The New Gatekeepers

Laura Miller, founder of Salon, asks: “How do you find something good to read in a brave new self-published world?” She writes about the horrors of the slush pile and wonders how readers will fare if traditional publishers stop functioning as gatekeepers. She points out that gatekeepers are necessary to steer readers away from the “all the dreck.” Bloggers—who read and review a much wider variety of books than Library Journal or Publishers Weekly—are already doing this to a certain degree. Book clubs and list servs are other forums where readers share their discoveries even if the novels aren’t published by one of the Big Six.

Gatekeeper is no longer even the right term. The floodgates of self-publishing have been open for years. In the future Miller imagines, when most books are self-published, what readers may seek instead is a seal of approval or at least a threshold of acceptability. Readers and writers will look for screening services that guarantees a list of books that meet minimum standards of readability.

No one in their right mind reads slush for free, and it seems safe to assume that many authors will be willing, if not eager, to pay to have their book screened with the hope that it will be branded with a seal of approval. Even now Kirkus Reviews, for example, offers a service called Kirkus Discoveries. The website says, “The Kirkus Discoveries program gives independently published authors a chance to obtain an unbiased, professional review of their work, written in the same format as a traditional Kirkus review”—for only $425. Many in the industry are scornful of the service because everyone who pays gets a review.

But if a book-screening service did not guarantee approval or review—just offered an unbiased thumbs up or thumbs down of the novel—would indie authors pay for a chance at approval? Would readers seek out the website to discover new authors?

We’ll soon find out. An author I know has launched such a service at IndieProse.com, with a screening fee of $50. The site says, “Our reviewers will evaluate the professionalism of your cover including images and typesetting. Interior layout will be evaluated and the book will be read for typographical errors, grammatical errors, word use, and writing style. If the work passes all of these tests, it will be read for impact.”

logoIf the book meets both the professionalism criteria and is considered “compelling” by a reviewer, it is given the IndieProse seal of approval. The author then pays an additional $100 fee to be listed on the Indieprose site and to have a review of his/her book posted on Amazon.com, Barnes & Noble, and GoodReads. Authors who don’t pass the screening receive a letter explaining why. (That’s a step in the right direction!)

I think it’s an innovative concept, and I agreed to be the first author to submit a book for screening, even though I’m not self-published. (My small publisher is certainly an indie press though.) I’m relieved to report my novel passed.

In the future, as more books are independently published in a variety of ways, I suspect more such gatekeepers will arise to read the indie slush pile and hand pick the best of the offerings.

What do you think? Authors: Would you use this service?
Readers: Would you visit such a website to discover new authors?

 

21 Comments
  1. This is a double edge sword. I write book reviews and would say that a reviewer’s opinion is like the beauty that is in the eye of the beholder. Yes, self-publishing has opened the doors for a flood of rubbish books to be published and alienating those well written ones. I have read both extremely good written self.published books and also some badly written ones.

    I prefer to see what other books the author has published and the support he/she has gotten from readers. Alternative, in todays super highway, you can always goggle an author’s name and see what pop ups. That is another route to whit out the good from the bad.

    Personally, I don’t believe in seals of approval, however, this guy will be making a lot of money! Nice business niche!

  2. Thanks LJ for mentioning IndieProse.com to your readers. We believe that books like yours will change the way readers see indie authors. In the near future, indie writers will be able to make a living writing great books only if readers can find a source for qulity books. We hope to be one of those sources readers rely on.

    We welcome your author and reader friends to visit us at http://www.IndieProse.com.

  3. Tannia,

    The problem with googling a writer or checking Amazon reviews is that too many self-published authors are gaming the system. Amazon is packed with quid pro quo reviews. We spend lots of time scanning reviews and we find too many times that self-published authors have (10) 5 star reviews and then they start recieving 1 and 2 star reviews from people who feel swindled. This hurts all indie writers.

    The other problem we see is that forums are packed with authors who spend more time posting on forums than they do writing. We want to highlight writers like LJ who are focused on their craft. If we can successfully do this, readers will gravitate to sites like ours to find books they will truly enjoy.

