New technologies shift the gatekeeper responsibility

The Great Debate at last year’s Independent Book Publishing Association’s Publishing University focused on the future survival of the traditional publishing model. It highlighted many of the issues independent, and particularly micro-publishers such as myself, face. Here are a few of the salient points I jotted down from the four debaters at the event.

Daphne Kris of It doesn’t matter who publishes the book. If the reader deems it good enough to buy, then it is good enough for the marketplace.

Rudy Shur of Square 1 Publishers: PODs and makers of e-books are not publishers. They are what we used to call the vanity press. Publishing is a professional trade, a “hard nose” business. You have to ask yourself if are you a business person or a writer? Publishers need to be the gatekeepers to assure quality.

Mark Coker, CEO and founder of Smashwords: Writers write for different reasons than publishers publish. The publishers need to tell a story. Sometimes their mutual interests coincide. With easier and low cost ways to publish, big publishers think the “writer barbarians are at the gate.” They will tell you if the traditional model comes crashing down, it will be the end of civilization.

Richard Nash, Founder of Cursor: Without publishers we do not have society.

As an author/publisher I found myself focusing on the “gatekeeper” status that traditional publishers have assigned themselves. Was Shur’s assertion that I could not be both true? I thought of the past year where I had spent all of my time promoting my title and filling orders and no time actually writing. And what about his assertion that publishers play the vital role of serving as the gatekeeper of quality?

But as the debate tottered back and forth I wondered who actually appointed the publishers the role of gatekeeper? How many times have they kept out good, worthy books, perhaps books that might not be big sellers, but books worthy of publishing? And how many times was the Harry Potter series rejected before Bloomsbury finally accepted it?

It seems to me the gatekeeper concept was rooted more in the high cost of publishing a book and its corresponding ability to keep competition at bay. From this point of view, the gatekeeper was more of what economists might call a “barrier to entry” than a construct to maintain literary purity.

Now with that the barrier has been significantly lowered, previously scorned writers (and that includes me) have an alternative. We can now hire their own editors, page designers, cover artists and direct the project themselves. With vehicles like Amazon, Barnes & Noble’s PubIt, Google, and the various Apple applications, we can market directly to the public. As Coker and Kris observed, the marketplace is the true gatekeeper. The good stuff will sell and the bad stuff will sink to the bottom. I say, let the barbarians in, perhaps we will discover they are not barbarians at all.

Robert M. Goldstein of Rivendell Publishing Northwest in Seattle was the 2011 recipient of a Pub U scholarship. He will speak on e-books and his experiences as a publisher/writer at the April meeting of Book Pubilshers Northwest.