I Am Not a Gatekeeper

gatekeeperPeople 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.

That’s IT.

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?


Rachelle Gardner

Literary agent at Gardner Literary. Coffee & wine enthusiast (not at the same time) and dark chocolate connoisseur. I've worked in publishing since 1995 and I love talking about books!


  1. smithsk on July 10, 2018 at 5:16 AM

    Totally agree with you, Rachelle

    I’ve listened to agents, editors, authors at writer’s conferences. It’s business. You’re right. Agents want a book they can sell. And they make up their minds after a 15 second look at the query letter. Most go in the slush pile.

    One author’s workshop was heartening. She had a 100+ manuscript of a “mainstream literary novel.” The “gatekeeper” agents weren’t interested. It sat dormant for years.

    But she did not give up on her baby.

    Using an excel spreadsheet, she took 3 weeks to input every scene in the novel, analyzing what was happening, what changed, and how. From that, she cut down her novel by 40%. An agent snapped up her manuscript and sold it as a fast paced thriller.

  2. […] Lisa Tener answers some questions for struggling writers about working with agents, pitching to publishers, and more, while literary agent Rachel Gardner insists “I am is not a gatekeeper.” […]

  3. Anon on July 2, 2018 at 8:40 AM

    “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.”

    The fact that you position yourself to say ‘no’ is exactly what makes you a gatekeeper (whether you enjoy saying it or not is irrelevant).

  4. […] Link to the rest at Rachelle Gardner […]

  5. Ian S Bott on July 1, 2018 at 9:54 AM

    Sorry, Rachelle, but this does sound like semantics to me.

    First of all, remember that the role of a gatekeeper is not to keep everyone out (that would be the job of the wall, not the gate) but to control access and be selective in whom to admit. That is exactly what you describe for yourself (and for editors and librarians and women’s wear buyers) so, yes, the term is appropriate.

    What you’re describing in your post is your focus. You are looking for the next author to say ‘yes’ to and that is what matters to you. But the flip side of the same coin is saying ‘no’ to a lot of authors along the way. That may not be your focus but it’s an inherent part of the process, like it or not. And that responsibility for selection is the very definition of gatekeeper.

    There is nothing inherently bad about being a gatekeeper, but I guess it’s got a bad rap in the industry (a) because such a huge proportion of people knocking on the gate are refused entry, and (b) because the selection process is really not about quality. There is a heartbreaking amount of good writing that will never see the light of day, and a load of garbage published just because of the author’s name. You said it yourself in the post, publishers are looking for things they can sell.

    You, personally, may never take on a project that you don’t absolutely believe in, but I wonder how often you’ve had to say, ‘This is brilliant … but I can’t sell it’?

  6. The Loss of Gatekeepers | Cas Blomberg on June 11, 2014 at 9:23 AM

    […] will tell you they are not gatekeepers — at least in the sense of keeping books out. As Rachelle Gardner points out, publishers want to let books in and that makes sense. Unless, of course, you’re […]

  7. sandy on November 7, 2013 at 8:52 AM

    Rachelle, your posts have been a help to me so many times. Thank you! This gatekeeper post was helpful in reminding me (us wanna-be’s) that agents are positive, helpful people. (That I’ve already experienced in webnars and agent-meet-up opportunities.)
    Would like to add, though, that the process of scripting a query, pitch, synopsis, etc. is helpful (if we take the lessons back to the manuscript), but it also seems like it’s become a science and ticket in it’s own right…that we do have to master some kind of entry code that admits us, often irrespective of our work. While I value the discipline of crafting these tools, I find I am often discouraged when the reaction to my work is based on a few, carefully orchestrated lines, that are orchestrated for this sole purpose. Perhaps it’s just the tension between the marketing process and the creative process, not mutually exclusive, but one process feels more craven.
    Looking forward to Crime Bake this week; always rich learning and good people….and you’ll be there, too! Sandy Neily

  8. Psycho Kalar on October 31, 2013 at 8:19 PM

    But what if I am Vinz Clortho, the Keymaster?

  9. Gatekeepers | Story Arcs on October 30, 2013 at 12:01 PM

    […] Gardner posted an article about how she, and others in the publishing industry, are not gatekeepers. Ms. Gardner is one of those people I keep in my blogroll because she has stakes in both […]

  10. misha.herwin on October 30, 2013 at 11:19 AM

    Thank you for these salutary words. We writers tend to forget that agents are actually looking for books to sell. If they don’t want yours, then it’s because it isn’t their thing, but it might be just what someone else is looking for.

  11. WriterSideUp on October 29, 2013 at 10:59 PM

    Your explanation is as clear and simple as it gets and, of course, makes perfect sense. I have always seen agents as people trying to find the diamonds in the rough, or the cream of the crop. Of course, with agents and editors and all the other people involved in publishing making all kinds of decisions, being human also allows for some bad calls, too. One of the biggest problems is the number of writers far outweighs the demand. It makes it all very time-consuming and tedious for pretty much everyone involved, from the authors to the agents and on up. It’s like trying to find your “true soulmate” over and over and over again. What are the odds? lol

  12. Matt Law on October 29, 2013 at 10:31 PM

    People often only love you when you do exactly what they want. I like Rachel and respect her helpful information. She is a dream agent. Well, that is until she won’t represent me. Then I will self publish and send her a rude email about why agents have ruined publishing. I will cry and say life isn’t fair and complain to my mommy. Boo hoooooo….. We all have to learn to get better, not bitter. If a door closes, look for a window. Sometimes agents say no for many reasons. Rock on Rachel. I will like and follow you until rejected as well. 🙂

    • Crystal on October 30, 2013 at 10:19 AM

      Yes, I definitely sense some bitterness in a lot of the arguments hurled toward agents and traditional publishing.

      • Matt Law on October 30, 2013 at 10:24 AM

        Yep, I’m not submitting for another six months, so I haven’t faced this yet. But I’ve been working on the planning side, platforms, and education for 2 years. There are so many books and resources online about what agents are looking for, to me it is terrible for people to get bitter with all the resources to make them get better so they get an agent and a contract.

  13. Jill on October 29, 2013 at 5:57 PM

    You are saying yes to some and no to others. You [agents collectively] are the way to get to publishers. You are gatekeepers. This is not a negative, so much as an “it is what it is”. Writers sometimes take things too personally. They sometimes feel that they are personally being attacked–that there is a conspiracy to keep them personally out. In rare cases, this may be true (if the writer has acted in an onerous way), but in most cases it’s just business. The agents or “gatekeepers” are just filtering through texts trying to find something that they believe publishers will want. It would be more honest to state that there is no grand conspiracy, rather than to deny being a gatekeeper.

  14. Sonya Contreras on October 29, 2013 at 5:56 PM

    We, the people, or in this case, we, the authors, like to blame someone else for why we cannot get published. Is that now what Adam and Eve did? If we can blame someone else, then we are not responsible.

    Could it be that our work is not ready for publication?
    Could it be that we are not willing to play by the rules for publishing traditionally?

    I can not say that it is easy to write a query, or a one-sentence description of my book, or even present a perfect manuscript. But trying doesn’t equate success.

    The rules gives a standard. If I don’t meet the standard for the game, it is not (sorry for the word) gatekeepers’ fault. It is because my work must be improved and meet the standard.

    The buck stops here—or maybe I should say—I’ll edit some more and try again.

    • Kellye Crocker on October 29, 2013 at 10:55 PM

      Having worked for an agent, I agree, Sonya, that many writers submit work before it’s ready. Often, people also would rather blame others than take responsibility for their actions, in publishing and other areas.

