Of readers and gatekeepers – a call to arms

Are you reading this? Then I’m talking to you. You’re a reader and you have a new responsibility. I’m including myself in this. I’m a writer, but I’m a reader too. Any writer worth his or her salt should be a voracious reader, and we’ve got a new responsibility as well. We’re all the New Gatekeepers. No, not extras in a Doctor Who episode, don’t get over-excited.

There’s so much talk about the changing face of publishing, and justifiably so. It’s an exciting time and writing and publishing is going through a renaissance brought about by new technologies. That means there are options out there for pretty much everyone to get their writing out into the world, and a lot of people are taking up the opportunity. Some people are doing seriously well out of it, like Amanda Hocking. Others are doing rather less well, like the poor woman that immolated her career with one online review – you know who I mean. But one of the net results of this revolution in publishing is that readers have been saddled with a massive new responsibility.

Gatekeeping is important. In the good old days of the late 90s and early 2000s, and since forever before that, the gatekeepers were the publishers. Writers would approach publishers, either directly or through agents, and publishers would decide what was published and what wasn’t. They essentially filtered what everyone got to read. The upside of this was, largely, the stuff that made it into print was generally well written and worth reading. Generally. We all know publishers are quite capable of turning out reams of utter shite too. But on the whole they ensured a general level of quality control. The downside, apart from the afore-mentioned shite, is that they also ensured that anything risky or unusual, something strangely cross-genre, something not immediately saleable, was unlikely to see the light of day. There were self-publishing and small press success stories, where the unlikely became massive, but those hits were very, very rare.

Now, with the advent of Print On Demand and ebook technology, publishers have found those gatekeeping responsibilities ripped away. Writers are still keen to be published by the big guys – there’s a definite advantage to it, both in terms of credibility and distribution, hence readership. But literally millions of people are circumventing the publishers and self-publishing. Millions more are scoring smaller deals with small press. The volume of stuff out there is staggering. And a lot of it is complete shit.

Remember, the publishers themselves have turned out many stinkers over the years, but the strike rate for quality – in editing, formatting, production and so on, as well as writing ability – has generally been kept high even if the stories were rubbish. Not always, but often. Nowadays people think it’s easy to write and be “published” and there’s loads of stuff out there that really shouldn’t see the light of day. Poorly written, poorly edited, poorly formatted – just poor. And that’s where we as readers come in. This is why we are the New Gatekeepers.

Success in writing has always relied on word of mouth. When a big publisher puts the might of the marketing machine behind a new release that word of mouth gets a massive head start, but it’s still the reviews and recommendations of critics and readers that determine whether a book is truly successful or not. That’s still the case, but the mainstream reviewers can’t keep up with the tsunami of words constantly bearing down on them. Along with all the newly published writers, a whole bunch of new reviewers have cropped up, and many book review blogs are developing considerable power. This is a very good thing, as it helps to strim out the crap and let the quality stuff rise to the top.

But you don’t need a review blog to wield power in this new world. You’re a reader – you have enormous power. If only you’d use it. By the Power of Yourskull! Or, more accruately, the brain within it. If you read something you like, tell people all about it. Recommend it to your friends, buy it and gift it to people. You can gift ebooks now as well as print books. There is no better result for a writer than a reader enjoying the book and recommending it. But don’t stop there – there’s so much more you can do, very easily.

You don’t need to be a talented reviewer to review books. Amazon.com, Amazon.co.uk, Goodreads, Smashwords – all these places and more make it very easy for you to leave a review and rate a book. Or just rate it. Your review doesn’t have to be anything lengthy to have an impact. For example, look at this review of my second novel, MageSign, that a reader called Joefredwheels left on Amazon.com (Yes, I’m going to use my own work as reference. Sue me.):

excellent follow up – great story continuing adventure of first book protaganist. hoping for more stories in this world. Baxter is an excellent writer of a fast past exciting plot. THIS IS WORTH THE MONEY. BUY THE BOOK

He also rated it five stars. Brilliant. It’s very short, it’s not worrying about being good writing in itself, it’s simply conveying the person’s enjoyment of the book. Sure, it’s cool when readers take the time to write a few paragraphs of carefully thought out critique when they review, but the review above is just as valuable.

