Nathan Bransford, Author


Wednesday, August 1, 2012

We're Moving From a World of Gatekeepers to a World of Influencers


The barbarians have already demolished the gates.

Anyone who wants to make a movie can upload it to YouTube. You don't need a movie studio.

Anyone who wants to record an album can get it in iTunes. You don't need a record label.

Anyone who wants to be a journalist can start a blog. You don't need a newspaper.

And, of course, anyone who wants to write a book can self-publish it. You don't need a publisher.

We used to live in a world of funnels that were driven by physical constraints. There are only so many books that can physically fit in a bookstore, therefore it only made economic sense for a certain number of books to be published a year, therefore there was a winnowing process that involved a huge amount of hoop-jumping and elimination.

There is no limit to the number of books that can be for sale online. Now the only winnowing process happens when readers themselves decide what they're going to read from almost infinite choice.

There are few gates left anymore, but there are still influencers, people who can persuade others to buy a book or consume a movie or listen to music.

On the big end of the scale you have people like Oprah and other celebrities, who can single-handedly turn a book into a bestseller. In the middle you have bloggers and reviewers, who can persuade hundreds or maybe even thousands of people to buy something.

And on the vast bottom of the scale you have individuals, who can maybe persuade a couple of their friends to buy something, but who collectively wield the greatest amount of power.

It's not as important to scale the gates as it used to be. Popular books are coming out of nowhere like never before.

Still, just because an unknown book and Twilight are for sale in the same store doesn't mean they have an equal shot. As I've written in the past, not all chances are created equal. There are still going to be people who wield outsized influence, and access to those influencers can help determine a work of art's success.

Power is decentralized from a central institution to thousands and thousands of individual power centers.

Now instead of scaling the gates, will it help to get in with the influencers?

Art: The Siege of Malta by Matteo Perez d'Aleccio






29 comments:

Samantha said...

Great article. We certainly do live in a very different world now the internet has taken over...

Mia Marlowe said...

Interesting observations, Nathan. One of the pluses of the current environment is that the connection between author and reader has never been stronger. When you figure out how to reach the influencers, please let me know. ;-)

Mieke Zamora-Mackay/@MZMackay said...

That's an excellent observation of how the tides have changed given the control the artist now has over the distribution of his work. I actually like the concept of "influencers" over "gatekeepers."

Although, as you said, even if you make it past a gatekeeper, you still need an influencer to bring your work to the forefront of the consumer's eyes.

Anonymous said...

This reminds me of Patton Oswalt's keynote address at Montreal’s Just For Laughs from a few days ago, especially in his second letter addressed to the "gatekeepers".

http://thecomicscomic.com/2012/07/27/patton-oswalts-letters-to-both-sides-his-keynote-address-at-montreals-just-for-laughs-2012/

Robena Grant said...

Names. I want names! Ha ha.

Mira said...

Excellent post. Always a pleasure to read your clear thinking, Nathan. I completely agree.

I would add that I predict it's a matter of time before some major influencers arise. I could see books getting particular 'seals of approval' to show they are high quality, for example. The consumer will want a sorting process.

I can only hope this doesn't include some type of exploitation, but I could see it going both ways.

Stacey said...

You can self-publish, but what are the odds of success? I'd say very small. The traditional gatekeepers are still the ones getting books out there on a larger scale. I'd say the influencers can help get your book to a gatekeeper. One example of this is the following: If you have a few established authors willing to cover quote, you can peak the interest of an editor. The book ultimately sells itself, but the influencers (notable authors) got them reading it. :D

Mirka Breen said...

“…will it help to get in with the influencers?” Nathan asks.
Sounds daunting. What does ‘getting in with’ mean?

D.G. Hudson said...

Or will influencers become the new gatekeepers? Are we just swapping one set of controllers (agents/editors) for another (bloggers, talk show hosts, columnists)?

You make valid points about the freedom of choice, but a book's success shouldn't be based on the writer's popularity status, or how 'in' they are with the influencers. In that case, a good schmoozer will trump a good writer. (this has been shown to happen even with Oprah)

Perhaps the dust needs to settle before we can see where the quality lies. (BTW - who are the barbarians - those who don't wait for approval?)

Dr. Frederich Shamfield, Ph. D. said...

I would argue that gatekeeping will never really fizzle out....there will always be advertisers and profits to be made in the media world off of cultural objects.....i see where you are coming from though...i would definitely agree that there is a larger input of information and ideas into the cultural triangle, but, as far as what is actually promoted and consumed by the masses, there is definitely a gatekeeping system alive and well today

Tyler Morrow said...

