Gatekeepers for Indie Publishing
There was a discussion recently in one of my Facebook groups about a possible BookBub for indies. If you don’t know of the service, BookBub has a massive mailing list of readers, and their daily blasts move a TON of titles. Subscribers sign up for their preferred genres and are then notified when books they might enjoy are on sale for cheap. Many an author has hit a bestseller list thanks almost solely to BookBub. The program is so powerful that many consider BookBub to be the best marketing tool available to authors today, if you can snag a spot.
And therein lies the rub. The reason BookBub works is because its users trust them. The works are vetted, and however imperfect this system, it results in a high level of trust and satisfaction. From what I understand, BookBub looks for a minimum number of Amazon reviews, a minimum average ranking, and solid cover art/blurb/etc. For readers, a BookBub promotion serves as a stamp of approval.
The indie equivalent might be a website like IndieReader.com that reviews self-published titles. Except IR.com doesn’t have a BookBub system where authors pay to schedule a blast, and millions of readers get a recommendation in their email inbox. BookBub users, you see, are avid readers. They WANT recommendations. They’ve already read everything on the bestseller lists of their favorite genres, and they need something new. They need two or three books a week.
Now, the best thing about indie publishing in my opinion is the complete lack of gatekeepers. This allows any voice equal access to the infinite number of available podiums. Minority voices, gay voices, male romance writers and female sci-fi writers, and all the quirky between-genre works are given a spot. These works would never see the light of day in the no-risk blockbuster model employed by the Big 5 (and that includes most of my works). Gatekeepers are bad for literature. They stifle. They censure. They play it safe.
But readers aren’t all the same. Readers, in fact, are very different from one another. Some only want to read what everyone else is reading, so they can join a movement and a discussion. Some stick to what’s been adapted to the big and small screen, or what’s hit the NYT and USA Today lists. Some enjoy scouring for hidden gems deep within their favorite genres. Some rely on their social media feeds, or their favorite Goodreads reviewers, or Amazon’s recommendation algorithms.
Saying there shouldn’t be any gatekeepers in publishing is to ignore all the readers who prefer to have some sorting done. And these readers vary considerably in how much sorting they like. The fact that self-published ebook authors now out-earn their traditional counterparts shows that even without gatekeepers and sorting, readers are going to stumble upon a LOT of indie titles. And the fact that these titles have higher average customer reviews shows that gatekeepers aren’t needed in order to ensure a quality reading experience. So this isn’t about gatekeepers being necessary. This is about gatekeepers augmenting an already successful and maturing indie literature landscape.
For indies to have a BookBub equivalent, they need to establish trust with readers. Let’s say we start a program called IndieDeals. We celebrate the independent nature of the works, touting the fact that these are reading experiences you won’t find from the mega-corps who play it safe and xerox last year’s bestsellers. You are getting indie books like you get your indie rock and indie films. You are also hearing about the BEST works at the BEST prices. These are titles that readers have already enjoyed, but now at limited-time, rock-bottom prices.
Would readers be interested in this? A great many would, I think. Including myself. But how do you make it easy for IndieDeals to vet the absolute flood of submissions they’d receive from authors hoping for a promotional slot? You can look at review count and average like BookBub does. You can also check out the cover, the blurb, and read 2-3 pages of the sample. You can look at the body of work from the author. Do they have several titles available? All look professional? All have a moderate sales history?
Remember, the goal here isn’t to serve the authors’. That can’t be the focus. The goal of a promo list like BookBub is to serve the readers. As soon as you fail to do that, you lose their trust, and now the program is worthless. Some authors seem to be looking for a BookBub that does less vetting, that will take anyone and anything, and somehow still provide a massive sales boost. This is impossible. There are readers who want gatekeepers, and figuring out how to reach those readers requires new ways of thinking.
It starts with learning not to hate the idea of gatekeepers. This is difficult. The existing and historical gatekeepers have been so completely awful at their jobs, that it has hurt the entire concept of gatekeeping. The existing gatekeepers are bad at their jobs for a few reasons, worth listing here so that we can begin thinking of gatekeepers who won’t suck at what they do:
1) The existing gatekeepers confuse their taste for readers’ tastes. What we get are too many works beloved by MFA grads and unpaid interns, and not enough awesome urban fantasy, romance, sci-fi, and fantasy. You know — the books avid readers are consuming at a prodigious pace, and the books that they need at great prices and from deep down the bestseller rankings. The very books we need more of, along with a discovery engine that churns rapidly and accurately to increase the number of titles gaining exposure.
2) The next big problem is that the first two tiers of gatekeepers have no control over what actually gets published. This is a big problem with the current system. The bean-counters are the only real gatekeepers who matter. You’ve got two outer walls in this keep (the shark-infested moat of agents and the great wall of editorial), but the door to the palace is the only one that matters. For a work to get financed, it better look like the last works that made a lot of money. That means the same names every year, and the same plots/characters, until those plots/characters stop making money.
