Think of me as a conduit, not a gatekeeper.

A year or two ago I was having lunch with a old friend, someone I think both intelligent and savvy, the publisher of a largish imprint at a major house. We had a disagreement about what was going to happen as e-books became more popular. His position was that readers would always need the big publishing houses because they needed to have their content filtered, so to speak–because as agents, editors, and publishers, we had a certain kind of literary taste or standard and we needed to pass that along to the reader.

Well, (as I told him–he and I are used to disagreeing) blech. I’ve always found this kind of thinking a bit elitist and unnecessary and I always will. And as the climate has continued to change, I like to think that he’s been proven wrong. There’s still an argument for why some authors need publishing houses, of course, which is that publishers can often be better at marketing and publicity and distribution than any individual author can be. Increasingly this is not always the case (although even Amanda Hocking has now decided to go the traditional route), but that’s a discussion for a later time. Today, I am somewhat gleefully celebrating the fact that electronic publishing is really blowing apart the thinking that we in publishing somehow know better and have better taste than the average reader. Why this would be the case I’m not sure. Because some of us have Ivy League educations? Because we live in NYC and therefore somehow more sophisticated and urbane than most readers? Because we read The Paris Review and The New Yorker? Because we have chic haircuts and ironic sideburns and wear trendy little eyeglasses? (Full disclosure: I do not have ironic sideburns.)

What I’m loving most about the success of independently published e-books is that many of them didn’t pass the “gatekeeper” test–the individual author tried and failed to get an agent or publisher and decided to do it themselves. And now lots of these authors are getting lucrative book deals as publishers struggle to catch up. AND, many of them are turning down agents and publishers because they want to keep doing it on their own terms. This has always happened in publishing to a certain extent, of course. My client Laurie Notaro self-published years ago because she couldn’t find a publisher after seven years of trying, and when she did get a publishing deal at long last, her book debuted at #7 on the Times list. The Shack was self-published. Richard Paul Evans’ first book was self-published. The list goes on, these are just off the top of my head. But now, with e-publishing, it’s easier than ever for an author to get their book out there, and the list of successfully self-published e-book authors is growing exponentially, every day.

Maybe I’m just bitter. An agent friend and I were e-mailing today about “reader taste” vs. “publisher taste.” I think I’ve always had a case of “reader taste” because many of the books that I’ve really loved I’ve had a tough time selling or sold for very little money. Yet most of them have gone on to do very well indeed, many of them hitting the Times list. I would list them, but I’m not sure the authors would appreciate me telling the world that their book was hard to sell. Regardless, I loved these books, and I knew readers would love these books, but publishers often weren’t so sure, probably because the books were considered “quiet,”i.e., not “high concept,” or because they were aimed at readers in Middle America, or because they were quirky and hard to categorize.

Look, I don’t want to be too hard on editors and publishers. We’re all doing our best, after all, and publishing will always be something of a crap shoot, because we can’t really afford to do market research (except for Harlequin) and rely on guesswork to make pretty major decisions about what to publish and promote. When publishers are “running numbers” to decide how much money they can afford to spend on a book, a big part of the process is comparing the book to another book that is similar, and then factoring in the sales figures of said book. Sound unscientific? You betcha. But in many cases we don’t have that much more to go on; it’s just the nature of the beast so to speak. With so little to go on, publishers really do have rely on marketing hooks, etc. in their decision-making. But it’s still fun to gloat when a “quiet” book takes off because readers love it, not because it’s based on some awesome concept.

I guess the reason that I can’t help being a little gleeful about the democratization of the process, is that what I dislike about publishing is less the *way* we make decisions but rather the attitude that sometimes–not always–goes into those decisions, this somewhat patronizing, East Coast urban attitude of knowing better than the rest of book-reading America. And the idea that a book must appeal to a certain kind of sophisticated east coast reader to be successful. I’ve always had a lot of respect for the publisher Steve Ross, who used to divide the country up into segments and have his editors each focus on what was popular in that area, mostly by reading local media (this was some years ago). He was very smart about remembering that people outside of New York do actually buy books. Amy Einhorn, of Amy Einhorn Books, is another one. You may have heard of a little book called The Help? It’s not a high-concept book at all. But Amy fell in love with it, published it, and the rest is publishing history. It was the very first book she bought at her new imprint and we had lunch before it published. She was telling me how awesome it was, how excited she was–and look what happened! Readers respond, in my mind, to sincerity, to emotional truth, not to hooks.

