Ether for Authors: Does Publishing Need More Gatekeepers?

In Discussion by Porter Anderson

6 August 2013 iStock_000008965052XSmall photog PurpleMonster86 texted story image

Table of Contents

  1. “O wad some Power the giftie gie us
    To see oursels as ithers see us!”
  2. Is “Copyright Protection” an Oxymoron?
  3. Craft: Maybe It’s Not the Thought That Counts
  4. Conferences
  5. Last Gas: Buzzin’ for Lib­boo & Safari-ing for Agents

“O wad some Power the giftie gie us
To see oursels as ithers see us!”
—Robert Burns

The more gatekeepers, the better the odds for the next Donal Ryan.

Now, there’s an interesting take on things.

It’s always instructive to find your field getting the treatment of an astute mainstream editorial department. What may be terms of art inside the industry! the industry! suddenly are grassier, less articulate phrases. We may barely recognize our reflections as we walk by a non-industry media storefront, obsessed (as we always are) with our supposed expert insights that just don’t add up for others.

These stories…tell us that a healthy book industry is a diverse one, in which it’s possible for a talented author to knock on several doors before resorting to self-publishing.

Catch that? “Before resorting to self-publishing.”

Donal Ryan

Donal Ryan

The piece in question is 47 Rejections, Then the Booker Long List from the New York Times editorial board.

And let me say as clearly as I can that I do not come to bury that Caesar. No sarcasm here. I’m full of respect for the men and women of the Times’ editorial board. The special art of the best editorial writing is to so gracefully turn an arcane subject out into the light of public inquiry that it sings a fresh song and glows more clearly than before. Many times, this team pulls it off. Most times, in my experience.

But what makes that so interesting in this case is the viewpoint it produces.

The premise of the piece, of course, is that Tipperary-born Ryan’s debut novel The Spinning Heart has had the masterful good fortune not only to be published by Doubleday Ireland but also longlisted by the Man Booker Prize committee.

The Spinning Heart by Donal RyanThe Times editorial also refers to The Thing About December, Ryan’s other novel: “He sent them to agents and publishers and got back 47 rejections over three years.”

Not the worst rejection rate, of course, but certainly the editorial’s sympathy with the struggle is understandable. This is the agony discussed on blog after blog, day in and day out in the writing community. In fact, if anything, I tend to hear entrepreneurial authors speak of turning to self-publishing more frequently “so I don’t have to face that rejection anymore” than anything else. Normally, “because it gives me control” is a close second. But rejection avoidance is high, very high, on many writers’ lists of the advantages of going without a traditional publisher.

Look how the Times‘ folks see it. The editorial writers have just mentioned Paul Harding of the Pulitzer-winning Tinkers, as well:

These stories hearten struggling writers and everyone else who struggles too. They allow us to believe that our luck could change at any moment; that if we persevere beyond the point of reason and perhaps good taste, we may finally succeed.


These stories also remind us that there is no science to evaluating literary work. Especially with fiction, editors like what they like and can only guess at how the reading public will respond. Sometimes a novel performs exactly as expected. Sometimes an astronomical advance portends a flop. Other times the publishing world greets a manuscript with a collective shrug — and it takes off. Bloomsbury offered J. K. Rowling a meager £2,500 advance (about $3,800) for the first “Harry Potter.”

New York TimesAnd here, then, is how the Times’ editorial board comes to the conclusion—anathema to some entrepreneurial authors—that what’s needed is more, not fewer, traditional-publishing outlets for authors:

As it happens, the industry is going in the opposite direction. The news about Mr. Ryan came on the heels of a merger between Penguin and Random House to form the world’s largest publisher, with more than 25 percent of the global book business. Assuming the merger unfolds in the usual manner, the company will announce layoffs due to “redundancies,” meaning fewer imprints with fewer editors looking for the next Donal Ryan.

There may be no arguing with the likelihood of layoffs, and certainly we’ve all learned to say Big Five instead of Big Six.

But you go back to that line, emphasis mine: “It’s possible for a talented author to knock on several doors before resorting to self-publishing.”

And that’s where we learn something. For all the savvy insight and sharp observation the Times‘ coverage can bring to various moments in the disruption, the classic view is that self-publishing is something one “resorts” to. As in a last resort. Something one does after more than 47 rejections.


There are authors, of course, who choose not to do the door-to-door knocking tour at all, and many of them don’t see leveraging the digital capabilities of self-publishing as an effort of last resort at all—they see it as an outright choice, a first choice, no regrets. For those authors, what’s important to learn here is that there is work to be done, probably a lot of it, to get across to the world-at-large that “more gatekeepers” may not be the answer in the future—and it certainly doesn’t look like the probability. Inside publishing’s constant hubbub, we may not frequently hear such an idea. Outside?

