Friday, 6 July 2012

Who are the gate-keepers in publishing today?

The Paris Writers Workshop 2102
A couple of weeks ago the Paris Writers Workshop (PWW 2012) was held in the 7th arrondissement, a couple of blocks back from the Seine, in the middle of a sweltering Parisian summer in a city yet to discover serious air conditioning. I wasn’t well, so missed almost all of it, except armed with some morphine managed to make it to two one hour lectures when I had medical appointments in Paris the same day anyway. I’m a fan of these and other Writing Conferences, because they can be instructive and inspirational, can tell you when you’re going right, and when you’re wasting your (and everyone else's) time. I had the honour of going to one about six years back with Michael C Curtis, Atlantic Fiction Editor, and it led to my first book being published.

There was an interesting discussion on publishing, self-publishing and ‘gate-keepers’. A gate-keeper is someone there to assure the quality of what is out there in retail and online bookstores. It means you don’t pay for something (or simply download something free) and then realise it is badly written, so it’s for all readers.

The Traditional Model
Not that long ago, to get published you had to spend years learning the craft, slogging over a manuscript, sending out letters to agents and getting rejected, finally getting an agent, then spend another year hearing from publishers saying it wasn’t quite for them, then finally one would take it, you’d have to make major changes and agree to a front cover you hated, and then it would be published with a champagne book launch and much publicity, and in the haze of the next morning you’d realise that you had to write the next book pretty quickly to maintain the momentum.

The gatekeepers in this model are the agents in particular, who act as filters, determining if someone can write, and if what has been written has market potential. The editors and others at the publishing houses are also gate-keepers, and will add in the cost projections which can also unfortunately prevent a really well-written book from ever seeing the light of day.

The Dream, and the Reality
Of course there are success stories, overnight sensations, and seven figure advances for people whose first book, which took six months to write (we are told), sells millions of copies. But the reality is that this remains extremely rare, and often the ‘overnight sensations’ are in fact people who struggled for years trying to get anything published, and had to persevere through piles of rejection letters. Often, even those talented writers who flare so brightly at this stage, then find it difficult to repeat the performance, and become mid-list writers who after a few years cannot survive purely on a mid-list writer’s salary, and so start doing other jobs, preferably linked to writing, but maybe not.

How self-publishing is changing all that
Things have changed incredibly in the past few years, with Print-on-Demand, Ebooks, Amazon, and the economic crisis. First, a lot of publishers have lost a lot of money with the rise of online marketing and e-distribution, and a lot of editors have lost their jobs. The big publishers are understandably risk-averse, and so tend to rely on ‘stable’ authors who already have a huge following, so printing another book of theirs is guaranteed to make money. With the reading market so unpredictable these days, the big publishers are hesitant about trying somebody new, knowing that perhaps after an investment of $10,000 - $50,000, they may fail to recoup half of it.

Hocking and Locke – busting the traditional model
Meanwhile, some people have self-published and used social media to catapult their books to millions of readers, Amanda Hocking and John Locke being two of the most obvious examples. But bear in mind that these also were not ‘overnight successes’; John Locke spent $27,000 on various forms of advertising, getting nowhere, and only took off after having already produced five books, and came up with a blog/twitter formula called the ‘loyalty blog’. But the trend continues, with ’50 Shades of Grey’ tearing through the charts at the moment, and such successes often lead to contracts with big publishers who know a good thing when Amazon finally brings it to their attention.

Self-publishing is not a bad thing, right?
The great thing about self-publishing is that anyone can now get published. We might as well write it into a global constitution as a basic right. There are companies who will help you get published, see your work in press, for a price which is often commensurate with a person’s dream to be published. But here is where you need to decide what that dream is, exactly.

If, like a friend of mine, you just want to publish something for your friends and family, and have in mind selling a hundred copies in total, and it is just something you want to do in your lifetime, then great, go for it. You can either do it yourself on Smashwords or other similar media sites, or else go to a vanity press and get them to set it up for you. By the way, I hate the term ‘vanity press’, and hope it will disappear in time; we should accept it as a valued service. Just one thing, though; if you are doing this, printing your dream, please don’t afterwards call yourself a ‘writer’. That’s unfair to those who dedicate their lives to this ill-rewarded passion.

