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!
Some bemoan: The gatekeepers are trying to keep us out. They’re making it too hard for good writers to get published.
While others retort: Be thankful for gatekeepers—they protect us from all that evil bad writing out there!
Well… here’s a news flash for you:
There is nobody in publishing whose job is to “keep you out.” It’s not anybody’s job to protect the public from any kind of subjectively “bad” writing. It’s nobody’s job to lock down the hallowed halls of Traditional Publishing so the riff-raff can’t get in.
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.
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.
Some are also looking for books and authors they personally believe in. That’s typically a good indicator of whether you’ll be able to sell something—you believe in it. But you’re not going to acquire the book or take on the author if you can’t sell them.
There is joy in bringing in a book your customers want. My customers are publishers, so I’m looking for books I think they’ll want to publish. Librarians are looking for the books their community members will want. Publishers are looking for books their sales and marketing teams believe they can sell.
There is NO joy in saying “no” to any books or authors, and the “saying no” part of our jobs is purely incidental. It’s just something we have to do, on the way to finding the books we want to say “yes” to.
So when somebody tries to engage you in a debate about the relative merits of self-publishing and traditional, and they launch into the question of whether we need the gatekeepers, just tell them: There are no gatekeepers.
Tell them to frame the question differently. Maybe they should be asking: Do you prefer books that have been selected by a publishing team? Or are you open to books by authors who bypassed that route? They’re legitimate questions, and when you get the idea of gatekeepers out of the equation, you can more clearly see what you’re dealing with. Talking about gatekeepers simply gives people an easy scapegoat for their frustrations. But it obscures the reality of the way publishing works.
As a literary agent, I am in business to say YES to writers, not to say no. I’m constantly looking for books and authors I can believe in, and I can sell. I am not a gatekeeper. And I never want to be.
There is nobody in publishing whose job is to “keep you out,” says agent @RachelleGardner. Click to Tweet.
Agent @RachelleGardner says there are no gatekeepers in publishing. What do you think? Click to Tweet.
“… lock down the Hallowed Halls of Publishing so the riff-raff can’t get in.” Click to Tweet.