Fuck the Gatekeepers: Publishing is Changing and It Needs To

I know several of the people reading this blog write and I know they have all experienced frustration at not being published. I used to write as well and maybe someday I will again. I too felt the sting of rejection, but I always told myself “If I can just get better…” I viewed publishers as the gatekeepers of literature that I needed approval from.

Then this hit:


And not only hit, the publisher threw all their weight into promoting it. It is one thing to put out a cheesy romance novel, they all have divisions that do that. It’s another thing to put so much focus on a bad book that it reshapes the literary landscape.

Then not only did the publisher throw all their weight into promoting it, the rest of the publishing world jumped on this bandwagon:


At the same time, I noticed that all the books I was buying had typos, grammatical errors, structural issues. I loved The Exodus Towers, but there was a vocabulary error in it. I did not note it in the review because it was an esoteric word, it did not affect the story and that sort of thing is so common these days. Publishers are no longer editing the novels they publish.

We all attend classes and workshops where we are told, vehemently, that the quality of our work matters, sometimes to the point that the instructor is stomping on our natural voices. I had one instructor who said flat out “I hate Science Fiction and I don’t want to see any of those stories in this class.” They often will mix in functional criticisms with stylistic, which is a matter of personal taste. We are told that our work has to be “deep” and “artistic” and fit certain expectations.

Then we watch the publishers we are sending our work to approve and support shallow, childishly-written drivel. Because despite what our instructors have told us, once a writer gets past the short story collection stage, it is not about quality. It is about marketability. Publishers are not looking for good novels. They do not care about putting out good novels. They are looking for the next trend.

For hundred years or more they have held a stranglehold on the literary art form and up until now they have used that power somewhat responsibly. But not anymore. The gatekeepers have relinquished their validity.

And with e-publishing, we now can take back the authority.

In a keynote address for the University for the Arts in 2012, Neil Gaiman, someone who would know, said, “We’re in a transitional world right now, if you’re in any kind of artistic field, because the nature of distribution is changing, the models by which creators got their work out into the world, and got to keep a roof over their heads and buy sandwiches while they did that, are all changing. I’ve talked to people at the top of the food chain in publishing, in bookselling, in all those areas, and nobody knows what the landscape will look like two years from now, let alone a decade away. The distribution channels that people had built over the last century or so are in flux for print, for visual artists, for musicians, for creative people of all kinds.”

(His truly inspirational and wise speech is here in text and video forms.)

This is something publishers are scared of. They don’t want to be cut out of the cash flow between the readers and the writers. This is why they published a popular fanfic: To cash in on the trends in e-publishing.

So fuck the publishers. Don’t bother writing for them because they are not interested. They only want to know what the next trend is that they can make money from and you can’t predict that. Write what you want. Write what fulfills you.

Who you should write for is your audience. The reason e-publishing is looked down on is because so many self-published authors put out shoddy work. It poorly written, it’s hastily written and it’s badly edited. It’s getting better, but not fast enough.

One reviewer pointed out to me that one of the things the SciFi/Fantasy genre did for a long time was to self-police. They were not taken seriously as a genre for decades, so in order to be taken seriously, they did not tolerate shoddy work. They loudly praised what was of quality and called out what was not. And eventually, people started to realize this was not “kids stuff” but smart literature.

People e-publishing have to take the same approach. They have to self-police. They don’t have to write for a publisher, but they do have to write for an audience. That does not mean they have to write the stories they think an audience wants, but they do have to turn in a quality product.  Mickey Spillane once said, “I do not have readers, I have customers.” He was probably saying that in order to avoid pretension given his work was not exactly high art, but it makes a lot of sense to approach publishing your own work this way. You have customers and if you want them to come back and recommend your books to their friends, you have to give them a quality product. You have to give them the respect of giving them a quality book.

That is the first step. Any other marketing you do is useless without that first step.

Don’t be this person. People like her are not helping. If you put a piece of art out there for public consumption, not everyone is obligated to love it or shut up if they don’t love it. That is just the way the world is. Put your big girl panties on and deal. If you get a bad review, commiserate with your friends, cry in your beer, and after you let the hurt and ager fade, there might be something in that criticism that will make your next book better.

