Readers Are The Only Gatekeepers

I don’t often disagree with Chuck Wendig, but I feel strongly about his recent post FOLLOW-UP ON SELF-PUBLISHING: READERS ARE NOT GOOD GATEKEEPERS.

To be fair, I do agree with his basic thesis, writing for pay is business, and if you’re in business it’s important to do your best work if you want to stay in business. In an ideal world, no one would ever publish a book that is known to be bad.

This is why it isn’t an ideal world: writers don’t get to decide if their books are good or bad. Nor do publishers, editors, reviewers, or literature professors. In the end there is only one meaningful standard by which books can be judged–do people want to read them?

There are things that writers can do to stack the odds in our favor.  Writing is a craft, and there are skills that can be learned and practiced.  Editors, the good ones, anyway, can help polish and package a book to make it more attractive.  Cover artists and book designers likewise.

In the end, though, no one knows in advance if a book will appeal to a significant segment of the population or not.  NO ONE. 

If there was a formula that could be applied to determine the “goodness” of a book then bookstores wouldn’t insist on guaranteed returns. The amount of waste in the publishing industry is unbelievable. Check out the dumpster behind any chain bookstore and you’ll find it full of paperback originals with their covers torn off.  (Not that I recommend that as a way of getting free books or anything–that would be wrong.)  Cruise the dumpbins at your local dollar store for hardbacks and read the cover copy.  It’s educational, in a sic transit gloria mundi sort of way.

The point is that it doesn’t matter how much of your heart and soul you pour into a book, it doesn’t matter how many editors parse your prose with a fine toothed comb, it doesn’t matter is you’ve got a Michael Whelan cover, it doesn’t matter if you get glowing reviews in The New York Times Review Of Books.

What matters is if people want to read it.  Period.

Now, all the bells and whistles will boost initial sales, it’s true.  There is an element of self-fulfilling prophecy at work here.  However, sooner or later you’ve got to have some steak to go with all that sizzle.

So while I do agree with Chuck Wendig that we, as authors, should make every effort to make our books as good as we can make them, we can’t simply publish books that we know are good.

We publish them to find out if they are good or not.  Just like big publishers do.

About MishaBurnett

I am the author of "Catskinner's Book", a science fiction novel available on Amazon Kindle.
This entry was posted in On Promotion, On Publishing, On Writing and tagged , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

16 Responses to Readers Are The Only Gatekeepers

  1. One of my collections of short stories was published through a self-publishing outfit who also designed a cover. The company has a good reputation. However that collection has sold far fewer copies (and received only one review) while my short story, Samantha has (despite being self-published and self-edited) sold more copies and as of today received 5 reviews (all 4 star). Samantha uses one of the free book covers provided by Amazon. To my mind, as the author, both books are equally well written (he said modestly), but, as you say it is readers who, ultimately determine whether a book sinks or swims. Having said that I feel uncomfortable looking at books in the same way as fruit and veg. I can’t help feeling that there is something rather vulgar about thinking of books as mere comodities although, in the real world, in the market place we must think of them in that manner to some extent at least.

    • MishaBurnett says:

      I prefer to think of it as egalitarian rather than vulgar. (Although, of course, those words have similar etymologies.) The marketplace is profoundly democratic–everyone’s vote counts the same.

  2. LindaGHill says:

    I have a friend who used to drive a truck for a big publishing company. He said he used to haul 44,000lbs of books and magazines out and bring 40,000lbs back in. That’s a lot of wasted paper.

    The main point I got from Mr. Wendig’s article was exactly what you agreed upon – that we need to edit what we publish to the best of our ability. I agree that, in the end, readers are going to like it or not. But we are still responsible as authors for what we release to them. That’s what matters.

  3. Oh, how things have changed from the days where we would sit in a bookstore aisle and try to judge which is best, when every review was “glowing” and every book had dozens of these on the back cover and first pages… 🙂 Just imagine back then contemplating a world where a reader might say something negative about a book and millions of other shoppers would be able to see it. It’s almost like we’ve walked through a wormhole.

  4. I could not agree more. Editors are not well-positioned to make good decisions because they don’t have a relationship with their customers—readers! Authors do, though. Here’s a piece I wrote that looks at this same issue from the *author* side of it.

    The Gatekeeper is Guessing:

  5. I think what Chuck Wendig meant was that some self-published authors treat their readers like they are beta readers, instead of customers. By the time a book is published, a reader is a customer and their time and energy should be considered. It’s a give and take sort of thing, and some authors take more than give.

  6. Sue says:

    Some bad books are popular too Just because a book is read by many does not make it a good book.

  7. Pingback: The Reader Relationship

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