Mentors v. Gatekeepers

04 Mar

Just read an excellent article: David Farland’s Kick in the Pants—Why I’m No Longer Cautiously Optimistic about the Future of Publishing. (hat tip to Johne Cooke, who brought it to my attention via a discussion board)

In the article, Farland discusses the shakeup in publishing due to the rise of e-books and the decline of paper books. This affects not only authors’ incomes but the existence of publishers and brick-and-mortar bookstores.

However, Farland is encouraged:

First, the sales of paper books are stabilizing. Sure, they don’t represent the big revenue source that they were five years ago for me, but they’re consistent, and my publisher has managed to hang on over the past few years, along with a couple of major bookstore chains. Heck, the bookstores are even rebounding.

At the same time, the future of electronic books is expanding.

After reading the article, I responded to it with this post on the message board:

Just today, and throughout this past week, I’ve been in conversations that came around to the fact that publishing today is mirroring the original model: private funding and personal involvement of the creators in the publishing process.

Echoes of Distant ThunderI’ve been slowly reading a thick paperback of the history of WWI, not on the battlefield but on the American homefront. One of the chapters dealt with how certain books were written or certain films were produced that directly addressed issues of the day. Early film-making brought about groundbreaking work (even if some of it was racist or propagandistic) that was funded privately. There were no big film studios yet, although those followed hard upon.

There was a time that a book could only be obtained by copying and binding it by hand. Centuries later, authors paid printers to produce copies. Later, publishers started accepting or rejecting manuscripts, though they did not necessarily take on the entire cost of publication; authors still bore that burden. Until recently, if a writer wanted his work to see print, he either persevered through the submit/reject/repeat process until someone offered him a contract or he gave up. If he tried to stray outside that process, he bore the stigma of offering an inferior product. (This stigma was often warranted; it still is. However, the “traditional” route, while better at preventing poor manuscripts from being published, didn’t guarantee quality, either.)

I used to be one of those who looked askance at self-published work. Almost every example I encountered was sub-par, either in need of editing or better storytelling, or both. The same was true of independent or small-company films. As for e-books, I was not a fan. And POD [print on demand]? Folks didn’t understand that is was a new type of publishing, and they spat the term as a synonym for “vanity press“.

Modern means and technology have allowed us to come full circle: The creators, and not the publishers or the film studios, are gaining control again. I’ve adjusted my view of e-books, though they’re still not my preferred source of reading material. They provide a low-cost way to get one’s books to the world. POD does the same, eliminating any need for costly stockpiles of physical books that may or may not sell. I echo David Farland’s excitement. The big houses may disagree, but we are living in a good time for publishing.

end message board response

I mean that.

Part of that confidence and change in attitude comes from my years as an editor, from watching how publishing has changed, from decades of educating myself as a writer, and by submitting my own work for publication.

Articles, short stories, poems, essays have been published by third parties, but my novels? None of the rejections have said the writing is bad or the characterization is incomplete or any other storytelling no-nos. Rather, the structure, the content, the length are objectionable.

In other words, I’m not a bad writer; I’m just not writing what they want.

More and more, I’m learning the difference between a mentor and a gatekeeper. The first one teaches and encourages; the second is most often a bureaucrat.

Gatekeepers can serve a vital purpose. They keep out the enemy, the diseased, the undesirable.

However, who decides who’s the enemy, the diseased, or the undesirable?

This caused discussion this afternoon when I shared Farland’s article with my brother, sister-in-law, and eldest niece, who all share a love for good stories.

“It’s good to have people who are knowledgeable, but they shouldn’t hold all the power,” said Bubba’s Wife. “Some people have a little bit of knowledge but think they know everything.”

“Wisdom lies in the counsel of many, not the counsel of one,” Bubba paraphrased the Bible (Proverbs 15:22 and 24:6 and 11:14; Niece #1 looked up the references for us). “Gatekeepers think they have all the knowledge, but then there are sequential gatekeepers you have to go through.”

He’s in the military. He knows bureaucracy.

Bubba’s Wife added, “Know where to go for the answers.”

