Don’t Call Me a Gatekeeper

Rachelle Gardner

Blogger: Rachelle Gardner

People in and around this business have long used the word “gatekeeper” when referring to those in publishing tasked with choosing which books to publish or represent.

Since the rise of self-publishing, it has become popular to deride the gatekeepers. The gatekeepers are trying to keep us out. They’re making it too hard for good writers to get published.

Well… here’s my take on all that:

There are no gatekeepers.

There is nobody in publishing whose job is to “keep you out.” It’s nobody’s job to lock down the hallowed halls of Traditional Publishing so the riff-raff can’t get in.

Are we watching the gate? Yes!—to identify authors we’d like to see published.

Each person who has a so-called “gatekeeping” role is tasked with finding authors to bring in, not authors to keep out. Anyone who acquires authors for an agency or for a publisher is totally 100% focused on bringing in books they believe they can sell.

You wouldn’t call the women’s wear buyer at Nordstrom a gatekeeper, because her job is to bring in clothes she believes her customers will like. Her job is not to keep anything out, but to choose and curate.

Some publishers, librarians, agents, and acquisitions editors call themselves gatekeepers. But really they’re selectors. Curators. And they’re salespeople. They’re looking for books they can sell.

Some are also looking for books and authors they personally believe in. That’s typically a good indicator of whether you’ll be able to sell something—you believe in it. But you’re not going to acquire the book or take on the author if you can’t sell them.

There is joy in bringing in a book your customers want. My customers are publishers, so I’m looking for books I think they’ll want to publish. Librarians are looking for the books their community members will want. Publishers are looking for books their sales and marketing teams believe they can sell.

There is no joy in saying “no” to authors, and the “saying no” part of our jobs is not the main thing, it’s just something we have to do, on the way to finding the books we want to say “yes” to.

So when somebody tries to engage you in a debate about the relative merits of self-publishing and traditional, and they launch into the question of whether we need the gatekeepers, just tell them: There are no gatekeepers. Talking about gatekeepers gives people an outlet for their frustrations, which is fine. But it obscures the reality of the way publishing works.

As a literary agent, I am in business to say YES to writers, not to say no. I’m constantly looking for books and authors I can believe in, and I can sell. I am not a gatekeeper. And I never want to be. I am constantly looking for what I can say yes to.

What are your thoughts on gatekeepers? Do you think it’s an issue of semantics? Do you think agents & editors ARE gatekeepers by virtue of their function in publishing?


14 Responses

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  1. Nothing wrong with being a gatekeeper; zoos have them to prevent people from wandering into the lions’ enclosure, and lions with indigestion are a PAIN.
    * I was a gatekeeper in a previous life, selecting among eager young men who wanted desperately to do dangerous work, and some of them simply had not the skills or temperament. Saying ‘no’ meant that they (and their potential comrades) had a better chance of living into their mid-twenties.
    * I had no problems with agents saying No; they were either saying, “Look, you can’t compete in the market right now, it’ll only be a disappointment for you” or, “I don’t have the feeling for your work that can let me be an effective guide”.
    * And in the end, the agent needs to make a living, and no one can do that without making the best play possible for what can be effectively represented.

  2. “So go to the street corners and invite . . .” (Mt 22:9). It takes two: one to invite and one willing to come in, not necessarily in that order. For us writers, willingness usually comes first.

  3. Carol Ashby says:

    Maybe sheep sorter is a better term. Or sheep-and-goat sorter. Being a goat isn’t necessarily bad. Sheep will clip your grass, but goats will trim your shrubs. The pastures in central Texas have a manicured look thanks to grazing goats there. Goats are much better at taking care of themselves, and except for angoras, you don’t have to shear them. But both can use the knowledge of where the good grazing is that the herder has. You’re a herder, too.

  4. Great post, Rachelle. I appreciate your take on this topic. I know it’s got to be difficult to say no to someone who wants to be represented by you (and for every agent, I’m guessing). But, you also say yes. And you work hard for them. It seems like the people in publishing houses (in general) work hard. Everyone wants books to succeed. Some no’s will have to be spoken. But yeses will too. I loved what you said about it not being a matter of keeping people out but of bringing people in.
    *Great post!

  5. You make your point well, Rachelle. Realizing the need for careful selection, for books tthat will sell, for authors you believe in, takes some of the sting out of a rejection on our end. So far, I don’t have the track record I’d hoped for, but I still have friends and acquaintances approach me about their ideas for writing a book about a personal experience they’ve lived through. I now know enough to tell them like it is (how it works). I hate to take the wind out of their sails, but reality does that to us.

  6. I know better than to submit my work to anyone in your agency because I don’t write the kind of things you represent. But reading the posts here and attending workshops by Books & Such agents at conferences has helped open gates that let me get my work published elsewhere. You’re gate openers to me.

