Indie News Beat: Gatekeepers by Default?

One of the more interesting side-effects of the self-publishing revolution is that independently published books are acting as a “testing ground” for mainstream publishers. More and more often we hear in the news of a self-published author who worked hard to shift a few thousand copies, and then along came a mainstream to snap them up and market them as a new discovery.

While this may be good news for the authors concerned, the other side of the coin is the intimation that, if an Independent Author can’t shift thousands of copies on their own efforts, then de-facto they can be deemed somehow to have failed. This article on Authonomy is typical of a mainstream encouraging authors who can’t get off the slushpile to go the self-publishing route. Authonomy is HarperCollins’ pseudo-indie platform, a place where unknown authors can go to showcase their work, so it’s no surprise it takes a mainstream-centred point of view.

The article begins by name-checking the usual suspects who started out self-publishing and then went on to enjoy mainstream success, before, wagging its finger like a parent admonishing a wayward child, pointing out that these authors “knew their market and had taken the time to cultivate it.” Many literary agents now regard self-publishing as an “incubator” for new talent.

Then comes the catch: it may take up to 100,000 sales “before publishers are vying for your signature”, although a few thousand will probably be enough to get the attention of literary agents. In this way, literary agents and mainstream publishers retain their function as gatekeepers by default. Instead of wading through vast slushpiles, agents and publishers can sit back, see what authors and titles are building a market, then step in with an offer.

The only problem is, it’s self-defeating. As Howey and others have shown, if an author can build an audience of thousands without a mainstream behind them, why do they need one afterwards? The only answer is validation: that mainstream publication still has the lure of making an author feel legitimate. Now, however, we move into irony: the Independent Author works hard writing, blogging and promoting for years to build their audience, only for a mainstream to come along and say: “Congratulations, you’ve made it! Now we’ll take your book and instead of the 70% royalties you’ve been earning by your own effort, we’ll let you keep 12%, but that’s a small price to pay for being a ‘real’ author!”

I think it’s clear most writers accept that the days of the JD Salinger, who could find a publisher and retreat to live life completely out of the public eye, are over. Whether independent or mainstream, each author knows that they have to interact with their readers to promote their books and their name. The question, though, is: are you self-publishing for independence or to snag a mainstream? If the answer is to snag a mainstream, then aren’t they and the literary agents maintaining their former role as gatekeepers by default?


Author: Chris James

Chris James is an English author who lives in Warsaw, Poland, with his wife and three children. He has published three full-length science fiction novels and is currently writing a series of short story volumes inspired by characters in songs from the rock band Genesis. For more information, please visit his website or Amazon author page.

34 thoughts on “Indie News Beat: Gatekeepers by Default?”

    1. It also plays unfairly to commercialism in that the only books they’ll be interested in are those that shift a lot of copies. For specific genres, in the future readers will have to look at Indie titles.

  1. This is the exactly the irony that I’ve been seeing in all this, Chris. From the big publishers’ point of view, nothing about the game has changed; the only difference is that now it’s KDP playing gatekeeper instead of literary agents. I’m heartened to see that at least some authors who have sold thousands of books on their own have rejected contract offers from the big guys.

  2. Good question. At least in Science Fiction, the answer is — for validation. In that genre, if you’re not published by a respectable house, you’re not really a success. I find it amusing — and irritating — that I sold more than 5000 copies of my debut novel, but I don’t qualify for membership in any number of organizations, notably SFWA.

    The snobbery is almost enough to tempt me to go through the hell of finding an agent and banging on publishing house doors.

    Almost. Until I give myself a knock upside the head and remember that if they don’t respect me for all the hard work I did, they can go take a flying leap.

    So there! 😀

    1. Hey Christie. Being a fellow Science Fiction writer, I totally agree with your comment. I was amazed when I read the SFWA’s “rules” a couple of years ago, but since then I’ve understood that they only want to maintain the status quo, and that’s something Indies will have to put up with. Mainstream sci-fi publishers will – predictably – only put out derivative books that they’re sure will sell. Sci-fi authors trying to tell new stories will just have to tough it out. Good luck!

    2. Bravo Christie. As another sci-fi writer, I’m appalled at how hidebound sci-fi has become. Not that many years ago, science fiction was blazing trails in all sorts of areas. Now mainstream sci-fi seems to be stagnating.

      1. I’ve taken my stab at sci-fi and even though sales aren’t through the roof, the books have been well received. I’m going to keep writing because I love it, and I don’t care what SFWA says!

  3. Excellent post, Chris, and much to think about. I spent a good long decade banging on doors of gatekeepers who said they loved my work but “couldn’t sell it.” My validation now (and who knows, it might change next year, in five years, whatever) comes from readers.

  4. Exactly! Brilliant post Chris. You’ve pointed out the elephant in the room, and the worm at the heart of Indie publishing. That psychological stumbling block will remain until we are respected and admired for being /indie/.