The more gatekeepers, the better the odds.

A telling perspective, huh? Back to Table of Contents


Is “Copyright Protection” an Oxymoron?

There are substantially more new editions available of books from the 1910s than from the 2000s. Editions of books that fall under copyright are available in about the same quantities as those from the first half of the 19th century. Publishers are simply not publishing copyrighted titles unless they are very recent.

Rebecca J. Rosen

Rebecca J. Rosen

The headline is long enough that it might need its own copyright: The Hole in Our Collective Memory: How Copyright Made Mid-Century Books Vanish. Rebecca J. Rosen’s story at The Atlantic, however—ably referenced here by my colleague Dennis Abrams—is an important take on the research work of Paul J. Heald at the University of Illinois. In his research report, Heald, himself, writes:

Influential copyright lobbyists presently circle the globe advocating ever longer terms of copyright protection based on this under-exploitation hypothesis–that bad things happen when a copyright expires, the work loses its owner, and it falls into the public domain. By analyzing present distribution patterns of books and music, this article tests the assumption that works will be under-exploited unless they are owned and therefore questions the validity of arguments in favor of copyright term extension.

Paul J. Heald

Paul J. Heald

Searching Amazon to form a “random selection of new editions” for sale, not only in books but also in music (US, French, and Brazilian) and film DVDs, Heald’s study, he writes, “reveals a striking finding that directly contradicts the under-exploitation theory of copyright.” He goes on:

Copyright correlates significantly with the disappearance of works rather than with their availability. Shortly after works are created and proprietized, they tend to disappear from public view only to reappear in significantly increased numbers when they fall into the public domain and lose their owners. For example, more than twice as many new books originally published in the 1890’s are for sale by Amazon than books from the 1950’s, despite the fact that many fewer books were published in the 1890’s.

Rosen at The Atlantic reproduces one of Heald’s graphics, covering new editions found on Amazon by decade from 1800 to 2000.

She writes:

The graph above shows the simplest interpretation of the data. It reveals, shockingly, that there are substantially more new editions available of books from the 1910s than from the 2000s. Editions of books that fall under copyright are available in about the same quantities as those from the first half of the 19th century. Publishers are simply not publishing copyrighted titles unless they are very recent.

In another graphic from his report, Heald breaks down works tracked across the decades by fiction and non-fiction.

Among the most worrisome conclusions Heald offers, Rosen quotes this:

Publishers seem unwilling to sell their books on Amazon for more than a few years after their initial publication. The data suggest that publishing business models make books disappear fairly shortly after their publication and long before they are scheduled to fall into the public domain. Copyright law then deters their reappearance as long as they are owned.


Not surprisingly, there’s a robust conversation in the comments area that follows Rosen’s article, with more than 160 entries. Several readers take issue with the question of whether what’s being argued here is “out of print.”

One reader, for example, writes:

The exact meaning of “out of print” has become more complicated because of ebooks and print-on-demand. With those methods, a book can be kept in print forever. Some contracts now define “in print” as being related to a certain amount of revenue per year rather than just availability from the publisher: “that if the book goes out of print then the copyright does go back to the author immediately under the current system.”… A deal with a publisher is usually over certain of those “rights” but not usually for the entire copyright.

Another reader dismisses the question as having more to do with reader interest than copyright-related decisions:

If anyone wanted to put the unavailable literature of the 1980’s back into circulation, the cost of procuring the rights would likely be small, since few authors prefer their books to be out-of-print, and few literary heirs are averse to getting money for nothing…The only thing keeping these books out of print is the fact that demand for them is too low to justify the costs of formatting, designing and printing new copies, and a change in copyright law wouldn’t make publication of these books profitable.

Richard Mollet

Richard Mollet

In the UK, Richard Mollet of the Publishers Association recently wrote a blog post, Modernising copyright, for The Bookseller, addressing the urgency with which he and his cohorts see their own copyright issues there.

This month the Intellectual Property Office recently published (yet) another consultation; this time on the copyright reform process under way in the EU. Putting the wider question of the UK’s future role in the EU to one side for a moment, it is vital that our country leads debate in this area. Collectively we have the strongest creative industry sector of any of our EU partners. While others seek to protect their cultural businesses from foreign competition, the UK can proudly take its place in the global marketplace secure that its books and music will be in demand.

