How Writers Can Make Gatekeepers Work for Them

"Nobody can see the great Oz, even I haven't seen him"
“Nobody can see the great Oz, even I haven’t seen him”

The gatekeepers who once decided what art was worth publishing are losing relevance. We need not kneel at their feet to gain entrance to the public square. There are paths in everywhere.

Director J.J. Abrams told the audience at the Anaheim Star Wars Celebration that they could all be filmmakers. “Everyone has a camera in their pocket now… The technology has been democratized. Everyone has access… If you want to do it, the only thing stopping you from doing it is you.”

It’s great to think everyone will be creating art instead of passively consuming it, but it will be harder for people who want to make it their career to pay the rent. Professionals will find themselves in direct competition with amateurs. Audiences will be confused when dabblers and experts use the same channels to distribute their work.

This is why Edgar Allen Poe despised the printing press. He said, “The enormous multiplication of books in every branch of knowledge is one of the greatest evils of this age; since it presents one of the most serious obstacles to the acquisition of correct information by throwing in the reader’s way piles of lumber in which he must painfully grope for the scraps of useful lumber.”

I don’t believe the multiplication of books has given us only wood shavings, but it has made new classics harder to find.

Blogs on writing focus on words of encouragement. Come, join the self-publishing revolution. We give the impression that everyone who wants to make it as an author can, so long as they’re committed to self promotion.

I’ve watched writers who helped perpetuate this idea turn on it like they just saw a glitch in the Matrix, launching into Twitter-tantrums, telling off their followers, calling us all part of the problem. They lashed out at amateurs giving their work away for free, while professionals struggled to make a living. They called the situation hopeless. They called it quits.

If only they’d reached out to the gatekeepers instead of shunning them.

"You're wasting my time"
“You’re wasting my time”

Who Separates the Hobbyist from the Artists?

If everyone writes a book, how will audiences discover the next masterpiece? When they have too many choices, they settle for nothing. Options can be overwhelming. People need help whittling them down.

Wattpad, a social network for sharing fiction, seems like a great democratic option for writers. The charts are driven by users. The more people who read and comment on a work the higher its placement.

At the time of this writing a search under the word, “horror” brings up three pieces of One Direction Fan Fiction. The first page of what’s hot in the horror category features two pieces promoting Unfriended, the new found footage movie. If we’re starting from the bottom we can’t rely on these voting metrics to elevate our work. We need endorsements from people in the know.

We need gatekeepers.

They haven’t disappeared. Their role has evolved. Print may be dying, but the printers still matter. They used to be the sole source of marketing and distribution, now readers rely on them for content curation.

Don’t shut the Gate on Yourself

I self published my first novella for free. I have two unpublished novellas I’m planning on releasing on Amazon. I want to find a traditional publisher for my current work in progress, because a published product seems vetted. It helps readers hear the signal through the noise. In this era of industry change the most responsible thing an author can do is leave all options on the table.

In the past grant sponsors, writing contest holders, agents, and publishers were the only gatekeepers, but just as the definition of an artist has expanded so has the definition of a gatekeeper. Gatekeepers no longer require publishing power, they just need an audience who trusts their opinion.

Now that we’re all artists, everyone is a critic. This is why YouTube is producing celebrity media experts, because audiences want critics with credentials, mavens they can trust to recommend entertainment that’s worthy of their time. If you’re publishing on your own you shouldn’t cup your hands together and shout, “I have a book!” You should find a tastemaker with a megaphone.

"Well bust my buttons"
“Well bust my buttons”

Why Gatekeepers Matter More than Ever Before

When I first started sharing stories online, I made the mistake of only posting links on my friends’ walls. I figured they’d share it based on the quality of the content. It turned out very few of my proximity friends were interested in horror fiction. I thought if just one of them got the word of mouth going, they’d be an evangelist spreading the gospel of my writing. When that didn’t happen, I assumed the marketplace of ideas had spoken and I’d had a bad one.

My next strategy was to post links to my blog on every social media outlet in the hopes that some of them would stick. My delivery schedule didn’t leave me time to mingle. I’d copy and paste the same promotional material on all my walls. The people following me in multiple spaces saw the same tag lines at the exact same time. I left links on subreddits that banned me for ignoring the rules. I hijacked hashtags without looking up their meaning, like #wwwblogs which stood for “Women Writers Wednesday.” Whoops, sorry.

Some social media gurus encourage this behavior. They come off like pyramid schemers, saying the only thing preventing you from getting more readers is your commitment to self promotion. Many of us strain our backs planting as many seeds as we can, when our efforts would best be served finding fertile land.

If you’re a Young Adult Author your target audience uses Snapchat, the photo messaging application where messages disappear after they’ve been read. As of April 2015, 71% percent of its users are under 25. Your audience is there, but if you think it’s a place to find new readers you’re wasting your time. Consider the nature of the medium, unless you’re running a time sensitive promotion, you’re writing with disappearing ink.

Social media advisor Gary Vaynerchuk told Time that this shouldn’t matter. “Last time I checked, when I’m listening to a car commercial on Z100, that shit disappeared.”

It did, but he wasn’t using the radio to have a conversation. That distinction matters.

As of September 2014, 71% of adults were using Facebook. This seemed like a good place for me to set up an author page and get the word out about my next book. This was until they tweaked their algorithm so less than 5% of the people who ‘Liked’ my page saw my posts. I know this because Facebook shows my link stats above the option to pay to promote them.

If Twitter introduces a similar algorithm driven feed, like many have speculated, I’ll have to pay maintain my reach or it will be cut to stumps.