Here’s another example, this time a review of RealmShift, left on Amazon by Cathy Russell “Ganymeder”:

a well thought out tale – I liked that this story had believable characters and explored faith (or lack of), it’s origins, etc. It had a lot of deep themes. The characters were well thought out. The plot was engaging, and I liked the whole idea of a superhuman who could kick the devil’s ass. While reading this, I kept thinking it would make a great action movie or comic book too. I’d recommend this. 4 stars.

That wouldn’t have taken long to write, but in a single paragraph she recommends the book and gives some basic reasons why. Again, brilliant.

I can’t express how grateful I am when people take the time to do this. And it’s something we can all do, for any publication, anywhere on the web.

I tend to review books I enjoy here on my blog, but I’m a regular blogger anyway. I always rate them on Goodreads. I’m also planning to copy my reviews over onto Amazon and Goodreads – I wish I’d done it as I wrote them, as now it’s going to take a while and a concerted effort. But I’ll do it, because I plan to put my reviews where my mouth is.

So we, as readers, are the new gatekeepers. It’s our responsibility to help spread the word about the good stuff we read, and the bad. You don’t have to leave negative reviews on anything – just don’t review them. But it’s an act of true benevolence to leave good reviews of stuff you enjoy, or drop by websites and leave a star rating. You can write a single line or single paragraph review and copy that to all the sites you visit or shop at. If you do blog, then reviewing a book on your site is fantastic. But whatever you do, do something. Help spread the word. As writers, nothing is more valuable to us than the recommendations of readers. It’s always been that way, and now it’s more true than ever. Readers can make sure the good stuff out there gets noticed and more writers get themselves a well-earned career. Power to the people!


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37 thoughts on “Of readers and gatekeepers – a call to arms

  1. Excellent post! Word of mouth is so important… especially when you’re published by a small publisher. It’s what sold enough copies of “Gamers’ Quest” for me to get a contract for the sequel (“Gamers’ Challenge”, out in Sept). I review books for a couple of different sites, plus on my blog. I then tweet and FB the reviews. Keep meaning to get myself onto Goodreads… hope to do it soon.

  2. Thanks Alan., Great post and exactly why I have started a separate blog for reviewing http://www.MysteryThriller.tv and also put reviews on Amazon, Goodreads & Shelfari. As a writer, I have felt a renewed responsibility as a reader to share reviews and rate books so we can help each other.
    Thanks – I shall share this 🙂

  3. Hi,

    Thanks for the post. Have tweeted it. I agree, not only can we help control quality by posting reviews, but we can really help out our favorite authors along the way. I never used to think that writing a review on Amazon was important. They have 23 reviews already! – But every single review is important as the quantity of reviews helps show the support behind the book.

    I now Tweet, goodreads and amazon review all the books i read. In fact, off to do my latest conquest right now.


    sarah ketley

  4. I tried the traditional route for years, even received praise and encouragement, recommendations to 2 agents from Sarah Ann Freed of Mysterious Press, but nothing came of my efforts. Utterly discouraged, I decided to self publish when I retired last year. My satisfaction comes from the hundreds of copies I’ve sold and positive feedback/reviews I’ve had.

  5. Thank you for your stirring post. I was just thinking this the other day – how the Web has opened up so many new avenues for writing and communication to people who would otherwise have no opportunity to be heard. Yes, a lot of it is amateurish and shouldn’t get out, but for the sake of the brilliant we have to put up with it. And maybe the writers of “utter shite” will learn and grow and one day become brilliant.

  6. I’m not so bad at keeping Goodreads up to date, but I’m terrible at remembering to rate and review at Amazon. We both need to rectify!