And yet terms of copyright protection in the UK, at present, don’t feature the kinds of long extensions in sway in the US.

Jeff John Roberts

Jeff John Roberts

For a quick reminder of what the US copyright picture has become, there’s Jeff John Roberts’ article, No, Scott Turow, copyright is not killing American authors at paidContent. In it, Roberts, an attorney, uses a bit of commentary from the head of the Authors Guild to point out the onerous “attenuated state of US copyright law”:

Protection for authors has been expanded from its original 28-year term to the life of the author plus 70 years. Congress and the courts, in other words, have signed off on a scheme that locks up titles…until the year 2100 or beyond….

It is these absurd terms — plus harsh penalties of up to $150,000 per infringement — that have helped to make copyright such a mess in the digital age. In an era when the internet grants every writer a printing press and a distribution system, it seems absurd to hand out century-long copyright terms.

And as with so many elements of our businesses of creativity, Roberts has deftly pointed out that it’s the digital dynamic now calling into question the protection array once widely thought to be good for artists and writers.

For now, what Heald concludes his research indicates is this:

The evidence suggests that copyright law then keeps the work “off the shelf” until the expiration of the copyright term, now a minimum of 95 years and eventually, for post-1976 works, the life of the author plus 70 years…No new legislative initiative should proceed in the absence of concrete data testing the claim by copyright owners that their proposals make works more, rather than less, available to the public.

Back to Table of Contents


Craft: Maybe It’s Not the Thought That Counts

From this point forward—at least for the next half year—you may not use “thought” verbs. These include: Thinks, Knows, Understands, Realizes, Believes, Wants, Remembers, Imagines, Desires, and a hundred others you love to use. The list should also include: Loves and Hates.

Chuck Palahniuk

Chuck Palahniuk

That’s Chuck Palahniuk with the kind of writing-craft concept that can make others seem fairly lame. But only when he gets into the examples he offers in his Tumblr post, Thought Verbs. Initially, this sounds like deploying active rather than passive verbs, right? That, by the way, is great advice, and is and have come under their own, brief scrutiny in this write. But there’s more to what Palahniuk is suggesting than that. Here’s an example of what he’s saying:

Until some time around Christmas, you can’t write: Kenny wondered if Monica didn’t like him going out at night…” Instead, you’ll have to unpack that to something like: “The mornings after Kenny had stayed out, beyond the last bus, until he’d had to bum a ride or pay for a cab and got home to find Monica faking sleep, faking because she never slept that quiet, those mornings, she’d only put her own cup of coffee in the microwave. Never his.”

Fight Club by @ChuckPalahniukHere’s another:

Don’t tell your reader: “Lisa hated Tom.” Instead, make your case like a lawyer in court, detail by detail. Present each piece of evidence. For example: “During roll call, in the breath after the teacher said Tom’s name, in that moment before he could answer, right then, Lisa would whisper-shout ‘Butt Wipe,’ just as Tom was saying, ‘Here’.”

And in an interesting nudge to keep you off the rocks, Palahniuk tips you off about how solitude may not be good for your characters. It gets them busy, he says, with those “thought verbs”:

One of the most-common mistakes that beginning writers make is leaving their characters alone. Writing, you may be alone. Reading, your audience may be alone. But your character should spend very, very little time alone. Because a solitary character starts thinking or worrying or wondering.

As Erin Coulehan reported in The Rolling Stone, meanwhile, Palahniuk has promised a “dark and messy” graphic-novel sequel to Fight Club.


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If you have a publishing conference in the offing, let me know about it via my contact page, and I’ll be happy to consider including it in my site’s listing and in columns as I have the chance. Here’s a look at conferences coming in the near term.  Please note that a listing here is not my endorsement of a conference or other event, but an informational inclusion. As a service, I also list any discount codes that might be of use to readers.

September 26 New York City (Metropolitan Pavilion): Marketing + Publishing Services Conference & Expo: “This innovative conference & expo is really two related shows, held together. The Marketing Conference is a full-day dedicated event that presents a comprehensive strategy for marketing in the digital age. The Publishing Services Expo offers three finely-targeted “mini-conferences” for important and often-overlooked publishing constituencies. Each track is an affordably priced, efficiently programmed two-and-half-hour session that pairs concise educational sessions with vendor speed dating to learn about new solutions.” Produced by Digital Book World and Publishers Launch (Publishers Lunch’s Michael Cader and Mike Shatzkin). Save 25% on registration with code PORTER at checkout.