  7. Mary R.P. Schutter says:

    The way I see it, in the publishing world, an agent is indeed a gatekeeper who, as soon as s/he recognizes good writing, swings the door open wide with a hearty ‘Come in! However, if the writing is not so good, the gatekeeper must kindly say, ‘I am so sorry. Your work isn’t dressed quite appropriately. Please go home, take time to spiffy up, and come back. Then, I will, most likely, be able to welcome you in.’

  8. That’s a good way to look at it. You’re not trying to keep people out but to accompany the best in. I like that viewpoint.

  9. Great points, Rachelle. I like this perspective much better. 🙂

  10. Elissa says:

    I’ve always considered agents and editors to be curators similar to gallery directors. But writers should realize agents and other publishing professionals aren’t the only curators of literature. Buyers for chain stores have plenty of their own influence, as do the independent bookstore owners.
    Sure, you can find just about anything with an isbn on Amazon–if you know to even look for it. It’s impossible for any reader to keep track of everything available, so they rely on rankings, reviews, etc.. Many readers stick to particular publishers or imprints they trust will provide the reading experience they seek, thus reinforcing editorial choices.
    Writers who worry about “gatekeepers” need to understand they’re creating a product. That product MUST be salable if they expect any other professional to be involved in its creation and distribution. And those professionals really do have a good idea what they can or cannot sell.

  11. Pat Iacuzzi says:

    We depend on traditional publishers to turn out a good product, and their reputations are at stake to do so. Agents walk a fine line trying to balance that product on three fronts–for publishers, writers, and readers. As a reader, I’m counting on them to say this product is worth my time and money.

    If I’m following the Lord’s call to fulfill my purpose as a writer, I want to prepare and learn as much as I can to do my best. I might have something to say, but in the end I would want my readers to benefit most. If my book is passed over by agents, I would need to consider the expense of publishing something that professionals with trained eyes have turned down.

    I don’t think Jesus said to follow in His path without following the rules–or guideposts. And I think that agents not only serve as gatekeepers for publishers–but as guideposts for writers.

    Thanks, Rachelle, for setting up the guideposts too.

  12. Rachelle, a needed post, as I can imagine it can be extremely frustrating to hear directly or indirectly writers being snarky about something they are not willing to understand.

    How I see it, is this. Yes, there are good writers, perhaps excellent writers that aren’t picked up because for whatever reason their writing does not fit in with what various publishers are looking for. In fact, writer’s can be left unrepresented and unpublished for a variety of reasons shoddy workmanship, lack of substance, poor research, all the way to excellent writing, great story, and thrilling dialogue but no place with an opening to publish. Like me in curating or creating my home space, I have a specific budget to accomplish a specific look and message that I want my home-space to convey to not only my family but visitors and guests. I reject certain items sometimes due to poor quality, and lack of being able to stand the test of time, but then again, sometime the object or item I am making a decision about is awesome, maybe even gorgeous, or practical and lovely, or quirky and imaginative, BUT if it will not accomplish my ultimate goal and message, I have to sadly (very sadly at times, as I am such a DIY HGTVer) say no and leave the item on the store shelf. It is not that I am being difficult or spiteful, but I am making a weel thought out and planned decision. Now, that is not to say there are not times, I squeeze the money for some pot, to buy an item because for what ever reason there is something so special about it I can just not let it go, and by jiggers I find a spot for it that I never could have imagined.

  13. I have gone both routes–traditional and indie publishing–and while the term “gatekeepers” may be arguable, it is something I do feel has validity. This is because while sometimes I have received rejections or rejections with comments from true agents, the majority of the time my work is being evaluated by very young people who serve as readers or screeners and they are the ones who recommend their choices to the actual literary agent. Or what is also likely, the readers are new agents fresh out of MFA programs. I have degrees in literature and writing and I know absolutely that anyone under the age of 25-27 is not necessarily prepared to see the value of books the same way the experienced agent would. Their choices narrow the field of probability, not just possibility–and it is these early readers who are the gatekeepers. It is not necessarily an open or level playing field that way. A lot of really good writing gets tossed (not just mine… :-).

    I understand there is no way the experienced agents can have sufficient time to do it all themselves. I read agent blogs and they constantly cite the hundreds of query letters they get per week, or even per day. The weeding out process has to take place, defined initially by selecting only the queries that satisfy the guidelines. Still, that leaves too many for the average agent to view. And given the statistic that only 2% of all book queries ever reach the purchase stage with traditional companies, it is not a win-win situation for good writers–it’s more like roulette.

    To an extent, this is what makes indie publishing attractive. The percentage is better, the promise is more, and the value can be acknowledged instead of hidden or thrown away. It is not an easy choice–each successful indie author has to become familiar with the publishing business and handle so much that normally gets done by publishing houses. The exception is marketing–most traditionally published authors these days have to do their own, unless they have seven-figure sales–a Rowling or Roberts or Patterson, et al.

    The gatekeepers are real, to my way of thinking, and serve, in part, as a fast way to get through the massive number of queries that flow in now to traditional houses, whether that means good books get lost in the shuffle or not.

  14. Randy C. Smith says:

    Great read. The more I listen, the more I learn. My writing grows stronger because of agents like you. It gives me hope.