Interesting Article

skip.knox

toujours gai, archie
Moderator
The article is interesting only in its rhetorical devices. The author spends the first part of the essay using words like cancel and rampant and phrases like books that don't get written because of sensitivity readers. Toward the end of the article, she admits that the evidence is unclear as to how obligatory it all is, and that all she has to offer is whispered rumors. It's pretty clear she objects in principle, sees bogeys in the barnyard, and does not hesitate to present speculation as fact.

I don't doubt that certain editors are timid. That publishing houses hound after latest fads. That there can be found authors who are cowed by ... well, by just about anything and everything. Maybe I don't worry because I don't frequent those corners of the literary playground. But this article doesn't stand on its own two feet.
 

ThinkerX

Myth Weaver
My 'Empire' series might have given some of the 'sensitivity readers' heart failure. The MC's more or less loyal citizens of an empire with definite racial dislikes that include 'Pasties' (pale skinned humans of a conquered nation, regarded as heathen demon worshippers), Saban's (blacks, legally condemned to the lower social orders, most often as slaves), and goblins (viewed as either menials or fit for extermination, depending on what part of the empire you are in). Elves are seen as a race of dangerous mind-bending sorcerers - but provide enough interesting trinkets to be 'acceptable in small numbers' ('this is the elf enclave. Stay put unless you're heading out of town.) Dwarves, oddly, are viewed merely as short humans with somewhat longer lifespans. (Most dwell in human cities.)
 

pmmg

Istar
My 'Empire' series might have given some of the 'sensitivity readers' heart failure. The MC's more or less loyal citizens of an empire with definite racial dislikes that include 'Pasties' (pale skinned humans of a conquered nation, regarded as heathen demon worshippers), Saban's (blacks, legally condemned to the lower social orders, most often as slaves), and goblins (viewed as either menials or fit for extermination, depending on what part of the empire you are in). Elves are seen as a race of dangerous mind-bending sorcerers - but provide enough interesting trinkets to be 'acceptable in small numbers' ('this is the elf enclave. Stay put unless you're heading out of town.) Dwarves, oddly, are viewed merely as short humans with somewhat longer lifespans. (Most dwell in human cities.)

I am appalled by all of this, except the part about elves, they had it comin...

Well, I will do my best to avoid those who rely on sensitivity readers, otherwise, I expect in time, those who rely on them will diminish and other forms of getting out there will grow.
 
It's a reflection of modern society. People are great at taking offence, and with the advent of social media, a lot of people have gotten a platform or a way to get their opinion out. These people were always there, now they just manage to make themselves heard. And with the international nature of social media it's easy to find like-minded people and get a group large enough to be heard and get attention. It's how you end up with people believing the earth is flat or any of the other wild conspiracy theories.

That said, the article is also ignoring the other big trend in publishing, and that is that publishers, agents, and thus gatekeepers are becoming less relevant. Indie publishing is continuing to rise, and there are fewer and fewer reasons to go with a traditional publisher. Which means there's fewer reasons to submit yourself to any kind of gatekeeping. Which kind of makes the whole discussion pointless...
 

skip.knox

toujours gai, archie
Moderator
>Which means there's fewer reasons to submit yourself to any kind of gatekeeping.
This made me look again at the term gatekeeping. It's metaphorical, not literal, so there's room for meanings to shift. I normally think of agents and editors (at traditional publishing houses) as the gatekeepers, in the sense that their yea or nay means published or not, because outside of a vanity press there was nowhere else to go. That last should not be dismissed too readily. There's a huge literature that came out of vanity presses, with a whole segment that was either too politically radical or too stridently religious for any publisher to touch. There's also a big swatch of plain old crackpot books, such as flat earthers and so on. Vanity presses served all those markets. I wouldn't be surprised to learn that self-publishing has hurt vanity presses even harder than trad presses.

Anyway, as Prince of Spires says, those people have always been there. But I'd argue they've always had a voice. Social media has changed the dynamics but not the content. Without going further down that road, I'd also argue that recent political shifts have done more to give voice to crackpots than social media has. It's not the medium, it's the legitimization of the message that's most influential.

