The Gatekeepers are dead...long live the Gatekeepers
No, I'm not writing about Ghostbusters. There's a huge argument raging right now about gatekeeping for literature. About who gets to do it, how literature will survive without it, about "what happens next?"
On one side, you've got independent publishing authors, many of whom are singing "ding, dong, the wicked Gatekeeper is dead!" Publishers used to be gatekeepers for books - they would pick from the submissions they got the books which they felt the public would pay to read. About a decade or so ago, publishers (largely) ditched that role, handing it instead to agents. Agents once had the job of just going over contracts to get the best deal for writers. Suddenly, agents had to guess what publishers were guessing that readers would pay to read. It's really no wonder that a lot of perfectly good books were getting missed by this convoluted system. It's not the agents' fault, or the publishers' fault. They were all doing the best they could to bring the books which would sell best to market.
But when you've got third parties guessing at what second parties guess the first party will like, it's almost a game of telephone in reverse - and about as messy as telephone usually gets. So indie writer are thrilled by the ability to bypass the agents and publishers as gatekeepers and go direct to readers.
Other folks are not so thrilled. There are many who worry that the loss of the gatekeepers will cause a deluge of "bad" writing which will flood the market, making it impossible to find good books and turning readers off.
I think both of these groups are forgetting something very important, and that's who the final arbiters of taste have always been:
Not agents, not publishers, but the people who buy and then read the books. These are the folks who have always decided what is good and what is not. And I think they'll be able to continue to manage that role just fine, as things settle down. Even with a deluge of bottom-drawer novels pouring out into the market.
Gatekeeping by the Masses:
Crowd-sourced curation actually works pretty well. We see it in video, with YouTube. The videos that are not liked, sink. The videos which some cliques like rise in those groups. The videos which hit the mass public in some manner rise to the very top. It's more or less the same in music today, too, with some indie groups able to compete pretty well for listeners with top labels. IF they are good enough to be liked by a bunch of folks. I think we're just going to see the same thing happen in books.
Lets face it - for every hundred of us who hates having to guess if something is good or not, there is some fraction of the population who loves going out to find the next big thing. They love being one of the folks who "discovered" a new video, new blog, new writer, new musician. It's all about the joy of discovery for the explorer mindset, and the internet provides an almost inexhaustible supply of new material to explore. It's these folks who are out there right now looking for the next good bit of digital data so they can tell all their friends about it; who will then tell all their friends, who then tell all theirs...
New Boss: Same as the Old Boss:
What some folks have missed in their worry about change is that the real gatekeeper is not going away. Or even changing. The agents and publishers were always acting as gatekeepers for the reader - who has always been the final gatekeeper. With the importance of additional levels of gatekeeping ading (gone already, some might suggest), what we've really lost is the levels of folks guessing at what the real gatekeepers are looking for.
I think readers are a lot smarter and more savvy than many folks are giving them credit for. Readers know what they enjoy reading, and they're not going to bother with books or writers they don't like. So to the indie writers who glory in the death of the gatekeeper: never forget who the real boss is, the guy who pays your rent. The reader. For the folks who worry that the death of agent/publisher curation will cause a dark age for literature - recall that agents have only done gatekeeping for a decade or two, and publishers only for the last half century. Literature did just fine before that, and will continue doing just fine now that writers are again able to go direct to the primary gatekeeper.