  4. I agree there will be other gatekeepers to take the place of traditional publishing. But I don’t think these gatekeepers will be self-proclaimed. And I don’t think they will be ‘pay’ services. The readers will be the ones who find them. Like you said, the readers will gravitate to the sites, because they will trust them to be honest. I don’t know if I would trust someone who is getting money from an author. Just sayin’.

  5. Thanks for the links to the web pages here, LJ. I think there may be a 3rd option for working through the crap to find the best seller, networking. Novelists that can write decently (even if it isn’t considered award winning literature) and sell their stories as well as network effectively can make their mark.

    Heck, I read some total and utter crap that made it all the way to the NY Times best seller list under the old publishing system. But people still buy it because we are very much a herd mentality culture. The trick is to get the herd moving in the direction you want them to move–toward the checkout stand with your novel!

  6. Thanks for stopping in. I’ve been reading blogs that discuss the role of agents in the new publishing world. Some seem to think agents will still function as gatekeepers, but through new fee-based services or billable hours, so I see an overall trend toward screenings and approvals that the writer pays for.
    http://tinyurl.com/3y9tlsp
    http://kidlit.com/2010/06/25/paying-agents-by-the-hour/

  7. I think in the end it will be the reader who has the ultimate power to decide who stays and who goes.

    Books are no longer thought of as art forms, but as products for consumption, so it will be a mixture of sales figures, distribution strategies, and word of mouth that will decide who will be read. For good or for bad.

    This doesn’t necessarily mean the best writing will ever make it out into the world, unfortunately, but our current system doesn’t do that either. Self- published writers aren’t the only ones gaming the system, the NYTImes Bestseller List is the biggest, longest ongoing shell game out there… I’m reading one of these so-called bestseller’s right now and wondering… why? Quick answer: because the publisher paid for the title to be put on the list. Lots of money, too.

    My feeling, as a writer, editor and writing coach, is that writers are best served to do what moves them and prepare to let their careers be determined by what the market will bear, self-published or not.

    I think screenings and approvals aren’t such a bad way to go, frankly. The effectiveness of these services will, of course, rely on the quality and honesty of the return, so these kinds of gatekeepers will either be embraced or rejected depending upon whether writers and readers put any stock in their work. This is marketing 2.0 in action, and I don’t mind that so much, either. We’re still navigating the publishing 2.0 wilderness, after all.

    As with every new idea, this one will eventually evolve, if given the chance, so it’s my hope that we learn from the past and give these new ideas a fair shot before condemning them outright.

  8. so basically, what we’re talking about here is shifting the cost of publishing and marketing onto the writers themselves. Cuz lord knows we all have so much extra money lying around. Just like we’re all extroverts who are SO good at selling ourselves and our work, right?

  9. It’s true that authors are taking on more and more of the burden of editing and promoting their own work. That is why authors are beginning to choose going indie. Even large publishers are expecting work to be edited before it comes in. There is good news for indies in all the changes in publishing. If you are publishing ebooks, there is virtually no per unit cost. As an indie author, you make *more* per copy than lots of traditionally published authors (assuming the pricing is similar). The new world of publishing is really good news for you if you can find an audience.

    If you prefer print books, you will be at a cost disadvantage, but you can easily distribute your work to dozens of English speaking countries with almost no investment.

    CAS, we know you’re not all extroverts and we know that having someone else promote your work is much more effective (if done with integrity). That’s why we are here.

