An American Editor

February 22, 2012

The Failure of the Gatekeepers

One of the arguments that many of us have made in support of traditional publishing has been the role that traditional publishers have played as gatekeepers. Gatekeeping means more than just making sure that a manuscript is literate; it includes making sure that it is original.

Increasingly, traditional publishers are failing at this aspect of gatekeeping. They are failing to detect the plagiarized book. A recent article in The New Yorker, “The Plagiarist’s Tale” by Lizzie Widdicombe, explores this problem. If you haven’t read the article, it is well worth reading.

In this case, the publisher failed to recognize that the entire book was made up of takings from numerous books. But not only did the publisher fail, so did numerous others in the chain, including the author’s agent. And in reading the author’s writing history, over the years many persons missed his plagiarizing, including the editors at the Paris Review.

If gatekeepers are failing at this fundamental task, what purpose are they serving that warrants anyone caring about their future survival? I understand missing a plagiarized paragraph here and there, but in the book that is the subject of the article, it appears as if hardly a single paragraph was original to the author.

For me, traditional publishers as gatekeepers served three primary purposes. First, they weeded out those works that really belonged in the slush pile and were not worthy of going further, even though they occasionally missed some gems. Second, they nourished writers who deserved being nourished thus enriching our culture. Third, they weeded out plagiarism. I don’t mean the one-paragraph-in-500-pages-of-manuscript kind; I mean the one-paragraph-on-each-page kind — the blatant plagiarism.

With the advent of ebooks and self-publishing, the first role has pretty much disappeared. There are so many publishing house labels that it is nearly impossible to know whether the publisher is a giant or a mouse. Smart self-publishers are creating their own “publishing houses” to publish their books. The result is that there is no weeding of books in the marketplace because books rejected by an established traditional publisher are now published by a new “publishing house” — and few readers know that they are buying from the slush pile until they buy the book and start reading it, only to discover that the book should never have found its way out of the slush pile and into the retail book market.

The second function, that of nourishing new writers, has been falling by the wayside in the last decade. Financially, traditional publishers are struggling (at least so they claim; it is hard to give too much credence to such cries when I read that a publisher had nearly a billion dollars in profit in 2011) — the competition has turned fierce. Reading is down as are traditional book sales. Fewer blockbusters are being published so there are fewer blockbusters available to generate the kind of income needed to nourish nonblockbuster authors. And authors are increasingly going their own way because they get to keep more of the money and don’t need to worry about publisher rejection.

That leaves the third function, the weeding out of plagiarists. Alas, publishers are failing in this role as well. I think there are many causes for this failure. The editors that traditional publishers hire are under the gun to publish books that make a profit and increase the publishing conglomerate’s bottom line. The accountants have taken over from the craftsman and the editor’s ability to keep a job and a steady paycheck is dependant on satisfying the accountants.

In the olden days of publishing, a book was rarely published before it was ready to be published. Publication dates were flexible; if an extra round of editing by a professional editor was needed, it was done. The consolidation of the publishing industry into the conglomerates changed that. Now publication dates are fixed in stone, regardless of whether a book is ready or not. The result is increasing numbers of errors that slip by and the inability to gatekeep for plagiarism.

Also in the olden days, editors were trained to recognize possible plagiarism. Perhaps more importantly, editors were widely read themselves and thus suspicious based on their own broad reading. A book editor, in the olden days, was not an entry-level position. One rose to it; it was a position of prestige. It attracted people like former first lady Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis and master writer Bennett Cerf. Today, the editor is closer to, if not, an entry-level position. The glamour of being an editor at a prestigious traditional publisher is gone — gone with the consolidation of the industry into a few international conglomerates whose first interest is the quarterly bottom line.

Consequently, traditional publishers are no longer fulfilling their role as gatekeepers. In the absence of fulfilling that role, what purpose do they serve? Many ebookers today would say traditional publishers serve no role at all and should follow their dinosaur ancestors into oblivion. Perhaps they are right. Perhaps the time has come for the breakup of the conglomerate publisher and the return of the smaller, independent publishers, the ones who made publishing a great profession and brought great literature to the reading public.