I know the temptation of wanting to rush to get a book out there, to get that instant feedback. Don’t do it. There are plenty of freelance editors out there. Make the investment to get one to go over your work to at least shake out the functional problems of typos, spelling, grammar and sentence structure. (If you can’t afford that, I bet if you went to a local college English department, you could find a student to do it for less. If nothing else,  get your most persnickety grammar-nazi friend to go over it and buy them dinner.) Don’t just have friends and family read it. Get objective opinions of people who do not know you reading it cold, just like the people buying your book online. Have a workshop read it.  Shift out what is personal taste and take constructive criticism that will make your work better.

Work on your story until it is a professional level book. For someone devoted to the craft, it is never going to be “perfect.” As someone once said, “Art is never completed, only abandoned.” But you can put out something better than what the publishing houses are putting out, and if you do, writers can take back control of their own art form.


7 thoughts on “Fuck the Gatekeepers: Publishing is Changing and It Needs To

  1. I wrote a considerably less eloquent rant about this a while ago on wattpad. My first book was rejected by an agent and two years later, while tearing it apart, I can see why. It’s proper guff.
    I understand it needs a shocking amount of re-working. I shall prevail to the best of my ability.

    Somebody actually told me recently, “If you wanna write a book, why don’t you read Fifty Shades Of Grey? That was really good.”

    I didn’t say anything at the time because one, in real life I’m not as antagonistic as I make out, and two, I was stunned into utter silence…She was serious.

    Not only are publishers shoving this badly written pap in our faces, there are readers out there who think this is an acceptable standard of writing, in fact…”it’s really good.”

    • Good luck with your book. I hope it become a sucess. 🙂

      My brother-in-law attended a private school and at the beginning of his freshman year, his English teacher gave them a Harlequin/Mills and Boon romance. After they had a couple days to read it, she asked them how they thought it was. They thought it was pretty good (the girls liked it more than the boys of course). Then she gave them Jane Austin. She showed them the difference between popular tripe and literature. They can cover the same subject, have essentially the same plot, just be written so much better.

      Now that is not to say we don’t all enjoy and deserve a bit of trash now and then. Yes, we should challenge ourselves with art, but reading is also supposed to be enjoyable and sometimes we just need some entertainment. But that entertainment does not have to total crap. I think part of the problem with people calling tripe “good” is that often they don’t discern the difference between quality and enjoyment. And it’s not merely the public, professionals frenquently fall into the trap of mistaking personal taste with estimations of quality. I think your friend probably meant it was very enjoyable, not that it was “good.”

      Then there is the issue of how this stuff is sold to the public. It was both hilarious and pathetic watching reviewers as far up as the New York Times struggling to claim this was an excellent, groundbreaking novel. Whether they were inflenced by its popularity or the pubisher is deabatable, but they were lying. But because of their authority, the public buys that 50 Shades of Grey is a good novel and their expectation of books is lowered.

      It’s a bad novel. It has cliched, shallow, silly and unrealistic characters and plot, dialog that either falls dead in the water or is laughable, annoying repitions of phrasing and poor grammar. She set it the United States without bothering research American slang or geography. According to the BDSM community, it’s also an inaccurate portrayal of BDSM practices and insulting to those who practice it. It’s selling an abusive relationship between an asshole and a silly, weak, empty girl as “romantic” under the guise of BDSM.

      On the personal taste side, it sells the unrealistic and frankly damaging notion that “a horrible man can be changed by true love with Miss Right.”