Some good writers feel locked out…
There are many writers who have good manuscripts and who cannot get an agent, because the industry is ‘locked down’ right now. A friend of mine has a brilliant novel, and actually has a good agent, but still can’t get a publisher, and they are slowly lowering their sights from the big ones to the medium-sized publishers, then to university presses, and eventually independent small publishers. I know this path well, having had an American agent and an almost-contract with Harper Collins, but then we fell foul of economic predictions for the book just as the global economy began to crash July 2008, and we slowly spiralled our targets down until I went for a small independent publisher in 2011, because I wanted to get off that particularly painful merry-go-round and get back to writing book 2.      

So, go it alone..?
So now, and I saw this at PWW, people are starting to say “well just self-publish, put it on Amazon using CreateSpace and get 80% of the profits in stead of 10%. It’s tempting, right, particularly if people keep telling you how good your work is, and you see other self-published books making six figures when it’s not that well-written in the first place?

Before you do that…
Here is where you need to stop and pause for thought, and here is where we come back to gate-keepers, and what you want out of life. If you go the self-publishing (Print-on-Demand and/or ebook being the most viable options) and Amazon route (okay, Barnes and Noble, Omnilit and a few others are in there, too), who are your gate-keepers? Who will assure you that what you produce – because it will be linked to you forever (even if you use a pseudonym, you’ll know) – is quality material, good writing? Does it matter to you? Do you want to produce the best book you can, or just get something out there? Are you going to write one book, or would you like to write more, become a writer, even if not full-time (very few can afford to be full-time writers)?

Noise and visibility
Roughly half a million books are produced each year. How will your book get visibility amongst all that noise? People will tell you that you can make it work with social media and twitter etc., but everybody is already doing that, so it doesn’t get any easier. Once there is a sensation like Hocking or Locke, within months thousands are doing everything they did, but of course do not ‘make it’. What works once doesn’t necessarily work twice, especially in connection with creative arts.

Fake it till you make it?
At PWW 2012 Stephen Clarke who wrote the ‘Year in the Merde’ series of books, amongst others, was jovially advocating the ‘fake-it-till-you-make-it’ approach, saying that people often fake reviews and put a lot of positive spin on things, so just do whatever it takes to get your book noticed. I actually enjoyed his first book immensely, so am glad he ‘made it’. But I can’t personally agree with that approach, even if it means I’ll never ‘make it’.

Write the best novel you can, then edit, edit, edit…
The general advice that kept coming out from PWW, and of course it would since they are mainly writers talking to writers, is to make sure your manuscript is the best you can produce. My own book was ‘ready’ in 2008 (by which I mean the chief buyer for science fiction at Harper Collins wrote to us that she liked it and would table it to the team), but as the contract didn’t materialise, I inevitably carried on editing it. It had a total of 20 revisions in five years, I’m not joking (version #1 back in 2006 was pretty awful writing, I still have it…).

Many writers, most I know, already do this. They spend about five years on their first book, learning the craft, going to courses, joining writing groups, getting their work critiqued, polishing it, hurling it into a drawer at some low point and starting something else, coming back to it, editing, editing, editing, and finally saying ‘it’s done’ more out of despair than conviction, and then sending it off to agents. We drink a fair amount of wine at our writing group meetings (called Men with Pens, incidentally, though we’re evenly split gender-wise)…

The gate-keepers for would-be self-published writers
But at PWW, new writers wanted to know how they could be sure they are ready. So, here is the answer. There are literary consultancies who can tell you. They cost money, but they are not going to rip you off. They have either anonymous readers who have worked in the industry as agents, or published writers, or editors who know what it takes to be a writer, and know what the required standard is. I’ve used three of these, plus a ‘writing doctor’ earlier on, and they work. Typically for a novel, you might pay £500 for a review, which will take a few weeks to complete. You’ll typically get an eight page report back on your manuscript (you can also send the first few chapters for a quicker and cheaper review, or get a more in-depth editorial review where they will do line corrections etc.). What you will get back is a judgement about whether your writing is up to scratch or not. The first two times I did this, the clear answer was no, which was tough medicine because my writers group loved it, and already a few people had read and loved the draft mnuscript. But I took the advice on board (well, most of it), and produced a much better book, and my writing improved. At my paperback launch in October last year, I told a bunch of writers that not getting the Harper Collins contract had led to me becoming a better writer, with a better book as a result. They didn’t look convinced, I have to say.

