Monday, February 10, 2014

The New Role of Gatekeepers

I saw the following quote in the comments section of a blog:

Instead of keeping writers out, now the gatekeepers are desperately trying to keep writers in.

This struck me as such a wonderfully succinct and correct take on this situation that I wish I'd said it.

Recently there have been a spate of gatekeepers who have publicly posted their views on self-publishing. This is a relatively new phenomenon.

It's not that gatekeepers and those who benefit hugely from legacy publishing haven't voiced their concerns before. The leaked Hachette memo was a classic case of a publisher trying to convince itself it was still relevant. James Patterson's NYT ad  was a love letter to the gate keepers. Agent Richard Curtis didn't believe authors should self-publish. And Authors Guild President Scott Turow has said so many stupid things during his reign that fisking him has almost become a fulltime job.

But when Kensington CEO Steve Zacharius makes himself available for discourse, and big name agents like Robert Gottlieb, Donald Maass, and David Gernert make public statements about self-publishing, I can't help but speculate why they've finally come down off their thrones--after years of silence--to address the peasants they've lorded over for so long.

I believe it's fear.

I've tried to imagine the mindset of a gatekeeper. For decades, they were the king makers. All authors who wanted to reach readers had to get their approval and endorsement. We've all heard how absolute power corrupts absolutely. Try to put yourself in the shoes of someone with the power to make dreams come true. The legions who vie for your approval and sing your praises. The feeling of gratification when you sell an author's work, and of vindication when a book you represented becomes a big bestseller.

How can you not begin to buy into your own importance? Believe your own hype? Tens of thousands want to work with you, hundreds love you, everyone shows you respect.

Then, suddenly, you aren't necessary anymore. You're optional, not essential. And while the option of legacy publishing can provide some lucrative benefits (print distribution, major reviews, tours, publicity, possible bestsellardom) it also comes at a high cost that many forward-thinking authors don't want to pay.

So you find yourself defending your way of doing things, which has to be pretty shocking. Even more surprising, you have to contend with people who believe you're the bad guy.

How easy would it be to believe you were a force of good in the world, and it turns out the group you thought you were helping in fact were abused, exploited, and hated the experience?

Could anyone's ego accept that?

I think it would be difficult. So instead of accepting it, the old guard is rejecting it and clinging to the old way of doing things. Of course you would try to argue you've been right all along, that the old way is still relevant.

But your arguments suck. How can you defend against a free market system that evens the playing field and removes barriers to entry? How can you compete with 70% royalties and total author control? How can you justify your continued existence in an ecosystem where you're no longer needed, and more and more authors are realizing this?

First, you ignore it. Then you denigrate it. Then you begrudgingly accept parts of it, while publicly promoting your stance in order to sway those who don't know any better. You openly support those going down on the same sinking ship you are. Hey, we're still a billion dollar industry! We've always been here, and we always will be! The threat to our livelihood is greatly exaggerated!

Yet not a single gatekeeper can answer the simple question: Why do you think authors will keep submitting manuscripts to you, especially in the numbers you'll need to survive?

You do still have something potentially valuable to offer. And some authors still want that. But the cost you demand is high, and the risk is great. The industry is changing faster than you think, because the ways you measure success don't apply to the shadow industry of self-publishing. You don't know how much you're actually losing. You really believe things can remain the same in the midst of a tech takeover and an author revolution.

And it is, indeed, a revolution. We are witnessing a fundamental change in power.

The publishers and agents once controlled the industry. That was a classic seller's market. There was a limited supply of publishing slots, and a seemingly unlimited number of books to fill those slots. Publishers had a monopoly on distribution, so they could pick and choose the books that reached readers.

But it is now a buyer's market. Authors can choose to sign with publishers, or they can reach readers on their own. And readers have more choice than ever, not simply what the gatekeepers chose. Publishers went from being the only game in town, to having to justify their existence. They've gone from being the popular kid that everyone wants to befriend, to the unpopular kid who is losing friends by the thousands and desperately wants to keep the few they have left.

The friends they do have left are important. Big bestsellers. Prestigious award winners. Big brands with big platforms, like Turow and Patterson and Russo, who can command media attention and preach their path to success to newbies.

But this is a house of cards.

I see three insurmountable hurdles that legacy publishers are now facing.

1. More and more readers adopting ebooks.
2. More and more bookstores closing.
3. More and more authors leaving the legacy industry to self-publish.

Any of these three would be deadly. All three at once is catastrophic. But hurdles #1 and #3 are particularly deadly because:

Self-publishing is a shadow industry. 

There are no accurate surveys or polls to show how big it is, or how fast it is being adopted. Apologetics like Mike Shatkin downplay the threat. Perhaps some of it is denial, but I get the impression that many in the legacy industry are truly unaware of the breadth and scope of what is happening. It's like the old joke about the guy who was completely healthy until the day he dropped dead. There was a reason he dropped dead; he wasn't paying enough attention to his symptoms. Perhaps he'd been too distracted to notice them. Or maybe he didn't feel they were serious. But those symptoms were there, warning him he was going to die. He just didn't act when he should have.

If the legacy industry is whistling past the graveyard, or denying the threat, or simply doesn't see there is a threat, they won't be able to weather the revolution. Those that do will have no choice but to offer authors better terms, and allow authors greater power. Because authors once needed publishers, and now they don't. When you're no longer needed, you better make a damn compelling argument as to why authors should sign with you. And so far, I haven't seen any compelling arguments.

On a semi-related note, I've seen some remarks on Twitter recently, and just read an interesting post on Jim C. Hines's blog, that seem to believe this is an "us vs. them" pissing contest between self-publishers and legacy publishers. I'm not going to rehash it because I left several comments there, and I encourage writers to check it out.

What I'd like to see happen is for authors to make informed decisions while deciding whatever path they choose. That means learning as much as they can, setting appropriate goals, experimenting, discovering things for themselves, sharing information, and deliberately picking what is best for them.

We now have a choice on how we reach readers. Prior to self-publishing, there was no choice.

When gatekeepers spout nonsense to defend their way of doing business, some writers will agree with that nonsense because they aren't looking at it too closely, or because they want to curry favor with the gatekeeper, or because it aligns with their entrenched beliefs.

That can't last. Not as long as authors talk to one another.

When I blog about the bullshit that the legacy industry endorses, I do so to show how poor their arguments, data, beliefs, and contract terms are. The fact that bigshot legacy insiders are now speaking on public forums to voice their bullshit opinions about self-publishing is extremely telling.

But here's a question to ask: Why aren't any of these gatekeepers fisking me?

If they've committed the time to publicly state their positions. Why aren't they taking the time to dismantle my points, one by one, like I do so often with them?

I have an open invitation on this blog to allow any industry gatekeeper a chance to respond to me.

I've gotten no responses. Even though I'm 100% sure they're reading this.

Why the silence? If I'm full of shit, why not say so?

Can someone show me a single, compelling argument why the Big 5 are still necessary?