November 23, 2011

On Books: The Shine of the Internet in the World of eBooks

As all of An American Editor book reviews (which are listed at the end of this article) imply, the Internet has opened reading vistas for me that otherwise would never have happened. I find that as a result of the Internet and places like Smashwords, I am being exposed to authors and stories that would not otherwise have been available to me. This has been the blessing of the Internet for readers, especially with the advent of ebooks.

The dark side remains the lack of gatekeeping and how finding worthwhile books to read is increasingly difficult. The easier it is for “authors” to find an outlet for their work, the harder it is for readers to separate the wheat from the chaff.

Unfortunately, although this problem has been discussed several times over the course of the past two years, no real solution has been forthcoming. I doubt there really is a single, good solution to the gatekeeping problem, except, perhaps, to not pay more than 99¢ for any ebook from an unknown author.

Even at that price point, I find myself waffling about whether to buy or not. That’s because my to-be-read pile is already several hundred books, nearly all of which I obtained free, and it keeps growing with free ebooks. I am unlikely to live long enough to celebrate the demise of my TBR pile even should I stop adding to it now.

Regardless, the rise of the Internet and the (relatively) recent rise of ebooks has worked wonders for multiculturalism. Exposure to literature from other continents and countries has broadened my perspective significantly. Previously, my exposure was to North American and West European literature. The geographical limitations imposed by contract between publisher and author limited opportunities to expand.

That geographical limitation combined with publisher gatekeeping, which had at least one eye, and perhaps more than one eye, focused on the bottom line, meant that exposure to other cultures was limited. (Of course, it doesn’t help that I am monolingual, which imposes its own fence.) As each day passes, the geographical and gatekeeping limitations fade a little more and increasingly seem to be only relevant to ebooks published by the big six publishers.

For all of this, the Internet should take a bow. The Internet shines at making what was previously unavailable available, and I, for one, am trying to take advantage of that ready availability. Alas, as noted earlier, that Internet shine does have a darkening tendency as well.

The ease of access has caused the lack of effective gatekeeping to cast its net much wider than just the Internet. Increasingly, traditional publishers seem to be publishing whatever they can get their hands on and in whatever condition they grabbed the book. The dark side of the Internet is the lowering of quality acceptance/expectations and the increasing demand for lower prices. This is not to say that as price increases, quality increases; there is definitely no upward correlation between the two as the Agency 6 prove on a regular basis. However, there is a correlation between lower price and lower quality — absent sufficient revenue, essential production services, such as editing, are bypassed. (Yes, I, too, can point to examples of outstanding quality ebooks that are free; yet being able to do so doesn’t negate the validity of the statement when discussing the broader ebook market.)

The lesson is that we need to work harder on figuring out a way to correlate price and quality and find that sweet spot that satisfies both. I expect that within the next few years we will come close to resolving the matter even though I currently have no idea as to what is a practical solution.

A large number of ebookers believe that publisher gatekeeping can readily be replaced by crowd gatekeeping. I wish this were true but the evidence so far, at least to my eye, indicates that too many of the crowd gatekeepers base their gatekeeping on factors other than quality of writing and quality of story. We still see all-too-many reviews in which price or geographical restrictions or some other unrelated-to-writing-quality criterion plays a role in deciding whether an ebook is a 2-star or a 5-star ebook.

In addition, I have found it difficult to find reviewers whose reviews I can consistently trust. (Part of the problem is that too many reviews are written by unidentifiable reviewers. Who is TommyGumChewer and why should I value his/her opinion? See Book Reviews & Reviewers: Deciding Which Reviews to Trust for an earlier discussion.) Many ebookers have developed their own criteria for evaluating reviews (e.g., dismissal of all 1-star reviews), which may work well for them, but leaves me unsatisfied. I have grown too accustomed to reviews like those in The New York Review of Books to find many of the reviews on the Internet helpful.

In the end, what I do is take advantage of what the Internet does best — make information available to me — and I “buy” ebooks whose descriptions interest me. I read (or try to read) those ebooks and act as my own gatekeeper, as inefficient a process as it is in this era of self-publishing. And, thus, what I “buy” is largely free, because with all the ebooks available, it would be very easy to spend a small fortune to find only a few excellent ebooks and authors.

How do you gatekeep?

(For those who are interested, the following are reviews I have written for An American Editor in order of newest to oldest:

I believe that covers all of the reviews on An American Editor. Happy book hunting!)

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