      However, you act as if the “rules of publishing” are codified and consistent, and neither is true. As others have said, publishers buy what they think will sell, and that has changed over time, as it should. Many of today’s classics were rejected by traditional publishers.

      Nowadays, however, writers can take responsibility for themselves and their careers and publish a high-quality book themselves. I think this is exciting.

  15. Bob Mayer on October 29, 2013 at 4:39 PM

    The line: my customers are publishers highlights the fundamental flaw in the current traditional publishing paradigm. And publishers’ customers are distribution outlets. Consignment distribution outlets. Agents and publishers all still fail to see readers as their customers.

    As an author my customer is the reader. I create content, called story. Readers, consumers, buy my content, called story. A pretty simple business model.

    As a publisher, I have two customers: my authors and their readers. I have to facilitate that relationship or I have no value.

    Gatekeeping doesn’t enter into it.

    • Deb Kinnard on July 1, 2018 at 11:15 AM

      An agent’s customers are indeed publishers, but technically their clients are writers. This represents a house divided. I won’t say anything against agents’ work per se, particularly in our market when the restrictions seem to be drawn tighter and tighter every year. But no man can serve two masters, and while agents are trying to please the publisher, who is left out of that endeavor? The readers, definitely. The authors, I think yes, for the most part.

      And IMO saying “not a gatekeeper” is like my saying I am not fat and over sixty. That’s just labeling, and serves no purpose whatsoever.

  16. Donna Benson on October 29, 2013 at 4:37 PM

    I understand the need for agents and publishers, but I must agree there are many wonderful writers who never get published because they don’t fit the mold. Either they don’t write in the expected method of POV. Maybe they use too many POVs. What about being too passive or use too many adverbs. I go round and round with family and friends because my critique partners want POV changed or remove this or that in my writing. Yet they…non-writers only readers like my style and enjoy my books. In my free time, I’m finding too many books are too much alike. That is boring too. There has to be a place for all kinds of writing.

  17. Peter DeHaan on October 29, 2013 at 3:18 PM

    This is a great post, Rachelle. Thanks for tweaking my perspective. Instead of viewing the proverbial glass as half empty, I now declare it to be half full!

  18. James J. Rook on October 29, 2013 at 2:18 PM

    Being a new (aspiring) author, perhaps I haven’t been as jaded by rejection as most, but I believe that this is a matter of ego. People assume that agents are the gatekeepers, and that they have all the power, but that’s not true at all.

    The authors are the one’s with the power. Absolutely and without variance. We are the ones who begin with a blank sheet of paper, and we are the ones whose voices end up on the other side, speaking to the world. It is entirely in our hands.

    It comes down to the strength of your voice and the skill of your aim. If your writing is strong enough, and if you direct your efforts in exactly the right place, you will get through. It is as simple as that.

    The problem, of course, is that no one is an expert marksman the first time they hoist a rifle. Even Rowling, as skilled as she is, was turned down by twelve publishers and one agent before her manuscript landed on the right desk.

    So they told you ‘no’. Why is that their fault? Why should they have to shoulder all the blame? YOU approached THEM. They’re not rejecting you on some superficial basis (like whether you’re “cool” or not, as one person paralleled).

    They rejected you because they didn’t think they could sell your book. Maybe its the wrong style for current trends. Maybe its not the genre their publisher(s) are looking for. Or maybe you just suck.

    Whatever the case, none of this can be put on the agent. If you’re strong enough, and if you’re dedicated enough nothing can stop you. It has always been on us.

  19. Crystal on October 29, 2013 at 1:20 PM

    I do think it’s a matter of semantics. But at the same time, I can understand your take on it–to focus on what you’re looking for and not what you’re keeping out. As both an aspiring writer and an avid reader, I appreciate the “gate keepers.” Yes, they are easy enough to get around these days with self-publishing and ePublishing. However, as a reader I appreciate the gatekeepers, because they so often keep me from wasting my time. Yes, there are some self-published phenoms, but for the most part the quality is far lacking compared to those that have passed through the “gate keepers” and editing process provided by publishers.

  20. Janet Sunderland on October 29, 2013 at 1:10 PM

    Nice comparison to the Macy’s buyer. I would rather write than try to figure out what people want to read (or wear) next year. I can barely figure out what today is let alone next year. Thanks for all you (and Macy’s-which usually dresses me) do, all the time, with care and dedication.

  21. Jennifer Major on October 29, 2013 at 11:54 AM

    IMHO, if there is nothing in the way of a refinement process, if there is no one on whom the duty of sorting and choosing falls, and if there is a complete lack of accountability, then readers are left with everything from 50 Shades of Grey to Cry the Beloved Country and all that floats in between.

    One cannot expect to find Moet at 7-Eleven, somebody has to open the shipping containers and read the labels.

    Jennifer Z. Major.

  22. Kay on October 29, 2013 at 11:47 AM

    With due respect (and I try to keep my opinions on such things to myself), an agent isn’t just another shopper at Nordstrom’s with equal voice in what gets placed in the shoe section (published). As a shopper, my dress purchase is one of millions and my purchase is my vote which in the aggregate contributes to the marketing data the store uses to make choices. I do not have the same access to the vast majority of publishers; I must go through a gatekeeper (an agent). True, not all who pass by agents pass into the publishing castle, but that’s really a minor difference. You don’t get near the castle without blessing of the gatekeeper first. Setting that aside, because the language of agents is about “their tastes” and not the readers’ tastes based on marketing data, it just adds more tension to the broader author-agent discussion. Case in point: more than once I’ve received a rejection saying “I’m just not excited” by the work. Are the current crop of agents truly representative of the taste of readers who might be excited? If data show that to be true, I’m much more satisfied with the rejection. The trouble is, that’s never the reason given.

    • Lelaina Landis on October 29, 2013 at 12:12 PM

      Kay, love your response. I wouldn’t write this if I weren’t absolutely positive it’s at least somewhat true, but my guess is that a lot of agents and publishers are scratching their heads over some of the indie books that have taken off and become best-sellers. Some are fairly predictable, such as the “50 Shades” book and just about any NA romance, while others are more of a mystery. But I think you are correct — the readers’ collective taste is what ultimately matters.

  23. Kathy Halsey on October 29, 2013 at 11:11 AM

    Ironically I’ve been both a gatekeeper & am now an author working to “get in.” However, as a school librarian, I never thought of myself as a “gatekeeper.” just someone w/knowledge of my school, curriculum, what kids enjoyed, what teachers needed…it’s called “collection development.” Agreed – I wanted the best for my patrons! Now as a newbie, unpublished pic book writer, I still feel I must create the best work possible, but when I hear of some agents wish lists, I see the subjectivity of it all. Good post to get discussion going.

  24. Emily Wenstrom on October 29, 2013 at 10:54 AM

    The digital world has opened up publishing for everyone. While some argue this makes gatekeepers irrelevant, I think in the long run it makes them much more important, as we all get hit more and more with content overload. And gatekeepers include so many more than is traditionally thought… I include reviewers and other publications that cover publishing and new releases in that, in addition to publishers themselves. And I think that the more content goes digital, the more gatekeeping is about matching content to the appropriate niche audience, rather than a hard yes-or-no, you’re-in-or-you’re-out approach.

    So maybe with time the term can lose some of its negativity and come to be perceived more as a partner in the process.

  25. Joan Castor on October 29, 2013 at 10:32 AM

    A gatekeeper controls access to another level or section.

    I’m in my early 30s, but I’ve been told that twenty years ago or so, authors could submit directly to publishers. Now, most of the big publishers do not allow submissions from authors; instead, they will consider work that comes through an agent.