So this has been a really rambling kind of post, but here’s the whole point of it: to say, hooray for you writers out there who believe in yourselves enough to get your work out there by whatever means necessary. Hooray for your successes, hooray for your bravery, and hooray for the fact that every book you sell means you may be touching that reader’s life in a powerful way. For isn’t that why we’re all in it? Even us gatekeepers.

Jenny's posts

59 Responses to Think of me as a conduit, not a gatekeeper.

  1. I don't think anyone really knows what will happen in the future, but I hope publishers don't disappear. I rely on them. Not because I don't think there's some really good stuff out there that doesn't come via the "big publisher" route, but because with so much being produced every day it's tough to figure out what is worth my money/time.

    I am a genre reader, and I look carefully at genre imprints to help me make decisions.

    On the other hand, as more people do publish their own work, publishers will have to get much more careful if they hope to keep their reputations actually meaning something in order for readers to trust them. Their formatting and editing will have to be top quality, for example, which they are certainly not now.

  2. dan says:

    Great post. Thanks for sharing! The book biz seems pretty similar to the movie biz, in that sometimes there are amazing books and movies that don't do well commercially, and there are lousy ones that do.

    I understand the need for literary agents, and I agree that there should be a certain standard of what sees print. But it's exciting that now there are more options when an author can't break through by traditional means. In the end we're all just trying to tell good stories, so I think it's great that more people are able to do just that.

  3. Heather says:

    As a writer who has been turned down by the best of them, I have to say that I agree wholeheartedly with the sentiment. Of course agents have to be reasonable about the projects they take on, after all, agents have bills to pay too. But I am pleased to say that the internet and ebooks have opened certain doors to those of us who wanted to "just see" if we were really all that bad. Sometimes, it even turns out we have something and can sell books in seven countries with no advertising. Then we get bookstores who want to carry us in print. I say yeah for the gatekeepers to weed through a lot of the stuff out there and put it in categories. And I also say yeah for the little guys (I've met a lot of them now and read some really amazing stuff that remains homeless) who take that step anyway. –HK Savage

  4. Melissa says:

    I have to say that I love this blog. Love it madly.

    I used to have a certain preconception of self-published authors, and it wasn’t too flattering. Then I discovered the Kindle app for my MacBook Pro. And then I found the books that never made it out of the slush – or perhaps the author came ::thisclose:: to landing an agent or a deal. As I read these books, I can easily see, from the industry’s perspective, what made them too “quiet,” as you say, or otherwise difficult to place. These are precisely the books that I’ve been craving. The Big Six lost me several years ago. The recession – even though I wasn’t affected by it – has changed my entire way of thinking. I often think that self-published authors hit on that “something,” and this is the reason so many are successful.

    So yes, I have changed my mind about self-published authors entirely. The three self-published eBooks on my Kindle are far more intriguing than the hardcopies gathering dust on my nightstand. There's room in publishing for everyone — let's just all get along. 🙂

  5. AstonWest says:

    Great post! It's an extremely exciting time in the industry, that's for sure.

  6. Great blog post, Jenny.

    My little novel Cupcakes, Lies, and Dead Guys scored an agent at a large reputable agency but was rejected by mystery and commercial women's fiction editors. When the agency fired my agent and me, because I hadn't sold yet, an Indie Publisher fell in love with the ms and published my book.

    The papers have no distribution yet, but the e-books are selling extremely well for a debut author with the tiniest publisher.

    I will be seeking representation for my next book, but if that doesn't work out, I know there are other options available.