To return to the gatekeepers, I'll also propose this: that there are gatekeepers in indie publishing, it's just that they're different. There's one gigantic keeper of gates now, and it's called Amazon. Specifically, the Amazon algorithms that determine whether any one book gets noticed or sinks into the oblivion of volume. Ironically, while trad publishers have always been accused of valuing Profit over Art, and Amazon as some sort of alternative, in fact the Almighty Algorithm is utterly and completely about profit. Human publishers can be distracted by a book that happens to strike their sweet spot, but the Algorithm is never so persuaded. Does this book meet the specs as being likely to sell? Promote it! It doesn't? Ignore it! Squash it!

I don't know how it works with other electronic publishers. I suspect the programming is much the same.

All this puts a spin of sorts on the original topic. I can see the technical possibility of adding "sensitivity" logic to book promotion algorithms. At the most benign, this might shunt books into certain sub-categories, analogous to identifying a book as a cozy mystery or epic fantasy. I'm sure there could be other angles to algorithm-as-gatekeeper.
 

Mad Swede

Inkling
Hmm. The idea that self-publishing avoids those supposed gatekeepers and is in some way a cry for freedom against those who would silence the author (I exaggerate slightly) isn't new. In fact, if I remember rightly that was one of the things that Bruno Ceschel claimed in his article for Time back in 2015. But the thing is, the traditional publishers aren't usually against publishing controversial books - think of Penguin and Lady Chatterley's Lover. What you need, though, is a good book and that means one which is well written and which is (when necessary) controversial without being deliberately offensive.

But what those gatekeepers do is to refuse poorly written books, and if the good authors are to have any chance of making any sort of income from their writing then those gatekeepers are needed. Because there is a lot of rubbish out there clogging up the search results, as is shown by the sheer number of self-published books which come out every year.

Which leads me on to this: I don't buy the argument that indie publishing is the future. As with traditional publishing, only a very few authors who go the indie route will make it big. Sure, some will earn enough to make a living, but that's at the expense of spending a lot of time on marketing, editing etc. But most never will, which is no surprise when something like 350 000 books are self-published every year. And you're still only as independent as a service provider like Amazon will let you be - they do delete authors and books which fail to comply with their policies and guidelines.
 
But what those gatekeepers do is to refuse poorly written books, and if the good authors are to have any chance of making any sort of income from their writing then those gatekeepers are needed. Because there is a lot of rubbish out there clogging up the search results, as is shown by the sheer number of self-published books which come out every year.
I don't think gatekeeper lead to great books and vice-versa. Plenty of trad-published books are bad, and plenty of indie books are great. I do agree that the bar for indie books is much lower. Basically any collection of letter can be published.

I don't think that makes a case for trad-publishers though. Not all that many readers care about who the publisher is, or can even name the publisher of a book. Rather, it makes algorithms more important, as well as agregators. People look for people who can tell them what to read. It's why Bookbub is so succesful, and things like BookTube and BookTok. They dig through all the rubbish and advice people on what to read.

As a side-note, most algorithms are pretty dumb. Just searching for keywords and synonyms. On the other hand, many online stores still work with editorial recommendations. Places like Kobo handpick the books they place on their front page.
 

skip.knox

toujours gai, archie
Moderator
>most algorithms are pretty dumb. Just searching for keywords and synonyms
From what I've read, Amazon's algos (no one even knows how many) do much more than this and are much more focused on tracking what is bought, by whom, when, via what pathway, and so on. That ties over to Amazon ads, which entails another clutch of algos.

I'll suggest another layer of gatekeeping. In the Old Days, there was some notion of Great Books. There was even a publication with that title. While there were variations across generations, there was a general consensus about what constituted Great Literature. For present purposes I'm not interested in the merits and faults of this; I'm interested in how it worked.

Namely, it worked because traditional publishers published sets and lists. This filtered to the public via textbooks, collections, and magazine articles. Their influence is still strong, for many such lists have been reproduced online and readily come up in searches.

But there's now competition. Where they are maintained and updated (rather than just reproduced from some old publication), there are an increasing number of new books. Indeed, some such lists of "fifty greatest fantasy" books are extremely biased toward recent works. I think this is going to continue. One factor is of course language itself, as older works are seen by new readers as difficult or dull. That's fine. I'm looking more at algorithms and churn.

