An American Editor

April 18, 2011

Gatekeeping: Necessary or Not in the eBook Era?

I think there is a marketplace confusion regarding the value of gatekeeping vs. nongatekeeping.

Problem 1 is that nongatekept authors whose ebooks sell well fail to distinguish between books sold and books read. This is an important distinction. Using myself as an example, I am willing to read an author’s description of their ebook and spend a maximum of 2 minutes reading the sample online, and then, if the blurb seems interesting and the 2-minute sampling doesn’t reveal horrendous errors, I am willing to buy the ebook for 99 cents. It just isn’t much of a financial risk.

So the sale looks good for the author, but should I start reading the ebook and discover that it isn’t worth the bytes it occupies and thus I cease reading it — no one knows. Even if I post a negative review, many other readers are willing to gamble the 99 cents.

Unfortunately, there is no way to measure whether a book has been bought and read or simply just bought and left in a To-Be-Read pile forever, or started and stopped because of discovered inadequacies. Yet knowing whether a bought book has been read is important, just as it is important to know whether someone thinks a book is worth reading.

Although not a true solution to this problem, perhaps a step in the direction of a solution would be to post the actual number of sales of a title. It could be very revealing if a book sells 1,000 copies but only has one 5-star review and a handful of mediocre down to 1-star reviews. If there are only 3 or 4 reviews, even if all are 5-star reviews, it might be an indication that (a) there have been a lot of sales but few reads or (b) a lot reads but few readers who think the book is worth mentioning to anyone. Although a less-than-perfect solution to gauging how good a book is, it is an iota better than the current system in which readers have no idea how well a title is selling.

Sales figures even without companion reviews can be valuable to readers. If a book is ranked number 1 on a bestseller list but has only sold 300 copies, there may be less of rush to buy a book because it is listed as a bestseller. Conversely, if the book has sold 5,000 copies, it may well cause readers to rush to buy it.

The second problem is pricing. Books that have gone through the traditional gatekeeping role tend to support higher pricing than those that have not. I am willing to spend 99 cents for a nongatekept ebook because it is not much of an outlay — it’s like buying a lottery ticket; I am willing to gamble $1 on odds of 6 million to 1 but I am not willing to pay $5.99 for such an ebook because the risk of getting dreck is much too high. On the other hand, I am willing to spend $7.99 for a gatekept ebook because the risk is generally that I will not enjoy the writer’s style or I won’t be in the mood for the particular genre, not that I will be stuck with dreck (although that, too, does happen and is happening with increasing frequency as the gatekeepers fumble around ebooks).

Yet to read the blogs and comments, one would think gatekeeping is passe, something no longer either needed or desired. To many commenters, the freedom to publish drivel is superior to the gatekeeper system that existed before the ebook revolution because it offers more choice.

The problem with unfettered choice is that it is impossible for readers to wade through the 1 million new titles that are published each year to find the 50 or 100 or even 250 ebooks that a reader can physically read in a year. I suspect that even if a reader made it his or her full-time occupation to peruse published ebooks to find the 250 ebooks to buy and read that they couldn’t do much more than toss a pebble into the ebook flood. What ebooks have done is inverted the pyramid. Rather than having a system to narrow choices to a manageable number, it has widened the choices to infinity, an unmanageable number.

These gatekeeping-is-dead articles would be much more impressive and valuable if they gave pricing information and surveyed purchasers to determine whether the ebook was actually read or not. Making broad-based claims of no need on as little data as is currently done has virtually no value.

Let’s see where we stand. Take this unscientific poll:

I probably should be asking more questions and/or giving more or different choices as answers, but this will get us started.

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