Why Distributors Are Book Publishing’s New Gatekeepers
As a former gatekeeper, I’m fascinated by the gatekeeper divide in book publishing, where the role gets falsely propped up by supporters of traditional publishing and completely dismissed by those who favor the indie space.
In a January 2015 article on Slate, former Random House editor Daniel Menaker wrote about gatekeepers (defined as editors at major houses):
In my judgment, there are between 20 and 30 editors and publishers in New York who — along with experienced and discriminating publicists, marketers, and sales reps — have over the decades regularly and successfully combined art and commerce and, in the process, have supported and promulgated art. They are in fact the main curators of our life of letters. They have somehow survived the grinding — tectonic — friction between creativity and business and made a go of both. They are cultural heroes, actually.
By contrast, Hugh Howey posted on his blog in June 2015 that “the best thing about indie publishing is the complete lack of gatekeepers.”
Because the publishing model I’ve adopted for She Writes Press falls between traditional and self-publishing, I take issue with both extremes. Menaker represents a class of people (industry, high-brow, elitist folks) who believe that New York publishing is the center of the universe. I would venture to guess that these curators of “our life of letters” have largely made successful white male authors, and maybe a handful of white female authors. These editors have attained their eminence from a system that is set up to make successful a certain kind of writer — MFA grad from the right school, polished, mediagenic, probably young, definitely white. Think Jonathan Franzen or Jonathan Safran Foer. On the other side, Howey, in his reactive position, represents those who want to give the traditional industry the big middle finger. That there is a complete lack of gatekeepers is not the best thing about indie publishing. It’s certainly what sets it apart from traditional publishing, but it sets it apart in a bad way. Because self-publishing lacks any kind of vetting, and because self-published authors can (and unfortunately still do) publish inferior books, all indie authors suffer together.
I’ve heard it said that readers are the new gatekeepers, and I think this makes sense to the degree that they’re sorting out the gems from the shit, and good reviews and word of mouth go a long way. But there’s another gatekeeper arising in our midst that no one is talking about — and that’s the distributor.
Right now, the biggest pain point of self-published authors is lack of distribution. If you’re a genre writer like Howey, it might not matter. For those authors making most of their money on e-books, distribution may be a take-it-or-leave-it kind of endeavor. But in the genres I work in, primarily memoir and fiction, it means everything.
I tried for one lousy season (our first season in business) to make a go at being the publisher of a self-publishing company, and immediately hit wall after wall after wall. After qualifying to sign up with a traditional distributor, the landscape opened up tremendously. Overnight our status changed from self-publisher to traditional publisher (even though we have always self-defined as hybrid). With traditional distribution, I was again working in an environment I recognized, where a sales force gets materials early, pitches books to accounts, and where preorders are placed, upon which print decisions are made. This is the traditional system, for better of for worse, and as long as we have and want retail outlets beyond Amazon, the system will continue to favor books with traditional distribution.
Because distributors are opening up to nontraditional models, including successfully self-published authors, they’re starting to set measures that indie authors can reach to gain access. It’s unfortunate that indie authors do not have any kind of grading system in place that would give a stamp of approval to booksellers or reviewers or associations. Independent publishing desperately needs that. The argument for gatekeepers is that they set a high bar, and that’s true. They insist on high standards, and traditional publishers know how to produce good books. That said, they’re also notoriously myopic, uncreative, and risk averse, so what’s coming out of the traditional houses will continue to be the same general type of book by the same general type of author — with a few exceptions (of course and always).
I’m proud of traditional distributors for taking risks on nontraditional publishers and indie authors because it means they acknowledge the real creative force these publishers and authors bring to the table. They’re not digging their heads in the sand like traditional publishers are, trying to pretend the indie movement doesn’t exist, or explicitly trying to exclude them from the inner circles by enforcing petty policies; or discriminating against them, like contests, reviews, and associations do by barring them from entry. Distributors are happy to take on books backed by people who believe they will sell. They insist books meet standards — that they’re well-written, designed, and packaged — and that there’s a case for a readership, which includes a solid marketing and publicity plan. Readers do not need cultural heroes, but rather invested fellow book lovers who make it possible for them to be exposed to all kinds of books (by all kinds of authors), and who make those books available and therefore discoverable. This is what distribution is doing, leveling the playing field in its own small but progressive way, until indie publishing can sort out what kind of gatekeeping we want to have in place so that the good books aren’t punished for the sins of the bad ones.