Is Traditional Publishing Still the Gatekeeper of Quality Books?

Okay, I’m going to ask you to do something next to impossible for a moment here.  I’m going to ask you to think about publishing … got it?  Thinking about publishing? … and then I’m going to ask you to remove Indie publishing from your thoughts for a moment.  Alright?  Stick it right over there to the side.  You can pick it up later.  Just for a minute we’re not talking about Indie publishing at all.

Ah!

So.  Traditional publishing.  Also called Legacy publishing these days.  Not that long ago Traditional publishing was the only game in town.  For those who don’t know how the publishing world works, once upon a time a writer would write something, then they would pitch it to an agent.  After enough pitches and query letters, blood, sweat, and tears, an agent would sign the writer.  Then the agent would take the book, maybe sprucing it up a little, maybe not depending on the agent, and attempt to sell it to a publisher.  This process took a while.  If a publisher liked the book then they would buy it.  Then, after editing, cover design, and marketing prep work, the book would be printed and appear at your local bookstore.

So why does the process take so long?  Why are there so many levels and so many steps involved?

Because the aim of Traditional publishing has always been to produce the best possible books of the highest quality and greatest literary merit.

*insert screeching record sound here*

Wait a minute.  Is that true?  Does Traditional publishing produce the best work?

One of the very first explanations about the agent/publisher process that I can remember being given was all about the concept of agents and publishers being “The Gatekeepers” of the book world.  The process, it was explained to me, was put into place so that someone could monitor the quality of work being marketed to consumers.  The “Big Six” publishing companies were seen as the pinnacle of this gatekeeping process.  The implication was that if it was published by a Big Six publisher, it was Quality.

I think the first test of this theory that I came across, at least that I can remember, was a romance novel called By A Lady.  No offense to the author, but … wow.  Granted, the book has an intriguing concept, time-travel romance with Jane Austen as a secondary character, but it was so poorly executed and twisted the limits of credibility so painfully that, alas, it became something of a joke amongst a group of friends of mine.

And yet while my friends laughed and scoffed, I cried a little bit.  Some Traditional publisher had bought that book and published it.  Ouch.

Since then I’ve been much more aware of all things related to publishing.  Especially as I’ve published myself.  I’ve been involved in countless formal and informal discussions with writer friends about poor editing and disappointing offerings by incredibly well-known authors.  Several people have made the statement that while the earlier Cat Who… books are wonderful, the later ones aren’t worth the paper they’re printed on.  And I’m sure you can think of half a dozen other Traditionally published books that fell far short of the mark.

And yet they were published.  Even though they were terrible.

But there it is, that claim that the agents and publishers of Traditional/Legacy publishing are the Gatekeepers of Quality.

Yeah, I don’t buy it anymore.

The fact of the matter is, it has never been about quality in Traditional publishing.  It’s been about selling.  The system of Traditional publishing is set up to find books that will sell.  Granted, quality is a major factor in what makes a book sell.  But for every The Help there is an answering Fifty Shades of Gray.  For every Harry Potter there is a Twilight.  They all have their fans and their detractors.  And they were all published by Traditional publishers because someone thought they would sell.  And they did.

But does that still give the Traditional publishing industry the right to claim to be The Gatekeepers?

When I hear the term “gatekeeper” I think of a security guard manning his post at a giant iron gate that leads to a fabulous mansion.  Everyone wants to get into the mansion.  The mansion is cool.  Outside the gates are a million hungry souls waving manuscripts.  But only a few get in.  Why do they get in?  Well, some walk up to the gate and tell the security guard a compelling story.  But others, perhaps more than people want to admit, are let through because they know somebody.  I know of two authors who were published because they knew somebody.  And reviews of their books are not good.  I couldn’t make it past three chapters of one, and I wanted to like that book so badly.

So, back to the original question.  Is Traditional publishing still the gatekeeper of quality books?

My answer?  No.  They were never the gatekeepers of quality books to begin with.  They were and are the judges of marketable content.  And quite frequently they’ve been wrong.  They’ve also been right.  It’s a subjective business.  Any publisher is going to win some and lose some.

But as for me, as a reader and a writer, I’m kind of grateful that there’s a new game in town and that the Traditional publishing monopoly has been broken.

I’m dying to know what other people think here.  Who is The Gatekeeper these days?

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3 thoughts on “Is Traditional Publishing Still the Gatekeeper of Quality Books?

  1. You are right on the money, Merry. Over the years, I have read many awful books published by “legacy” publishers. In fact, I read one this weekend that was so juvenile I couldn’t understand how it managed to be published in the first place.

  2. Big printing presses are marvels of mid – twentieth century technology. If you have never seen one you should. They are spectacular. But they are also expensive to run. If you are going to print something with one of those, you are going to print a million of them or it is not worth starting. And they better sell most of them, or you will go broke. In that world, marketability has to be the first and only watchword. Traditional publishing is built on those machines and has to be the way it is in order to feed them.

    Current technology allows for other options. One off and small run publishing is now possible and that changes the financial foundations. Enter Indie publishing.

    Traditional publishing has never been the “Gatekeeper of Quality”, they are the “Gatekeepers of the Really Big Presses.” Now, if you want your words to go through one of those really big presses, then you must still talk to them. If you can be happy with other means, then you have other choices.

    But, “Quality” is too subjective to only have one gate.

  3. I think I lost a little respect for the major publishers when they started publishing celebrity ghost-written novels, which were just thinly disguised autobiographies, after already publishing the same celebrity’s autobiography. When I was searching for a publisher, I looked at the smaller presses automatically.

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