‘Dams and Dikes and Parapets’: Gatekeeping in the Era of Self-Publishing

A few hundred years ago publishing a book might have involved labouring in a secluded monastery for 25 years to carve a mirror relief of the text onto wooden blocks, skinning dozens of goats, and trekking around the continent to distribute parchment-paper books to the few people that could read and afford them. Now, with the click of a button, infinite copies of a title are available everywhere. The monasticism of the writer may endure, but with companies like Lulu, Smashwords, Author Solutions, and Amazon’s Createspace, a writer can become a published author with little effort. The gatekeepers of traditional publishing, and indeed the gates, are seemingly nowhere to be seen.

These companies produce and distribute print-on-demand titles and ebooks for a tiny fraction of the costs incurred by traditional publishers, allowing them to offer royalties of around 60-70%.1 In the US in 2011, authors self-published 235,000 titles, a nearly threefold increase since 2006. Almost two-thirds of those titles were print, but ebooks are growing at four times the rate.2 In January 2013, two of the top five-selling ebooks were self-published,3 and vendors no longer always distinguish between traditionally- and self-published titles.4

The appeal to unpublished writers is obvious. Publishing a book is transformed from an exclusive privilege, granted only to those deemed worthy (or at least saleable), to a right afforded to anyone who cares to exercise it. What “indie publishing” proponents generally elide, however, is the probable fate of these DIY books: although there are a few celebrated exceptions, the vast majority will sell few-to-very few copies and languish in obscurity as surely as if they were still stuck in a desk drawer.5

With the glut of DIY books on the market, finding an audience is arguably harder than ever;6 the supply of books is growing much faster than the demand. Still, the prospect of instant publication and a potentially higher cut of the profits is a powerful-enough lure that it is changing the nature of authorship and the relationship between publishers and authors. The staggering number of authors clamouring to be read highlights thorny questions of authorial legitimacy, equality of creative opportunity, the artistic merits of “literature” versus “genre” fiction, and the role of publishers as intermediaries between author and audience. Will the waning influence of publishing’s gatekeepers lead to an onslaught of poor-quality books that fulfill no purpose but to boost their authors egos, or will it allow unrecognized genius to flourish in the absence of publishers looking to boost only their bottom line?

The Barbarians at the Gates

Much of the rhetoric employed by indie publishers espouses the latter view. Asymmetrical Press claims that publishing “must break free of gatekeepers and become an industry of inclusivity and self-determination.”7 Kobo Writing Life emphasizes the freedom inherent in a DIY ebook model.8 Mark Coker is unabashedly evangelistic about the philosophy behind his Smashwords self-publishing platform, claiming that “publishers have built barriers — let’s call them dams and dykes and parapets — to protect against the hoards [sic] of aspiring writers.” He claims that “until publishers learn to honour, respect and embrace every writer … [publishers will] continue to disenfranchise writers.” Smashwords, in marked contrast, believes “every writer is special.”9

As just one snowflake in the blizzard of books released each year, each writer’s specialness can be difficult to discern, and does not easily translate to a readership. Rather than rely on their sparkle, many self-published authors engage in an entrepreneurial process of book promotion through community-based online channels, a form of “sustained authorship”10 in which the traditional methods of book promotion are replaced by “digital writing practices that support the constellation of authorship.” Beyond just jumping on the latest social media bandwagon, this is a specialized, interactive form of writing that requires learning the mores and practices of online communities. To avoid being ostracized or ridiculed as carpetbaggers, writers have to ingratiate themselves to the community and be seen to be adding value. It’s a delicate, lengthy process, but through the feedback received and the goodwill generated, can result in a book being embraced by its target audience and succeeding financially.11

For would-be authors disinclined to master the nuances of online social dynamics, their exists in conjunction with the DIY model a bevvy of author services available for purchase. Nearly all the self-publishing companies (with the notable exception of Smashwords) offer a variety of cover design, editing, and marketing services, and reviews can be purchased from Kirkus Indie or PW Select.12 The very entities that help authors flood the market are simultaneously selling them the means to rise above the deluge. In a sense they are recreating the traditional publishing model in a piecemeal, pay-as-you-go fashion, and implicitly affirming the value of the industry they are nominally designed to usurp. Meet the new gatekeepers, same as the old, but in lieu of a dazzling manuscript bring cash.

