The Gatekeepers of Units and Readers

I’m opting out of my usual “this post originally appeared…” tagline to introduce the following. It did in fact appear on my previous blog on January 11 of last year, but I’m sharing it now because the discussion is still relevant, and perhaps even more so in today’s publishing environment than it was a year ago. The article was written January 8 of 2015 by Daniel Menaker, a fiction writer and editor, and is entitled “The Gatekeepers.”


This morning I found myself weeding through a week’s worth of Google Alerts in my inbox, and promised myself yet again that I would keep up daily with the alerts I subscribe to. Although they pile up and overwhelm my email, it’s nice to be able to see what’s been happening outside of the world, and beyond the pages of the newspaper and voices of NPR.

I subscribe to multiple publishing house alerts, because it’s important for me to stay up to date on news and events related to the publishing and book industry. During today’s alert foraging, I came across this article by book editor Daniel Menaker, in which he takes on “the issue of moving units vs. literary culture in publishing,” and he does it very well. He emphasizes that while publishers and publishing houses have the task of contributing to and portraying cultures, emotions, stories, and people, they are also business entities, striving to sell the highest quality product to their customers. Amazon is mentioned, if you haven’t already begun to wonder about its place in Menaker’s mind in regard to this topic of discussion, and he makes a crucial point in the difference between working with a publishing house or self publishing on Amazon. A publishing house is built on the foundation of performing “literary concierge,” or using “background, wide experience, native zeal, eye for talent, editorial skill” and other related tools. Amazon has a strong e-publishing platform when it comes to profit or moving units, but Menaker argues that the professional aspects of publishing Amazon lacks, vital in moving people, not just units.

Reading is an activity I cherish wholeheartedly. I appreciate well written, thought-provoking classics like Atlas Shrugged; the cheesy, heart wrenching, emotional words of Nicholas Sparks; and the fantastic worlds of Harry Potter and Narnia. While themes, prose and story lines differ in each of these and other books, they offer knowledge, escape, admiration, and so much more to me and others who read them.
So isn’t is strange to think of these commonplace and fairly accessible items as just another product being sold? Like a car, cartons of milk, a house, a piece of furniture. On Amazon, this is how books are being compared, as units; among the Fitbits, Rachel Ray cookware sets, and household supplies. How moving.

Menaker makes a thoughtful statement to end his piece, urging not those of us who defend gatekeepers who are able to move people as well as units, but those who reject and want to undermine the gate’s structure and foundation to think about what that would mean for books, stories, lesson, and perhaps life:

“The profession, in whatever form, will continue to produce physical and now electronic objects that move not only units but people. Move them and enlighten them emotionally, move them to action, move them to share what they learn and care about with others. It’s not incumbent on those who defend the publishing industry/business/art and book reviewers to justify the gatekeeping services they perform, however imperfectly. It’s incumbent on those who want to fire the gatekeepers and tear down the very gates themselves to explain what, if anything, will replace them.”

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