    And, I agree with Melissa.

    Thanks for this post.


  7. Heather says:

    I used to think the same thing about self-published- like it was a bad word. Then I started looking at some stuff on and got some opinions and networked with some pretty amazing authors who aren't quite what the mass market is looking for (or as close to it as agents and publishers can predict and who can blame them, that's a pretty tall order considering I don't even know what my family is going to want for dinner tonight!), it is great to see that there is an avenue for both self-pubbed and mass pubbed. I'm even opening the doors of my own pub company to help other small authors to bring their work to the public even if it's small scale. There IS room for everyone in this great big publishing world. Is that someone singing "We are family?"…

  8. Anita says:

    Thanks for the beautiful post, Jenny! Writers need to hear that they have people on the publishing side of the tracks rooting for them, even if their story might not be an "easy sell" in the traditional sense. 🙂 Thanks for believing in us. YOU ROCK.

  9. I was discussing this today with a writer friend. She's on submission and has gotten a few bites – the "we're interested, but you need to do a major rewrite and submit again" kind. She feels confident her book is ready, and has received an offer from a small, local publisher. She's trying to decide which way to go.

    This post is so inspiring, compassionate, and important that I'm going to link it to my FB and RT in Twitterland.

    Love, you Jenny – you never cease to blow my mind.

  10. Wow. Great post. It's so rare to see someone who operates within the corporate publishing realm supporting independent authors. So, so rare to see an agent or editor voice any sort of dissent with The Way Things Are Done.

    So just as you give indie authors a "hooray," I hooray you right back, Ms. Bent. As an author who came up through MFA and MBA programs only to realize that I'd rather not give up rights and might know more about business and marketing than most publishing executives, I know from uphill battles and getting work out there through whatever means necessary.

  11. Lovely post, Jenny.

    … every book you sell means you may be touching that reader's life in a powerful way. For isn't that why we're all in it?

    Oh yes! And the wonders of the 'net make it easy to engage with readers, for them to share their thoughts if they're moved to, despite the tyranny of distance.

  12. This post brought a little tear to my eye, but I'm still not sure whether it's due to renewed hope or bittersweet resignation. My "quiet novel" has had some nibbles and a few close calls, but that elusive "I want this!" hasn't surfaced. Yet.

    Yes, I'm hard at work on the next novel, which fits more comfortably in the commercial world, but I still think this one can find a home.

  13. It's an exciting time in the industry, we're on the cusp here. I'd love to handle my ebook myself, but I also want the 'approval' of getting a trad publisher and they won't let me do that. If I don't get a good deal though, I'd be happy to turn them down. I'm not giving away my ebook rights for years for a pitance.

  14. Jane George says:

    Right after I posted my comment a rejection popped up in my in-box, "…This has less to do with your strengths as a writer and more to do with my goals as an agent and the trends of the current literary marketplace."

    Time to go indie with this book too.

    Thanks, Jenny, keep doing the good work, and kudos.

  15. Jane George says:

    I think I love you.

  16. @EShahan says:

    You said: Readers respond, in my mind, to sincerity, to emotional truth, not to hooks.

    Thank you. That certainly applies to me as a reader, and it also informs my writing. It's a brave new world out there, now that we don't have to conform to the tried-and-true formulas. I think it's very exciting.

  17. Robin says:

    I love you for this, but all of this self-pubbed versus traditional pubbing makes me want to breath into a brown paper bag until I stop seeing spots. It's all so complex and overwhelming either way. Makes me glad, again that I have "someone" on my side. 😉

  18. Em-Musing says:

    Ditto…great post. Thanks for sharing and giving us yet unpub'd authors hope.

  19. Hi Jenny,
    Reading through the comments on the way to this box, I couldn't help noticing how many comments express how much they love this post and/ or you. And, honestly, that was my first thought, too.
    Thank you for writing this post, and for believing in the power of a story that resonates with readers. It makes the work and wait worth it to read this.
    Thank you! -Jennifer King

  20. Whirlochre says:

    I'm all for there being more pins for quoits — as long as we don't end up unduly applauding people who lay the quoit on the ground and drive the pin through the centre.

