Are trade publishers gatekeepers?

First quarter books

In a book cover designer LinkedIn group, the question came up, Do you think publishers are “gatekeepers?”[1] (For reference, please read this blog post provided by Dave Bricker.[2])

Too often I read self-publishers complain how the Big Six dominate retail/distribution options. Or trade publishers denigrate self-publishers as buffoons. In Dave Bricker’s blog post, he  offers that it is not an “us versus them” scenario. It is a competitive marketplace. Both publishing options are viable. Additionally, both options are equally challenging.

One contributor offered that publishers are like brands. While another contributor reminded the group that publishing is a business.

The article sparked additional thoughts in a different, yet related, line of thinking. First, if trade publishers are brands, should they publish inferior quality literature simply because it’s good business? Next, if publishers do pursue that path, what does that say of their brand?

Dave responded to my questions in this manner:

We indie publishers enjoy the luxury of indulging in a bit of artistic snobbery, but we don’t have conglomerates to support and we’re rarely presented with the opportunity to grow rich by “selling out.”

Ultimately, I suppose we’re all trying to make money and offer the highest quality books we can. One could make a compelling argument that a single “less than excellent” blockbuster could finance a whole lot of artistic expression. It’s a bit like wildlife advocates supporting zoos. A little captivity is acceptable if it supports a certain amount of conservation in the wild.

I love that line: “It’s a bit like wildlife advocates supporting zoos.”

What are your thought about publishers as gatekeepers?

[1] Dave Bricker, LinkedIn group, book cover designer, “Gatekeepers and Self-Publishing,” December, 2012 accessed October 13, 2013 Gatekeepers and Self-Publishing
[2] Dave Bricker,, “Gatekeepers and Self-Publishing,” November 25, 2012 accessed October 13, 2013 Gatekeepers and Self-Publishing

8 thoughts on “Are trade publishers gatekeepers?

  1. They like to think that they are, but they’re not. They are commercial retailers, pure and simple. They buy what sells. The quality only needs to be high enough not to send readers screaming. (and even then, I’d say ‘a decent number of readers’–because I’ve read several books lately that were traditionally published that HAVE sent me running screaming. I want to know what editor failed to edit the latest blockbuster, Mortal Instruments.)

    • Excellent point, Judy. Recently, I have avoided the bestseller list for that reason. Although, in my pursuit of good literature, I came across a book published traditionally in the 1950s (it is not in front of me, so I am guessing on the publication date) where the author bemoaned “modern” literature at that time saying nothing good has been published in the last 15 years. Maybe this is not a new problem in the book publishing and selling trade. How do you see the present publishing and book selling environment?

      • I see an industry in transition due to new technology, the same way the music industry was a few years ago, and the same way that the television industry is undergoing changes as well. As technology allows more and more people to produce products and distribute them widely, the question will remain as to who decides what the definition of quality is.

        I imagine in the end, it is the consumer.

      • “The definition of quality” is an excellent observation, Judy. The conclusion that it is the consumers who decide the quality of literature is something I struggle to embrace at this point. In part, my hesitancy to come to that conclusion is… well… (and this sounds snobbish)… top selling books like the 50 Shades and Twilight series. Maybe I struggle with the idea of what is quality and what is popular when it comes to books.

  2. I have to admit that I depend on publishers to be gatekeepers. While I know that they publish a lot of crap and don’t publish a lot of great stuff (because, as Judy Goodwin says, they publish what sells), I still believe that the ratio of things I’d enjoy reading to things I wouldn’t is higher among traditionally published books than among self-published ones. I’m sure I miss some really great reads this way, but I just don’t feel I have time to wade through the slush pile myself.

    • Sharon, traditional publishers do offer readers the advantage of wading through the slush pile so that we readers do not have to. However, they do miss some gems from time to time. Additionally, traditional publishers do take risks that self-publishers can not afford to take. And because of that advantage, traditional publishers tend to provide literature that affects culture. The publishing industry plus the book selling trade is a complicate equation. I like the fact that there are two viable options for readers and authors. As a reader, do you prefer a public library, an independent bookstore or a Barnes & Noble store as your place to find good reads?

      • Honestly, I have the most success finding good reads at used bookstores. I’ve tried to figure out why this is so, but none of my theories (for instance, there’s just a larger variety of books!) really seem to hold water. I’m beginning to wonder if it’s just that the prices are lower, so a book that wouldn’t tempt me at $25 does at $5 or 10. I also like libraries, but I find the selection there is more stagnant than in a good used bookstore.

      • Me too. I spend a lot of time in libraries and used bookstores. There seems to be a better variety in those locations. I suspect it is due to the fact that those places are not in a rush to replace their inventory because of pressure from the best sellers list or the like.

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