Older books will churn out. Their authors are dead. The books themselves belong to traditional publishers, who own a declining market share. I can see a time when the fifty or hundred greatest books will consist mainly of the fifty or hundred best sellers. Handfuls of classics will persist, but the very nature of what "greatest" means may well shift. My great-grandchildren will still be able to find Conrad or the like, but it'll have to be on purpose. The odds of just stumbling across Thackeray will become vanishingly small. Few people look at page 17 of search results.

It's a possible scenario, anyway. Why bother to burn books? They'll just get buried.
 

Mad Swede

Inkling
I don't think gatekeeper lead to great books and vice-versa. Plenty of trad-published books are bad, and plenty of indie books are great. I do agree that the bar for indie books is much lower. Basically any collection of letter can be published.

I don't think that makes a case for trad-publishers though. Not all that many readers care about who the publisher is, or can even name the publisher of a book. Rather, it makes algorithms more important, as well as agregators. People look for people who can tell them what to read. It's why Bookbub is so succesful, and things like BookTube and BookTok. They dig through all the rubbish and advice people on what to read.

As a side-note, most algorithms are pretty dumb. Just searching for keywords and synonyms. On the other hand, many online stores still work with editorial recommendations. Places like Kobo handpick the books they place on their front page.
So in fact there are gatekeepers even for indie books, in the form of Kobo, BookTube, BookTok, Bookhub and others. They just turn up after you've done all the writing, editing, formatting etc. What is the difference between them and an agent, publishers editors or newspaper/periodical reviewers? It's still one or two people making a decision about whether to recommend your book to others.
 

skip.knox

toujours gai, archie
Moderator
The difference is, in the old sense of gatekeeper, you are either approved by them and get published, or they reject you and you don't get published. With Kobo et alia, all that happens is you don't appear on their promo pages. You still get published because you did it yourself.

You are right that reviewers in the trad world recommend or recommend against. A bad review there could sink a book. Not always. There are plenty of bad reviews of "popular" books. But reviews aren't gatekeepers. They're promoters, influencers. But I've already written about how I don't think traditional gatekeepers were quite the absolute rulers they're often portrayed as so I'll stop here.
 

Devor

Fiery Keeper of the Hat
Moderator
There is a big difference between sensitivity readers and other gatekeepers: The moral judgement of it, both real and imagined, especially when it's spiced up with loaded, attention-grabbing phrases and headlines. I don't say that to put down sensitivity readers. I often agree, and I often disagree, with the criticisms I see. But it can be pretty harsh, and many people take those kinds of criticisms as absolute, even though professionals offering that criticism would quickly embrace future work that does better. But when you don't have other forms of gatekeepers, and you can publish something with no guarantee that anyone else has ever even read it, then it's up to you to prepare for that by yourself and to shoulder the entire moral weight of that criticism. Not everyone is ready for that, mentally, or able to handle it well.

i.e., people already over react to criticism, and sensitivity criticism feels extra personal.
 

skip.knox

toujours gai, archie
Moderator
A sensitivity reader is only a gatekeeper if we're talking traditional publishing *and* the publisher chooses to let the reader decided yea or nay on publishing. Otherwise, it's just more feedback.

That said, I agree not all authors are ready for such criticisms. On the one hand, I say then they aren't ready to be an author. An artist has to believe in their art first. On the other hand, negative reviews on sensitive matters can crush a first novel, which in turn might crush a career. I don't imagine anyone who is aiming to make a living from writing is going to be able to encounter that without some despair.

A still more unfortunate effect comes from people who read such reviews uncritically, and don't read the book for themselves, or at least take a look.

Also, there's a difference between feedback prior to publication, read only by the author, and reviews after the book is published. As well, a difference between sensitivity feedback that the author has requested versus feedback provided unasked (again, prior to publication). If an author has asked for the feedback, they really don't have any business being offended. It's just feedback like any other editorial.

Provided by the publisher? I still say it's like any other editorial feedback. Coming from a publisher, the author had better take it seriously if they want that publisher to publish them.

