Gatekeeper or Renegade: What kind of Reader Filter do You Prefer?

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Over the past week, two posts – Chuck Wendig’s epic rant on the way stinker self-published books are pulling us all down and J.A. Konrath’s rip into literary agent Donald Maass for his arrogant gatekeeper ways – have made their way around and around the blog world. Many bloggers have reacted with posts of their own or lengthy comments.

These posts represent strong statements at either end of a spectrum. Wendig calls for gatekeepers of some variety – perhaps a vetting group of other authors and professionals. Konrath argues for the wild-west – an open frontier where readers decide what they want to read.

I have no idea how many self-published books busy guys like Wendig or Konrath read. I do know how many I read – probably one or two a week. Regardless of how I feel about a book, I almost always finish. My husband will often ask me, (as I sit, fume and spew out my own rants) why don’t you just stop reading it? I’m not sure of the answer to that question – maybe I’m stubborn, maybe it’s curiosity.

At the end of the day, I respect all the authors I read because I know first-hand the challenges they’ve faced. Writing, my dear friends, is not an easy pursuit. That being said, I certainly don’t recommend every self-published book that ends up on my Kindle.

As a reader, my needs are straightforward. Did I feel enriched in some way by reading this book? Did I learn something interesting about a geographical location or a particular aspect of the world – culture, work, or lifestyle? Was I challenged about a stereotype I didn’t even know I had? Did I grow through the emotional experiences of the characters? If I can answer yes to any of these questions, the story did its job.

When I read a self-published book that didn’t hit the mark, I delve into the question of why. Not a genre I enjoy? Not really my cup of tea? Those aren’t criteria upon which to judge because that’s about me, not the book. Did poor editing or formatting get me hung-up? That isn’t a deal breaker, though it can be awfully irritating. I want to see beyond that, to the story.

Was it too long? Was it author indulgent with information dumps and pet peeves rammed down my throat? Was the underlying structure of the book confusing or out of order? Were there plot holes you could drive a semi through? Were the characters real to me? Did I care?

What upsets me the most are the stories that could have been so much more. I long to have had the chance to read those books before the authors published them. I want to be a content or structural editor who says, cut it by at least a third, don’t leave me hanging, don’t start with this part – start with that part, stop repeating yourself, you’re using a chainsaw here when a butter knife is more appropriate, you’re not giving me a chance to bond with this character, you’re head-hopping, you need to pick up the pace. get your own crap out of the way so the story can be told etc. etc. etc.

Then of course, there are the books that are just plain poor in every way. The stories don’t work, I don’t care about the characters, the editing is non-existent and the formatting problems are off the wall. I call that a perfect storm of unfortunate writing.

Maybe I sound a bit arrogant and I don’t mean to. I have only written two of my own novels but I’ve been reading all my life. I claim expert status in the reader department. I know what works and what doesn’t.

Even in the case of the perfect storm books, I don’t believe those authors are dragging me or anyone else (but themselves) down. I don’t think self-publishing, as we know it, is about to implode and become a sucking black hole, drawing the entire universe into its inky darkness. I just feel sort of sad. I heave a sigh and get on with my own writing. As the saying goes, hope springs eternal – I look forward to the next book on my list.

I suppose this puts me in the Konrath camp. As a reader, I don’t need a gatekeeper to filter my choices. I’ve always been a bit of a renegade.

What’s your opinion on this contentious issue? Do you read self-published authors? Do you want someone to filter out the so-called unworthy books for you? Go ahead – weigh in. The topic is not one that is about to go away anytime soon.

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22 comments on “Gatekeeper or Renegade: What kind of Reader Filter do You Prefer?

  1. Renegade for sure. I read a lot of self published books and review the ones I like and though these are rare and hard to find, it’s always a joy. I use my own filters of genre and price and that’s enough gate keeping for me.

    • As I scroll down this list of comments, it seems we renegades are in the majority, for sure. I’m not surprised. Readers know what they want. Thanks for stopping by and putting your opinion forward. Hope I see you again.