    Thus, agents are now controlling access to those big time publishers. That’s gatekeeping.

  26. Carol North on October 29, 2013 at 10:17 AM

    I’ve been writing and editing professionally for more than twenty years, and I say, “Thank God for the gatekeepers.” There’s a lot of bad writing being self-published. Those people think all you need to do is string some sentences together. They know nothing about technique, such as plotting and scene and sequel. And they don’t want to learn.

    I belong to a critique group with three of us being pro or semi-pro, the rest are beginners. You would think the beginners would want to learn something–no, they think their deathless prose is perfect.

    Thanks for listening to me rant about my pet peeve.

  27. David A. Todd on October 29, 2013 at 10:17 AM

    Rachelle: I think I’ll stay out of the debate on whether “gatekeeper” is an appropriate term for the roles of agents and editors. Instead I want to focus on this statement in your post:

    “My customers are publishers, so I’m looking for books I think they’ll want to publish. …. Publishers are looking for books their sales and marketing teams believe they can sell.”
    I’ve thought this for a long time, and it’s nice to see it finally stated by an industry professional. It also means that someone who is hoping to be published by a trade/traditional/legacy publisher (take your pick on the name) isn’t writing for the reader: They’re writing for the agent, or perhaps an editor, not really for the reader. This is a huge difference between self-publishing and the traditional route.

    • Rachelle Gardner on October 29, 2013 at 10:55 AM

      David, writers are always writing for their reader.

      When it’s time to sell their writing, however, they’re not selling to the reader. They’re selling to the agent and/or editor.

  28. Jennifer M. Hartsock on October 29, 2013 at 9:46 AM

    I have to agree with most of the comments: By choosing not to accept certain work, you are eliminating the opportunity to represent that work. By accepting other works, you are creating the opportunity to represent that work. Gatekeeper.

    For me, I would NEVER be less excited about hiring a literary agent if most writers got one (in other words, I don’t believe good and evil are always a bond). However, like any professional work, the employer has to make tough decisions about who he or she wants to represent, whether it’s an employee, client, clothing line, etc. This isn’t a bad thing at all.

    If anyone is concerned that well-written novels will get passed up by mediocre novels that sell better, then thank God there are options other than hiring that agent! Thank God there are options other than traditional publishing. But, above all, thank God for small presses that will take a chance on great writing that may not sell as well as something more mainstream.

    So, I agree that agents are gatekeepers. I don’t believe it’s a bad thing, or that aspiring writers should feel offended or intimidated when their work isn’t accepted by a particular agent. What do we do when we’re not hired? We find something else, or work to better our resume and skills until we CAN get the position — sometimes somewhere else. And, in my experience, whenever an agent passed on my work, it truly was because the manuscript or query wasn’t good. Now that everything is polished, we’ll see what road my story goes down.

    Take care,

  29. Anna Urquhart on October 29, 2013 at 9:39 AM

    This discussion partly seems a matter of semantics. In publishing, as in life, when you say “yes” to something, you are in turn saying “no” to something else. I appreciate your perspective, and I think it sheds a more realistic and objective light on a tetchy debate. I also think much of this debate stems from artists having to deal with the business end of their chosen field. We don’t like to have to “sell.” We want our work to speak for itself, to be appreciated and “unsullied” by the drive toward the almighty dollar. Yet the reality of the traditional publishing industry is that it is, at the end of the day, a business. If the term “gatekeeper” is assigned, (reframe it how you like) every industry always has a “1st line” who are the “yes” (or “no”) sayers. If writers want to defer from that (or use the reading public as their 1st line of “yes” or “no” sayers) then self-publishing is probably the best route for them. It seems counter-productive (and somewhat counter-intuitive) to pit publishers/agents/etc against writers. At the end of the day we all want the same things–for our writing to get into the hands of readers and to (hopefully) make a living doing it.

  30. jo swartz on October 29, 2013 at 9:21 AM

    I think it is more a matter of perspective than semantics perhaps. From your point of view, you are a champion of books, a sleuth of superior storytelling combing through the pile of queries. A miner looking for gold. You separate the wheat from the chaff and from that select stories that excite you personally.

    From the writer’s perspective you are the sieve which they may fall through for whatever reason and as a result not get published. Sometimes it is because of the writing, sometimes it is because of a perceived ‘trend’. It is often hard to know. Many great books wouldn’t get a chance to be published today.

    I used to be in fashion, and it was no different. I am amazed actually at how similar the two industries are. Buyers are, more often than not, more comfortable putting into the stores stuff similar, if not identical, to stuff that sold in previous years leaving risk taking and breakthrough designs (or books) unlikely to get picked up or given to the consumer. Often the market (especially in North America and almost not at all in Europe) becomes saturated with a uniformity of style. It is backwards looking more than forwards looking. And those creating on the cutting edge find it hard to find the champion and yet it is those books/designs in particular that excite the consumer the most. So, I would debate whether buyers/gatekeepers do the consumer any favors most of the time.

    I left fashion (after finishing top of my class, 3 years in a row, at the top haute-couture school in the world in Paris) because coming back to North America all they wanted was for me to knock off some RTW designer like Adrienne Vittadini or DKNY or Michael Kors who, for the most part, knocked off a European designer like Armani making the design at least 3 years old in a lesser quality fabric. I find books follow similar patterns. If vampires or erotica suddenly sells, everyone is following the trend and looking backwards rather than seeking out the trendsetters. It takes a great deal of confidence, an amazing eye/ear and courage to champion the trendsetters. They don’t look like anything done before. It is like being a great art collector. Most buyers/agents today (even in art) buy a name they already know, or in a style they already understand. But when Picasso came on the scene, when the impressionists arrived, they were met with shock and derision. The few collectors who had a sense of vision, who could see the evolution and the future and who took the risks, found themselves the true champions of the new artists and had the finest collections. Those who followed could only afford the ‘lesser artists’ the the imitators.

  31. Lelaina Landis on October 29, 2013 at 9:14 AM

    I consider agents and publishers “tastemakers” — not gatekeepers. A book definitely has to meet a certain threshold when it comes to quality, but the traditional publishing industry seems to be more focused on keeping up with reader trends (sometimes haphazardly and well after the fact). To quote McLuhan, “The media is the message.” Send a specific message over and over — “Paranormal YA is hot!” “And so are books written by reality television contestants!” — and the reading public believes that they should care about these books. That said, some of the more riveting novels I have read recently have been written by self-published authors. These books buck the trend. They’re unlike anything I have read before. And best of all, they appeal to a niche audience.

  32. Jared on October 29, 2013 at 9:10 AM

    I think this is all a matter of perspective. Rachelle probably feels that saying “No” to people is the least favorite part of her job. It’s obviously not why she got into the business. So for her, she resents being called a Gatekeeper because of the implication that it’s her job to keep people out. However, most of the people who read this blog are probably aspiring authors, and from our perspective there are few good ways to get into the industry without someone like Rachelle (or any other agent) saying “Yes”. That very much makes them a Gatekeeper. While there can be some frustration involved with this arrangement, I think most reasonable authors realize there isn’t some grand conspiracy of agents and publishers to try to keep us down. For those who do feel that way, self-publishing is always available. For myself, I do view agents as Gatekeepers, but not in a bad way. I write Commercial Fiction. If I can’t find an agent that likes it enough to say “Yes,” then it’s probably a sign that my work simply isn’t good enough (yet). It’s a sobering truth, but I’d rather accept that than delude myself into thinking my writing is pure gold and the industry is just conspiring against me.