  10. As both a writer and a reader, I see both sides of this argument. I am not self-published but went with a publisher that is praised and scorned depending upon the person responding to that news. I have had good reviews from my target audience, the 7 to 12 crowd, and if an adult does not necessarily see the humor in my tales, then obviously the book was not intended for them.
    I am on a site where the writing ranges from ‘needs publication’ to ‘needs heavy editing’. Most of the stories are good short reads, but a lot are written in ‘text’ language. These are done especially by the younger writers but most of them are open to criticism and one just may be a great writer of tomorrow or a great seller. These don’t necessarily go hand in hand. Even some of our writers of the 20th century had their lovers and detractors. Some were best sellers but still had critics who thought their work was dreck. That was true in Shakespeare’s time. That is still true today. Most ‘best selling’ authors have fantastic promotion agencies and/or were in that field before publication. Knowing how to play the game is a big part of becoming that ‘best selling’ author but there is a myriad of books published that have an audience even if it is not ‘you’ and even if it is only a small group of readers and that is also another fact that has always been true.
    Getting a seal of approval is nice but does not necessarily sell books…..Paula Shene, Mandy The Alpha Dog

  11. I’m already eyeing Creative Byline because I know some publishers using them. http://www.creativebyline.com/ I think this sort of sub-contracting scenario will sift into other parts of publishing, too. It’ll be interesting to see who survives after the dust has settled.

  12. Well, that will narrow my reading choices down. I’ll skip every book that needs to do that.

  13. When an author pays for a service like that, it starts getting skewed. If my experience as a writing instructor for 20 years– and having had over 45 books published and hit all the bestseller lists– is to bear on this, then 99% of those self-pubbed fiction writers requesting some sort of evaluation would get a thumbs down. I’m not being mean. I’m being realistic based on what I’ve seen as a teacher and as a publisher myself. If we’re shifting the gatekeping that agents and publishers do to another forum, then the acceptance/approval rate should be approximately the same. So when such a place has a 99% thumbs down rate, will the self-pubbed still pay for it? Or will we say a false rating system that will eventually mean nothing.
    There is a reason the AAR doesn’t allow reading fees.
    What we’re experiencing is similar to when POD first hit it big and we saw Author Solutions, XLibris, etc etc etc. In 2006 there 1.2 million titles available. 950,000 sold less than 99 copies. Even with eBooks, the numbers will be higher but the percentage will be the same.
    Traditional publishers have got to get their heads out of the fourth point of contact (from Airborne school, aka ass) and adapt to a rapidly changing market. I just read another blog from a publisher rep justifying their 25% eBook royalty rate, etc etc and wrote my own blog in response. 25% isn’t going to cut it. When the first big name author (can anyone say Janet Evanovich who didn’t get her 50 million from SMP) jumps traditional publishing entirely, well. Won’t that be an interesting time?

    Writers produce the product. Readers consume the product. Everyone else lead, follow, or get the hell out of the way.

  14. While ethical questions seem to be central to this debate, I don’t really think they are. The economics of publishing, and of making a living off the publishing industry, is forcing everyone to look for new revenue models. The idea of offering writers a way to qualitatively differentiate themselves is hardly new, nor is the idea that writers should pay some sort of fee for any service that helps them advance professionally.

    Looking down the road I think the problem is that no ‘standard of excellence’ will ever be able to demonstrate its own value. For every writer who succeeds (and how exactly do we define that?) as a result of a paid-for review or appraisal, most authors who achieve that same level of success will not have paid for that service — or will have paid for the same service with another provider. In short, I can’t imagine a day when any particular fee-for-service reviewer has the kind of presence in the marketplace that anyone would actually pay attention to, over and above some minimal sifting function.

    And if that’s not enough, any demonstrated success along these lines may simply goad publishers into rebranding themselves as uber-sifters, at which point all the small/indy sifters will probably be crushed. (Or forced to wade ever deeper into the ethical muck in search of customers.)

  15. I’m often asked if this kind of thing is a wise investment for a self-published author, and my answer is always the same: no.

    First, readers will not be actively seeking out books which bear this or that self-pub seal of approval, it’s not the same as having an Oprah’s Pick! or Newbery Medal sticker on the cover. The great majority of readers also do not seek out indie book review or indie book showcase sites, so having a listing or review on such a site isn’t likely to sell more books.

