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Missing the Gatekeepers

Lions-Gate-Mycenae
The Lion Gates of Mycenae

It is a new world for writers of fiction. With the introduction of the Amazon Kindle and Amazon Direct Publishing, the gatekeepers of publishing big and small began to lose their power. As iBooks, Kobo, and other services have expanded that loss of control has only accelerated. Genres and sub-genres declared dead by the powers to be are flourishing again. In fact, as early as 2014 self-published authors dominated the science fiction, fantasy, mystery, thriller, and romance genres.

There are no more gatekeepers.

To that, I say, “Yay.” I am writing with an eye to a career transition because of that fact. I have been interested in writing since junior high school. The year I spent in a shipyard while my first boat was being decommissioned I spent a great deal of time working out the details of a future history through a handful of stories. I would work on writing on and off through the 90s and make another real push a decade and a half ago while very underemployed.

The stumbling block each time was not the work of writing. Given the number of words I had produced blogging before I even called it that, I started with LiveJournal back in the day, it is hard to say I am unwilling to do the work of writing. It is not a lack of craft. I know from music, programming, mechanics, and welding that craft is something it just takes time to learn. While I discuss the process of that learning sometimes, it is something I have done more than once.

Berlin Brandenburger Tor Abend
Brandenburg Gate

What stopped me each time is the fact that publishing seemed like the same game as being popular in high school. Note, I didn’t say being a popular writer was the same game. The very process of being published, period, seemed to be the same game. You needed to like, or at least pretend to love, the styles agents and editors, the queen bees and mean girls of publishing, did to get read. You needed to want to write the stories they wanted to be told. This impression was stronger in the early aughts than it had in the early nineties. Reading veteran authors indicate this is true, at least in part.

I didn’t play the game of popularity in high school, although at least once I was offered a seat at the table. Even though I grew up in the age of John Hughes movies I never quite hated the popular kids that much. Oh, I hated them some, such is the nature of high school. Still, mostly it was a case of they played a game I didn’t want to play because Dungeons & Dragons was more fun and I was waiting for college where I thought I would fit in better.

I just didn’t want to have to play that game to have a shot at a career in writing. My existing skills in mathematics and computer programming could get me a better career for the near and medium future. Unless I turned out to be Stephen King or Tom Clancy writing did not offer a better future, at least materially, than programming in the long term.

Now, the tastes and prejudices of a handful of gatekeepers in New York and London no longer create a game of popularity you have to play to be a published writer. This is an unmitigated good, right.

Well, not so fast.

I got up the courage last week to ask a published writer I know and who I know takes on apprentices what was needed to ask to be a apprentices. Their answer was, “like this, what do you need?”

When I answered, I realized what I need is a gatekeeper.

Golden Gate Jerusalem 2009
The Golden Gate on the Temple Mount

Most writing books as late as 2000 discussed working with an editor to develop as a writer. For a long time the routine of sending short after short out until you started to first get personal rejections with suggestions instead of form leaders and then got sales reigned. This had died for the most part by the late 70s as story magazines closed. When Lawrence Block wrote the first edition of Writing the Novel in 1979, he argued against starting with shorts because careers were in novels.

By 2000 you were lucky to get three books to work on a career. Today with auto-ordering your first book must sell or your career will be lucky to get to three. One flop can end an established career in the traditional world as it purges the idea of the mid-lister.

Yet still, many authors aspire to traditional publishing even if it will pay less than indie. I used not to get that, but I realized typing my reply last Saturday I do.

Editors buying your work used to be professionals making profit and loss choices informed by years of experience. They were both a boost to those who didn’t realize the quality of their work and a governor on those who thought their story was better than it was. When an editor bought a story for the first time, you knew your apprenticeship was ending. After a couple of stories sold or you got a book out you could be confident that you weren’t fooling yourself.

Changes in publishing have made this less likely every year, but the illusion persists.

Now, a young author can look at his latest novel and be sure it is crap and put it in the file cabinet next to the last twenty. Across the street, his neighbor looks at his first novel and concludes that if Stephen King works really hard, one day Stephen King can equal his novel. Neither writer has a good chance of finding one person with knowledge, experience, and a couple of bucks he needs to bet to say “you are right” or “you are wrong.”

Gatekeepers are gone. For the most part that is a good thing as they had become less about being guides to and filters of quality and more imposers of personal tastes and prejudices. However, their disappearance is a loss not only to readers who have to do the filtering on their own but to writers who have lost the wise women of the village and hermits of the woods who guided them from starry edged dreamer to adept storyteller.


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