  33. Kirk Allmond on October 29, 2013 at 9:10 AM

    As a successful independent author, the problem with this article is the “100% focused on bringing in books they believe they can sell.”

    there is no “Finding great authors” or “Finding great stories”. Just “What can sell. When I was enjoying the 100’s of rejection letters that all of us endure, several of them said things like “When you’ve sold X number of e-books, come see us.” My answer is always “If I sell X number of e-books, I don’t need you.” In the 3 years since I published my first novel, I have passed their “X number” with each of them. I’ve built my own audience, and make a living writing.

  34. Gerald on October 29, 2013 at 8:57 AM

    So, gatekeepers … sorry, literary agents are there to attract the good stuff in? Like, celebrity biographies and celebrity cookbooks? Let no one be in any doubt, this is so much more about what sells, and what will make money for the publishers and agents, than what is “good”. See the rush of publishers and agents chasing self-published authors a year or so ago? Was that the lure of superb quality writing and the beautifully-crafted story, or was it the lure of the big bucks they were making?

    • Rachelle Gardner on October 29, 2013 at 11:04 AM

      I think you’re making my point for me, Gerald. I’m looking for books I love, books I think are worthwhile. But also, this is a business, and I am making a living. The moment an author goes from purely being an “artist” to “an artist who wants to make money from their work,” then they’re in business too. Let’s not delude ourselves about the purpose of business.

      And also, let’s not paint everything with one brush stroke. Most businesses are actually about more than “the big bucks.” Business is about sharing ideas and services and products with the world, and getting fairly compensated. Business is about individuals, each pursuing something they enjoy, something that fulfills them. And business is how we all feed our families and pay our bills. Is this a bad thing?

      Nobody forces an author to make that leap from writing strictly for the joy of artistic creation, to writing for profit. And once an author makes that leap, entering the business world… well, aren’t we all in this together? Aren’t we all trying to pay our bills by doing something we love?

  35. Lori Schafer on October 29, 2013 at 8:57 AM

    I think it’s easy for writers to forget that agents, publishers, and so on are in the business to make money. In an ideal world, they would be able to sell every book that crossed their paths. There’s no benefit to them in rejecting work; they make their living from having product to sell. Of course they’re wrong sometimes about what’s “good” and what’s “saleable,” just like the rest of us are sometimes wrong in our own careers. But in the modern world of publishing especially, the concept of the “gatekeeper” is woefully outdated. Nowadays you don’t even have to go through the gate; there are plenty of footholds that will allow you to jump the fence. To me, the real role for agents and publishers is that of the experienced guide, someone who’s well-acquainted with the reality of what happens on the other side. Sure, I can find my way around on my own. But I’m probably going to get where I want to go quicker if I let myself be led by an expert, especially one who has a vested interest in seeing me succeed.

  36. Tracy Campbell on October 29, 2013 at 8:53 AM

    Rachelle, thank you for debunking the “gatekeeper” myth. You turned negativity into creativity. Thank you. 🙂

  37. LynnRodz on October 29, 2013 at 8:48 AM

    Great post, Rachelle! I think the problem depends on if you view the word gatekeeper as positive or negative. Those who believe gatekeepers are trying to keep them out are the ones who have tried to get published and were told NO. Yes it’s frustrating to believe in your work and be told that it’s not good enough, but I think a person needs to step back and think about it clearly. If your story was good, why would someone want to keep you out? It doesn’t make sense. I think you’ve said it best, you’re in the business to say YES and each YES is a potential to gain your livelihood. After all, isn’t that why you’re an agent in the first place (besides, loving the written word, of course)?

    (PS: I love your new photo!)

  38. Jim Work on October 29, 2013 at 8:34 AM

    I have encountered a number of “gatekeepers” in my life. They usually are there to keep things/people out. I always tell them if they don’t have the power to say yes, they don’t have the power to say no…..en theos….jim

  39. Chanda on October 29, 2013 at 8:07 AM

    I see your point, but I take issue with the example you give of the Nordstrom buyer whose job it is to bring in things the customers want. You say she isn’t there to keep out the bad but to “bring in the good.” And therein lies the rub. Who says what’s “good”? Your tastes and choices, like the buyer’s, are allowing only certain things through the gate that they believe a) their customers want/will buy, and b) are “good”. (which gets into the arena of “influencers”.) Given an unlimited choice, buyers/editors/readers, etc. might buy any number of things. So – there is no escaping it. Anyone who funnels down what goes on to the next layer of life is a “gatekeeper” — just like colleges, HR departments, you name it. Now, you can argue that you are not a “bad” gatekeeper, because your motives are pure, or your choces are based on reasonable criteria, but it doesn’t change the fact that any time something is narrowed, channeled, funneled into a limited amount, choice or opportunity, somebody is acting as a gatekeeper. It might be necessary. It might be from the best motives, etc. But it’s still a gatekeeper. And that is what people who decry the gatekeeper system are upset about . . . with a little shading of suspicion about what gets through and why it gets through. Clearly, some gatekeepers have more influence than others, and some base their decisions on better or worse motives. I think that there may be a little of “methinks thou dost protest too much” going on here: if you’re a gatekeeper, you need to just accept it as a life choice, and be proud of it or defend it as a necessity. But to say it doesn’t exist just isn’t true or accurate.

    • Rachelle Gardner on October 29, 2013 at 11:10 AM

      Great perspective Chanda. I’m sure you can tell I really do embrace my role, whatever anyone wants to call it. But I get tired of people talking disproportionately about how gatekeepers keep writers out, when really, I never start my day thinking, “Who can I say no to today?” It’s the opposite.

      I purposely didn’t get in to the debate over the subjective nature of these yes/no decisions. That’s been done to death, hasn’t it? Yes, it’s the height of subjectivity, we all know it, and there’s no other way. I don’t think that’s at issue here.

      I was not trying to define “good” because we all know that’s a word that will be defined by whoever is doing the deciding. However, I did try to be clear: we are all looking for what we think we can sell, because we are all in business. When I say “her job is to bring in the good,” the word “good” is just shorthand for what I said several times over: what we think our customers will buy.

  40. Jennifer Slattery on October 29, 2013 at 8:03 AM

    I tend to look at things a tad differently. 🙂 I remember God is sovereign over me and my writing career. (Psalm 139, James 4:13-17, Eph. 2:10) So when a door closes, I know that is His doing, and that He has a very good reason for closing it. I’ve found that reason is usually a combination of the following: I need more training, the timing isn’t right, and/or He has another door He’d prefer I walk through later.

    This perspective has allowed me to move forward in peace, confidence, and joy. I’ve also found from talking with editors and agents at conferences, they truly do believe in what they do and how they are doing it, and since I go to Christian conferences, I’ve found most of them are doing their best to honor God with each and every client or book choice.

  41. Kevin Ingram on October 29, 2013 at 7:47 AM

    Personally, I don’t see the ‘gatekeeper’ moniker as bad. It is a necessary function within the industry, and should inspire the writer that to enter the ‘gate’ they must simply create a better ‘key’. †

    • Stephen H. King on October 29, 2013 at 7:53 AM

      To assume that the project that receives a “no” is “worse” (by any measurable quantity or quality) than the one that hears “yes,” or that the yes is in turn “better” than the no, is to assume that all the agents’ words in their gently-phrased rejection letters are lies. Which might, in fact, be a valid assumption, but I’m not comfortable calling all the agents liars. Gatekeepers, yes, but not liars. It’s a very subjective business, and the history of it is replete with examples of fine literature that was turned down by a dozen, two dozen, or even several dozens of the finest gatekeepers in the industry.

