You have a book. You want to share it. If you go the traditional route you will have to get used to the concept of gatekeepers.
As an archetype, a gatekeeper guards a threshold where something important is housed. A gatekeeper is often a monster.
A gatekeeper in a publishing house has the important role of keeping you out. She is rarely a monster and is usually someone who is working long hours for not much pay and is doing her best to be fair to the mountains of manuscript submissions or queries on her desk. She may be an editor, assistant editor or ‘reader’. Often an editor or assistant editor will decide on whether or not to accept your query and then hand the actual manuscript on to a ‘reader’. This is if you are lucky and have passed the first mini-threshold (getting read at all).
Gatekeepers have an important role in large companies and even small publishing houses. They funnel information and protect their offices from being lost in the white noise of hundreds of manuscripts. Gatekeepers don’t just decide what’s good and bad. They generally have an idea of something specific that they are looking for. Often it’s a genre with a particular focus that has done well in the recent past. Publishing companies need to make money or they die. Gatekeepers (often a series of them) are accountable for the manuscripts that they choose. They need to be able to defend their choice of manuscripts in a financial context.
Here is a real life example. I received one very positive rejection letter describing my YA fantasy as an exciting read etc. but stating that the (large, well-known) publishing house was currently only looking for fantasy set in a contemporary setting (thank you very much, Harry Potter and Twilight). While gatekeepers might occasionally fall in love and fight for a manuscript tooth and nail just because they adore it, this is unlikely to be the case, considering how tenuous a lot of the profits of big publishing houses are. Let’s face it, most media producers make money from advertising, and a novel is generally not conducive to the delivery of advertising.
So, if you are waiting on a gatekeeper (or a number of them), it’s important to ask yourself why and whether it is actually worth it.
Here are some reasons you might decide to keep bravely approaching those (weary) gatekeepers of traditional publishing:
– Coverage (e.g. professional marketing)
This is what we all hope traditional publishing will give us. However, statistically, it is not likely that this will be the outcome for you, no matter how wonderful your book is. Of course, statistics are about averages and averages are more of a guide than a rule. I would love to see my books on the shelf of a bookshop. This can be a reward in itself. If this is your dream, then keep at the gatekeepers (but be nice to them, they’re often stuck between a rock and a hard place).
Electronic publishing is one way to avoid gatekeepers. It is left to the reader to find and judge what fiction they want. The benefits are immediate communication and complete artistic control. You will never end up with a book cover you hate. (Unless you tried to do it yourself and you think it’s a disaster).
It’s important to keep in mind that as an electronic publisher of your own work, you have the responsibility to be your own gatekeeper. This means being honest with yourself about your own skill levels, asking friends to proofread for you (because your readers deserve clear expression), and taking the time to polish your work before you put it out into the world. (However, if your proofreading takes more than a few months, you are most probably procrastinating through nervousness and need a short, bracing slap over the face).
I have left out vanity publishing (e.g. paying for your book to be published) because unless you have excellent business savvy and marketing skills you can stand to lose a lot of money on this model. Here, you are less likely to come across gatekeepers and more likely to come across marauding wolves. Having said that, if you can find a reputable company that is willing to do very small print runs at good prices and you are committed to marketing your book day and night (or you have set aside some money simply for the joy of seeing your book in print), you might find that this model is for you.
On more thing to consider, and at this point, I exclude those who have thought things through calmly and know that traditional publishing is for them. If you’re used to waiting for permission to do things in your life, or crave the praise of authority figures, you may simply be addicted to gatekeepers. You may have the belief (as we possibly all have at certain times) that your work is only of value if others say ‘yes’ to it. If this is so (and you know who you are) it’s time to get over it and believe in the power of your own work.
Shaun Fawcett on the disappointments of traditional publishing: http://www.writinghelp-central.com/article-traditional-publishing.html
(just to be balanced) Harold Underdown on what a traditional publisher does and why you might prefer them to do it for you:
Seth Godin: ‘It’s a cultural instinct to wait to get picked. To seek out the permission and authority that comes from a publisher or talk show host or even a blogger saying, “I pick you.” ’ Read Seth’s thoughts on waiting to be picked out.