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Of Gates and Gatekeepers
by Moira Allen
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In ancient times of long ago (i.e., about ten years back), a writer just naturally assumed that a query needed a list of publication credits. Today, it's my impression that a great many writers just naturally assume that their blog IS a publication credit. I posted it, people read it, so it's published, right?
There are many highly regarded blogs where a guest post is, indeed, a significant publication credit. Such blogs may have thousands of readers and a reputation for accuracy, quality, information, etc. But most of all, they have high editorial standards. Not just anyone gets a guest post, which is why such a post is a mark of distinction.
Unfortunately, the same cannot be said of your own blog. Much as we may wish to believe otherwise, posting to one's own blog is not the same as "being published." The issue is not whether the blog is popular, or of high quality, accurate, informative, etc. The issue is simply that the giver and receiver of that blog's editorial standards are one and the same: Yourself. You are the editor as well as the contributor -- and it's pretty much a given that editor-you is going to say "yes" to writer-you.
Now, please don't think I'm implying that just because one's primary source of "publication" is one's own blog, that makes one a poor writer. One might, in fact, be a brilliant writer. The problem is, if your blog is your primary outlet, the only person making that judgment is you. And if you're querying another editor -- someone who does not know you, has no reason to choose your work over that of another writer, and may have dozens of submissions to choose from -- that's not enough.
Much has been said in recent years about how technologies like e-books and print-on-demand have "leveled" the playing field for writers. One word that keeps cropping up is "gatekeepers." Generally, "gatekeepers" are portrayed as evil grinches whose sole purpose is to prevent wonderful, worthwhile writers from entering the marketplace. Hence, we keep hearing that new technologies give us the means to "bypass" traditional gatekeepers -- as if that were a good thing.
But gatekeepers exist for a reason. The very existence of a gatekeeper implies a gate -- and the presence of a gate implies the presence of a barrier. Gatekeepers aren't just people who keep gates closed. They are also the people who enable the gate to open -- who enable writers to penetrate a host of otherwise impassable barriers. Thousands of writers, lured by the siren song of DIY publishing, have discovered just how impassable those barriers really are.
What, exactly, makes up those barriers? It's easy to dismiss them as artifacts of corporate publishing greed. But if you have a good book or article, publishers don't want to push you away. They can't make money without you! Most manuscripts aren't rejected because the author didn't know the magic word; most manuscripts are rejected because they're simply awful.
The barriers to the marketplace are composed primarily of "standards." Standards are not dreamed up by "gatekeepers" just to keep writers out of the marketplace. They originate in the marketplace itself. They are developed by readers -- readers like you.
Some standards are ever-changing, nebulous things. "Taste" is a standard, and one that is almost impossible to predict. It's the standard that gatekeepers are most likely to get wrong -- consider, for instance, all the romance writers who stuck by paranormal romance when all the publishers claimed that no one wanted it, and consider all the vampire romances on the shelves today! Other transitory standards are influenced by the style of the day; the Victorian novel's lengthy pages of description were useful in a time when pictures, especially color pictures, were scarce. Today, most of us know what a castle looks like, and if we don't, we can Google it. On the other hand, some say that today's readers would prefer characters to "tweet" rather than dialogue -- and perhaps that's true, though I'd rather not believe it!
Other standards are more durable. Readers of fiction have expectations as to how plots should unfold and be resolved. In a mystery, the murderer should be caught, or at least identified -- and the reader should have a fair chance of solving the case. A tale still needs a beginning, a middle, and an end, all of which need to satisfy. Characters should remain consistent; a character should not be a whimpering muddle of fear in Chapter 2 and then be revealed as a martial arts expert in Chapter 4. Basic requirements of grammar, punctuation, and the more indefinable element of "good writing" are still in demand. (A woman once told me that she didn't care if a book was well written as long as the story was good; I replied that she wouldn't think the story was good if the book wasn't well written.)
Nonfiction standards include such issues as accuracy, validity, objectivity, and credibility. That last is a key for Writing-World.com -- don't send me a query on "how to write a bestselling novel" if you haven't actually written one, or unless you can interview writers who have. Grammar and punctuation may actually take a lower precedence in nonfiction, as editors know it's easier to clean up bad grammar than to find an expert to write on a subject in the first place.
Gatekeepers aren't the ones in charge of setting standards; they're the ones in charge of determining whether the standards, as set by the marketplace, are being met. The marketplace is a place of limited resources: Books are expensive, and reading is time-consuming. Readers know the importance of allocating those resources wisely -- and rely on gatekeepers to help them make informed choices. That's why writers dislike gatekeepers so much: Because they serve readers, not writers.
Today's technologies haven't bypassed gatekeepers; they've just moved a host of works from the slush pile to the marketplace without any intermediate screening. Many of these works may be brilliant -- but if the only voice who says so is that of the person who wrote it, that voice is automatically suspect. It warns the reader that, thus far, the only standards the writer can demonstrate having met are his or her own.
There's certainly a place for blogs, and I'm all for DIY publishing -- I've been doing it for years. But if your goal is "marketplace success," don't shy away from the gates and the gatekeepers because you fear that the standards are too high. By doing so, you may, instead, be setting your standards too low. When you are your own editor and publisher, getting "accepted" is no challenge -- and without challenges, your skills will never grow. And skill is the only thing that will ever get you through the gate!
Moira Allen is the editor of Writing-World.com, and has written nearly 400 articles, serving as a columnist and regular contributor for such publications as The Writer, Entrepreneur, Writer's Digest, and Byline. An award-winning writer, Allen is the author of eight books, including Starting Your Career as a Freelance Writer, The Writer's Guide to Queries, Pitches and Proposals, and Writing to Win: The Colossal Guide to Writing Contests. In addition to Writing-World.com, Allen hosts VictorianVoices.net, a growing archive of articles from Victorian periodicals, and The Pet Loss Support Page, a resource for grieving pet owners. She lives in Maryland with her husband and the obligatory writer's cat. She can be contacted at editors "at" writing-world.com.