If it's coming from a review, though, then treat it like any other review. The fact that not everyone is ready for that really ought not affect the activity of sensitivity readers. Some of them could be less harsh. Some seem to take it as an opportunity to dump on someone without, er, being sensitive. But that can be said of other reviewers too.
 
From what I've read, Amazon's algos (no one even knows how many) do much more than this and are much more focused on tracking what is bought, by whom, when, via what pathway, and so on. That ties over to Amazon ads, which entails another clutch of algos.
Sorry, I had to be more clear. I meant the algos from stores other than Amazon. Amazon's is indeed fairly smart, in that it considers a lot more than just the words you search for. And especially when ranking results it's very good at doing it in such a way that Amazon makes the most money of the results.
So in fact there are gatekeepers even for indie books, in the form of Kobo, BookTube, BookTok, Bookhub and others. They just turn up after you've done all the writing, editing, formatting etc. What is the difference between them and an agent, publishers editors or newspaper/periodical reviewers? It's still one or two people making a decision about whether to recommend your book to others.
As Skip mentioned, it's different in that in the past the gatekeepers kept you from publishing. Now, your book is out. And it's not so much gatekeeping as marketing. Amazon and all the stores could give your book no love at all, and you can still sell it using ads. Or you can create TikTok videos, or reaching out to influencers, or posting on forums or facebook groups. All of that is more marketing than gatekeeping. And it has little to do with either you as a person or the content of your book. Anyone can create a youtube channel or post on social media. Almost anyone can create facebook and amazon ads.

That is very different from there being 6 big publishers who collectively decide who does and does not get published.
 

Mad Swede

Inkling
That is very different from there being 6 big publishers who collectively decide who does and does not get published.
Please spare us that sort of conspiracy theory. Publishers don't make that sort of collective decision. Not the big 6 in the English speaking parts of the world and not the big 2 here in Sweden. A competent agent will usually find a publisher for your English language book. You may not be published under one of the major imprints and you won't get a seven figure advance, but you will be published. Even here in Sweden there are publishers who will take your Swedish/Norwegian/Danish/Finnish language book - but it might not be Bonniers. In fact, most new authors don't start with the big publishers. Terry Pratchett certainly didn't, and neither did Dick Francis. All (?) you need is a decent book.
 
Please spare us that sort of conspiracy theory. Publishers don't make that sort of collective decision. Not the big 6 in the English speaking parts of the world and not the big 2 here in Sweden. A competent agent will usually find a publisher for your English language book. You may not be published under one of the major imprints and you won't get a seven figure advance, but you will be published. Even here in Sweden there are publishers who will take your Swedish/Norwegian/Danish/Finnish language book - but it might not be Bonniers. In fact, most new authors don't start with the big publishers. Terry Pratchett certainly didn't, and neither did Dick Francis. All (?) you need is a decent book.
I didn't mean that they somehow conspire and all sit together and discuss which author they'll publish over a game of poker. They are, after all, competitors. And each of them would love to find the next Brandon Sanderson or Terry Pratchett or Stephen King.

However, collectively they controlled the majority of the market (as in 70%+). If those 5 publishers all decided not to publish your book then you're quickly running out of options. Same in Sweden or the Netherlands. There simply is a limited number of publishers here, and once I've tried them all then my book doesn't get published. That is the very definition of gatekeeping. Not because of some conspiracy, but simple because there is a limited number of publishers and an almost limitless number of books waiting to be published. There's a reason pretty much all royalty % for authors are the same. It's not because those are somehow magical numbers. It's simply because there is a limited number of companies who all look to one another to see what they're doing.

And just having a decent book isn't enough. There are plenty of stories of bestselling authors who submitted multiple times before getting published. Harry Potter was rejected 12 times before being picked up, and that was apparently only because the kid of the editor read the first part of the manuscript and wanted to read more.
 

Mad Swede

Inkling
I didn't mean that they somehow conspire and all sit together and discuss which author they'll publish over a game of poker. They are, after all, competitors. And each of them would love to find the next Brandon Sanderson or Terry Pratchett or Stephen King.