      – TOSK

      • Rachelle Gardner on October 29, 2013 at 11:12 AM

        This is why I was intentional about saying several times that we are looking for what we think we can sell. This means there is NO value judgment on any work we don’t choose to represent or publish — it just means it wasn’t something we were confident we could sell, given our contacts and our customers.

  42. sue on October 29, 2013 at 7:37 AM

    I’ve been in this “business” of writing for more years than I like to admit, but at no time before now have I ever seen agents take so much heat for a situation that is not of their doing. Because eBooks have split the seams of all the traditional views of publishing, agents – particularly agents who rep novelists – are getting a smaller slice of the pie and yet carry the same overwhelming workload.

    I know that the dust will settle and things will get back to normal. I know that publishers will readjust and editors will be rehired. Eventually. But right now it seems to me that those folks – agents and editors – who are and have been working so hard for us folks – the writers – need our encouragement. I agree, Rachelle, there are no gatekeepers.

    Blessings to all those who help us become better writers!

  43. Stephen H. King on October 29, 2013 at 7:33 AM

    I’m going to have to agree with so many other commenters here. Rachelle, I love your blogs, and so often I read your post, nod, and move on, but today I have to take notable exception.

    Your suggestion that we ignore the “no” part of an agent’s role in favor of the “yes” is, at best, positive-thinking gimmickry, and at worst, rhetorical sophistry. There can be no light without dark, nor good without evil, nor positive without negative. Similarly, an agent’s “Yes” would have no meaning were it not for the “No” answers agents give.

    That’s life. It’s not evil, reprehensible, bad, or even naughty. It’s just the nature of life–you tell authors yes, but that has no meaning if not for the fact that you tell others no.

    You are, in fact, a gatekeeper.

    Agents should, to my opinion, embrace that notion. It’s a large part of what the job entails. I’d suggest that if an agent cannot become comfortable with the title of “gatekeeper” then perhaps the career is not a good choice for them.

    I say this, of course, with all the respect in the world for you and for your fellow agents (who, I will point out, have told me “no” more than a hundred times on various projects). Some tell me “no” through silence. Others give me a sincere, succinct, heart-stabbing “Thanks, but no” return e-mail. Still others wrap their “no” up inside flowery words describing the subjectivity of the publishing market and how my project isn’t right for them. Meh. Doesn’t matter what toppings you put on a turd pie, it’s still a turd pie. Regardless, I don’t expend a lot of energy on the issue; I give a few agents a chance at each project, and continue self-publishing as I go. My fan base is small, but growing, after all.


    – TOSK

    • Rachelle Gardner on October 29, 2013 at 11:17 AM

      Well, I’m not trying to be gimmicky (and no one’s ever accused me of rhetorical sophistry before!) I just thought it might be helpful for people to know that we don’t focus on the “no” and we don’t experience “gatekeeping” the way it’s perceived. We have to make decisions, those decisions aren’t easy, and our livelihoods depend on them. We look for the “yes” and that’s what we focus on. (And other commenters have nailed it: I simply hate the “no” part of the job, so perhaps that’s why I try to distance myself from it.)

      • davecullen on October 29, 2013 at 11:42 AM

        That’s what I took from it Rachelle.

        I thought you were pretty clear in accepting that while the filtering role went on, the motive is important to, and the point of view: the way you and other agents are perceiving their mission and trying to do, vs what writers sometimes feel.

        I thought that while you took a provocative line, your main goal was sound: to let people understand that from your POV, what you were doing and trying to do was vastly different than you hear it perceived.

        • Rachelle Gardner on October 29, 2013 at 12:59 PM

          Thanks, Dave! Appreciate your comments.

      • Stephen H. King on October 29, 2013 at 12:27 PM

        Hmm–was not my intent to actually accuse you of rhetorical sophistry, but I see that in my writing zeal, I did so. I apologize.

  44. josie downey on October 29, 2013 at 7:27 AM

    I don’t mean this in a mean way, but as a reader, I see agents, publishing houses, book disturbers. as a gatekeeper of books. Before the advent of self-publishing, you guys shaped the market and what books I could buy. And unfortunately, I found you guys kept producing the same books, with the slogan this is what people want.
    . How many regency spy novels came out last year? And now almost everything is centered around WW2. I was getting so bored with christian fiction. Ever since amazon opened the floodgates for self-publishers, I have found so many more books that I love with different plot lines and generas. I still read traditional books, but now there is more of a variety and I can’t get enough of it. One of my favorite books, I read recently the hero was all macho and successful, but he couldn’t read. How about that a hero that couldn’t read, and he needed to hire a tutor. (the heroine.) I wonder if that book would have ever made it passed the traditional system.

  45. Jesse Michael on October 29, 2013 at 7:26 AM

    Perhaps part of the misconception, if there is one, is that often it seems, particularly to new writers, the “gatekeepers” make decisions base on what seems to the author to be very little information. For example, if a query letter isn’t “perfect”, the genre correctly identified, etc., the work my never be reviewed. Of course, I recognized that there is a limit as to how much material one person can review. I guess the appeal to self-publishing is that one can present his/her work to the audience directly and let them decide whether or not the work is any good..

    • BWAHAHA! on October 29, 2013 at 8:27 AM

      That’s a good point– some agents are definitely uber-persnikety, and I
      imagine miss out on some good stuff due to it. Smacks of self-importance
      and power-trippiness. Those are the agents who happily fancy themselves
      “gatekeepers”. I appreciate the others who, despite it being a truth
      you can’t really get around, don’t particularly like to be viewed that

      • Stephen H. King on October 29, 2013 at 8:41 AM

        Indeed. Have you ever gone through and read some of the agents’ self-descriptive pages about what kind of author/work they’re looking for? I often wonder whether they’re looking more for a person or for a bottle of fine wine. “Light and airy, with just a hint of [name of author I didn’t even know existed].” *sigh* Some of the times it seems like the 1% of queries they’ll end up saying “yes” to are the only ones who understand what they’re talking about in their descriptions.

  46. bknielson on October 29, 2013 at 7:24 AM

    Thank you! Thank you! This article helped change my perspective completely regarding publishers. Sometimes, as a writer, I can get so intimidated that I don’t want to send anything in b/c I feel like the powers that be are waiting to tell me no. Maybe if writers thought less like writers and more like publishers they would have a little more success and a lot less heartache. Just a thought.

  47. Andrew Budek-Schmeisser on October 29, 2013 at 7:20 AM

    You’re not a gatekeeper unless you’re profiling submissions, and basing acceptance or rejection on criteria other than marketability and literary merit.

    I worked on several university search committees for faculty positions, and they definitely were gatekeepers, in that they were tasked with increasing diversity, with academic merit and potential for good teaching and research placing a distant second.

    There were those committee chairs that chose to buck the system, but their candidate choices could be and often were overturned by higher administration.

    Until books are selected for publication on the basis of political correctness, I think you can summarily consign the expression ‘gatekeeper’ to the rubbish tip.

  48. JosephPote on October 29, 2013 at 7:18 AM

    Good post, Rachelle!
    And, yes, clarifying terminology definitely does clarify the perspective.
    False notions are often rooted in (and perpetuated by) incorrect language.

  49. Debra Chapoton on October 29, 2013 at 6:56 AM

    You’re a gatekeeper, Rachelle, and one of the best.

  50. Adam Porter on October 29, 2013 at 6:50 AM

    Last I checked, gates swing both ways. Whether closing them to keep people out or opening them to let people in, a gatekeeper is a gatekeeper.

    But, as you say, it need not be viewed as a negative or exclusionary position. As you have stated before, your job – and that of any literary agent – is to find books that will sell. Subjective “quality” is a secondary consideration.

