shoveling titles out by the thousand, hoping one of them will “make the year” all by its lonesome. No one title is particularly important so most offers are take it or leave it and they really don’t care if they leave it.

              As a result, over recent decades the agent’s bottom line has grown more dependent on the goodwill of the publishers than the well being of their authors. Annoy one big publisher and they might end up blacklisted by the entire cartel.

  14. Smart Debut Author

    There’s nothing wrong with the *concept* of a literary agent — i.e. a commission-based contractee who can steer publishing deals toward an author.

    What makes the old agent system so dysfunctional in practice (for 99% of authors) is the agent’s demand for one-sided exclusivity. If it was mutual — i.e. if an agent was only allowed to represent a single author at a time — then business incentives would be aligned between agent and author and it might actually make sense. But that arrangement’s not financially feasible for 99% of agents.

    As it is, literary agents end up being not just useless but actively detrimental to 99% of author careers.

    Which is why 90% of agents are slowly going the way of the dodo, leaving only the top tier.

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