And that’s what we can do even more now in this age of rapid communication and technological advancement. Sure, there’s a proliferation of inaccurate information, suppression, and downright lies,but there’s also unprecedented access to knowledgeable folks all over the world. We don’t have to rely on our tiny benighted group who may or may not know what we need to learn, nor must we pay for a crazy-expensive degree that may not lead to success in our chosen field.

No, we can educate ourselves, gather mentors, become mentors, pass along our wisdom and knowledge. Of course, this is predicated upon the notion that we’ll be humble enough to learn and generous enough to share.

We can raise funds from like-minded strangers (via Kickstarter and their ilk), produce our own films, publish our own books. We are the imaginers and the creators. We make the choices. We need mentors, not gatekeepers.


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6 responses to “Mentors v. Gatekeepers

  1. Peter R Stone

    March 4, 2014 at 1:20 am

    A lot of food for thought in this article, and I like the concluding comment. I personally think too many book publishers are too set in their own little puddles, only wanting to print books within their overly-narrow preferences, and so their gatekeepers pass by many a good book.

    Also, in Australia, the book stores are not rebounding, two of our largest book chains, Dymocks, and Angus & Robertson, went bust and closed. Several individual stores kept going as franchises, though. And as sad as that is, it’s not overly surprising. Books sold in Australian book stores are around double the US retail, and if a store doesn’t have the book you want, it can take up to 3 months for them to get it in for you. Compare that to get the book you want from Amazon or Bookdepository, for about half to 2/3rds the price.

  2. Keanan

    March 4, 2014 at 4:29 am

    There’s one independent press whose owner has soured me a bit. We’ve never met, but she has said a lot of things that I can agree with, and several books she’s published have won awards. Clearly, she’s doing something right. However, she also comes across as arrogant and bullheaded about some issues, and declares as fact what is only a matter of preference or opinion. This warns me not to submit anything to her press.

    Call me a dreamer, but despite the decrease of physical books, I’d still like to own a little bookstore. Maybe new and used together. Maybe a bookstore combined with some other kind of shop. Don’t know.

  3. tragon11

    March 4, 2014 at 3:42 pm

    Having first self-pubbed Vampire Siege at Rio Muerto as a Kindle ebook, and now four months later as a paperback, I have to say that having an actual book in my hands is a very satisfying experience. But I chose to do the ebook first because it’s easier to sell a book for $3.99 than $14.99. Through Kindle I was able to get the book out there for people to read and review. Word built up about it that way. Now that its out in paperback, so far the results are looking good. I don’t know how much of a success it will be, but at least, if nothing else, I’ve got a professional-looking product in my hands. Good enough I hope to sit on one of the shelves of your book store.

    • Keanan

      March 4, 2014 at 10:09 pm

      It’s a good read, and I’d keep several copies in stock. 😉 I hope it continues to gain readers.

      Just read this article about five minutes ago, and figured it’d be of interest:
      The Independent Bath Literature Festival: Creative writing courses are a waste of time, says Hanif Kureishi (who teaches one).

      From the article:

      He added: “A lot of my students just can’t tell a story. They can write sentences but they don’t know how to make a story go from there all the way through to the end without people dying of boredom in between. It’s a difficult thing to do and it’s a great skill to have. Can you teach that? I don’t think you can.”

      And later,

      Kureishi, 59…, said that if he were starting out now, he would not pay thousands of pounds to enrol on an MA in creative writing. “No. I wouldn’t do it like that. That would be madness. I would find one teacher who I thought would be really good for me,” he said.

  4. jadesmith09

    March 7, 2014 at 1:33 pm

    You just made me smile: I’ve spent lots of time as an author and a job-seeker chasing the advice of people who I thought were mentors, but in reality they were gatekeepers. “Generous enough to share” is the difference! Some of these so-called experts are flaky as heck, they just don’t know it. It really takes trial and error to find people who will invest time in helping others on the journey, instead of just saying, “Check my website.” And like you pointed out, the real mentors are those who’ve walked the journey themselves, rather than those who’ve merely acquired a title!


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