Gatekeeping: Necessary or Not in the eBook Era?

I think there is a marketplace confusion regarding the value of gatekeeping vs. nongatekeeping.

Problem 1 is that nongatekept authors whose ebooks sell well fail to distinguish between books sold and books read. This is an important distinction. Using myself as an example, I am willing to read an author’s description of their ebook and spend a maximum of 2 minutes reading the sample online, and then, if the blurb seems interesting and the 2-minute sampling doesn’t reveal horrendous errors, I am willing to buy the ebook for 99 cents. It just isn’t much of a financial risk.

So the sale looks good for the author, but should I start reading the ebook and discover that it isn’t worth the bytes it occupies and thus I cease reading it — no one knows. Even if I post a negative review, many other readers are willing to gamble the 99 cents.

Unfortunately, there is no way to measure whether a book has been bought and read or simply just bought and left in a To-Be-Read pile forever, or started and stopped because of discovered inadequacies. Yet knowing whether a bought book has been read is important, just as it is important to know whether someone thinks a book is worth reading.

Although not a true solution to this problem, perhaps a step in the direction of a solution would be to post the actual number of sales of a title. It could be very revealing if a book sells 1,000 copies but only has one 5-star review and a handful of mediocre down to 1-star reviews. If there are only 3 or 4 reviews, even if all are 5-star reviews, it might be an indication that (a) there have been a lot of sales but few reads or (b) a lot reads but few readers who think the book is worth mentioning to anyone. Although a less-than-perfect solution to gauging how good a book is, it is an iota better than the current system in which readers have no idea how well a title is selling.

Sales figures even without companion reviews can be valuable to readers. If a book is ranked number 1 on a bestseller list but has only sold 300 copies, there may be less of rush to buy a book because it is listed as a bestseller. Conversely, if the book has sold 5,000 copies, it may well cause readers to rush to buy it.

The second problem is pricing. Books that have gone through the traditional gatekeeping role tend to support higher pricing than those that have not. I am willing to spend 99 cents for a nongatekept ebook because it is not much of an outlay — it’s like buying a lottery ticket; I am willing to gamble $1 on odds of 6 million to 1 but I am not willing to pay $5.99 for such an ebook because the risk of getting dreck is much too high. On the other hand, I am willing to spend $7.99 for a gatekept ebook because the risk is generally that I will not enjoy the writer’s style or I won’t be in the mood for the particular genre, not that I will be stuck with dreck (although that, too, does happen and is happening with increasing frequency as the gatekeepers fumble around ebooks).

Yet to read the blogs and comments, one would think gatekeeping is passe, something no longer either needed or desired. To many commenters, the freedom to publish drivel is superior to the gatekeeper system that existed before the ebook revolution because it offers more choice.

The problem with unfettered choice is that it is impossible for readers to wade through the 1 million new titles that are published each year to find the 50 or 100 or even 250 ebooks that a reader can physically read in a year. I suspect that even if a reader made it his or her full-time occupation to peruse published ebooks to find the 250 ebooks to buy and read that they couldn’t do much more than toss a pebble into the ebook flood. What ebooks have done is inverted the pyramid. Rather than having a system to narrow choices to a manageable number, it has widened the choices to infinity, an unmanageable number.

These gatekeeping-is-dead articles would be much more impressive and valuable if they gave pricing information and surveyed purchasers to determine whether the ebook was actually read or not. Making broad-based claims of no need on as little data as is currently done has virtually no value.

Let’s see where we stand.

reposted with permission from An American Editor

image by BarelyFitz


  1. Nate the great18 April, 2011

    What makes you think that a book which is approved by the gatekeepers has a greater chance of being a decent read?

    Dan Brown and Stephanie Meyer were both picked by the gatekeepers and I think they’re utter dreck.

    1. iucounu18 April, 2011

      Nate, you haven’t seen dreck until you’ve seen 99% of the stuff that doesn’t get published.

      Also, whatever you want to say about Brown or Meyer, they do have some real qualities that appeal strongly to many people. There’s no one metric of ‘a decent read’; books are multifaceted things that serve all kinds of needs and purposes.