September 27-29 Los Angeles: Writers Digest Conference West: “You’ll make real connections with fellow writers, experience the thrill of pitching your work to literary agents and editors, and get practical publishing-industry advice and writing inspiration from successful authors at Writer’s Digest Conference West.” Speakers include: Jon Fine, Nina Amir, Philip Athans, James Scott Bell, Lisa Cron, Eric DelaBarre, and more. The program this year includes boot camp sessions, a one-day self-publishing conference, and the regular conference with agent pitch slam. (Hashtag: #WDCW13) Save 25% on registration with code PORTER at checkout.

Screenwriters World West 2013 - #SWCW13September 27-29 Los Angeles: Writers Digest’s Screenwriters World Conference West: “Scribes from around the world unite at Screenwriters World, the annual destination for both professional and aspiring screenwriters to come together to discuss the craft, share ideas, and network with fellow creatives.” Speakers include Erik Bork, Ruth Atkinson, Josie Brown, Karl Iglesias, Jeanne V. Bowerman, and more. The schedule this year includes optional boot camp sessions.  (Hashtag: #SWCW13) Save 25% on registration with code PORTER at checkout.

CONTEC Frankfurt 2013

October 8 Frankfurt Book Fair: CONTEC Conference: “A new, highly-engaging event experience created by the Frankfurt Academy to address the complexity of the needs of today’s publishing business. CONTEC gathers stakeholders from across the publishing ecosystem – from STM and trade publishers to service providers and tech startups – in one arena to redefine and redesign the experience of publishing.” Save 20% on registration with code CONTEC13KPTW20 at checkout.

October 12 San Francisco: Writing for Change Conference: “The Fifth San Francisco Writing for Change Conference is the place to discover whether your book can change the world. The theme of the conference is “Changing the World One Book at a Time,” and the goal is to encompass business, politics, technology, social issues, the environment, culture, the law, and much more.” The event will be held at the Unitarian Universalist Center at the corner of Geary and Franklin in San Francisco.

Books in Browsers 2012 2October 24-26, San Francisco: Books in Browsers: Among the most advanced of conferences dedicated to bringing designer and code savvy into contact with editorial  and content leaders, Books in Browsers is produced for a fourth time this year by Peter Brantley in generous association with the Internet Archive and Swissnex San Francisco, produced and sponsored by and Frankfurt Book Fair. Speakers include Kate Pullinger, Baldur Bjarnason, Bill McCoy, Justo Hidalgo, Richard Nash, and Craig Mod.

November 21, London: The Bookseller FutureBook Conference: Once again at the Queen Elizabeth II Centre in Westminster, the conference is industry-focused and usually includes both plenary and breakout sessions during the course of the day. Details as they become available.

February 13-16, 2014: San Francisco Writers Conference: “Attendees have access to more than fifty “how to” sessions, panels, and workshops.  An Independent Editor consultation and Ask a Pro are included in the registration fee. Our famously popular Speed Dating for Agents is still only $50 to pitch to a room full of agents.  And you will find there are plenty of one-on-one opportunities to pitch your work to well-known publishing professionals during the weekend. The Conference features large and small traditional publishing houses, but also gives attendees the latest e-publishing, social media, and self-publishing information.”

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From VQR: Poet Naomi Thiers' site

From VQR: Poet Naomi Thiers

Last Gas: Buzzin’ for Lib­boo & Safari-ing for Agents

Among the distressing things about many reader-facing startups in publishing these days is the apparent belief that book lovers are fond of ridiculous, cutesy names, some of them sounding quite infantile. This tends to suggest an industry concept of the reader as a rather weak-headed, sentimental sort, attracted to baubles that are shiny, fluffy, soft.

LibbooA particularly cloying example of this is Libboo, the book-advocacy site that attempts to turn enthusiastic readers into “buzzers” for the books and authors they like.

Russ King

Russ King

That’s the outfit that author Russ King gives a writerly chuck on the chin in his FutureBook post, Testing Libboo – an author’s view.

We can thank King for his opening paragraphs in which he paints a less-booming picture of the self-published author’s experience than we seem to hear more frequently. In support of his book, Working From Home: Mixing Business With Pleasure? it seems he has tried various means to reach readers without much success.

I’ve put a lot of effort in, but have earned very mixed results. I ran a competition via local press outlets and online to win a Kindle, and got over 15,000 contest entries, but no significant increase in sales. Pay-per-click adverts on Google, Bing and Facebook are not cost effective. Guerrilla marketing on social networks creates sales but it takes time and the buzz stops as soon as my marketing stops.

Working from Home by Russ KingThese are the sorts of sobering comments we don’t hear as frequently as we probably should. Our news media (still a plural word) prefer those shot-out-of-a-cannon wonder-stories.