However, collectively they controlled the majority of the market (as in 70%+). If those 5 publishers all decided not to publish your book then you're quickly running out of options. Same in Sweden or the Netherlands. There simply is a limited number of publishers here, and once I've tried them all then my book doesn't get published. That is the very definition of gatekeeping. Not because of some conspiracy, but simple because there is a limited number of publishers and an almost limitless number of books waiting to be published. There's a reason pretty much all royalty % for authors are the same. It's not because those are somehow magical numbers. It's simply because there is a limited number of companies who all look to one another to see what they're doing.

And just having a decent book isn't enough. There are plenty of stories of bestselling authors who submitted multiple times before getting published. Harry Potter was rejected 12 times before being picked up, and that was apparently only because the kid of the editor read the first part of the manuscript and wanted to read more.
No, that is a commercial decision about whether they think they'll recover the costs of publishing your book. In short, will your book sell?

What most self-published authors never work out is the true cost of getting their book published. It isn't just the cost of getting a cover, the cost of any editing, the cost of some marketing, the cost of formatting the book, maybe getting a few copies printed to get out into the local bookshops or to friends and family etc etc. It's the cost of your time, all that time you spend organising and/or doing this stuff after you've written your book. Try working out how much time you spent doing all that. Calculate your hourly rate based on whatever full or part time job you have. Use that to calculate how much it really cost you to get your book self-published - and then work out how many books you have to sell to break even and perhaps make a small profit... That's when you understand why agents and publishers are so hard nosed about which books they take.
 
We might just need to end up agreeing to disagree. But:
No, that is a commercial decision about whether they think they'll recover the costs of publishing your book. In short, will your book sell?
For me this is the very definition of gatekeeping, which is what this discussion is about. In regards to publishing, a gatekeeper is someone who decides who gets published and who doesn't. And if there is a limited number of companies, who put out a limited number of books each year, and those are all the people who get published in that year, then those people are the gatekeepers of publishing.

Of course, those editors will make decisions based on what they think will sell. After all, they run a business, and even if they didn't, they would still like to boast at parties that they discovered some bestseller. That's the nature of things. But that doesn't mean they are not gatekeeping. They still are.

And there's no need to explain the costs of publishing a novel to me. I've published and marketed 4 already, I've got a decent idea of what's involved. But it's also only part of the reason they are hard-nosed about which books they publish. They can only publish a limited number of books each year, while they get an almost unlimited number of manuscripts. Numbers vary, but it's something between 1-100 and 1-1000 manuscripts which get published. Therefore they will select the books they think have the best chance to make the most money. Again, that is (whether they like it or not) a gatekeeping decision. They might do it with the best of intentions or to make the most money or whatever, but it's still gatekeeping.
 

skip.knox

toujours gai, archie
Moderator
I don't really care why agents and publishers are so hard nosed. I do, however, care that they are so slow. I can spend *years* just getting to "no" when working through traditional channels. I don't have as many years to squander as they do. It's a simple calculation that has nothing to do with income.

As for what my time is worth, my time is worth so much to me, it cannot be calculated in dollars, so all the trad pub arguments fall to the side, while self-pub offers an opportunity.

But that's not on topic. I agree with the others that gatekeeping is not about how many keepers there are, still less about the pragmatism of their operations. It's simply a recognition that they exist. As in other areas, the closer these approach monopoly, the worse are the implications for the ordinary person. Right now, the publishing industry approaches monopoly. It's not quite there yet (and the term gatekeeper serves as a useful noun for the current state of affairs), but the direction is plain to see. Not only is that the trend over recent decades, there's absolutely nothing in the capitalist legal and political structure to prevent the trend from continuing.

Eventually, the situation is so close to monopoly that legal action is taken, and the proto-monopoly is broken up or dispersed, however temporarily. Corporations find ways around the legal rulings and the trend starts again. Capitalism *always* tends toward monopoly, as some one once observed. Several someones, in truth.

People have been warning about this trend in publishing for some time now. At least since the 90s, when I first became aware of it.

It's interesting to compare this art form with others. Consider, for example, how music is produced and distributed, how musicians work and are paid. Then look how the process works with painting. Or dance. Every art has its own dynamic, of course. Some are more group efforts while others are intensely individual. But it can be instructive, if only for context.
 
Top