I would argue that gatekeeping will never really fizzle out....there will always be advertisers and profits to be made in the media world off of cultural objects.....i see where you are coming from though...i would definitely agree that there is a larger input of information and ideas into the cultural triangle, but, as far as what is actually promoted and consumed by the masses, there is definitely a gatekeeping system alive and well today

schmopinions said...

What about "influencing" tools as opposed to people? I think there is a lot to improve there but we already have the recommendations from sites like amazon and goodreads. Add to that how easy it is to read samples of books online.

It may be unfair of me to memtion amazon here and not other online sellers but I do think that they are the leaders in that even if it's just because they have much bigger numbers of reviews.

Mr. D said...

It's always been a "help" to "get in" with the influencers, no matter what field you want to make it in. That's why people who have "connections" stand a better chance at whatever than those who don't.

Robert Michael said...

The deluge of options open to people for whatever media entertains you--television, movies, books, music, podcasts, talk shows, sports, or theatre--can be daunting. We make our selections based on familiarity and filters.

The filters are designed to keep the rich richer. That is the reality. It isn't much different from the model available from the traditional model except for the patina of control, freedom, and modest success.

We still struggle against the sub par dreck, the unbelievable and unexplainable phenomenons perpetrated by the public consumption of media. We still are faced with the fact that even more pressure is put on agents and publishers. Finally, we have some hope, but it is of the slimmest kind. It comes down to who can yell the loudest to the most for the longest in the most compelling way. Marketing 101.

Tracy said...

Seems like the old adage, "Money Talks and BS Walks" applies more and more to self publishing every day.

If you have the cash to get print it in stores, pay for advertising across the board and do what major publishing houses do from returns to hitting the PR trail. You can now do it all yourself.

No gate-keeper needed other than good old Ben Franklin. (A bag full of Bens, actually).

jennifermhartsock said...

I've always trusted the experience of a traditional agent/publisher with my work. Sure, I could do it myself, but I want proof that I'm good enough to be believed in by a professional. And so, I've continued to make my mss and letters as best I can, and to tell you the truth, I'm glad. If I had become impatient and published early, I would have missed out on a better story.

Jennifer

DK said...

I think culture gets more democratic now. First there were only a few people who decided what te rest should read. So if these people were Dostoevski-lovers, people would start to read Dostoevski. But maybe there was some other, much better writer in the time of Dostoevski, that no one ever read, because the decission-people didn't think him worthy.

Now everyone decides for everyone. We have millions of eyes reading every written letter in the world. Trhough portals like Reddit, the better the text, the more it will be read.

I think these are better, more democratic, times than the despotic , elitary times of the past.

(And no, I don't think this will lead to less quality, on the contrary)

Peter Dudley said...

I agree. It's like the fence has been torn down, but they're still manning the guard towers.

Research shows that, by far, the top two ways people select their next book are (1) familiarity with the author's work and (2) personal referrals. (Book reviews fell near the bottom of the list, but I would guess that individual super-influencer celebrities like Oprah count as a personal referral.)

Given that data, what's very interesting to me is the "vast bottom of the scale" you mention, combined with the role of Amazon. The Amazon "customers who bought this also bought" feature approaches a personal referral in that we all sort of trust the conventional wisdom. While it's not a new thing for book stores to be influencers (they have the tables up front and decide what faces out), Amazon's role is broader and deeper here. If you can get your book to start showing up as being purchased by people who also bought something hot, you'll get a bump. In theory.

The trick is to last long enough to hit the tipping point. For a traditionally published book, a countdown clock starts ticking the day the book hits the stores. If sales don't hit the tipping point by the time the clock expires, tough luck. But self published books have no such countdown clock.

Kristin Laughtin said...

Yep. If you can't get in with a traditional publisher and you don't have a pre-made awesome platform, your exposure is going to depend on who else you know. This is why a lot of us are still interested in traditional publishers and agents at this point; even if they don't provide as much marketing as they used to, we hope they'll have more connections than we do. Someone mentioned a "seal of approval" in one of the comments above, and I think both traditional publishers and some of the other big-name influencers whose opinions will come to be widely trusted will serve as this seal. Anyone will be able to publish, but those seals will help books get read.

Magdalena Munro said...

Thank you as always for your wonderful insight. I find today's world so liberating. Even though I'm still "querying" away, I no longer feel dismayed when I get the rejection form as I realize I wield a great amount of power in liberating my story. I hope CBS Interactive is treating you well!