      Then there is how English literature is taught. I don’t know how it is in England, but in America what is foisted on our kids in school is difficult, dark and depressing. My freshman year in high school, we were given Catcher in the Rye, Wuthering Heights, Brave New World (which the teacher did not understand was that it in part a satire), Great Expectations, and The Scarlet Letter (and the instructor thought there were practically three symbols on every page, when she got to “the moss is a symbol” I simply gave up. “It’s moss. It grows on trees! That’s all it is!”). I was spared Heart of Darkness that another class read. If I had not had parents who encouraged reading authors like Kipling and Dumas, I would have been turned off reading as I assume many students are. Just what is wrong with teaching a Rudyard Kipling book or the Count of Monte Christo in school? Or teaching more enjoyable novels in the same genres. Why not A Tale of Two Cities, which is both enjoyable and meaningful, instread of massive tomes where Dickens was being paid by the word? To give students a break from Lit-Tri-CHA and remind them that reading is also fun? I think that is why series like A Song of Fire and Ice/Game of Thrones and Harry Potter were so revolutionary: They teach the public that reading can be fun. And that fun reading does not have to be crap.

      • I had an English teacher that made us analyse Jane Eyre and The Tempest page by page. We were never given the opportunity to appreciate the gist of either story. Quite turned me off Shakespeare it did…how can you not like Shakespeare? Fortunately I discovered him myself at a later date, to my everlasting joy. I have Leonardo Di Caprio to thank for that, ti amo.
        As for Jane Eyre I still retain a hatred for it, when I say hatred, let me be clear. I mean deep, abiding hatred.
        By the time we had got onto American classics, I’d figured out that it was best to just read them first before I gave her a chance to analyse them. Roll of thunder, Hear my cry, To kill a mocking bird and Of mice and men I still love. Unfortunately these have now been taken off our schools curriculum, because our former Minister of Education felt they had no relevance. Our system is fucked!

      • Oh, the number of wrong way to approach Shakespeare. Our teacher had us read the plays aloud and then had us take a factual test, none of us having any idea of the old vocabulary and rhythm of his work. We were lost and reminaed lost. It wasn’t until I saw it performed that I got it. And that was something Al Pacino pointed out in Looking for Richard (which is awesome, BTW): Shakepeare does not belong to the literature medium, it belongs to the performnce/theatre medium. People can’t just read it, they have to see knowlegable actors performing it.

        Jane Eyre (which I read on my own) I do not have as much of a problem with as Wuthering Heights, which I think would be vastly improved with a tactical nuclear strike. At a friend insistance I re-read it as an adult and I got what she was trying to say, but it is still a depressing novel without a single likable character in it you can connect to.

        At friends insistance I re-read Catcher in the Rye three times as an adult and I still think it would be improved with a fatal mugging in chapter one.

        To Kill a Mocking Bird is a favorite of mine which we read in Middle School and I still re-read on occasion, getting more out of it each time. The first Stienbeck I read (at the same age as To Kill a Mockingbird) was The Pearl, which was rather scarring. I did not really discover him until later, also with Of Mice and Men. 🙂 I read about the U.K. curriculum changes, which was surprsingly xenophobic for a European nation. Is it just American literature, what about Dante, Dumas and Dostoyevsky?

      • Jane Eyre is an evil story that should never have seen the light of day.
        Rochester is domineering, patronising, hides his mentally unstable wife in the attic, ignores his ‘ward’, and tries to enter into a bigamous marriage with poor, little malleable Jane.
        After it all goes pear shaped, Bronte tries to redeem him by sending him into a burning building, chopping off his bollocks and ripping out his claws in the process. Then when he’s manageable what does Jane do?
        Reader, she marries him!
        Did I mention my hatred of it was passionate?
        Maybe I’m just a heathen… I like to bastardise Shakespeare by removing the iambic pentameter, and reading it out loud like a gangsta spoken word artist. “an’ dis your mount’iness inhumani’ee!”
        Try it…’tis most fun to do.
        As for Dumas, Dante and Dostoyevsky, I’m not sure where they are on the curriculum. I never came into contact with them at school, only on the telly I’m afraid.

      • Yeah, I did not realy see how much of a prick Rochester was until I was older and it was pointed out to me. I first read it at 14 and, well, you know how stupid 14 year olds can be. Especialy when they are visualizing Timothy Dalton in the role.

        Will have to read a Shakepeare play like that. I imagine rap artists would actually be very comfortable with imabic pentamter.

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