Will your writing improve after your first book is published?
One of my favourite authors is Iain Banks. Like a number of authors I like, it took him a long, long time to get published. His writing is sublime, I just read some of his Science Fiction last night and it almost makes me think of giving up, except of course I don’t, instead I just try harder. I’m reading one book by a friend right now, and it’s not bad, but I can’t help think he published too early – another few rounds of edits would have made it a much better book, one that would have ultimately gotten more notice.

So, if you just want to see your name in print, then go for it. If you want to be a writer, and if you’ve been going to courses, maybe even done an MFA (Master of Fine Arts in Creative Writing etc.), belong to an established writing group where people tell you when your writing sucks, and have finished your manuscript and edited it at least six times, then you can try these gate-keepers, or try getting an agent, or do both at the same time. 

Agent or Gate-keeper first? A salutary lesson…
I sent around my query letter, synopsis and first three chapters to all the SF agents in the UK, and got rejected by all of them, some were quite nice about it, most it was a ‘form’ response. It’s okay, they’re busy, I know. Then I contacted one of these literary consultancies (Cornerstones, actually), and sent them what I had been sending the agents. They said the three chapters were pretty good, and had market potential, but they’d be surprised if any of the agents got that far, as my query letter and synopsis were unnatural disasters. I couldn’t go back to the UK agents, because you can only really apply once. I made the changes requested, and within one week I had two US agents interested, and chose one. Not that it got me a big publisher in the long run, but I felt I’d crossed a threshold and was now being professional about the writing; after all, it’s an industry.

Here are links to the UK ones I’ve used personally, as I know them and trust them. There are doubtless similar services in the US and elsewhere. There are also book doctors galore, especially since so many editors have lost their jobs in the past few years, and such people can really help you.

Reading has always been a passion for me. Our fantastically diverse literature defines us, and we as writers define our literature. So, tell me, tell me you get it, tell me who are the ultimate gate-keepers?

The Eden Paradox is available in paperback and ebook on Amazon, Barnes and Noble, Waterstones and Ampichellis

Eden’s Trial is available on Amazon as ebook, and will be in paperback in Fall 2012.

Eden’s Revenge is coming out in ebook Xmas 2012, paperback Easter 2013.


  1. Great blog, Barry! A bit long, but I agree with all your comments. Except one - "vanity press" should stay with us because it's a fair if tough description of naivety from writers who won't make the hard slog to quality work.

  2. Thanks Barry, that blast of reality has actually heartend me to keep going and find the dosh from somewhere (hey the kids love pasta) to send the MS to Cornerstones. Kate

    1. And the kids would be proud to see their mum's book in print one day :-) Good luck, in fact, great luck!

  3. Interesting article and as an e book writer I know that you still have to do marketing to bring your books to the public's eye
    I sold eight books one month and made the glorious sum of $1.2cents if I'd sold paperbacks I would have made £1 a book so that should tell me something. Only if you sell in hundreds preferably in thousands do you make money.
    check me out

    1. Thanks Pamela - my next blog will be on social media and gaining 'visibility', based on the Paris Writers' Workshop here a few weeks ago. I agree, as authors we still have to do some marketing, but I'll focus on finding the right marketing approach to fit ourselves individually as writers... Good luck in any case, and thanks for posting the comment, Ill check out your site :-)

  4. I'm one of many novice writers who took a look at the traditional publishing route and rejected it out of hand. I'm aiming straight for self publishing, and I desire much more than to sell a few copies to friends and family.

    There is still a need for gatekeepers. Writers intent on self publishing should be encouraged to use services like the ones that you describe, and their work should be harshly criticized if it isn't ready.

    On the other hand, traditional publishers are becoming a much smaller factor in the whole process. The world is a-changin', and self publishing has become a valid path.

    You've written a fine article, though. I've linked to it on my blog - Thanks!

    1. Thanks Brian, glad you found it helpful and good luck with self-publishing your novel :-)


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