    2. Rich Adin18 April, 2011

      Nate, I am not assuming (or at least I don’t intend to assume) that gatekept books are better than nongatekept books. However, I do think there is a better chance of their being read because gatekept books are more likely to appeal to a larger audience. Ultimatly, the most important and valuable statistic is bought + read. The former I suspect we’ll be told in very broad terms as we are now; the latter we will never be told, although there is no reason the information can’t be had. If they can do Nielsen ratings for TV, they can do them for ebooks.

  2. Michael Allen18 April, 2011

    There is a continuum of ability in the writing world. At one end are those highly educated few who can write effective and grammatically perfect prose, straight off the typewriter, no corrections ever needed. (The English journalist Bernard Levin was one such; fellow journalists used to gather round him as the deadline approached, and try to put him off. Never did. Word count and everything else dead right.)

    At the other end of the continuum are those who THINK they can write stunning prose but are actually sub-literate by the sophisticated standards of you and me.

    And the thing which I am beginning to suspect is that there is a class of reader who can’t really tell the difference between the two classes of writers; and, to the extent that they can, tend to prefer the semi-literate. More on their wavelength.

    Both kinds of writers have their shortcomings, and both seem to be able to find readers. Personally I’m not proud. I’ll take money from anyone.

  3. David19 April, 2011

    250 books! I suspect that would be the top 1% of 1% of readers. The average still reads 1-6 books a year. Only a small minority read more than 1 a week.

    As for the rest, I’ve been suspecting that for a while. How can you have 50,000 or 100,000 sales and only a handful of reviews?

  4. Sandy Nachlinger19 April, 2011

    I have to agree with Michael. While grammatical errors will cause me to close a book and stop reading, it seems that people who are accustomed to reading “How R U?” don’t even see the difference in “its” and “it’s.” Looks like there’s a market for readers of every level.

  5. M. Louisa Locke19 April, 2011

    While I found this piece interesting, I didn’t find the argument that a lack of reviews is a good indicator of a book’s quality very convincing.

    First of all, in my 60 plus years I have probably read over 10,000 traditionally published books, and I have never written a single review of one of them until this past year. I think this is probably true for most readers. Why should self-published books be any different?

    Granted now with eretailers asking you for reviews, and sites like Goodreads making reviewing a community benefit, the likelihood of average readers actually reviewing a book has gone up, but again, I don’t see the lack of reviews (or poor ratio) as indicative of whether or not the bought book has been read.

    I have sold over 11,000 copies of my historical mystery Maids of Misfortune, with 26 reviews on Amazon. One of the books that show up as a competitor in my sub-genre (I am listed as #1 bestseller in my category) is traditionally published by Penguin, and has 55 reviews-but has been in print for 5 more years than my book. So does that mean that more of the people who bought her book didn’t read it (so didn’t review it?) I doubt it.

    In addition, a lot of traditionally published books are first gotten for free at a library, or bought in the dollar bin at used books stores (very analogous to 99 cent books). That is how I have tried out new authors traditionally. And yes, many of those free or cheap books didn’t get read-when I found out they didn’t live up to the promise of a catchy title, or a neat cover. Again, I feel that you are over stating the difference between how traditionally published books and self-publsihed books are found, bought, and read.

    However, I do agree that there is a real difference-and that is in fact in gatekeeping. My book would never have seen the light of day in the traditional model. Not because it wasn’t of high quality but because my attempts to go through the gatekeepers over 20 years was so discouraging that when I finally had the time, I didn’t have the emotional stamina to continue down that road. Gatekeepers mean you don’t go through the gate. But in self-publishing there is no gate. This doesn’t mean that as with traditionally published books there aren’t obstacles to over come to get that book into the hands of readers. But obstacles can be gotten over, gates can’t be gotten through. There is a difference-and to compare reviews, ranking systems, data on ratio of bought to sold (which might represent obstacles to getting your book bought by a reader) to gatekeeping-which means the book simply doesn’t exist- is like comparing apples to oranges.

    Self-publishing didn’t ensure that a book will be bought, or read, or enjoyed (but neither does traditional publishing ensure this), but it does ensure that it has a chance.

    1. Carolyn Carlquist19 April, 2011

      Well said.