Most of the commercially successful self-published authors write romance or genre-fiction,13 and operate in a different model: write as much material as you can without worrying too much about quality or marketing, and publish it across the array of digital platforms. This method amounts to the commodification of fiction; it relies on readers who see books not as precious works of art, but as undifferentiated products to be consumed. They devour books with scant regard for the niceties of cover design, editorial quality, or production standards.14

The Barbarians Inside the Gates

It’s tempting to imagine self-publishing as a genre-quarantine zone whose bodice-rippers and epic fantasy sagas will never infect “serious,” literary fiction,15 and at least some of its appeal is due to the novelty of the industry and its underdog status, and is likely to dissipate.16 But an exodus of authors to DIY services could disrupt even the critically-lauded literature landscape: last year Random House published both 50 Shades and the National Book Award-winning Behind the Beautiful Forevers, about life in the margins of Mumbai. If the mommy-porn authors opt to stick with self-publishing, can companies still afford to publish lauded but not-nearly-as-profitable books?17 The question speaks to the gulf between popular appetite and critical adulation, but it also underlines the importance to publishers of retaining their commercially successful authors, who are increasingly likely to question the wisdom of signing with a traditional publisher.18

In light of this, the Big 6 are entering the DIY fray: Penguin recently created their own self-publishing arm and then paid $116 million for Author Solutions,19 which is also now partnered with Simon & Schuster to facilitate their foray into self-publishing.20 These acquisitions, the precipitous growth rate of indie titles, and the million-dollar profit of even Smashwords21 – which prides itself on not making money unless its authors make money, and is candid about the fact that most of its authors do not make money22 – all point to an industry increasingly unsettled by the discontent of its most valuable partners.

Two possible responses are to pay authors more and to more closely collaborate with them to promote their books. Larger royalties on ebook sales will remove much of the incentive to self-publish and distribute through Amazon,23 and is a simple, concrete step publishers can take. Jane Friedman urges a rethinking of the relationship between authors and publishers; in her view most authors are still enticed by the prestige and editorial development that traditional publishers offer, but are often ill-served after their book is released. Instead of just advising authors to start a blog and get on social media, publishers should become an “active, long-term, partner and resource”: they should take advantage of online direct-marketing channels to form relationships directly with readers, rather than leaving it to retailers; invest in the “online touchpoints” of authors, which are ultimately more valuable than the publisher’s own website; more heavily cross-promote their titles; and enable all this by developing permanent and ongoing author education and community programs.24 Even if they are unable to offer royalty rates comparable to the self-publishing firms, demonstrating their value and commitment to authors in this way will counteract the emancipatory rhetoric of Smashwords et al., and indirectly lead to better, more professional books.

For all the breathless attention paid to self-publishing phenomena, it’s telling that these authors often use their indie success as a means to a traditional publishing contract.25 Traditional publishers still have tremendous expertise and resources that even the most militant DIY authors can benefit from. The enduring signifiance of self-publishing will likely be two-sided: it will provide a means for genre-fiction authors to easily supply books-as-commodity, supplanting (or at least heavily supplementing) the mass-market paperback segment, and it will function as a sort of training ground for writers seeking traditional publication. Whereas once publishers held hordes of writers at bay, admitting only a select few to their “stable” of authors, now they can commandeer vast free-range stables populated by paying clients who, once they demonstrate impressive enough sales or talent, are plucked from the range to enjoy the (relative) comfort of a traditional publishing contract.

In an attenuated sense the concept of gatekeepers is still relevant, but is relocated to a different stage of the process. There will always be more aspiring writers than readers can possibly read, but until recently their output was confined to desk-drawers, slushpiles, and seldom-noticed vanity presses. Now these unloved manuscripts exist in public, at Amazon and Smashwords. It’s only fitting that in our Facebooking, oversharing, “reality”-obsessed times the apprenticeship of writers should take place under public scrutiny. The new gatekeepers are the readers, who were of course the ultimate gatekeepers from the beginning – the gates are just a lot more crowded now. For writers this means more struggle, but at a different stage of the process. For fans of erotica or fantasy novels there’s never been a better time to be a reader. For traditional publishers, the self-publishing boom is yet another reminder to be hyper-vigilant about creating and demonstrating real value for readers and authors who suddenly have myriad other options.