  2. melparish says:

    The whole point in being self-published is that it gives the author a chance to reach readers without having to get past an intermediary gate-keeper. If the readers like the work, they will continue to buy books by that author, if they don’t they will be unlikely to buy another book by that author no matter how many more they write. Eventually one has to assume that authors who do not sell will give up. Yes, in these early days of self-publishing, there will unfortunately be a lot of books that probably should never have been published, but I think, given time, there will be a natural weeding out of those who don’t met the standards most readers expect and, going forward, many people will realize that self-publishing is not the latest get-rich scheme that many seem to think it is.
    Like you, I’m an avid reader, have been all my life. I’m always on the look out for new authors and, while I have had some disappointments with self-published books, I’ve also had just as many with traditionally published authors. If having one or two bad experiences with self-published books turns a reader off all self-published books, I think that says more about the limited mindset of the reader than the quality of self-published books overall and perhaps they are not the kind of readers we are looking for anyway.
    Besides, who would actually decide who is worthy enough to be considered one of the new gate-keepers for this new ‘club’ of approved self-published authors? And how can we be sure they will cater to the whole market rather than perceived trends in their decision as to who to accept and who to reject? How would they be any different from current agents/publishers? Would we once again have to depend on how well you can write a one page pitch to get past them?
    The only gate-keepers I think we need, we already have – the readers.

    • You raise one of the issues that came to my mind – who chooses these new gatekeepers? There is a site that Wendig links to (I won’t mention the name – people can check it out if they like) that charges around $125.00 to put a self-published author’s book through a vetting process. For a price, someone will say yea or nay. But, as you say, who are these someones? Geat comment – it takes more than a few words to wrap our thoughts around this issue.

  3. Cate Macabe says:

    I’m like you, as a reader I know what works and what doesn’t for me (though I may not know why). I don’t need anyone else’s filter. I read a lot of self-published books. If the blurb sounds interesting and it’s a genre I like, I use the Look Inside feature of Amazon to read the first few pages to get a sense of the author’s skill and writing style. I make my decision from there.

    • Exactly, Cate – there is a lot of info to be gleaned from the Look Inside feature, as well as genre, a careful reading of a selection of reviews etc. Amazon does a really good job of giving readers the tools they need to make a choice. We don’t need anything else.

  4. jackiemallon says:

    I can see both sides. Self publishing’s a bit like those singing contests on TV. So many people just can’t sing but have been led to believe they can and others know they can’t sing a note but just want to put themselves out there anyway. I read self published novels only if they’ve been recommended to me or if a blogger whose style I like has published a novel. What annoys me most is a lack of interesting language or stereotypical characters–usually female– based on heroines of successful published novels. Now I’ll back up and read the two posts you cite above…

    • You make a good point, Jackie, when you mention the stereotypical female characters – transparent copy-cat characters from other popular books. The accessibility of self-publishing to one and all lends itself to that type of writing. To say nothing of the number of how-to manuals out there on formulaic genre type-writing. I think that a reader can be sucked in once by this but that is where it will end. You confirm something I suspected – when readers go to choose any novel (be it self-published or traditionally published) it is word-of-mouth that carries the day – recommendations from those one trusts. Thanks for the comment, Jackie.

  5. I totally agree with you. Renegades forever!

  6. I don’t have a kindle, and have only read two self published books, so no sure I qualify for this conversation. But I am a renegade. Don’t anyone dare to limit what I can or cannot read. I’ll figure it out for myself. I’ve read some really awful books that were published with a great deal of fanfare, and some great books that barely saw the light of day, that I loved. So, go figure. Let’s all just keep doing the best that we know how to do, and when the going gets rough, lower our standards (a la William Stafford’s advice to keep writing.)

    • Certainly true that a lot of hype and a big signing deal from a traditional publisher doesn’t guarantee a book that everyone will enjoy. Again, individual readers choose – one book and one author at a time. Sitting down to read a book is so different than maybe tuning into a popular show on TV. One hour of our time invested versus 10-12 hours of reading time (depending on how fast one reads) for a good-length novel. Most people will look beyond hype when investing that sort of time. I’m not sure about lowering standards, but I do know – writers have to keep writing through thick and thin and trust that readers will keep reading.