The internet isn’t a democracy. It’s a republic. We elect Facebook and Twitter to be our social networks. They decide how much of our speech is free. They have the power to push content creators to other side of a paywall. When that happens, we’ll need those gatekeepers again.

I love the notion that artists online can all be dandelions casting thousands of seeds to wind in the hope that a hundred of them will take root, but if our offerings are treated like weeds, we’ll need someone who can vouch for them.

"Well that's a horse of a different color."
“Well that’s a horse of a different color.”

You May Already Be A Gatekeeper

Many of us lack the courage to submit our work to critics capable of discerning between polished pieces and experiments. It’s doesn’t take much courage to wait for an audience to discover our stories, but it takes guts to send them to someone who’s qualified enough to eviscerate them. We need to get over our fear of gatekeepers if we ever want a place in the public square.

It’s our job to find them. Follow publishers on twitter. Keep a watchful eye for holiday-centric contests and story pitching hashtags.

Find critics in your medium, not just the book reviewers on Goodreads, but the ones on YouTube too (for Young Adult writers check out the reviewers at Chez Apocalypse). Interact with them. Suggest obscure works you think they’d enjoy before asking them to examine your own.

There are gatekeepers at every level. Many of them are fellow travelers. High profile bloggers are always looking for contributors. Bookmark people giving writing advice about the genres you work in. Seek out people who are already covering your niche.

Podcasters are always looking for guests in their own backyard. Find someone in your neck of the woods with mutual interests and share your podium with them. If you’re a geek find out who’s covering the local conventions and try to meet up with them.

Your author platform may not big enough to land you on the bestseller list, but you might have a following worth envying. If so, you have the power to be a gatekeeper. Lower your drawbridge and let other artists in.

9 thoughts on “How Writers Can Make Gatekeepers Work for Them”

  1. Usually, I have a plethora of present thoughts that flood out after reading your posts, Drew. For this one, I’ve had it up in a live tab since you wrote it. It causes me to want to think about what I think — and that is one of the highest compliments I can give to a writer.

    In the meantime, stellar job on the graphic composition once again. Your conceptualization, implementation and synthesis of the graphic elements always give me a jolt of enjoyment and additional food for thought.

    1. OK, well, I am still thinking. Typically, I don’t use other people’s blog Reply section to throw down raw thought process; but in this case, I feel like it could be a good thing. However, I offer the caveat that I’m not married to the ideas that will follow; I’m just shooting from the hip with the inklings that have taken form thus far.

      I’m well aware that no analogy is perfect. Still, extending the “Wizard of Oz” analogy for “the gatekeepers” should be fair enough, since any inherent flaws would apply to both the original thought and my own. And for the sake of fleshing out my ideas, I will likely include more modern takes on “Oz” (i.e., “Wicked” and “Oz, the Great and Powerful”). That said, here are some ideas that have occurred to me since initially reading this post:

      1. Dorothy and friends only got past the gatekeeper because of who they knew. It was only after name-dropping Glinda in the conversation that “no way, no how” became “well, why didn’t you say so in the first place?”

      How this applies to the topic: Often, you will STILL get stonewalled trying to approach the gatekeepers directly. I love building relationships; I hate the idea of “leveraging your network” (which just sounds a lot like “using people for what they can do for you when I break it down). But like it or not, relationships with people who know and have some rapport with the gatekeepers is still the way of things.

      2. Getting past the gatekeeper did not result in meeting anyone who was actually “great and powerful.” It only resulted in unnecessary hoop jumping (retrieve the broomstick), emotional turmoil and, ultimately, the revelation that the man behind the curtain was just holding onto a remnant of outdated power. While Oz (according to the modern additions) had real impact and meant well at the start, he had to resort to smoke and mirrors in order to retain power after the system had changed. I see parallels to all of this within the world of modern gatekeepers. I’m not sure the gates actually exist, or if they do, what one finds beyond them anymore.

      3. Getting past the gate did not result in the fulfillment of wishes by the head honcho. Rather, it only resulted in token measures (e.g., a clock, a useless diploma, etc.) that attempted to assuage the desperate and angry characters who had jumped through all the right hoops at their own peril. In the end, the Wizard takes off and the characters realize that they already had what they needed all along. Unfortunately, I’ve been told directly by both agents and publishers that the paper publishing world of the past is dead. Advances, if given at all, are small and rare. Advertising dollars are gone. If you aren’t already famous or don’t already have your own proven audience of 10,000 or more people willing to buy your work the minute it goes live, you won’t even get a reading. Best I can figure, then, YOU write the book, YOU get the following, YOU market your book; and if you do all that, a publisher might put their name on it, collect 92% of your money and … well, that’s it. Seems much like pulling back that curtain after the smoke and mirrors only to realize you had to do all the work yourself along the way and already had what you needed to get your wish granted.

      I’m not cynical. I’m actually excited about things where my current book and writing / speaking are concerned! I’m meeting great people (present company included, Drew). I’m inspired. And I am meeting my share of Glinda’s along the way. But in the end, either I have the ruby slippers or I don’t.

      And I believe I do.

  2. I loved your reasoning and examples of the audience for various genre. Would you consider giving social media/gatekeeper/etc. advice to someone writing a memoir with a target audience of women over 40? I constantly ask myself: Is this project better with a traditional publisher? Does this audience read e-books more than print, probably not? I’m not a celebrity, now what? How do I build the right kind of platform to attract the right gatekeeper for my project? If I post a link to my blog on facebook, I get 5 looks. That’s not gonna sell a book! Or give a literary agent reason to pause and take a look at me.

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