No risks are taken at this final gate, and the outer gatekeepers know this. So a lovely manuscript shows up beyond the moat, a blue shawl wrapped around her head, lovely prose bundled and mewing against her chest, and a mix of genres across her fine face that is both exotic and beguiling. The outer gatekeepers swoon, knowing this is the one they’ve been looking for. Alas, they turn her away, having had this discussion with the king and his viziers too many times. Their sci-fi needs to be pure sci-fi, and from a white male, please. Get this hag some gender-obscuring initials or send her on her way. (Or the same for a male romance writer, or an author who writes with gay characters who engage in plots not about their gayness, and so on.)
3) The existing gatekeeping system has no patience for artistic development. Editorial is a thing of the past, and so is the system of giving budding talent the time to mature and develop a following. Related to this is the need for gatekeepers today to find works that will sell in the hundreds of thousands. Being good is not enough. They need to find what is profitable with the least amount of sunk cost and time. That means looking for celebrity (Snooki), name recognition (the already top-selling or popular in another medium), and clones (this manuscript is a lot like Twilight!).
Look, it’s easy to rag on gatekeepers with all the limitations they have to work with and what they are after (quick scores with minimal risk). The shame is that they’ve muddied the concept of gatekeeping in general. The problem with gatekeeping, in essence, is that it has to be exclusionary. This goes against the idea of self-publishing, where everyone is allowed access. But initial access to the market is not the same as equal access to all parts of the market, and this is where we need to start thinking about the positive aspects of gatekeeping.
Let’s look at romance novels as an example. When I wrote The Shell Collector, I wanted to write a true romance novel, which meant giving the work a Happily Ever After (HEA). If you don’t have this, you haven’t written a romance novel. Hey, that’s pretty exclusionary, right? Right. Because it’s all about the readers. And they have certain expectations. Here, the gatekeeping is by convention, and it is policed by both authors and readers. If you sell a work as a romance, and one of the protagonists dies of cancer at the end, enjoy your 1-star reviews explaining that this isn’t a romance novel, and that any reader going in expecting to get the product they were promised is going to be disappointed.
Reader expectations makes for a lot of necessary gatekeeping. Will the digital file be formatted properly to work on all devices? Technical requirements like this are a form of gatekeeping. As are cover art dimensions and resolution requirements from self-pub retailers like Amazon and the iBookstore. Or having the work in the language specified. And free enough of typos to be enjoyed. Here, the readers serve as gatekeepers. Riddle your work with errors, and you’ll get enough bad reviews to stop future readers from taking a chance. That’s gatekeeping, and the kind we should applaud. The kind that should cause us to take our craft seriously and improve our work.
It’s obvious to me, then, that gatekeepers come in all shapes and sizes, and many are quite good at what they do. It’s also obvious to me that different readers want a different level of sorting and sifting. Some want none at all. But indies are missing out on the subset of readers who want their works vetted. The kind of readers who trust the BookBubs of the world.
What I’d love to see is a network of indie editors take over this role. But it might require an entity such as IndieReader.com, or Goodreads, or a few highly motivated individuals to tackle properly, but here is how I think it would look:
A network of IndieCertified editors, formatters, and cover artists would be listed on a single site for authors to employ. The cover artists and formatters would gain admission through their portfolios. The editors through their previous works or on a trial period (perhaps with recs from other editors or writers). Any and all are welcome to apply for certification. The idea here is that you can’t have enough qualified professionals available. It’s not about excluding, so much as giving a place for committed professionals to gather. If a hopeful applicant is committed, they should have the chops or be willing to develop the chops to get in.
Keep in mind, this is all about the readers. This isn’t about giving every hopeful cover artist or editor free entry. Some people will be denied, and yeah, that sucks. It should pain any of us artists to think about rejection in the indie world. And it should give us pause to consider the creation of tiers, or haves and have-nots. The last thing we should want is to become like the big publishing houses, where our works are stale, formulaic, and all the same. But there’s a broad space between censorship and complete lack of quality control. A very broad space. We should be able to stake out some territory here without crossing offending lines.
Not only would this sort of collective assist writers in finding top-notch talent whose production schedules aren’t completely packed (looking at you, David Gatewood), it would also earn titles a stamp of quality assurance, so readers interested in such vetting would know that the work has been edited by a professional with a proven track record (or proven ability). This would allow an email blast system like IndieDeals to know the work has already been checked for the basics of quality assurance. All they would then have to look at is number of reviews and average, to allow readers to vet the plot and actual reading enjoyment.
It’s important to remember that the pie of readership is not limited or fixed. If readers begin to enjoy their pastime more, while finding consistently great deals, they’ll have both the motivation to read more and the means to purchase more titles. When you look at how much time and money goes to the video game industries, TV, film, social media, and the like … you can clearly see that literature has room to grow tenfold or a hundredfold by taking time and money away from other pursuits. The limit here is completely up to the value experienced by the users. The higher that value (which is a mix of enjoyment and price), the more they’ll engage.
Going after readers who prefer vetted materials is a way of expanding that total pie, especially for indie authors. And doing what it takes to win those readers over will likely increase engagement from other types of readers. The next goal should be to figure out how to win non-readers over and get them hooked. Indies should be thinking about these issues a lot, because they aren’t the concern of the blockbuster BPH model of publishing, which seems to look at the world as a limited pie, unable to grow, everyone fighting over the same crumbs.
I have some ideas as well on how to win over new readers to the fold and grow that total pie. More on that in a future blog post…