Any writer who's ever turned their thoughts to self-publishing will have heard the term 'gatekeeper' at some point. It's usually used to define those who, in traditional publishing, attempt to 'vet' those who wish to be published - the sorters of wheat from chaff, of men from boys, of 'bona fide authors' from 'wannabe hacks.'
They're not viewed with much affection by many writers who self-pub. In some circles they're regarded as nothing more than an Old Boys' Network; if your name's down you can come in, but if your face don't fit you can forget it, chutney. Come back when you're wearing proper bling-studded trainers that you bought with the royalties of all of your books that are already selling. And while that sounds harsh, it's not really much different from a lot of other career avenues - it just that, in some ways, it seems far more unfair when it applies to writing or indeed any creative profession. Nobody minds the selection process being stringent for brain surgeons, for example - in fact, we all have good reason to prefer that system - but since nobody actually dies if an artist doofs up their latest creation, perhaps we feel the judgement should be a little less - well, judge-y - when it comes to art of the heart.
And this is why some writers who self-pub or aspire to coined the phrase 'Gatekeeper,' and put under this moniker the traditional publishers, literary agents and, in some cases, literary critics. But did they also consider there might be other categories of people who view the self-published with a degree of suspicion? Like, for instance, some traditionally-published writers?
I read this article recently, written by an author who bills herself "Award-winning author of three memoirs, she is also a journalist and travel writer." I'm sure she's not lying about that, or even over-egging her pudding, so I'm not here to cast doubt on whether or not she's 'earned' her right to voice the opinions she airs in her article.
I will admit, however, that when I first read it I had to check to make sure this was actually a fairly recent piece, and not something written five or more years ago. I mean, I know self-publishing had a pretty bad rep back in its early days, but I was under the impression that things had changed since then, especially with many already-famous and successful authors getting in on it now.
But no, the article was posted in December 2016 - barely a month ago. And this lady certainly doesn't mince her words when it comes to her opinion of those with the audacity to put their work out there without receiving the approval of a trad publisher or agent.
My first reaction was indignation. With Redemption, my primary plan of action was to submit to trad publishers and agents first, but if the feedback I got was positive but didn't get any results (i.e. they liked it but couldn't see a market for it and therefore weren't willing to take a risk) I would self-publish it. Putting my Realist Head on, that's the best-case scenario I'm imagining for me (the worst being that no-one wants to take a risk on it because they all hate it.)
And now here was this woman, this random writer, telling me that if I'm looking to self-publish it will only be because I'm a shit writer writing shit. No arguments, no actually reading anything I've written to make that judgement, just the bald-faced, sweeping assumption. And that judgement doesn't just extend to me; it covers every self-published writer out there. She might not have read a single word of any of your books, all you self-pubbed out there, but she doesn't need to - she knows, with absolute certainty, that everything you've put out there is pure, unadulterated crap, and you are a creeping virus that's hurting her personal credibility as a 'proper,' trad-pubbed author. I wouldn't be surprised if she's got an E.L. James voodoo doll impaled with nine-inch nails hidden in the back of her writing drawer somewhere.
But when I asked myself "why does she think this way?" I had to concede it was because... she's not entirely wrong either.
I've seen some of those books she's railing against. Heck, if you're a reader or a writer you've probably seen them too. Usually by accident, with the 'Look Inside!' option (God bless you for that, Amazon, even though I imagine you only implemented it because the thought of legions of furious customers frightened the digital pants off you.) There's no denying, there is a tsunami of crap out there in self-publishing land.
Of course, there's also a heck of a lot of fine-quality writing out there as well, but just like you can't spot a diamond in a dog turd from fifty feet up, the well-written self-published books are competing with all those written by people who are the literary equivalent of the tone-deaf squawkers on reality/talent shows who claim they're The Next Whitney Houston. Either that or they've figured out they only need to sell a 99p zero-draft, 15-page 'novel' once to a hundred or so people to make a reasonable profit, and since you can write a zero-draft, 15-page 'novel' in a few days... four a month, with perhaps a few different pen-names to cover your tracks, and you could legitimately claim to have earned money as an 'author.'
So what's the answer? Amazon, Smashwords and the like aren't going to introduce 'minimum standards' for potential authors anytime soon (and you could argue they won't because doing so would bring them just as much 'Gatekeeper' hate as is currently directed at traditional publishing,) So how do we persuade authors like the one who wrote her damning article that not all self-published books are crimes against literature?