  51. Michael Kelberer on October 29, 2013 at 6:48 AM

    I agree with your re-framing of the conversation. One reason the gatekeeper issue gets a lot of emotional ink is simply because the number of “gates” (in traditional publishing) has dwindled so much. If there were thirty significant publishers all vying for authors, the problem would be less. In a big city, no one worries that the Walmart is determining what products you can buy; in a small town, people do worry that Walmart is gatekeeper.

  52. Richard Mabry on October 29, 2013 at 6:31 AM

    Whether the term used is “gatekeeper” or “part of the acquisition process,” the fact is that traditionally published work has garnered the approval of a number of people–crit partner, agent, editor, pub committee. Some people–some of them good writers–find themselves at an impasse because they can’t quite get past that process, and they have turned to self-publishing. Others decide to short-circuit the acquisition process for other reasons and “go indie.” But at no point do I see someone asking themselves, “How many writers can I reject today?” Of course, this is the viewpoint of someone traditionally published, but who must still seek another contract for the next book and the one after that, so I understand the situation.

    I agree that this is a semantic discussion, but a valid one. It seems to me that no one wants to block a talented writer from publication. To believe that’s true seems paranoid to me. Thanks for putting it in understandable terms.

  53. Kari Scare on October 29, 2013 at 6:22 AM

    This is actually very helpful to me. There does need to be those who regulate between writers & publishers to produce quality books. While I see the merits of self-publishing too, it seems to have opened the floodgates & made finding good writing somewhat difficult at times. But I think we need both. I like the idea of not only having multiple avenues but in using them as a writer.

  54. Michael Hyatt on October 29, 2013 at 6:13 AM

    Fabulous job re-framing this. I think you are exactly right. Thanks.

    • davecullen on October 29, 2013 at 11:37 AM

      Me too.

  55. Rita on October 29, 2013 at 5:53 AM

    I’d never heard of it before this article.
    My husband and I have been noticing a lot of mistakes in books lately, wrong words, wrong spellings, etc. In one sci-fi/fantasy book of his he said it
    didn’t look like it had been edited at all. He gave many examples, but the one I remember was that a character didn’t remember what he had done a couple chapters previously.
    I would have thought self-publishing a first book would be very conceited because how could you know if your work was sellable or not. You’d need to learn the tricks of the trade before you launched out on your own, but that
    sci-fi/fantasy book was passed through the traditional publishing process and that author has written dozens of books before this unedited one.
    I just know I want to make the right decision for my baby so that it will have
    the best chance, and being angry and cynical about someone trying to keep me from my dream would hurt the atmosphere and would probably make me seem like someone the people in the publishing world wouldn’t want to work with.
    It’s so easy to think our work is perfect, just because it’s ours, and we might rush to self-publish before it has its kinks worked out.
    I’d never thought of gatekeepers in the publishing world, but I had seen examples of gatekeepers in other ways, and then years later come to find out I was glad I didn’t make it through that gate. You never know what the gate might be concealing…probably not utopia.

    • N. L. Brumbaugh on October 29, 2013 at 1:11 PM

      Gatekeeper is a new term to me as well. There is frustration all over the place … I can tell by the content and length of the comments. I appreciate this blog’s content because it helps me understand from the other side of the fence. Whether it’s semantics or not, all writers want to have their manuscripts taken seriously and professionally. Bottom line, we want a chance at the brass ring. I’ve self published one book through a well-known organization and have a few more books in my future, some in progress. What to do? Will I have a chance at being noticed? It sounds like this will require … the right venue, the right “hook” to essentially make the paper cut (as they say in education), and a skilled delivery (makes sense to me). But, then we come to the potential reading market. How can this be known? I think it’s an educated guess at best. Time to be optimistic. We have something to say. Say it! Persistence pays off. I hope! Thanks for the explanation, Rachelle.

  56. Kathy Nickerson on October 29, 2013 at 5:44 AM

    I don’t think the title or the connotation of gatekeeper is going away. While I see your point, I think you have to admit the gate exists. Maybe we can find a new term for it, but I can’t think of one that softens the reality.

  57. Susan Toy on October 29, 2013 at 5:26 AM

    Whenever a writer complains to me that the “gatekeepers” are preventing them from publishing, I tell them that they themselves are the only gatekeepers in this business. If a writer produces the best book they can write, and they do their homework as to the agents/publishers most appropriate to query, that book will eventually be published. If they cannot find any interest, then they must ask themselves (or preferably an editing expert) how they can improve that manuscript. Or they should consider abandoning the project altogether. Not every manuscript written can, or should, be published. It’s up to the writer to realize this fact and move on, not blame others for their lack of success, if the manuscripts proves to be unpublishable.

    • Roxanne Sherwood Gray on October 29, 2013 at 7:11 AM

      Love this!

    • Lelaina Landis on October 29, 2013 at 8:54 AM

      Susan, I can’t think of any less way to frame this, except … well, you’re wrong about a lot of this. Traditional publishers select books they think will appeal to the greatest number of people. Not books that are exceptionally written.

      If a writer produces the best book he or she can possibly write, and even if that book is up to muster, that is no guarantee that it will get published. Or that the author will *ever* get published, in fact. I am one of those “almost-published” authors who just endured a one-year rodeo with one of the Big Five, and the reason my series didn’t sell was because TPTB wanted me to rewrite my m.s. from scratch with a focus on “neighborhood-as-a-third-character” and then brand me as a “small town romance writer.”

      In a word? YUCK! I don’t *read* those kinds of books, and I most certainly do not want to write them for a living. If compromising my principals to such an extreme degree is what it takes to succeed in traditional publishing, I’ll pass. (Also, part of the reason I no longer ghostwrite is because I got tired of having someone else dictate what I write.)

      What I’m trying to say is that it’s not as simple as you think it is. A mediocre book will always get published over an extremely well-written one, as long as publishers have a pretty good idea that the mediocre one will appeal to the masses.

      • Susan Toy on October 29, 2013 at 9:39 AM

        I was a publishers’ sales rep for many years, and am now ePublishing other authors myself, so I do realize how important knowing the market is when a publisher decides whether or not to take on a book. But a book will never even get to that point in the selection process if it is not well written.

        I understand what you are saying, Lelaina, about publishers wanting to change your work so they can slot you into a ready-made market. I, too, went through the rigamarole of trying to find a traditional publisher for my Caribbean-based mystery. I was told it was either too exotic to be of any interest, or that the main expat character was too Canadian. (Well, he was Canadian, because the book was about the expat experience of living abroad.) So I published the book myself, as an eBook and in print, and I found my own market, which I knew was out there. I continue to find new readers by seeking out new markets all the time. That work never ends.

        If (and this is a big if) writers can provide a proven market (by developing their own platform) and show a publisher that there are many readers who are interested in their book – and that book is well-written – then the book should be able to eventually find a home. Every book and every author is different, however, and this is not to say that everyone will experience success, even if they do all of the above. There are ways to work with a publisher when they make suggestions to change that will neither compromise you nor your writing. After all, they’re the experts and know what the market will bear. And they are also taking a risk on your work, that it will sell and they will recoup their investment in it. In my case, however, the publishers I approached could not see what I knew would be my market (after many years as a bookseller and a rep, I did know a thing or two about selling books!), so I used my publishing experience and created my own book. Now I’m using that knowledge to ePublish other writers, and I’m helping them find their own markets on the internet. I am fortunate to have begun this episode with a wonderful writer who is working with me every step of the way.

      • James J. Rook on October 29, 2013 at 2:45 PM

        While I do agree with your sentiment, I think this is where the real semantics come into play. If you want your book to be picked up by a publisher, and you want it to reach their considerable audience, and if you want to make a career with your writing, then producing a book that will appeal to the masses IS part of writing a strong book.