    Maybe that makes me semi-elitist with free-for-all leanings — and a hoop.

  21. Thomma Lyn says:

    Jenny, I just wanted to say: YOU ROCK. Thank you for this wonderful post. I'm tweeting it and Facebooking it so I can share it with my writer friends. We indeed live in exciting times, rife with possibility!

  22. McKoala says:

    Really good post. Love the concept of 'conduit' rather than 'gatekeeper'. – Shona

  23. S.E. Gordon says:

    The nail is in the coffin. It's not a matter of if, but when. Publishers are parasites; finally the creator if free!

  24. literating says:

    Thanks, Jenny.

    It's funny because I read the New Yorker, Reviews like Paris', spend an absurd amount of time in New York and hang out with ivy leaguers – but half of what I like would give me the midwest-no-brain-reader label my current state of residence normally earns me.

    I think of E.E. Cummings who dedicated his work to the 15 agents who rejected him. I also think of how shocked most lit-snobs get when the public clamors for something that WAS permitted passage via "the gatekeepers."

    Readers are far more intelligent than many give them credit for and gatekeepers are both more intelligent than the masses think & less brilliant than they assume themselves to be.

    Great post.

  25. Randal says:

    Thank you for a very insightful and funny post.

  26. What a great post and such a refreshing take from an industry "insider." I think agents who embrace the Brave New World of publishing will do very well, because while many writers may decide they don't need a Big Six publisher, I can see lots of them still desiring the extensive services of a forward-thinking agent. Kudos!

  27. J.M.Cornwell says:

    Brava! It's great to see someone point to the rest of America outside of the East Coast who buy and read books — by the millions. Quirky, quiet, and unusual books do eventually have their day, but it's more likely, especially these days, that it will be by self-publishing. You give me hope for my own quirky and unusual book.

  28. Jill says:

    Wow, what a great post! Thank you, thank you!

  29. Nancy Kelley says:

    I am an author who is planning to self-publish, but I actually responded to this post as a reader. I grew up in the Midwest, and I definitely get tired of the notion that all Americans like the same things as New Yorkers. Thank you for understanding that, Jenny.

  30. Thank you for this- it articulates some of the reasons I decided to "go indie"- but as a publisher, not a writer. Full story How do I follow your blog?

  31. What an insightful post. Having recently read a couple of "Big Publisher" books and come away feeling very unsatisfied, I have to agree that tastes vary greatly. I do get my content filtered though, by recommendations from friends I trust. Word-of-mouth is still king!

    I recently self-published my memoir after being told over and over either that there was no market for it or that the market was saturated. I knew my market was a small niche, but now that it's published I've discovered that my book is reaching a much wider and unexpected audience.

    Could I use the distribution and promotion clout of a big publisher? Sure. But my little book is never going to go out of print, and slowly it will find its way to the right readers.

  32. Sue Latham says:

    Absolutely wonderful! Thanks for posting this.

  33. Ted Cross says:

    The biggest disconnect I have noticed between reader taste and publisher/agent taste is in high fantasy. If you dare to put a Tolkienesque elf or dwarf in a book these days the agents and publishers dismiss it and call it derivative. What they fail to understand is that publishing is supposed to be about making money, so who cares if it is derivative if it sells very well? Sure, the audience that is tired of such work thinks otherwise, but the millions who grew up loving Dungeons & Dragons-type worlds don't care what these folks think. We want more Tolkienesque stories, only we would prefer to see some that are actually good rather than the Eregon-type stuff they tend to give us.

  34. joceadams says:

    What a terrific, inspiring post. Thanks for sharing it!

  35. Fiona McGier says:

    EBooks have allowed many of us to realize a dream: become a published author. The characters in my head transferred to writing that enters someone else's head…what a trip! The nature of the eBook also allows for secretive reading of things with covers you don't want visible to those on the train with you as you commute. So the erotic romance genre has exploded with authors who write what readers want, with lurid covers that can be seen only by the reader.
    Thanks for letting us know that you respect writers who have been rejected by traditional publishers. It means a lot coming from an agent.