1. Mike Shatzkin, “Paying authors more might be the best economics for publishers in the long run,” The Shatzkin Files, 12 December 2011. (All links accessed 2 February 2013.)

2. Bowker, “Self-Publishing Sees Triple-Digit Growth in Just Five Years, Says Bowker,” Bowker.com, October 24, 2012.

3. Jeremy Greenfield, “Self-Published Authors Take Two of Top Five Spots as Prices Edge up for Ebook Best-Sellers,” Digital Bookworld, 29 January 2013.

4. Jana Bradley, Bruce Fulton, and Marlene Helm, “Self-Published Books: An Empirical ‘Snapshot,’” The Library Quarterly 82, no. 2 (April 2012).

5. Ibid.; David Carnoy, “Self-publishing a book: 25 things you need to know,” Cnet.com, 13 June 2012; Sarah Fay, “After ‘Fifty Shades of Grey,’ What’s Next for Self-Publishing?The Atlantic, 2 April 2012.

6. Jane Friedman, “The Future of the Author-Publisher Relationship,” LitFlow, 28 September 2012.

7. “About,” Asymmetrical.co, n.d.

9. Mark Coker, “21 Book Publishing Predictions for 2013: Indie Ebook Authors Take Charge,” Huffington Post, 23 December 2012.

10. Tim Laquinto, “Sustained Authorship: Digital Writing, Self-Publishing, and the Ebook,” Written Communication 27 no. 4 (October 2010); Megan Radford, “Red Lemonade & Revenue Generation: Will Community-Based Publishing Go Thirsty?Pub 802: Technology and Evolving Forms of Publishing, February 2012.

11. Laquinto, “Sustained Authorship.”

12. Carnoy, “Self-publishing.”

13. Russell Smith, “Are you a modern or an ancient about the self-publishing tsunami?Globe and Mail, 2 January 2013.

14. Jane Friedman, “Commodity Publishing, Self-Publishing, and The Future of Fiction,” Jane Friedman: Writing, reading, and publishing in the digital age, 8 January 2013.

15. Smith, “The self-publishing tsunami.”

16. Fay, “What’s Next for Self-Publishing?”

17. Friedman, “Commodity Publishing.”

18. Ibid.

19. Calvin Reid, “Pearson Acquires Self-Publishing Vendor Author Solutions For $116 Million,” Publishers Weekly, 19 July 2012.

21. J.J. Colao, “Apple’s Biggest (Unknown) Supplier of E-Books,” Forbes, 7 June 2012.

22. “About Smashwords,” Smashwords.com, n.d.

23. Shatzkin, “Paying authors more.”

24. Friedman, “The Future of the Author-Publisher Relationship.”

25. MJ Rose, “TNB Nonfiction Interviews M.J. Rose & Randy Susan Meyers, Authors of What To Do Before Your Book Launches,” The Nervous Breakdown, 11 October 2012; Fay, “What’s Next for Self-Publishing?”

One comment:

  1. Yes, there are outliers in each of these communities: self publishers who make it big on their own, traditionally published authors who break from their publishers to go it alone and publishers who benefit from picking up rights to well-proven titles that they can publish as backlist to a still-hungry audience. But you’re right that within each community there’s turmoil given the choice overload.

    Related to a different point regarding nurturing authors in order to keep them: One of the aspects of the golden age of publishing was the author/editorial relationship that developed. Houses supported authors the way that Hollywood production studios cherished their actors. As more and more choices developed, authors had more houses, more publishing avenues, and, as you rightly point out, more and more competition. At the same time the sales channels have consolidated and the review/promotional channels have shrunk. It’s quite the state isn’t it?

    And you’re right, it begs the question:
    “Will the waning influence of publishing’s gatekeepers lead to an onslaught of poor-quality books that fulfill no purpose but to boost their authors egos, or will it allow unrecognized genius to flourish in the absence of publishers looking to boost only their bottom line?”

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