        I know, as artists, we tend to get awfully hung up on the “art” aspect. We want to write OUR book, whether the masses will like it or not. Great! Do that. But you still can’t blame the world when they don’t agree with you.

        Your manuscript may be perfect in every way, but if it won’t sell, then its not a viable (“good”) product for publishers. Being an artist, while noble, is not a career.

        Do I think you should “sell out”? Absolutely not! But don’t then blame everyone else when you aren’t picked up on the business side of things. (I’m, of course, referring to the indefinite “you” not you specifically.)

    • Stephen H. King on October 29, 2013 at 9:39 AM

      But most agents whom I’ve queried didn’t even look at the manuscript, so it’s not a matter of that. It’s a matter of whether or not you can catch an agent’s interest with a three-paragraph query letter, and though I’ve been through about a dozen revisions of them, I still fail. My books sell fine, though. I’m guessing that maybe I’m not such a good marketing writer as I am a fiction writer.

      • Susan Toy on October 29, 2013 at 9:56 AM

        I can’t speak for agents, Stephen. Perhaps Rachelle can comment on this. But I believe, from my own experience, that if you’re querying the wrong agent for your type of book then they will not read past the query letter, no matter how good your writing. I once received a rejection to an email query in less than 3 minutes. The agent simply replied, “Not for me. But best of luck with your manuscript.” I appreciated his honesty (not to mention his promptness!), because it made me realize I had sent the query to the wrong agent. I was then able to buckle down immediately and continue with researching more appropriate agents and publishers.

        • Stephen H. King on October 29, 2013 at 10:09 AM

          Susan, you seem to assume that my research was either absent or minimal; it hasn’t been. I have heard agents at several writers conferences as well as on their blogs discuss the problem of writers querying them with what they’re not looking for, and so I’ve known better for a while. In my query sessions I’ve spent hours making sure to the best of my ability that I was only querying folks who were interested in the genre and type of project I was working on. I’ve mentioned elsewhere that there are quite a few agents who describe what they’re looking for in the same sense they’d describe a nice wine vintage; those are the folks I query just for the heck of it. Most of my letters, though, I’ve sent to agents who specifically say they are interested in what I have, and/or who already represent authors whose works are in the same vein as mine. I still get negative responses, and I still end up selling book copies.

          • Susan Toy on October 29, 2013 at 10:28 AM

            Sorry, Stephen, but I was not assuming anything about your personal research, and my comments were not meant to be taken personally by anyone. I do know that many writers do not do due diligence when sending out queries – because I was once one of them. There are so many agents and publishers out there that’s it’s impossible to know what kind of selection criteria or methods each one of them has. I do know that, with the number of queries they receive daily, they need to have some kind of selection process, otherwise the work would be totally overwhelming. If as you say, though, you continue to sell books on your own, you’ve obviously found your market, so I wonder why are you still querying agents? (Best of luck with those publications! I love hearing of successful authors!)

          • Stephen H. King on October 29, 2013 at 10:40 AM

            I’ve been asked that question by many folks, actually, and when I keep seeing “no” from the agents I start re-asking it of myself.

            The answer is simple: trade paperbacks. Agents control access to the big publishers, who in turn control the manufacture and distribution mechanism supporting one of the largest segments of the fantasy book (other than ebook) market. POD works okay, but it can’t touch trade paperback prices, and consumers are often leery of trying new authors in the 6×9 size if they can’t pick the book up themselves and touch it, smell it, fondle it, imagine spending long hours with it.

            I don’t have to publish trade paperbacks, of course, nor do I expect to ever make much money in physical books at all. It’s just a vanity thing.

            – TOSK

          • Susan Toy on October 29, 2013 at 10:54 AM

            I suggest you try ePublishing then. That will help to build up your readership and possibly interest an agent or publisher in taking on and publishing a trade paperback edition. Fantasy/Sci Fi is the third biggest-selling genre in eBooks (after Erotica and Romance) so there is a lot of opportunity out there. And, in the meantime, you’d be selling something that is not as costly to produce as POD and allows you to access a much bigger market. Worldwide.

    • Heather Day Gilbert on October 29, 2013 at 11:07 AM

      Susan, I too have to take issue with the “if your writing is good enough, you’ll get picked up!” theory. There are a variety of factors that limit what gets picked up by traditional publishers, from trending genre to time period to elements you choose to include in your storylines. All good books don’t get picked up eventually.

      Many of the above comments come from readers who feel what they want to read isn’t being represented, and while I know trad. pubbers are desperately trying to feel out these needs, they are bound to miss the mark sometimes. We know how many books went on to become best-sellers that had been rejected all over the place (ie: The Help)…we know how many people are making decent or even above-average salaries self-pubbing.

      I’d just say it makes me sad to see people saying that the only outstanding books are the ones that get traditionally published. Yes, many self-pubbed books are sub-par, but I think that as authors figure out we can produce a superior product that reaches our target audience, without jumping through years of hoops, we’d be remiss not to write that book and get it out to those readers in a timely fashion. I believe that so much, I’m doing that myself with my “hard to market” Viking historical novel.

      I guess I’d say life is discouraging enough for authors, without casting stones for the methods we choose to get our books into readers’ hands. Yes, I do have an agent, as well, so I’m a hybrid author. I haven’t given up on traditional publishing. But in the meantime, I’m gathering readers, and to me, that’s what it’s all about anyway.

      • Susan Toy on October 29, 2013 at 11:45 AM

        I still stand by what I said about writing the best book you can and that if it’s well-written then agents and publishers will pay attention. I know that not all books traditionally published are good books – when I was a sales rep I had to sell many that had me shaking my head and wondering why that publisher made the decisions they did. But, when I did find something I believed in, where the writing truly was very good, I championed those books and sold many copies. I was not working in editorial so I had no say in the publishing process, but I could affect the eventual sales of any of the books on the list (even though we were not supposed to play favourites). It was exciting to find a great book and share it with my customers and they with their customers.

        I do agree that we should be more concerned about finding readers for our books, and to that end I do promote authors I discover whose work I enjoy, whether they are traditionally or self-published. And that’s the way the self-published authors have managed to defy the odds and become big bestselling authors – because worth-of-mouth promotion helped them get there.

        I’d rather write and publish books I can be proud of, because I know they’re the best I can make them. If they only garner a small readership to begin with then so-be-it, but I hope that those few readers will then tell their friends, because they genuinely enjoyed reading the book.

        • Heather Day Gilbert on October 29, 2013 at 12:12 PM

          And I see that you’re involved in e-pubbing, but I’m just saying that this quote: “If a writer produces the best book they can write, and they do their
          homework as to the agents/publishers most appropriate to query, that
          book will eventually be published. If they cannot find any interest,
          then they must ask themselves (or preferably an editing expert) how they
          can improve that manuscript. Or they should consider abandoning the
          project altogether” seems to indicate that IF your book garners agent/editor interest, THEN it will eventually be published. I’d just say that agents can attest that not every book they loved and championed will get in the publishing door (traditional publishing). There are certain genre slots trad. pubs have to fill, and if your book falls outside the slots that year or is deemed unmarketable, not matter WHAT the writing, it’s not going to seem worth the risk. SO editors and agents are still “gatekeeping” for traditional publishing contracts. But in self-publishing, the field is wide open and genres can be mashed up or off-the-wall–you name it. Yes, the audience may be more limited–OR it might tap a larger audience that was out there just WAITING for that book to come along. I’m just saying it’s not an If/then situation in the traditional pubbing world. Sometimes it’s a matter of checking all the right boxes.

