Publishing Questions: Who’s the Gatekeeper Now?


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Much of what I do these days is what we generously call consulting. It means I give advice.

I do this happily and enjoy the process. As would-be self-publishers ask questions, I have a chance to sort through my thoughts on the topic, gather all I know and sometimes tap into the lists I’m on for additional info and updates. I tell almost everyone I help out that publishing is not rocket science because I believe it is not. What it is, is accumulation of experience, growing from mistakes that came from early experiements and — often — leaps of faith taken by us on my team and by the writers working with us.

By this time in the game we all have some idea of what it takes to succeed as an indie publisher, an independent writer and self-publisher — three different categories and business entities but all working within the same market opportunities.

What used to be a world in which writers strove and sweated to please gatekeeper editors and agents who had seemingly omniscient control over a writer’s future is now a world where writers please themselves, leap over gates and talk directly to readers, and, not incidentally, learn the hard way how to be in business for themselves, a writing business.

I decided a long time ago that I do not want to be a gatekeeper.

I recall back in the early days a mentor of mine telling me I had to “pay my dues” — somehow portraying an image of a cold attic furnished with a single lightbulb, an ancient typewriter and a cast-off table. I didn’t take him seriously, this very rich man who’d grown up playing polo and travelling from 5-star hotel to 5-star hotel. But in some ways, very thin ways, I’d say, as even now that attic seems something out of an old B movie, of the black-and-white variety, complete with B-level actors, those whose names we see scrolling down below the headliners in the old movies that still survive. Below Gregory Peck and Olivia deHavilland. Those folks. But, possibly I digress.

What do you say to writers who see the new world of quick access to readers and want to leap straight into the business of writing without doing the heavy work of polishing the craft of writing beforehand? Do you suggest the attic? Because there’s really nothing stopping a newbie writer from putting his work up on Amazon, regardless of the shape it’s in. And by shape I don’t mean, has it passed any of the new gatekeepers — the workshop instructors, the freelance advisors, the family, friends and casual passers-by who will all have opinions.

Did anyone ask the question: is this anything more than a writer’s practice session? Is reading it like watching a tennis player practice serves? That’s quite different from watching the arc and flow of a match.

I was reading a manuscript recently that the writer believed had been edited. Yet, even in casual review, I stumbled across four or more editing issues (punctuation, spelling, missing letters) in every five pages I read. I am pretty flexible as an editor. I have an M.A. in “language arts” and am one of those oddballs who enjoyed diagramming sentences and playing with verb tenses as I was growing up. But, with all that lifelong info about what makes the English language work well as a communication tool, I became a grownup who loves to break the rules. And watch others doing it, too. To know them is to know how to break them. I like fragments. Single-word sentences. You name it. Surprise me.

So, the manuscript needed professional line-editing before going public. But what else? What is it that makes a piece of writing ready for public viewing? I ask this sincerely, as I never want to discourage a writer. Who am I to decide what goes public and what goes into the basement files? What is practicing a serve and what is game-on? What’s worth 99 cents to a reader?

Is there still an dimly lit attic where writers must huddle in the cold until a gatekeeper says, “Go forth. Publish!”? If so, I don’t want that to be me. So, finally, I ask: what’s the harm in self-publishing when the piece is not ready? The writer’s not quite ‘there’ yet? Is it naïve to ask, What’s the harm?

Readers stand at the gates now.