Sympathy for the Gatekeepers

Few aspiring authors have much affection for agents and publishers, who have rejected them countless times for seemingly no good cause. I can't say I'm much different, but I have recently developed a great sense of empathy for the gatekeepers of the industry.

Lulu Oberkotter

Ah, publication. That lofty dream of every writer. One day, we tell ourselves, our work will be in bookstores alongside Catcher in the Rye, The Man in the Iron Mask, and To Kill a Mockingbird. Then we can quit our jobs to write full-time, go on book tours, speak to packed auditoriums, and become household names. Maybe those names will one day go on to become adjectives, like ‘Dickensian,’ ‘Seussian,’ or ‘Shakespearean’ (now let’s all take a vote on how to pronounce ‘Oberkotterian,’ just to humor me).

Then we delve into the literary world and find our attempts to bestow our creative genius onto mankind stymied by the enemy of all aspiring authors: The agents. The publishers. The editors. Those malevolent, literary gatekeepers who’ve rejected some of the world’s best writers for no apparent reason. Their whole purpose, it seems, is to hold us back. Without them standing in the way, all our dreams would come true. They are the villains of our writing journey.

That's why I started picking up self-published books whenever I could. It was my way of 'sticking it to the man.' It seemed this route was a backdoor to avoid the gatekeepers, and a way for authors to take things into their own hands—just like Beatrix Potter did. That’s right: If not for self-publishing, there would be no Peter Rabbit.

The results of my efforts? Well, I hate to admit this, but I now have great sympathy for the malevolent gatekeepers.

By no stretch am I saying every self-published book I’ve read is bad. Nor that every traditionally published book I’ve read is good. Neither am I giving up on reading self-published books—not by a long shot. But with each book I’ve delved into, I’ve gotten a better idea of what it’s like for agents and publishers to slog through manuscript submissions, looking for that one gem in the pile. Some were pretty good but needed a little polish. Others were brilliant diamonds in the rough (emphasis on rough). And a fair few, I'm sorry to say, were of such poor quality I could not force myself to finish them.

Basically, I was reading from a slush pile. I never knew if I was going to get an undiscovered gem, a rough diamond, or a lump of coal. If this is what it's like for literary agents, editors, and publishers on a day-to-day basis, my heart goes out to them. Now, when I look at my own manuscripts which will one day reach their desks, I realize just how far I have left to go.

Yes, in their fervor to weed out the duds, the gatekeepers have unfairly cut down the dreams of many talented authors. And yes, a few duds inexplicably slip through the gates while some exceptional books are continually barred from entry. But after a mere glimpse into the over-saturated pool of what seems to be a publishing free-for-all, I have an idea of what it must be like to stand in front of those gates while the hordes try to pour through.

Don't get me wrong. I'm still an aspiring author and will probably always see these gatekeepers as the villains—but they're far more sympathetic villains than I imagined before.

19+ Comments


I’ve never read a self-published book, and I don’t think I’ll start if as you say it’s basically reading from a slush pile.

Nice blog by the way. Keep 'em coming.

Nov-07 at 00:52


There are some good ones out there, but you’re far more likely to find them if you read ones that are already taking off—there’s at least a guarantee of some level of quality. Trying the unknown has a lot more risk!

Nov-07 at 00:58


When I was open for submissions for my Indie imprint, I was deluged with subs that were so awful they gave me literary indigestion. Others, adequately written, were just, meh. So what? I had read well over 200 subs when I was offered one which I had to completely rewrite, but had fun characters and story. Overall it was a depressing experience.

Nov-07 at 02:21


Did you ever get more than that one salvageable submission?

Nov-07 at 02:30


Once an agent actually finds a good book, they then have to change roles and start submitting to editors. Then they experience the annoyance of non-responses and rejections (Unfortunately I know from personal experience).

Nov-07 at 08:04


why settle for


There are tens of thousands of books out there. Many are fair, at best. I’d guess maybe 10% or fewer are really good books.

It’s not that I avoid self-pub. There’s just nothing there that’s worth reading.

Nov-07 at 08:07


I can speak from both sides here. My book was almost optioned by DAW, except I wasn’t wiling to rewrite the ending to make it a standalone novel, so I went the self publishing route. I knew the book had legs. After all, it had gotten all the way to the desk of DAW’s editor-in-chief, Betsy Wolheim. It’s a long story, that. The manuscript got lost twice, but it made it out of the slush pile and DAW was interested.

When I self-published, I put a lot of time and effort into making it good enough to stand side by side with a professionally published book. I failed, but I got close. And the book sold several thousand copies, so I know (and this is a bit braggadocious) there are good books being published by independent authors.

That said, the slush pile has moved onto Amazon. It’s too easy to publish, and it shouldn’t be, but Amazon has very low quality standards. I would say that it’s not even 10% that are good. I’d say it’s closer to 1%, and probably less than that, which is still a lot. Considering that there are millions of self-published books on Amazon, we’re talking about thousands of good books.