Anonymous said...

Stacey said...
"You can self-publish, but what are the odds of success? I'd say very small. The traditional gatekeepers are still the ones getting books out there on a larger scale."

Actually, most traditionally published books also sell poorly, which is part of the reason the midlist doesn't really exist in bookstores anymore. Self-publishing has brought the midlist author back and allowed plenty of authors to make a living from their writing alone. This month, with self-publishing, I sold over 13k books and made almost twice what the average tradionally published author makes in a year. I would never show up on the bestseller list with those numbers, and a publishing company would probably have dropped me before I had the chance to build my audience. As it is, I'm making more than a comfortable living as a self-published midlist-level author. And I network with a few dozen other people doing the same thing.

Anonymous said...

Anon from 3:37 again...

Forgot to mention, I don't have a platform. I don't blog. I don't advertise. I don't network to sell books but to learn how to write what my market wants to read. So, no, I'm not a big believer in the idea that you have to have anything behind you but good writing, a strong work ethic, and the willingness to out the readers' tastes before your own.

Neurotic Workaholic said...

Since Snooki got not one but two book deals even though she didn't actually write either book (and neither do many of the celebrity "authors"), does that mean that people like her are more powerful? Does that mean that her kid is going to be President someday?
Just kidding.
I hope.

Neil Larkins said...

Still a long way to go for the unnoticed writer. Great stuff today, everyone.

Joanna said...

Your posts are always good... this one was great. Thank you.

wendy said...

Firstly, thanks for increasing number of blog posts per week, Nathan. Love reading them and glad to be on receiving end of more.

Secondly, I thought this an inciteful post. Things happen in cycles, don't they? And the age of the internet certainly has enabled many people to become independent sellers. I don't know if you remember mp3.com when anyone was able to upload their music for free and the listener was also able to download it for free. Some of my favourite songs were hosted on mp3.com and composed by indie artists such as Gossamer. Much pay-to-listen music wasn't nearly as good, I thought. I'm glad the gatekeepers' role is being eroded so I can enjoy media treasures that I might not have had the opportunity to experience.

Terin Tashi Miller said...

Absolutely. And I think agents can actually play the role of contact with "influencers."

But, as you know, I've been contending this since essentially it became obvious the "traditional" publishers were freaking out (as were critics) over their sudden loss of dominance over the "marketplace of ideas."

I imagine the same sort of reaction was experienced by various religious leaders when that guy Guttenberg started all the trouble...

Anonymous said...

I agree for the most part. But I also think as the mainstream becomes more aware of the Internet and what's happening on the Internet, there will be rules (for lack of a better word) that will require some kind of balance and verification.

This, for example:

"Anyone who wants to be a journalist can start a blog. You don't need a newspaper."

There was a case last year, I think in Seattle, where a blogger who THOUGHT she was a journalist was sued for defamation. The judge ruled she was NOT a journalist; just a blogger. He made this very clear and listed distinct differences. I wish I had links to this, but I don't.

However, a good deal of what we see and read on the Internet right now is a lot of truncated information supplied by novices and that's going to change. The most recent case with using photos without permission is another good example. True journalists know the difference. Bloggers don't, and we'll be seeing more and more legal cases pop up in the future.

Bridget Asher said...

as someone who's published 15 books with major publishing houses, I think you're right, and it makes me feel a new kind of weariness. it's democratic, yes. and i love the democratization that technology affords. but i see my relationship with the page -- the thing i care about most deeply -- being diverted not by a handful, but by masses i feel pressured to engage. i love readers -- probably too much. i think of them far more often than they think of me; the relationship will never be equal. but the push to interact and spend more time with them than my characters (not to mention my own family) is hard. i got into writing as a solitary act because i needed that solitude to make sense of the world -- which is both beautiful and brutal. i didn't go into sales and yet my job -- if i allow it -- becomes one of overwhelming salesmanship. my grandfather sold vacuums, door to door. i relate to him now in a way i never thought i ever would -- snowy stoops of West Virginia, trudging up moutain roads... it's different. it's the same. i was never good at rubbing elbows -- with gatekeepers. and i never got the feeling that they wanted me to. they wanted to see my words on the page -- liked them or didn't. do the influencers really want my elbow rubbing? the idea of trying to influence influencers makes me feel a small death in my chest. here's what i can do. hole up. write. devote myself to the page and hope that my characters burrow into a few hearts -- influencial hearts or not.

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