Publishing Tips

The Gatekeeper Function

Oscar Martens

December's Publishing Tip comes to you from Canadian writer and blogger, Oscar Martens. In his article, he outlines a writer's tough choices when seeking publication: endure long waits from publishers and slim chances of making it with a literary agent, or go the lone route and self-publish?


Oscar Martens has been published in journals such as PRISM 
, Prairie Fire, Queen's Quarterly, The Malahat Review
and EVENT.  Turnstone Press published a collection of his stories 
titled The Girl with the Full Figure Is Your Daughter.  He runs the 
Media Whore blog, an exploration of self-promotion.


Sarah spent the last few years publishing in literary journals, making the short list of the CBC contest, and finishing her first novel. She ranked her submission targets, sending queries to agents first. Response times varied from hours, to days, to months, to never. One agent was very complimentary, stressing her taut expression and original thought, before ultimately declining. A few others wanted to charge a reading fee, and that didn't seem right.

Having exhausted the possibility of representation, she began to submit directly to publishers. This was similarly frustrating. Editors had many positive comments, but the final word was always no. It didn't fit their list. They were already booked for the next year and a half. They no longer published fiction, though they cheerfully predicted that someone better suited to the project would surely pick it up. One editor was very enthusiastic about the lesbian vampire killer series they were going to start next year and was only interested in works that fit that theme. (WTF?)

Over the months and years, Sarah began to run out of places to send her novel. American houses seemed closed to Canadian writers, rarely sending even one sentence of feedback. She began to fear her manuscript would soon be relegated to solitary confinement in the bottom drawer of her desk.

What should Sarah do now? Her friend tells her how easy it is to self-publish online. It used to be called vanity press, but the stigma is wearing off as fast as the world of publishing is changing. Your work can be online in seconds, wide open to everyone on the planet who has an Internet connection. There's no longer a need to submit to the gatekeepers. To hell with the half dozen agents who seem responsible for 80% of the book contracts. To hell with the publishers and their tired lists of establishment fiction. To hell with the journals with their lax response times and poor customer service. Doing it yourself is empowering, right? Right?

Perhaps the role of the gatekeeper is not to make Sarah suffer. No, it didn't turn out very well when she tried to get representation, but let's take a closer look at the role of the agent. Some look at the 15% cut the agent takes and wonders if it's worth it. Maybe those people should read more of the acknowledgement pages of best-selling books. If you even came close to securing an agent, if an agent represented you for even a short time, it means that a professional in the field thought it might be possible to make money off your writing. I can't think of a better compliment or a greater reason for optimism than that.

Why use an agent? Is there anyone else who will take your book to the Frankfurt Book Fair and blab endlessly about how great it is? Is there anyone else on a first name basis with all the major publishers? Can anyone else get your book in front of the editor of a major house and have it read within a couple of weeks? Maybe that agent / counsellor / therapist / word coach / editor / artist whisperer / problem solver / pit-bull of a negotiator / number one fan is earning her 15%. Maybe 15% is not enough.

Working directly with a well-known publisher has different benefits. In this case, your editor—a publishing expert, a lover of words—has determined that your book is worthy. Of the hundreds, sometimes thousands of proposals and submissions received every year, yours was chosen. The publisher has placed a bet on you and your book. You now have an experienced team working on your behalf, believing in you, supporting you. An editor will be assigned to help you improve your work. The publisher also has their own marketing department. Perhaps the advertising budget is modest, but it's better than you can do on your own.

A reader needs a little help when faced with walls and walls of books at the store.
When choosing a book from a reputable press, the reader can be confident that book has been through a rigorous process. Nothing is guaranteed, but the publisher felt there was a good possibility the book would sell well, perhaps win a prize, and enhance the reputation of the house.

Self-publishing online is like planting a small sign next to the freeway and hoping someone will notice. It's possible, of course, but unlikely. The best route is through a gatekeeper. There will be exceptions, but that doesn't change the odds. If you're already famous, or a marketing wizard, then go it alone. If you are a lean, mean, self-promoting machine with 5,000 Facebook friends, you can do it yourself. The rest of us need all the help we can get.

* * * * * * * *

The Malahat Review posts "Publishing Tips" as a bimonthly guest column on its Publishing Tipswebsite and in Malahat lite. Follow it in order to learn how to improve your professional skills, from the writing of cover letters, to what house style means, to choosing a rhyming dictionary, to having an author photo (as opposed to a selfie) shot. If you have a Publishing Tip you'd like to share, email The Malahat Review at, with "Publishing Tip Idea" in the subject line. Tips should be 750 words or less. If yours is accepted, you will be paid an honorarium of $50.