At DAW, they have what they call “The Wall.” I don’t think it’s still there. This was back when most submissions were mailed in. It was a long hallway stacked floor to ceiling with manuscripts. DAW received 100,000 manuscripts a year. Of those, it published maybe 12, and of those 12, 8 or 9 were by established authors whose books were practically guaranteed to sell. They might publish 2 or 3 new authors, at best. And there was no way they’d risk publishing a series by an unknown author (which is why they wanted me to rewrite my ending).

My point is that it’s become very hard to self publish, and if you’re going to do it, you need to do it right, and that will cost you money. You need to invest in software, ISBN, create your own imprint, especially if you want wide distribution because most book buyers won’t look at a book whose imprint is Createspace (Amazon), and you need to design a cover, have a professional interior layout for print books, and so on.

Basically, there’s a difference between self-published and independently published. Trust me when I tell you that independent authors hate being called self-published. These folks spend thousands of dollars getting their books ready for publication, and when they come out, they’re of the same quality of any book you’d see on a shelf at Barnes & Noble. They are independent publishers, and it’s a serious distinction.

That said, professional organizations like the SFWA do recognize self-published works as legitimate publications if they meet certain requirements, specifically, how many you’ve sold. I qualify for membership because, though I’m self-published, I’ve sold thousands of copies of my book.

If you can, and you meet their membership qualifications, I recommend joining the SFWA or whatever organization is relevant to your genre. It bestows a measure of legitimacy on your writing and authorship. It also opens the door to a lot of benefits, such as industry contacts and financial assitance with bills, contract negotiation, etc. Being a member of a professional organization has more perks than just the reputation boost, thought that’s not a bad thing in and of itself.

Nov-07 at 09:50


How in the world did the gatekeepers allowe fifty shades to be published!? Hey, I can have some sympathy for gatekeepers, but that abomination is a little too much.

Nov-07 at 11:13


It had already become popular when published online on a fanfic site, if I recall correctly.

Nov-07 at 11:23


‘Some level of quality’ does not mean ‘a low level of quality.’ My main point with that choice of phrase is that a book being popular is no guarantee you will like it. But it’s a lot less of a risk than trying an unknown, as you know going in that a lot of people do like it; you might be one of them.

Nov-07 at 11:26


Then the gatekeepers should not have gotten it published on paper. Imagine my horror upon realising that it’s a best seller despite it’s writing as having an, ahem, less than stellar quality of writing, to say the absolute least.

Nov-07 at 11:31


It’s hardly the only one to slip past. I’m a big F/SF reader and was suckered into buying a very popular Trad published High Fantasy book. It looked like everything I wanted: cool title, awesome cover, good back-of-book blurb, and even a solid opening.
But the more I read, the more things fell apart. It started with the writing, which was exceptionally amateur… The same sentence length/structure nearly every time gets old fast.
The story didn’t help either. It quickly became apparent it was just a mishmash of every single Fantasy trope ever, but not in a fresh and original way. You know, “The secret chosen one boy must collect all the things and stop the prophecy of badness from being a thing that happens.” Also his sister is A Strong Independent Woman, but everyone tells her she is just a girl and therefore not Strong and Independent, but of course she’s an expert knife-thrower and joins the battle or whatever. I’ve seen it all before, but in much better books.

Nov-07 at 11:44


I can understand ‘Independent’. Most of the really creative, good movies are coming from Indie filmmakers now. I’m thrilled to death that the old model of being beholden to the big Hollywood studios is gone.

House of Leaves is a cult favorite, and a favorite of mine. It was originally published in pieces online somewhere. A fan finally assembled the pieces and got it published for Danielewski. So I’m all for ‘Indies’. Books are a little different but still, I’m all for it.

I only remember when self-published was the kiss of death to a ‘real’ writer. Thank you for your insight.

Nov-07 at 12:17


And yet, you’ve read it…

Nov-07 at 12:35


The fact that nobody knows what they’re going to get can be a royal pain in the butt

Nov-07 at 13:53


Oh, I can relate to that pain… I love Romance and there was a time I would read anything that fell in my hands, especially those 0.99 Kindle deals. I was so burned out by the garbage I read that I stopped reading in that genre. I’m sure there are amazing books but it’s hard for a reader to find those gems.
When I started writing I thought to self-publish. I thank the Writing Gods I never did–I would have contributed to that awful slush pile. Even now with the book that got accepted by a small publisher, the final version is quite different from the submitted MS after being through editing. I have now also a good amount of respect for editors!

And those slush-pile readers are always looking for that gem. I have great sympathy for them and I’m sure they get exhausted–a publisher noted recently that it was better to avoid submitting at the end of the reading period for this same reason.

Nov-07 at 15:10


Thanks for this very thoughtful and illuminating piece. Wonder what fraction of CC ecosystem have little or no intention of publishing.

Nov-07 at 15:30


No. A while after publishing the book, a large publisher made the author an offer and he asked for the rights back. I removed it from distribution. It was never republished though. The whole experience was so negative and costly that I decided the saying below was true, so I stopped publishing:
“Do you want to know how to make a small fortune in publishing?”

  • “Start with a large one.”

Nov-07 at 15:37


More like 0.1%

Nov-07 at 15:40
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