On The Value Of GateKeepers In Publishing

Cal Newport recently wrote a blog post questioning the value of ignoring gatekeepers in the publishing world. He took a quote from a podcast about self-publishing, and ran with it in the other direction. The original quote is:

The podcast that’s all about getting your words out into the world without contending with agents, publishers, or the other gatekeepers in traditional publishing.

And Cal turns this around to offer some advice on why you would want to use a traditional publisher with it’s gate keepers. This is an interesting conversation, IMO. As a self-published eBook author, published article writer for various magazines, and rejected print-book author, I’ve seen enough of both sides of the story to see benefit on both sides.

Sidebar: Read Cal’s Book

As a quick side-bar, Cal is the author of one of my favorite career book: So Good They Can’t Ignore You. If you haven’t read this one yet, you should. It dispels the myth of “do what you love” and aptly replaces it with “love what you do” early in the book, and it only gets better from there. 

Why Did I Self Publish?

I tend to have an over-reaction of agreement with statements like the one you quote. But on the other hand, I also appreciate the gate keepers. I’m an aspiring author of technical books. I’ve blogged for 10 years, have published articles in print magazines and online magazines and have recently completed my first eBook which is self-published through leanpub.com. I decided to go with LeanPub and self-publishing for 2major reasons:

  1. I wanted to iterate the book with paying customers providing feedback on early drafts
  2. i wanted to avoid the gate keepers

The gatekeepers in this case, may have told me no or they may have helped me alter the concept in to something more marketable. But I wanted to avoid them, because I wanted to get something done and not worry about whether it would be a success. I just wanted to get something done.

The Market Size GateKeeper

I didn’t want to worry about whether or not the market size was large enough for a traditional publisher. This is actually one of the reasons I got rejected from a publisher, a few years ago. The idea that I pitched was not a large enough market, and even this small time publisher which I was talking to couldn’t afford to spend the time and money on a market of only ~5 to 10 thousand people.

Yes, a market of 10,000 people is a small market for publishing print books, by most standards. You have to consider the cost of acquiring a customer, conversion rates from interested in to actual customer, etc. You’ll never get 100% of your potential market to buy. It’s usually a pretty low number, percentage-wise. So it makes sense that a publisher needs to avoid small audience sizes. 

The Motivation GateKeeper

I sat on the book for months, after getting started. It went nowhere while I waited for time to perfect my pitch to a publisher (that I already have a relationship with, through publishing screencasts). After sitting for so long, I decided that waiting for myself to perfect the pitch was not worth it. Even if I would get a bigger audience and produce a better book, getting it launched and getting paying customers would be more of an advantage for me. The income of paying customers helped drive me to make time for the book. 

In this case, I’m the gatekeeper. I have a hard time being motivated by potential. I don’t want to spend a year writing a book or an app, with the hopes that it will sell. I want to get something done quickly, start selling it, and use the initial sales to gauge interest and opportunity. My motivation is a gate keeper, but it’s me in this case, not someone else.

Hiring My Own GateKeepers?

Having completed my Building Backbone Plugins book, I’m hoping to find a middle ground for my next book(s). What I would really like to do is hire my own gate keepers, to help me work through all of the things that a traditional publisher would do (vetting ideas, transforming mediocre in to masterful, etc, copy and structural editing, etc). I know my book could be 100x better if I would invest in these resources. But I’m ok with what I have now. It has earned $11K of income for me so far, and is still selling. It’s not huge. It’s not even 10% of my annual income. But it was a worthwhile learning experience for me, and will provide


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About Derick Bailey

Derick Bailey is an entrepreneur, problem solver (and creator? :P ), software developer, screecaster, writer, blogger, speaker and technology leader in central Texas (north of Austin). He runs SignalLeaf.com - the amazingly awesome podcast audio hosting service that everyone should be using, and WatchMeCode.net where he throws down the JavaScript gauntlets to get you up to speed. He has been a professional software developer since the late 90's, and has been writing code since the late 80's. Find me on twitter: @derickbailey, @mutedsolutions, @backbonejsclass Find me on the web: SignalLeaf, WatchMeCode, Kendo UI blog, MarionetteJS, My Github profile, On Google+.
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  • http://www.joezimjs.com Joe Zimmerman

    $11K is not a small amount for a self-published book. That’s far more than I’d expect myself to make on one.

    Anyway, I totally agree with the point made here. Paying customers can definitely be good gatekeepers, especially with Leanpub where they can have their voices heard and shape the end result of a book. They provide good feedback and plenty of motivation to move quickly. Sadly, though, they don’t necessarily bring the expertise needed to really clean up a book, though in my experience, you don’t really get that much from bigger publishers either.

    In the end, if you can market the book/other product well enough on your own, there’s no reason to hire an official “gatekeeper”. You can avoid the red tape, be lean, and keep a much larger cut of the profit. Keep it up! :)