  7. GOOD article. As writers we should have the self-respect and the respect for our readers not to upload until our product is as perfect as we can make it; but as readers we should be acknowledging the efforts of those who have made a good job of it.

    Until recently I never checked out the indies – I’m so glad I did as I’ve found such unusual stories. To leave a “thank you” on the ones I enjoy seems only polite, and hopefully will also help other readers to make their buying decision. Everyone’s a winner!


  8. I agree. Even really short reviews are good. For example, “A light and fluffy feel good romance. I read the entire thing while taking a bath.”

    I believe Kindle 3 owners now have the option of leaving reviews directly from their device. This feature may have been part of the last software upgrade.

    ~ Jenna

  9. My Kindle is 3rd generation and I checked but couldn’t see the option. I might need to upgrade software. Do you know where the option is? Presumably opening the menu on a particular book should give you the option?

  10. I’m not sure. I have a K2 and I don’t think I have that feature…?

    I read about it on a forum and for some reason I thought you’d get the option when you finished a title.

    Did I dream all that?


  11. Further to my last comment, the Kindle Boards come through again. Here’s the full response from Annalog:

    It is not on a Kindle menu but is an option from the Kindle Store accessed from the Kindle. One way to post a book review from the Kindle:

    On a Home page, go to the book listing and push the 5-way controller to the right. This brings up a list of options for the book.

    Select Book Description which goes to the Amazon Kindle store entry for that book. Wireless (WiFi or 3G) needs to be on.

    On the book page, go to the Customer Reviews link.

    At the top of the Customer Reviews page there should be two links. The first is “Write a Review” and the second is “Editorial Reviews”.

    Select the Write a Review link. this will bring up a page where you can select 1 to 5 stars, enter a review title and enter a review. At the bottom of the page is a Submit button.

    Here’s the thread: http://www.kindleboards.com/index.php/topic,68430.0.html

  12. Good discussion. I certainly would want people to review my books when they’re out there.

    I post a review of all the books I read on my blog and on Goodreaders when I finish, as a kind of record of what I’ve read. I’ve never posted on Amazon.com though. Might have to turn that around.

  13. Actually, come to think of it, Amazon.com should have a trackback feature to blogs that leave reviews, so if someone links to a book, it’s in a list on the product page of reviews.

    Or perhaps an option to leave a link to a review from a blog in the product page…

  14. Well, you can imagine the massive influx of links if that option existed. Lots of people blog. It’s easy enough to copy/paste your blog or Goodreads review to Amazon once you’re in the habit. I’m working on making that my new habit.

    I can tell you from experience that Amazon reviews and ratings are really valuable to authors. Also, if you can be bothered, tagging on Amazon is valuable too and making Listmania lists of your favourite books to help them show up in more searches.

  15. I tend not to read too many proper reviews – I don’t use Goodreads or seek out review sites. I only check out Amazon reviews if I’m selecting a book I really know nothing about. Yet the internet really has changed how I buy books and I probably do take more notice of other people’s suggestions and opinions than I used to. I see people discussing books on Twitter all the time. Those conversations always catch my eye since, essentially, they’re either people I know or at least people with similar tastes to me recommending the book, so I trust their judgement.
    It’s word of mouth at its best – a conversation that can be overheard by hundreds of people – and quite often I’ll end up buying a book based on those Twitter chats.
    Those conversations effectively work as “interactive reviews” when you think about it.
    Of course my Twitter-list IS slanted towards book and publisher folk, so it is full of readers swapping “great book” tips. Nevertheless, word spreads pretty quickly. And if a book is really good the title comes up repeatedly, reinforcing those positive reviews and comments.

  16. Very good point! Nothing is more important to a writer, nor more valuable, than word of mouth. Whether you review or not, do talk about the books you like, on Twitter, Facebook, in real life – anywhere you can. A reader’s recommendation is the best praise and career boost a writer can get.