    Second, if we don’t need ‘seal of approval’ services for indie films or music, why do we need them for indie books? When I read about programs like this and find self-publishers are using them, it makes me wonder if self-publishers, as a group, suffer from a collective dose of low self-esteem. You don’t see indie bands or indie filmmakers seeking out any kind of pre-screening programs before releasing their work. When filmmakers submit their films to indie festivals like TriBeCa and Sundance, it’s not primarily to seek acclaim, it’s to get a distribution contract for the film. When indie bands sign on to perform at SXSW it’s not to get some kind of SXSW seal of approval, it’s to have an opportunity to get more exposure to the public and music industry. Indie filmmakers and musicians let the public decide for itself what’s worthy, and self-pub authors can do likewise.

    Third, in my opinion, it’s just one more optional fee the writer would be wiser to invest in professional editing, cover design, his/her author platform, or marketing and promotion.

    I’ll acknowledge that once you’ve led the horse to water, so to speak, and the potential buyer actually has your book in his hands, the presence of an official-seeming seal of approval or award sticker of some sort on its cover might inspire that person to take a closer look at the book than he would have otherwise. But even then, the more web-savvy the potential buyer, the less likely he is to be impressed with a seal of approval from a website of which he’s never heard.

    To be clear, I am not implying in any way that these ‘seal of approval’ services are necessarily ripping authors off. I’m just saying they’re not necessary and in my opinion, do not add value.

  16. Wanted to add:

    While I don’t think any seal of approval is necessary for, or adds value to, a self-pub book, $50 is a bargain for a solid manuscript and cover evaluation—provided the rejection letter feedback is sufficient and specific enough to assist the author in releasing an improved, revised edition.

  17. I’m an author, I’m desperate for reviews and publicity, but I still wouldn’t pay for this service.

    My debut novel was published earlier this year by a small press in ebook editions only (no print edition), This means all the major reviewers (the newspapers, genre magazines, major websites and bloggers) will not even look at the book. They just don’t review ebooks. Ful stop.

    Consequently, I’ve struggled to get any visibility whatsoever for the book. But a paid-for review? I don’t think so. At least people know that the reviews I have had (and they’re all good) are spontaneously generated by real readers.

  18. Buy a review? No way. The better investment would be in hiring a qualified editor, no matter what publishing avenue is taken (WAY outside of critique groups & partners). Reviews (IMHO) don’t sell books, even though the big publishers like to splash them all over. In a sense, they “buy” those reviews from the industry insiders or via big name author to author favor reciprocation. In any case, I’ve NEVER bought a book based on reviews.

  19. As a soon-to-be indy author, I would not use such a service; I don’t have that kind of money to invest.

    What I am planning to do is what many traditionally-published authors already do, and that is I plan to have a small group of trusted readers who I will rely on for initial feedback to help fuel my revisions prior to release.

    I know Charlaine Harris runs her stuff by a small group of trusted associates and continuity editors before she ever ships it off to her agent, and it seems a smart move to me.

    I’m all for making sure that a manuscript is “audience ready” before turning it into an eBook; but to pay for a review? No thanks. I think the same thing can be accomplished with a small group of trusted readers… folks willing to point out flaws, errors, etc., and who are not biased family members or anything like that.

    But I see no value in paying for a review. There are other ways to get noticed; like writing well. That’s how I found your books, after all, LJ. They were sharply written!

    In general reaction to the Salon editor’s musings, it seems to me this person is stuck in the traditional author-agent-publisher mode of thinking… and assumes that this “gatekeeper” function is always right. But I know I’ve found many good Indy authors on Kindle who have been overlooked by these so-called gatekeepers.

    In the end, strong writing will sell itself and the fact that Kindle has that “preview for free” feature where you can get roughly the first chapter of a novel to get a taste for it, before deciding to buy. That seems like a better filter than paying someone for a review.

    After all, as many editors and readers have said over the years, “If I’m not hooked by the first chapter (sometimes they say ‘first page’), forget about it!”

    🙂

  20. Well I definitely liked reading it. This subject offered by you is very effective for accurate planning.

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