    2. Ellis Vidler19 April, 2011

      Gatekeeping does improve the odds of a book’s being well-written in reasonably standard English, but it’s no guarantee. Neither is it a guarantee of a story that will appeal to me. I’ve read a number of indie-published books and like traditionally published books, some were better than others and some held more appeal for me. The format doesn’t make any difference to the story. I’ve always been a reader, and like Louisa, I never wrote reviews until the last couple of years either. I’m afraid I don’t see how gatekeeping has much to do with anything.

  6. Sandra Parshall19 April, 2011

    We never know how many of the print books that are sold are actually read. I own print books I bought years ago but have never gotten around to reading. I check out some library books and return them unread because I don’t have the time for them.

    However, when an author has a visible and vocal following, as Brown and Meyer (and Patterson and Cornwell, etc.) do, you can be sure people are reading the books. What matters to most readers is story-telling talent, not gorgeous prose pictures. Tell a compelling story and your work will be read. Even if I don’t admire a writer’s style, I have to respect story-telling ability. That’s what fiction is all about. And the publishing platform, print or electronic, is beside the point.

  7. newjerseybadger19 April, 2011

    Heck, Rich, even gatekept books don’t improve things much from a quality viewpoint — have you tried finding a _good_ new author in Urban Fantasy lately? Six years ago gatekeeping there was effective; You had maybe a dozen authors who reliably wrote internally consistent, literate fiction that had plots and wasn’t full of deus-ex-machina (should I say deus-ex-vampirii?). Any time more recently than three years, forget it. Every fiction house in existence now has its own line, a couple of dozen online-only houses have sprung up for the fanatics, and telling _which_ of these new authors is any good… I’ve about given up even reading the sample chapters. (And as for trusting the recommendation of the average reviewer, Oy Gevault!)

    I’m looking for professional reviewers to crop up online with reader ratings of _them_, to filter through the pile o’crap for me. I don’t have the time any more, and it’s getting to where it’s cheaper to pay someone to filter than to do it myself.

  8. A.C.Crispin19 April, 2011

    I teach writing workshops, and have read a NY editor’s slushpile (long story). People who think that most people write very well haven’t done that. Most people write dreadfully, especially when they first start out.

    And there’s a direct relationship between a new writer’s confidence level in his/her work and the unreadability/dreadfulness of his/her story.

    For every 1 manuscript I read in a workshop that is quite good and has sales potential (usually after considerable revision), there are probably 20 that need to be shelved, probably permanently.

    -A.C. Crispin
    Pirates of the Caribbean: The Price of Freedom
    Disney Editions
    May 17, 2011

    1. newjerseybadger19 April, 2011

      Ms. C., pleased to see you’re still writing. I read a bunch of your Star Trek stuff, the Vulcan-race-centric books, and liked them a lot for literacy and easy suspension-of-disbelief. Thanks.

  9. Francis Hamit19 April, 2011

    As for reviews, people are lazy and have no incentive past ego-bo to post one. The paid reviewer (and I used to be one) had certain professional obligations and editors above them to enforce standards and assure quality. These days reviews tend to turn into flame wars unless they are five star. This is one area where gatekeepers are still useful.

    But gatekeepers in traditional publishing now are more about marketing than editorial excellence. And the product reflects that bad decision. A few years ago Civil War novels didn’t even get read because, as I was told more than once “no one is doing historical fiction any more”. This simply drove the quality product away from the big houses and into the self-publishing paradigm. Technology finished the job by making it much easier to just put the material out there at lower cost rather than wait months or years for a reply from gatekeepers that might never arrive at all. Cost-cutting killed the publishing industry that was, and the new version is now a marketing mill. It is well that 99 cents is the bottom price., because this has become a “race to the bottom” if price is the prime determinant of sales.

  10. […] much smarter than me. There were two articles on this that popped up this week. One is showing why anyone who can put stuff up in ebook maybe shouldn’t, and one why 99¢ ebooks can be bad for readers and […]

  11. macsnafu21 April, 2011

    Like information itself, gatekeepers *can* perform a valuable function of sorting the better material from the dreck. For people concerned about reading only better quality material, then the extra cost may be worth it. For more adventurous souls, or those who like to do their own exploring, the gatekeepers aren’t worth it.
    So both have their place–what’s the problem??

  12. […] world any longer. I disagree vehemently (as you’d expect). There is still a valid role for gatekeepers in the chaotic world of indie and self-publishing (follow the link if you want a good argument for […]


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