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.

7 Comments »

  1. “Consequently, traditional publishers are no longer fulfilling their role as gatekeepers.”

    Although the trend in this direction is real, the above statement is a sweeping generalization that will surely insult everyone in the industry who’s trying like mad to uphold standards.

    As a writer, I still look toward traditional publishers as the most desirable path to publication. Yeah, I can get published faster and easier through non-traditional venues, and make or keep more money. But I can’t expect the intellectual and craft support that’s still available through the top tier of traditional publishers, nor rely on the quality judgment of others outside that tier.

    “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.”

    This breakup is already in process. Many great editors and publishers are dismayed (if not unemployed!) by the changes overwhelming the industry yet their passion is still to produce great books. Such people who are in a position to do so are starting to scramble around and reinvent and find new pathways to keep the flame alive. It’s happening in print and electronic publishing, because people in both sides of the industry still want some way to achieve and sustain quality books. The first part of the challenge is to organize into viable small companies; the second part is for authors and editors to find each other amid all the shouting. A new marketing and communications channel must develop in conjunction with the changeover, since popular social media have become just so much noise.

    Comment by Carolyn — February 22, 2012 @ 6:33 am | Reply

  2. I’d add a fourth function: Fact-checking. As part of the editorial process, publishers used to employ fact-checkers who would verify an author’s statements of fact and challenge statements that they couldn’t verify. I’m sure that some publishers still employ fact-checkers, but the cases of publishers that allow books to go to print with egregious errors (both intentional and accidental) are multiplying.

    Comment by Len Feldman — February 22, 2012 @ 10:18 am | Reply

    • Good thought, Len. Fact-checking might include plagiarism checking but also stands on its own. I can add one more problem, but one for which I don’t know of any solution prepublication: verifying that cited sources really do support the proposition for which they are cited. One good example: consider the recent Citizens United decision by the United States Supreme Court in which the court cited a case from the 1880s/1890s to support the idea that corporations are “persons” for purposes of political speech. The cited case never said that. That was an editor’s headnote to the 1880s/1890s case, which was the editor’s interpretation (worth noting is that the editor was also a business person who had promoted that perspective in the case), made after the case was decided. This is a common problem in legal briefs: the lawyers have no time or money to do more than read the headnotes of a case, headnotes not written by the deciding court but by outside editors, and so no law often becomes bad law and bad law gets perpetuated.

      Comment by americaneditor — February 22, 2012 @ 12:07 pm | Reply

  3. [...] a great profession and brought great literature to the reading public.reposted with permission from An American Editor /**/ Tags:No Comments so far ↓There are no comments yet…Kick things off by filling out the [...]

    Pingback by The Failure of the Gatekeepers - The Digital Reader — February 22, 2012 @ 2:05 pm | Reply

  4. I’ve just read “The Plagiarist’s Tale” article (thanks for the link) and couldn’t believe what I was reading. What’s worse Rowan has been doing it for more than decade and no one – not even the so-called gatekeepers – had picked up on it. Actually, I shouldn’t be shocked – there have been numerous cases over the years where publishers have been forced to withdraw books with content that was either plagiarised or fiction passed off as fact.

    “Consequently, traditional publishers are no longer fulfilling their role as gatekeepers. In the absence of fulfilling that role, what purpose do they serve? Good question. Editorial, PR, marketing and author branding perhaps?

    Comment by Vicki — February 22, 2012 @ 10:41 pm | Reply

  5. [...] Adin, in The Failure of the Gatekeepers at An American Editor, writes this week: The…function…of nourishing new writers, has [...]

    Pingback by Writing on the Ether | Jane Friedman — February 23, 2012 @ 5:01 am | Reply

  6. [...] Adin, in The Fail­ure of the Gate­keep­ers at An Amer­i­can Edi­tor, writes [...]

    Pingback by Writing on the Ether | JaneFriedman.com | Porter Anderson — March 24, 2013 @ 10:21 am | Reply


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