I Am Not a Gatekeeper
People in and around this business have long used the word “gatekeeper” when referring to those in publishing tasked with choosing which books to publish or represent.
Since the rise of self-publishing, it has become a debate—often heated:
Down with the gatekeepers!
Hooray for the gatekeepers!
But gatekeepers are not what you think.
There is nobody in publishing whose job is to “keep you out.” Are we watching the gate? Yes!—to identify authors we’d like to see published.
Each person who has a so-called “gatekeeping” role is tasked with finding authors to bring in, not authors to keep out. Anyone who acquires authors for an agency or for a publisher is totally 100% focused on bringing in books they believe they can sell.
You wouldn’t call the women’s wear buyer at Nordstrom a gatekeeper, because you know her job is to bring in clothes she believes her customers will like. Her job is not to keep out the bad, but to bring in the good.
Some publishers, librarians, agents, and acquisitions editors call themselves gatekeepers. Maybe they relish that role because they feel it gives them power. But regardless of what they say or how they refer to themselves, they’re not gatekeepers. They’re selectors. Choosers. They’re salespeople. They’re looking for books they can sell. Period.
Some are also looking for books and authors they personally believe in. That’s typically a good indicator of whether you’ll be able to sell something—you believe in it. But you’re not going to acquire the book or take on the author if you can’t sell them.
There is joy in bringing in a book your customers want. My customers are publishers, so I’m looking for books I think they’ll want to publish. Librarians are looking for the books their community members will want. Publishers are looking for books their sales and marketing teams believe they can sell.
There is NO joy in saying “no” to any books or authors, and the “saying no” part of our jobs is purely incidental. It’s just something we have to do, on the way to finding the books we want to say “yes” to.
As a literary agent, I am in business to say YES to writers, not to say no. I’m constantly looking for books and authors I can believe in, and I can sell. I am not a gatekeeper. And I never want to be.
What are your thoughts on gatekeepers? Do you think it’s just an issue of semantics? Do you think agents & editors ARE gatekeepers by virtue of their function in publishing?