          • Heather Day Gilbert on October 29, 2013 at 12:25 PM

            I should add that I feel it’s an exciting time, where there is a new set of gatekeepers–the readers (as Dan Balow said recently in a blogpost on Steve Laube). I feel self-pubbers are uniquely positioned to get those books out to those groups of readers who’ve previously been neglected. So I feel there are trad. pubbed gatekeepers–agents/editors (because you can’t just submit your entire MS off the cuff to a larger traditional publisher and expect to get in), and then the new set of self-pubbing gatekeepers–the readers. Anyway, hoping that makes sense. I’m really thrilled there is a generation of writers who is committing to putting out well-edited, properly-formatted books that can compete with traditional titles. So saying “your book isn’t edited enough, that’s why it’s not getting picked up” is sort of old-school. Today’s self-publishing writers are generally savvy enough to do their work (lots of it!), get edited, get cool cover art, and market. It’s really a full-time job, but the up-side of that is that our books hit the readers sooner.

          • Lelaina Landis on October 29, 2013 at 12:48 PM

            Excellently put, Heather!

            What I have noticed over the past six or seven years, as a reader, is that the selection of traditionally published romance has dwindled down to a books that focus on a few subgenres (or tropes), and the rest is done with mirrors, the small town romance (which I cannot personally abide) being one of them. I think that a lot of my favorite romance novels would have never gotten published, had the author or an agent shopped them to traditional publishers today. And I’m talking about really big sellers, like Jen Crusie’s “Bet Me” and “Anyone But You”, which were pretty unconventional even back in their day. If I, as a reader, don’t want to be limited, why should I expect the same for my readers? 🙂

    • davecullen on October 29, 2013 at 11:37 AM

      well said.

  58. Bret Schulte on October 28, 2013 at 11:44 PM

    I would say it is a semantic argument. When you have the power to say “yes”, then you also have the power to say “no”, even if it is only by not saying “yes”.

    A night club bouncer may believe that his job is just to let the cool people in, but of course he also keeps all of the uncool people out. And he alone gets to decide how is cool and uncool.

    Now, there are fair business reasons for this. You simply can’t let everyone in so have to just pick the best. The ones that will boost your reputation, generate the most business, or that just make you happy to have around. At the same time you also want to keep out the bad element that could cause problems or just take up valuable space.

    And of course, all of us struggling authors out here feel that enough people on the inside would find us cool enough to stay, if only that one guy would let us through so we can show our stuff.

    No one wants to be considered the bad guy, or called names, just for doing his or her job, but when you have that much power it really can’t be helped.

    • Anna Urquhart on October 29, 2013 at 9:45 AM

      Nicely stated.

    • Rachelle Gardner on October 29, 2013 at 11:22 AM

      Good answer, Bret. One thing I tend to forget, as I sit at my desk every day struggling for any semblance of being “caught up” or feeling like I’m on top of everything, is that people perceive someone in my role as having “power.” Perhaps that is true. Perhaps it’s another semantic discussion. But I usually think of it not as power but as responsibility.

      • Bret Schulte on November 8, 2013 at 10:51 PM

        Responsibility makes sense. You have to be responsible to yourself, your agency, your clients, and to the publishers.

        I think one of the basic ideas behind the whole “gatekeepers” issue is that it has been more difficult for authors to gain public attention compared to other art forms. Musicians and singers can perform on the streets, painters, photographers, craftsmen, and even sculptors can display their work in a way you can’t help but see, and actors and poets can get your attention with short works, but an author can’t as easily thrust his or her work on the populace in order to gain public support.

        Authors have traditionally been more dependent on “the system” to “be discover” and reach their audience so they are more at the mercy of the “gatekeepers” and therefore more paranoid and jaded.

        On the flip side though, I believe more people trust a literary agent over a talent agent.

  59. guest on October 28, 2013 at 11:04 PM

    I mean this in the friendliest way possible, but I think you’re arguing semantics and being purposely obtuse here. Literary agents stand between authors and publishers. That’s not some diabolical conspiracy to keep writers marginalized, but it’s how the system currently works. When writers query agents, we’re tasked with impressing/catching the eye of/proving our worth to people who are our only reasonable link to the publishing world, but who aren’t directly responsible for our fortunes in the publishing market. That’s why the requirement of getting an agent can start to seem like an obstacle, and the quest to impress an agent can start to feel like an arbitrary errand before an author can access any actual opportunities. Obviously, an agent is a huge asset to any writer, but I think you’re insulting your audience’s intelligence here by pretending that authors who complain about the “gatekeeper” model assume you’re just out to get them. You are a gatekeeper in that writers can’t access traditional publishing opportunities without the help of people with your job description, and you should accept the responsibility that comes with that. Whether you appreciate the designation is beside the point.

    • dutch665 on October 29, 2013 at 7:23 AM


    • Andrew Budek-Schmeisser on October 29, 2013 at 11:10 AM

      A better way of looking at the model you’re describing in your comment is outsourcing. It’s true that, decades ago, publishers did accept unsolicited manuscripts, that (in their terminology) washed in over the transom and found their way to the slush pile.

      The increase in labor costs, and a decline in profits, have made the use of this protocol impossible for most publishers. They simply can’t hire the staff needed to sort through the submissions – now more than ever, since technology has made books easier to write.

      A publisher can be assured that work presented by a good agent is at least worth a look, and that an agent, having a more personal relationship with an author, can be more persuasive when revisions in a manuscript are needed.

      This isn’t the work of a gatekeeper. That implies a simple yes/no response that turns an author loose in the Elysian Fields of publishing if admitted through the gate.

      The reality is a lot more complex, and jargon like ‘gatekeeper’ simply obscures the relationship best described as…agent.

      And agents are free to choose.

    • Rachelle Gardner on October 29, 2013 at 11:24 AM

      Well, yes, you got me. Purposely obtuse… diabolically so! Mwahaha…

      Actually, this post (rant!) was inspired by receiving one too many emails & tweets from writers complaining about the agents “keeping them out.” Perhaps I protest a bit too much. 🙂

      • Lynda Lee on October 29, 2013 at 12:27 PM

        I seem to be in the minority here, Rachelle, but I really like this rant… er, I mean, post. Your point is well-made and makes perfect sense to me.
        IMO, the real “Gatekeepers” are those who decide to buy our books — or not.
        On second thought, the ultimate Gatekeepers are the writers. I am currently reading a quirky, wonderful book: Choose Yourself! by James Altucher. He has eleven published books, about half of which were self-published. The main point of his latest publication is that we are now living in an era where we need to stop waiting for someone else to choose us (be it an agent, a publisher, a CEO, a hiring manager, or whatever) and Choose Ourselves.
        I agree with Altucher that we need to choose ourselves first and foremost, but I think it has always been this way. As I look back over my life, I can clearly see that my success has always been predicated on whether I was willing to Choose Me — in other words, to do the work necessary to get to where I wanted to go.
        Many years ago I attended a Guidepost Writers Conference in Chicago. In order to attend this conference, we were required to send in a brief unpublished essay, along with our admission fee. My essay was chosen as “the best” by the conference committee. The conference opened with my essay being read aloud from the podium as an example of excellent writing. My ego was flying high that day!
        During the conference an editor with Thomas Nelson read part of a novel I was writing. He handed me his business card and said “This is great! We are not currently publishing fiction, but if you will send the entire manuscript to me when it’s finished, I will personally see that it is published.”
        I never finished that manuscript, and ultimately lost his business card.
        Until I was ready to Choose Myself — in other words, to open my own Gateway to the future I really wanted, I wasn’t going anywhere.