  36. As an indie author "by choice" and not because I've been turned down by publishers (I actually requested to be released from my contract by a fairly prominent lesbian fiction publisher) or because I am using self-publishing to lure a publisher, I ask "Amanda who?" (Just kidding. I know all about Amanda "Who!" Hocking LOL).

    Amanda Who?'s exit from indie publishing only leaves more room for self-published authors who really want to indie publish on their own and are not just lifting their skirts to lure a traditional publisher. LOL.

    Thanks for the post.

  37. Loved this thoughtful post. A lot of truth packed in there. Thanks for your honesty.

  38. Patricia says:

    I've never read a post from someone in the industry like this! Hooray for YOU for writing it!

  39. Dear Jenny,

    I don't want the book industry to behave like an average reader.

    I'm an elitist. (Blame it on my parents. My father, F.N. Souza, pioneered post-independent modern Indian art; my mother was an haute couture designer whose clients included the editor-in-chief of British Vogue magazine and Honor Blackman (the original Pussy Galore and Mrs. Steed in The Avengers). I add this purely for context because my background is unusual.)

    I want to learn from the experts, I want to meet people who know more than I do and I want my writing to leave a mark on the world for the better. Average never wants any of these things. That's what makes it mediocre, and narrow-minded; though it appears to be taking up considerable bandwidth in western culture (and publishing) these days.

    Please be a gatekeeper as well as a conduit. You will likely not remember, we met a few years ago at a writer's conference. I was impressed by your expertise.

  40. jennybent says:

    Hi Shelley,
    Okay, I think sometimes I am too extreme! I am happy to do both at your suggestion, which is a good one.

  41. Shevi says:

    Thank you. That is a wonderful blog post.

    Lately I've been looking at some of the things the gatekeepers have been letting in–like Snooki's "Shore Thing"–and remembering some of the things the gatekeepers repeatedly rejected–like the Pulitzer-Prize winning "A Confederacy of Dunces," which wasn't published until after the despairing author took his own life. It's got me wondering why I've spent the last nine years trying to win these gatekeepers over. Do I really want to join a club that was so desperate to have Snooki as a member? I'm starting to think I don't.

    What I really want is to share my stories with readers who will find themselves in them, lose themselves in them, and laugh and cry and delight in everything my characters experience. Now thanks to e-books and the changing landscape of publishing, I can do exactly that, and I don't need the gatekeepers.

    I'm sure they don't mind. They'll always have Snooki.

  42. That's probably one of the most intelligent–if not the most intelligent–article on the subject (and I've read a lot of them since I decided to embark on the adventure of independent publishing). Thank you. And I do like that chic haircut!

  43. Thank you for this post, Jenny. I've had two agents, but they couldn't sell my books. Like you, I believe this is an exciting time for writers and readers–and, ultimately, for publishing.

  44. JL_Bryan says:

    This is a great post! I think the existing system can be a bottleneck–too few agents and editors trying to decide what millions of people might like. There are also high costs and low margins that keep publishers from taking too many risks.

    After a decade on the query-go-round, I published independently on Kindle, Nook, etc. and now make more money from my novels than my day job. It's also neat to be on Amazon's genre bestseller lists alongside Stephen King and Charlaine Harris.

    More importantly, it's great to reach so many readers and get enthusiastic emails, tweets, and Facebook comments back from them.

    It's very depressing to spend years trying to get your work published and dealing with a complete lack of response that makes you wonder whether you've wasted your whole life. If you've put in the years to learn your craft, independent publishing is definitely a viable way to make your living.

  45. Brilliant post, Jenny!

    Glad to see a healthy perspective on this from an agent. You'll survive the e-pocalypse. 😉

  46. Anna Murray says:

    The reading public is the new tastemaker, and the rainbow is wide. It's an exciting time to be an author.