  17. Will try to make adding my reviews to Amazon.com a habit too, though I think I agree with Bothersome Words.

    For me at least, it usually isn’t official reviews or reviews even on Amazon.com or product pages. It’s usually hearing it mentioned a few times on Facebook or Twitter that will get me curious.

  18. In which case, in keeping with the theme of the post, it’s equally important to do those things too. Social media is a boon for writers and readers alike.

  19. Great post!

    I should really be better about actually posting reviews at Good Reads. I keep track of my reading list and usually give a star rating, but rarely post actual written reviews there.

  20. If you have a Kindle 3 and the latest update on the software, when you get to the end of the book there should be a page called “Before you go” where you can give it a basic star rating which syncs with Amazon. Also, if you set up your Twitter and FB accounts on the Kindle you can Tweet or FB the fact that you just finished the book and a brief review. It’s a pretty good idea but is dependent on people actually taking the time to set up their accounts on their Kindles.

    I try to review most stuff I read, but frankly haven’t bother to set that up yet and I suspect most people might be just as lazy as me.

    On the other hand, I’m lurking on Goodreads a lot at the moment and I think have made more progress with getting reviews on my own book in the past week than I have done in the previous 2 months! Slowly slowly, and obv there’s still a waiting time, but it’s been added to 17 people’s to-read shelves in 10 days, which is not bad for visibility at all, even if none of them ever get round to reading it!

    Going back to the Kindle update, if you aren’t sure whether you have it you can check whether you already have the update. Go to Home page > Menu > Settings – at the bottom of that page you should see Version 3.1 – if you have that then you have the update. If you then use Goto and put the last location or page number shown and once there, hit the next page button, you should find yourself on a page called “Before you go”.

    And since I am now feeling a bit guilty about not having done so before, I shall go investigate how to set up my social media for that Tweety review goodness….

    Sorry for the essay, but hope that was helpful!

  21. Thanks for the info JA.

    I think the bottom line is that a review can be a carefully thought out 1,000 words on a dedicated review site or a comment to a friend in a cafe, and everything in between.

    In many ways, especially based on comments here, it seems that Facebook and Twitter comments are taken very seriously as people pay attention to likeminded friends and respect their opinions. If a bunch of people endorse a book on Twitter, I bet it would result in more sales than a review on Amazon.

    But it’s ALL important. Talk about the good stuff everywhere and help it get noticed. People will never buy a book they’ve never heard of.

  22. Wow so many comments. I didn’t read *any* of them, so apologies.

    Just wanted to say that I like the concept of readers as gatekeepers. When I was in training as an editor, there was a saying that editors are true gatekeepers: as first real readers (in old-school publishing) and ‘fixers’ of copy. It’s a bit sad that it’s changed, really.

  23. Well, yes and no. Hopefully anything being published, even self-published, has been edited. People are learning that you can self-edit. Then again, readers will review something as poorly edited and that will cost the author, who will then hopefully learn, albeit learning the hard way!

  24. Well, I’ve never had a seven minute video comment before!

    I used the term gatekeeper as it’s a bit of a term-du-jour at the moment and gets bandied around a lot. The point being that, with the advent of so many variations on getting published, there are no real gatekeepers any more. Editors only gatekeep for their given publishing house now and all publishing houses are easily circumvented, and there are numerous small press and niche publishers at work out there as well as indie authors. So for that reason, readers need to start acting *like* gatekeepers.

    It’s also clear from the other comments here that many people take tweets and comments from friends as far more influential than actual reviews. So it’s all important, but it’s still readers helping the good stuff get noticed. However you do it, do continue to converse and get the good stuff noticed!

  25. Thanks for this post, not only for encouraging the readers *out there* to do their bit, but for reminding me that I should be doing it too! I’ve had people email me really nice things about my book, but they don’t review it anywhere. It was only as I was reading your post that I realised I very rarely leave reviews, yet if I know the author I will often email them and tell them how much I liked it. I will see about fixing that now!

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