    It hasn’t happened yet, but I think authors like Konrath and Howey are changing the system in our favour. They are getting the best of both worlds, and earning the respect and admiration of readers… as mavericks. Sadly it’s a very long, slow process.

  5. Great post, bud. I, for one, will feel plenty validated by the enormous sum of money in my bank account that is forthcoming…right?…I hope…Please? 😉

    But yeah, if one of my books starts selling a lot, I’m not gonna be looking for a pimp.

  6. “Congratulations, you’ve made it! Now we’ll take your book and instead of the 70% royalties you’ve been earning by your own effort, we’ll let you keep 12%, but that’s a small price to pay for being a ‘real’ author!”

    Great line, Chris! And great post, too 🙂

    1. Thanks DV. That’s how it seems when I read the press about Indie authors – it’s like by default we’re no good, but then when we “prove” ourselves, we’ll be allowed to join the gang. Ridiculous.

  7. I don’t pretend to know what the sure-fire alternative to the status quo is (obviously or I would doing it and passing it on to my fellow Indies); however, outlining the reality of that status quo, so eloquently, in your ‘News Beat’ segment certainly helps in regard to ‘keeping the eye on the ball’.

    Excellent article, Chris.

    1. Thank you, TD. To be honest, I went Indie because the agent I had couldn’t sell my novel to a trad. But now I’ve been Indie for over two years, I wonder what the point of trads is now – and the only thing they have left to sell is this sense of “validity”, but at what cost? I know plenty of trad books that got little or no marketing support and sunk without trace.

  8. I agree, a great post. However there are a couple (and I’m sorry that off hand I can’t remember their names nor where I read about them) of traditionally published authors tempted by the 70% royalty I would guess, who have chosen to follow the Indie route for their most recent books. I wonder if this is the start of a trend. If so, that may shake the industry up a bit!

    1. Thanks for commenting, JM. I think those authors are the real winners in the revolution so far: they made a name on the back of trad-published books then went Indie with their new books, with guaranteed sales. For those of us coming to the market without a known name, it’s going to be much more of an uphill struggle

  9. It’ll all sort itself out in due course. We just happen to be the batch that’s experiencing the transition. The next generation of writers will look back and say, “Remember the big dilemma about trad validation and gatekeepers?” Then they’ll remember us like we remember those in long skirts and big hats who fought for the female vote. Then they’ll start writing PhDs about the era. Then our books will sell better.

    1. Thanks for commenting, Rosanne. Blimey, I hadn’t thought of that – I need to start keeping notes so in a few years I can write a history! 🙂

  10. As more of these ‘undiscovered authors’ are lured by big publishing houses, wouldn’t the stigma that seems to surround independents slowly evaporate? How long before those authors, having ridden the golden elevator to the top, realize it’s not the promised land they might have imagined? When enough indies come running back down the stairs then the rest of us might wake up. Giving up the rights to your work for validation’s sake seems less profitable than retaining control over your portfolio. Will it take ten years or more before people begin to see the big publishing houses for what they are? Or will the publishing houses start to morph into a new business model and see authors as equal partners?

    Who knows? I’m just happy to have a front row seat, even if I’m not at the negotiating table.

    1. Hey mate. Yes, the trads will have to start treating authors as equals, but as mentioned elsewhere, I think it’s going to take some time. And TD’s right – you’re in the play, my friend 🙂

  11. When is a stigma not a stigma? When it’s a jar (of “#*_%@!#”). Few readers know or care who publishes the books they discover. The “stigma” is all in the eye of a few (not all) envious trad-published authors who haven’t yet understood what publishing freedom is all about. I don’t go hard on them – it’s understandable that they feel slightly miffed. They will eventually be asking questions about formatting, and marketing and promotions, and imprints, and … and …

  12. From the linked article:
    Yes, the perception of the traditional publishing world is that all writers get paid lots of money to sit around writing while someone else does all the hard work and takes on all the debt and responsibility, but it’s just not the reality any more.

    So, the actual writing is the easy part?

    I wonder who created that perception? – I’m sure it wasn’t the writers themselves.

  13. One of the most important things to remember about our Indie published books is that we own them forever, and that the virtual bookshelf isn’t going to disappear. When you sign away your rights, you are actually signing away money your children could inherit. I’ve been with a NY publisher, a small press publisher and now am Indie published. I prefer to keep the bigger percentage of $ and manage my own success. I also work with NY publicists all the time, and can tell you that authors get very little marketing help unless you are already on the lists. I am responsible for my own success and I like it that way.

    1. Thanks for commenting, Deborah. I think authors who haven’t been trad published don’t realise how limiting it can be in terms not only of rights, but how little time their book will have on the shelf before it disappears. Good for you!

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