  47. It's nice to see someone in the industry recognizing what we in self-publishing have been seeing for a while. My husband originally published his fantasy series, The Riyria Revelations and has done very well with them. We've had several months where we sold more than 10,000 books a month. Our success with self-publishing helped to get a six-figure deal with a major traditional publisher. If he had submitted to NY before gaining an audience his advance would have been $5,000 – $15,000.

  48. -LGraham says:

    I bookmarked this entry, so I can read it any time I need a pick-me-up. We might be the fastest runner or the highest jumper at the meet, but it's the people cheering from the sidelines that make it worth the effort.

  49. Obe says:

    Sigh, if only you were my agent. You have at least caught up with the times. Thank you for a marvelous post. Perhaps there is hope at the end of my rainbow.

  50. Phil says:

    A really interesting post, thank you. I'd like to throw something else into the mix however, and that's the role of the librarian. Librarians come at this from an entirely different angle – they're often very well informed (certainly in their own area of expertise) and widely read. Librarians are also getting more and more involved with social media, and ebooks.

    It seems to me that they are perfectly poised to move into this area – advising patrons on how to get published, helping them, reading their material, suggesting titles for book reading groups, promoting titles on websites and telling each other about good books they have found.

    I suspect that we'll see them increasingly getting involved in the whole publishing process, as both gatekeepers and facilitators. I'd be interested in your opinion.

  51. Self-publishing changed my life. Reading your blog was reaffirming. Thank you.

  52. Helen says:

    As an author I think publishers are being way too careful. Last summer I had 3 top agents in London who wanted to represent my book. I chose one of the agents and consequently he could not get a publisher to take on my book. He was shocked, he has clients who are huge authors, but put it down to the business at the moment. Having read some of the comments on here I think I may look into e-publishing myself.

  53. Diana Stevan says:

    Wow!Great timing for me as I try and sell my novel. Thank you for your honesty and overview of the marketplace. I've wondered about these great literary novels that get great reviews but aren't that readable. I'm also wondering whether I want to spend the next one, two, or three years banging my head against the wall trying to get an agent. Your post gives me a lot to consider.

  54. I know I'm late to this party, but I really enjoyed this post – especially as a writer whose work is on the unusual side of the tracks. It isn't to me, of course – I just write what I want to read. This means I'm grateful for those who in the past have championed the quietly unusual and maybe unfashionable so that we have a richer literature.
    Your clients are very lucky.

  55. HotWebTopics says:

    It's nice to read an "insider" thinking like this. Thanks from all of us self-publisher who sweat it out day in and day out, laboring for every Amazon sale; every sale from our website, every Twitter follower who thanks us for "your ebook on …"

    Thank you.

    Yuwanda Black, Self-Publisher

  56. Nellie says:

    Yikes! I'm in the minority here. I totally agree with your somewhat gleeful attitude about getting past the gatekeepers. No publisher truly knows what will work and what won't, so the self-publishing success stories make us all happy for the underdog. However, I don't agree that "lots of these authors are getting lucrative book deals as publishers struggle to catch up." I think this is a happy myth. SOME are, but not LOTS. if you have any data, I'd love to see it. Also, self-publishing has introduced so much terrible crap into the marketplace that it is even harder to make your book noticed. There is more chatter than ever before, and a lot of it is for books that are just badly done. There is a downside, and it is a flood of awful books all clamoring for attention.

  57. Audry Fryer says:

    I appreciate your honesty and perspective. Your insights have confirmed what I had suspected. I have taken the self-publishing route. And while I have the feeling that my book is a needle in a haystack, I didn't want to miss out on such an amazing opportunity. At the very least, I am learning much about marketing and promotion. Going it alone is most definitely more difficult, yet in some ways rewarding.

  58. Rosemary says:

    You just gave my writer's heart the biggest hug! Just what I needed. Thank you for this refreshing point of view.

  59. kdrausin says:

    Your words have meant the world to me this morning. Thank you.