Wednesday, October 24, 2012

Gatekeepers and Advocates

We often talk of all the gatekeepers we have to get past in order to get published. We even say things like, “vetted by publishers”—as if publishers where somehow the guardians of all that is good and true. Unfortunately our sloppy language leads to sloppy thinking about the role of publishers. Specifically, we confuse gatekeeping with advocacy.

Gatekeeping means choosing who will pass and who will be excluded. It also implies an endorsement: if the bouncer at the club lets you past the velvet rope you know you're one of the cool people.

Advocacy is an important element in maintaining the social fabric. Obvious self-interest makes us wary of both the promoter and the product. But if a nominally disinterested party champions someone’s cause, we take it as evidence the case has merit. That’s why we need lawyers and agents.

Publishers provide advocacy through investment. Talk is cheap. Backing up that talk by investing a substantial sum in a book says something. Of course there’s no direct correlation between the amount invested and the quality of the book. But assuming publishers are rational economic actors, if the publisher is willing to bet so much on a project, perhaps it’s worth our attention too.

Publishers are not pure advocates because they have a financial interest in the sale of the book. To compensate, the industry has developed layers of structural advocates. From the wholesaler, distributor, and retailer model of the distribution chain to the web of reviewers, booksellers, librarians, and teachers who promote books and reading in general, the publishing industry, which is just as commercial as any other, manages to come out looking like a cultural institution.

The new world of frictionless, costless e-publishing doesn’t change the need for advocacy. You may be able to establish a reputation by building an online social network. You may inspire readers to recommend your work. Regardless of the expression, the underlying pattern remains the same: to be credible you need independent third parties willing to expend their own time and resources to vouch for your work.

One of the few things you can’t do as an artisan publisher is be your own advocate. Clearly you must put a great deal of time and effort into promoting your work. But no matter how much effort you put into it, marketing can never become advocacy because you’re not an independent party.

If your artisan publishing effort expands to include other authors, you can become an advocate for their work to a small degree. But compared to the major publishing houses that have the financial wherewithal to lavish seven-figure advances on celebrities your own investment will hardly stand out.

The practical upshot is that in order to succeed as an artisan publisher you must nurture a network of independent advocates without any of the structural advantages enjoyed by large publishing companies. Moreover, you will have to compete with those companies for readers’ attention every step of the way. The only way to build credibility and to attract advocates is to keep showing up: to consistently deliver high quality content. You need to be prepared for a slow, patient game.

Image: Simon Howden /