Publishing’s New Gatekeepers, and Why They’re Better Than the Old Ones

Publishing’s New Gatekeepers, and Why They’re Better Than the Old Ones

At the end of a well-reported and largely fair article on the rise of Amazon, George Packer can’t resist a little hand-wringing. “When the last gatekeeper but one is gone,” he asks rhetorically—referring to the disappearing class of editors, critics, and booksellers who once ran the publishing industry—”will Amazon care whether a book is any good?”

Call me an Internet Pollyanna, but why does it have to be Amazon’s job to care whether a book is any good? Isn’t that the job of the reader, and isn’t Amazon giving the reader more tools to inform his or her decisions regarding book purchases? Earlier in his final paragraph, Packer admits that the gatekeeper question is to some extent a half-full/half-empty discussion, with the likes of Jeff Bezos calling gatekeepers “elitist” and the likes of Packer calling them “barriers against the complete commercialization of ideas.”

This way of framing the discussion, though, ignores the fact that consumers—given the choice—aren’t rejecting gatekeepers, they’re just choosing different ones. Consumers today continue to willingly rely on gatekeepers, in one way or another, for almost every media purchase. Here are the gatekeepers we’re now collectively preferring to the literary barons who formerly ran the book scene. (There are correlates in every other media industry, particularly music and film.)

1. Robo-gatekeepers. One telling detail in Packer’s story is that early in its history, Amazon experimented with employing a larger staff of content curators—but quickly discovered that even the relatively primitive versions of its automated recommendation engine were doing better than their staff critics at helping consumers find the books they wanted. These robo-gatekeepers—basically, the computerized versions of those friendly neighborhood booksellers who “knew you” and could point you to the right titles—work so well that I even used them in my academic research; for helping me identify books relevant to my dissertation, Amazon’s recommendation engine was more efficient than any academic search engine (librarians’ brains included). Even if not all the books Amazon recommended were “good” books, it was important for me to know about them as titles of interest in my field.

2. Peer gatekeepers. Peer-to-peer recommendations have always been gold, and tools like GoodReads—the bookworm social network that’s now owned by Amazon—make those recommendations easier to access and share. I don’t check the New York Times Book Review very often, but I frequently scan my GoodReads update list to see what my friends are reading and enjoying. The importance of the peer gatekeeper is surging across the creative industries: bigger publishers can plant more sharing seeds, but unless readers pass a book (or blog post) on, it will quickly die on the vine.

3. A la carte gatekeepers. I was immediately fascinated with Emily Books, the micro-bookseller run by Emily Gould and Ruth Curry, because it digitally distills the appeal of the independent bookstore to its essence: Emily Books adds exactly one book per month to its inventory, selected by Gould and Curry specifically for their loyal coterie of customers. (Read my interview with Gould here.) Gould and Curry are new gatekeepers, but this is also what’s happening to the old gatekeepers: they’re becoming brand names wielding influence among customers who respect their judgment. It will be interesting to watch the role of a la carte gatekeepers—tastemakers who are neither peers nor robots—over the next few years. Beats Music, to take an example from a neighboring industry, is a well-financed venture that’s betting heavily on consumers’ interest in having access to a la carte gatekeepers (it’s easy, for example, to find Ellen DeGeneres’s totally 80s playlist). GoodReads, by encouraging authors to participate in its community, is similarly facilitating this kind of gatekeeping: if you like an author, it’s easy to see what she or he is reading and recommending.

Packer does raise the specter of another form of gatekeeping: the kind of gatekeeping Amazon does when it refuses to sell the books of publishers who don’t pay “promotional” fees, part of what Packer sees as a series of developments that “pushing American culture under the control of ever fewer and more powerful corporations.”

That is indeed a scary prospect, but we’re not going to prevent those developments by waxing nostalgic over the gatekeepers of yore. Instead, we should ensure that our elected representatives monitor potential monopolies—like, yes, Amazon—and, especially, that they preserve Net neutrality. Consumers should be entitled to choose their own gatekeepers, whether old or new, with equal bandwidth for all.

Jay Gabler