Certainly, the writing community is rushing—sometimes with a verve that might look almost cannibalistic to outsiders—to sell each other book-marketing guides, how-to’s, instructional manuals. It’s easy to worry that the blind may be writing books for the blind in such early days of the new rise in self-publishing in digital markets.

One trend many folks have noted, for example, is the “then it stopped working so well” pattern. Many authors seem to hurry to implement what appears to be a promising new tactic for positioning a book, only to find that after a few months, the sheer weight of everyone piling on (and/or changes in online retailers’ algorithms) has begun to fritter away the approach’s original effectiveness.

CJ Lyons

CJ Lyons

One such phenomenon is the free-giveaway strategy that author C.J. Lyons wrote about recently, covered here on the Ether at Publishing Perspectives.

Here, King has some first-hand experience to report with Libboo’s program of motivating readers to mobilize them as tell-a-friend salespeople. King writes:

Libboo is growing. In eight months, they have empowered over 4,500 book advocates to spur over 300,000 unique book discoveries by new readers. The most popular book on the platform, Illuminate by Aimee Agresti, has earned 242 active advocates who have brought in over 8,000 unique discoveries. Over the course of a week, Life As We Knew It by Susan Beth Pfeffer enjoyed more than 1,000 unique discoveries; 10% of which clicked through to an online bookseller.

While King writes that his ebooks aren’t flying off the virtual shelves thanks to Libboo, he does see an interesting tendency for more sustained interest:

These campaigns generated a reasonable level of clicks to storefronts but not enough to send my books into the Amazon bestseller charts. The interesting result is that the peak in interest lasts longer than campaigns I have run before. Rather than a spike that returns back to nothing, the base level of the number of clicks to storefront increases after each spike.

Walter Ellis

Walter Ellis

Meanwhile, another self-published author, Walter Ellis of How NOT To Write a Bestseller—An Expert’s Guide returns to FutureBook with Agent Hunter—Going for the KIller Agent.

Starting with the admission (difficult for some entrepreneurial authors to concede) that “Short of a bolt from the blue, which no one can predict and hardly ever happens, it is good agents, allied to good publishers, who project books onto the bestseller lists,” Ellis reports on a service called Agent Hunter. It’s a pay-for-premium program in the UK, not unlike in the US, priced at £12 for a year’s access. Some functionality is not available in a free membership, hence the fee-based upgrade offer.

Ellis’ look-over of the program produces some interesting ideas about agents.

He writes:

Agents, it turns out, are reclusive creatures, frequently allergic to technology. Far from living it up in the champagne bars of London or tucking in each lunchtime to a saddle of lamb at the Garrick, they prefer to hide out in their offices and catch the 6.23 back to Woking. Or so they would have us believe.

CONTEC Frankfurt 2013I’m looking forward to a session on October 8 in which I’ll be moderating a conversation among literary agents at the Frankfurt Book Fair’s CONTEC conference event. (Details in our Conferences listing above.) The changing roles and stances of agents and agencies in the digital dynamic is something we looked at recently here at Publishing Perspectives in a special series of stories, as well.

Meanwhile, Ellis is taken with various statements about agents he finds listed at Agent Hunter. He thinks it can help entrepreneurial authors put together “a sensible shortlist” of potentially interested representatives” for authors, “the best horses for the course they have chosen.” As he writes:

Beyond that, you’re on your own. Good luck!

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Porter Anderson is a Fellow with the National Critics Institute, a 32-year journalist with several newspapers and three networks of CNN, as well as a producer posted to the Rome headquarters of the United Nations’ World Food Programme. This column, Ether for Authors, appears here at Publishing Perspectives on Tuesdays. Anderson’s Writing on the Ether is read on Thursdays at, and he is a regular contributor to His all-new London on the Ether for The Bookseller was inaugurated during the London Book Fair. More about him is at

Main image / iStockphoto: PurpleMonster86

About the Author

Porter Anderson

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Porter Anderson has been named International Trade Press Journalist of the Year in London Book Fair's International Excellence Awards. He is Editor-in-Chief of Publishing Perspectives. He formerly was Associate Editor for The FutureBook at London's The Bookseller. Anderson was for more than a decade a senior producer and anchor with, CNN International, and CNN USA. As an arts critic (Fellow, National Critics Institute), he was with The Village Voice, the Dallas Times Herald, and the Tampa Tribune, now the Tampa Bay Times. He co-founded The Hot Sheet, a newsletter for authors, which now is owned and operated by Jane Friedman.