We have to police ourselves. We have to be our own gatekeepers. And that means being honest with ourselves and not settling for 'that'll do' when we should be aiming for 'this is of a high enough standard to be traditionally published.' If you're a writer and you're considering self-publishing your work, please, take the following to your heart:
1 - Writing 'The End' is just the beginning. Don't just publish your first draft of anything - once it's complete, let it sit for a while, then come back to it and read it through again. You will see places where it can be improved. Make those improvements. Repeat this process until you reach a point where you honestly feel you can't do any more on your own to improve it. (If you don't know what I mean by a 'first draft,' then you don't yet know enough about writing in general and you definitely shouldn't publish it. Read some writing how-to books, join an online writing community, learn stuff about writing. Then go through the above stages.)
2 - Get it beta-read, by other humans. You've been eyeball-deep in your word-baby for all the time it took you to write it, and you can't see everything that's wrong with it from that height. Other people - people who haven't invested that time in its creation and therefore have no emotional attachment to it - will be able to see problems you can't. Your friends and family probably aren't the best (as in, unbiased) guys for this job, so other options include writing groups and online writing communities (many of which offer critiquing services.) Weigh up to the feedback you get - you don't have to act on all of it, but if many beta-readers are saying the same thing they're most likely right. Don't like the idea of complete strangers picking your book apart? Well, what do you think readers are going to do once it's published? At least with beta reader crits, anything negative they say won't end up on Amazon, Smashwords and GoodReads, for all the world to see...
3 - Get it checked for typos and formatting errors - by a professional. That might mean hiring an editor and/or proofreader for actual money, or, if you're lucky enough to have a qualified copy editor friend or relative who'll do it for free or a favour, ask them. Sorry, but no - get the idea out of your head right now that self-publishing means being able to get your work Out There for free or cheap as chips. If you've got connections (like the aforementioned editor pal and others which I'll come to next) then you might be able to get away with that, but if not... if you're self-publishing your books you are producing a product, for customers. It doesn't matter if you're charging 99p or £9.99 for that product, you owe it to your customers to give them a product that works like it's supposed to. It should be produced to the same standard as any traditionally-published book - and that means not full of typos, errors and wonky formatting.
4 - Be prepared to spend money on making it look like a proper book. If you know next to nothing about designing book covers, don't knock up your own book cover in an afternoon, using that software program you got a free demo of a few months back. Don't use a photo you took on your smartphone and then slap your title and name over the top with a text box in Microsoft Word/Publisher/Paint. Unlike actual people, readers really do judge a book by its cover, and if yours looks like it was put together by a chimpanzee on crystal meth you are simply embarrassing yourself and all other self-published authors who took the time to get a professional involved. If you know a skilled artist who's happy to create some quality cover art (and by that I mean not something that looks like it was painted by your kid, or your auntie Shirley who's 'quite good at drawing') you'll be one step ahead, but if not DeviantArt is a great source for artwork, and you can approach artists individually and negotiate rates. There are some good online book cover design services too, offering everything from reasonably-priced commercial templates to the more expensive bespoke layouts.
If any of the above has annoyed you... well, I'm sorry about that. Actually no, I'm not. You needed the wake-up call, frankly, if that's the case. Self-publishing with the goal of making money from your work is not - and, more importantly, should not be - considered the cheap-and-cheerful, minimal effort option for wannabe authors. You are a business if you self-publish, and as such you are obliged to behave in a professional manner befitting of the boss of that business. If you're not prepared to invest as much time, care and effort in your product as traditional publishers invest in theirs, you should not be asking your customers to pay for your product. If you genuinely can't afford to self-publish to the standards I've listed, you could always try setting up a KickStarter or Patreon page to raise the funds - many others have done that, and successfully too.
Post your work online, for free, at designated websites or on your own blog if you simply want people to appreciate your work. There's no shame in not making a profit from your writing, and building up a fanbase that loves your stuff for free does not make you less of a writer in any way. Best of all, it'll mean you already have an existing readership who'll be willing to take a chance on you when you can finally either afford to get your work professionally self-published or get traditionally published.
Some of you may be thinking this is an 'elitist' attitude. But where did you get this idea that any human who can make words should expect money from people's wallets in return for whatever they produce? You realise that criteria includes the average YouTube commenter, right? If you have any self-respect as a writer, you won't aspire to be little more than those 'authors' whose books never make it past the 'Look Inside' stage. You'll want your product to be the best it can be.