Posted on October 13, 2013 in Archive

Self publishers need gatekeepers, like it or not


Traditionally, publishers have always played the role of gatekeeper when it comes to what is presented to readers in the literary world. It’s quite simple: if the publisher reads your work and likes it or sees potential, you get published! Hooray! But what happens in the age of digital and self-publishing?

These days, a writer could hypothetically script, edit and then publish their own work independently without another person ever setting eyes on it beforehand, and hey – more power to them. I don’t have a problem with self-publishing, but there are certain downsides to the current system. (If you’d like a list of the benefits of both traditional and self publishing, check this out.)

However, several viewpoints I discovered have made it clear that a gatekeeper, in the sense of checking for quality in literary prose in the field of fiction and fact checking in the areas of non-fiction, is necessary in such a massive market. Especially if that market wants to survive.

This article on Futurebook contemplates what value publishers provide to their readers, and it’s a very valid question, the answer to which depends on who you ask. Some say the value is in the physical presence of the pages and book cover, while others believe the content is what gives a book its significance.

Bibliophiles will understand the importance of the former argument – the phenomena behind the smell of books, and being able to fill a bookcase with treasured hardback copies. Book ownership can be a very tactile experience. Content, too, has always been a vital reason behind why people buy books – being immersed in someone else’s reality or story provides an escape from the everyday humdrum for many people.

So while these aspects of books are important to many – and if you’ll forgive me, I’ll be literal here – essentially these features are provided by authors and printing presses, rather than the publishers themselves. I agree with John Pettigrew’s assessment that time and to a lesser extent, experience, is the real value that publishers provide to their readers. The time that publishers and editors take to read a manuscript and determine its literary worth saves precious time, something that the average reader doesn’t have a lot of these days. Publishers should think less about money-making novelisations and more about creating book culture.

Liquid State - self publishers - picture of gates

Behold, the gatekeepers that deny digital waste entry to your ereader.

As a result, we are now seeing both the upside and downside to self-publishing. The upside: more variety. The downside: perhaps too much variety. Some day, perhaps soon, maybe even now – the reading market will be inundated with self-published titles, and readers will have no idea as to the quality of writing or if facts have been checked.

In an interview with Publishing Perspectives, publishing veteran Michael Krüger declared, “… There are still very good books around, in every country! People thought that with digitisation, the good books would be easier to get. But the problem is that most of the readers love bad books!”

What I believe Krüger is saying is that bad books can come from big publishing houses just as easily as from self publishers – the publishers believe that they have to play towards a certain market. This is why you’ll see (for example) so many variations on vampire-human romances set in high schools at your local bookstore or e-tailer – after Twilight, that genre is popular. I’m sure some of them are good, but most seem to just be jumping on the money/popularity wagon.

The fact that this is happening means that consumers are in need of a gatekeeper or curator to push back all the literary slush and show you the best stuff. Without a publisher to make a value judgement, books of the future might receive the same treatment as Wikipedia – useful for general information, but would you want your doctor to treat you using a Wikipedia page written by Jane Whoever? Many people are in fact assuming that the best will stand out through awards and praise, heaped on by book associations and libraries. But is that really enough? How many times have you decided to read a book just because it won a prize? And how many well-known self-publishers have won a major literary award?

The establishment is still pretty resentful of self-published books and it’s creating a curatorial vacuum. Little to no (compulsory) quality control on independently published work means that self-publishers can satisfy the demand for endless reworkings of the formula-of-the-month much more easily than traditional publishers can.

And that’s not a bad thing for the big publishers.

Now more than ever, they should be serving as defenders of quality literature, since self publishing means that anyone can distribute their own fan fiction through Amazon (or whatever platform they can get their hands on). Publishers can’t – and more importantly, shouldn’t – be trying to please every single market and niche out there. They should instead try to ensure that more effort is placed towards choosing higher quality texts and curating content to a high standard. The fact that it’s harder to get your work published by traditional publishing houses can be used to their advantage – create a higher standard for those around you! Be the ones to beat!

So in the end, publishers do still have a role in book culture, it’s just that they might occasionally be bypassed in the cultivation of self publishing. They need to start asking themselves, “Can we still hold this role as technology and the needs of authors change, and what’s the best way to do it?”