    • jackiemallon says:

      That’s a very valid comment, Susan. I haven’t read a hell of a lot of self published but I read The Goldfinch recently after so much fireworks and fanfare and was so disappointed I became angry about it. The hype contributed to my anger! Gatekeeper or not, traditional publisher or Amazon, disappointing reading experiences will occur either way. But the book buyer who is informed will generally find what works for her.

  7. Roy McCarthy says:

    Renegade here. I read a fair bit, including new indie books put up for review to a big reviewing website. I’m afraid that the really good books are rare, but like you Francis, I’m interested in why so many fail badly. In my inexpert way I review these honestly and try to say why I gave it two stars or whatever. Quite often there’s a good story in there somewhere, but the author prefers to go another route. A few just go nowhere, nothing ever happens. One I read was clearly a lazy first draft which had no right to have been put up for review.
    But there are gems as well which often would never see a sale without a good review and I enjoy finding those.
    Whereas, for the reviewing website, I review even the turkeys I would never write a bad review for a fellow blogger’s book but rather I’d just let it slide by.

    • Happy to hear, Roy. I had you pegged for the renegade type 🙂 I’m glad to run across another reader who shares that curiosity about what went wrong with a certain book. I think writers really need that early content editor/beta reader who will say – this and this and this don’t work and this is why – and they don’t seek that out or they aren’t even aware such a bright light needs to be shone on their work. And maybe, in one way, this is why a pile of rejection slips helped writers. It would be natural after a few rejections to seek out others who would help one figure out why. Ergo – subsequent writing attempts or new projects might not fall into the same trap. Thanks for adding your thoughts to this dialogue, Roy. Always appreciated.

  8. I don’t want a gatekeeper messing with my Kindle, Francis. Much of what I read is based on recommendations. I’ve probably read more self-published work than I realize. If I like the premise, I’ll read anything and I don’t give how it was published much thought.

  9. I think many readers share this opinion, Jill – they hear about a book from a source they trust, they get it, read it and they like it or don’t like it and they don’t much care who published it. Most likely, for the majority of readers, the question of self-publishing versus traditionally published would never come up at all unless there were glaring errors of the formatting and editing kind. Readers just want good stories that comply with tried and true presentation.

  10. P. C. Zick says:

    I’m a little late to the discussion, but thought I’d add my thoughts. I read a lot of Indie Authors. I promote them on my blog and when I like the descriptions and the sample, I’ll read and review. I can tell almost immediately if I want to continue reading. I’m afraid as a former English teacher, editor, reader, and writer, I can’t ignore poor technique and won’t read a book if the “author” can’t get that very basic element straight. I don’t give bad reviews. If I end up not liking a book, I simply don’t review it. I believe that those of us who persevere through these early surges of “I’ve always wanted to write a book” amatuers will be rewarded. It’s up to each reader to decide what to read; and it’s up to professional writers to set the bar.

    • And a really great promoter you are, Patricia 🙂 I’ve heard this argument a couple of times now and it makes sense – over time, readers will decide based on what constitutes a good story. There will always be room for innovation, mavericks, those who push the envelope but nothing can replace a good story well written.

  11. Gwen Stephens says:

    While I read self-published novels, I tend to limit it to authors I’ve connected with online via writing workshops or blogging. I’m particular about the blogs I follow; most often the writers are aspiring authors or recently published authors. Voice and writing style are what draw me to the blog in the first place. Getting to know the author (as much as one can in this virtual world) through her posts and the nuances of her writing makes it easy to read her published work. Maybe because as she tells the story, it “sounds like” the author I’ve met online. I tend to shy away from self-published work if it’s not a writer I’ve connected with. The reason? Frankly, I worry it hasn’t been through the rigor of multiple rewrites and third-party edits. I’m not crazy about the idea of a gatekeeper filtering choices. I think readers should be free to to decide for themselves.

  12. […] Writing for Readers – and why writers write the way they do From disappearing in plain sight: Gatekeeper or Renegade: What kind of Reader Filter do You Prefer? by Francis Guenette (Francis has been featured on Reading Recommendations) From wordserve water […]

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