Where next for reading’s gatekeepers?

Posted: July 25, 2014 in reading, self-publishing
Tags: , , , , , , , , ,

Our reading habits are hugely influenced by gatekeepers, people and institutions who make broad judgements on what is and isn’t worth reading. It might not feel like it on an individual level, when you’re picking up the book that your friend recommended, but if you look at the big picture you can see these guardians of our reading experience looming over our selections.

They’re the big publishers, deciding what to put into print.

They’re the bookstores big and small, deciding what to order, what to show prominently on the shelves.

They’re the reviewers and editors who decide what gets attention.

They’re the writers of school and college curricula, making decisions on what counts as ‘important’.

Out with the old gatekeepers

Of course the overt power of any given gatekeeper is crumbling. Western culture developed a healthy and outspoken strain of cynicism about authority in the 1960s. The rise of the internet in the 1990s created a space in which we could easily seek out voices like our own, and so live the fractured and pluralistic culture promised by that previous generation. Now the growth of self-publishing is along many more writers to see their words in print.

The power of traditional gatekeepers is in decline. Bookstores are closing down, or at least being transformed. Ministers receive as much ridicule as praise when they try to tell us what’s worth reading.

And yet the wide range of choices causes us problems. We need a way to filter the millions of books, to decide what to read. We cannot make decisions without the help of some kind of gatekeepers. So what will those gatekeepers look like in ten or twenty years’ time? And will they empower us to make the choices that best suit our tastes, as we want them to, or will they try to make us fit their tastes, as is traditional?

Algorithms as gatekeepers

One of the biggest gatekeepers at the moment is Amazon. Its algorithms are designed to help you find books that you will like through its recommendations on what to read next. Amazon foregoes the opportunity to deliberately point you towards books which provide the company with a larger per-sale profit, instead betting on the long game. If they keep recommending the best choices for you then you will keep coming back and buying through them. It’s part of how they so thoroughly dominate the book selling market right now. If you want to know more, go read the informative books and blog posts of David Gaughran.

If the Amazon story has taught us anything it’s that nothing lasts forever. Damien Walter has predicted that, with the rise of more sophisticated software, Google may eventually take over from Amazon as our best source of book recommendations. This would, as Damien points out, liberate writers from being dependent on Amazon. However, Google’s paying customers are advertisers not readers or writers, and that could have a detrimental impact on how it works.

Algorithms have proved the sort of gatekeepers that empower us and help us to find books we want. The owners might change, but those programs aren’t going away. What will be interesting to see will be who provides the programs and who they help.

Awards as gatekeepers

Awards ceremonies provide a very different sort of gatekeeper, essentially creating a recommendation that the judges or collective community believe everyone should read. Whether it’s the impending Booker Prize directing the entire British reading public towards a single piece of literary fiction, or the fandom-voted awards that accompany the summer’s big science fiction and fantasy conventions, these are hegemonic gatekeepers, trying to hold a group together through shared tastes and identity.

The Knighton prize for getting my lazy arse out of bed in the morning

The Knighton prize for getting my lazy arse out of bed in the morning

In some ways awards are among the most old-style of gatekeepers. The idea that any single book can be held up as objectively the best in its field feels absurd to me. But these prizes aren’t going anywhere, and they do fill a useful function. They bring us together, scattered as we are by our diverse tastes, help to create bonding conversations before we scatter back to our algorithmically identified reading piles.

What other gatekeepers?

I’m sure there are other gatekeepers still of relevance. Can you think of some I’ve missed? And what difference do these ones make to your reading? Do you find Amazon helpful? Do you single out award-winning books to read?

As always, please share your thoughts in the comments.

  1. Ben says:

    Andy, I love your Blogs. I read them all. You are wise and entertaining. You are nearly the only Blog I read in fact. But today you have driven me to tears. How? How can you open this topic without a mention, not a word, about perhaps the most important of Gatekeepers? You haven’t mentioned Libraries. Our poor poor dying Libraries. *sob*

    A quote to illustrate my point because I am too upset to type any further:

    “I spent three days a week for 10 years educating myself in the public library, and it’s better than college. People should educate themselves – you can get a complete education for no money. At the end of 10 years, I had read every book in the library and I’d written a thousand stories.”

    Ray Bradbury

    • You know what, you’re quite right. Given how much time I’ve spent in libraries over the years, not to mention the people I know who work in them, I’m frankly embarrassed to have overlooked them. I’ve added ‘the future of libraries as gatekeepers’ to my list of future blog topics, and will come back to the subject.

      And thank you for the kind words! Really glad you’re enjoying the blog, even if I’ve dropped the ball today.

  2. Angela Misri says:

    I would like a Knighton Prize ! I got out of bed this morning! Also, I think The Knighton Prize sounds way cooler than the Man Booker Prize. Feh.

    • Yeah, they didn’t really think that name through, did they?

      Fortunately it is easy to be awarded a Knighton prize. Simply make your cup of coffee, hold it up above your head and give a brief acceptance speech to the empty kitchen (or full kitchen, but you may get some odd looks). Then bask in the glow of your well-earned self-admiration. Works for me every time.

  3. glenatron says:

    Gatekeepers may not be so relevant because the walls have fallen and the tide is rushing in, what I need now is gold-panners. There is far too much content being constantly produced for me to ever be able to read it and without those editors and other people on the production path the average quality is going to be very low, but there will also be some amazing books. I need people who can direct me to the good stuff and help me to avoid the weak and given that somebody likes pretty much everything, I don’t often rely on Amazon reviews ( also I hate spoilers and those often enough slip through ) so a lot of the time I get recommendations from other writers I enjoy. Twitter is pretty great for this because I can build up a network of interesting writers whose books I will end up reading and interesting bloggers and reviewers who might draw me towards other writers.

    I have bought books based on awardwinnership too but reputation among other writers is increasingly having more effect on my buying decisions, with mixed but often positive results.

    • I like that label of gold-panners. It seems a much more accurate and less authoritarian description of what’s useful.

      And I have to say, you’re currently one of the panners whose nuggets of book-gold I look out for.

  4. eisyasofia says:

    What about the governments as gatekeepers? Recently Singaporean government bans books with LGBT themes http://thediplomat.com/2014/07/singapore-library-bans-books-that-feature-lgbt-families/

    • Good grief, I hadn’t heard about that particular story, but that’s awful. It’s good to see from the article that people are pushing back.

      Governments definitely play a part still, but I think that as with so many things their ability to retain control is weakened by modern technology and the relentless pace of change. Authoritarian governments or over-powered institutions can directly ban books, but that will also arouse some people’s interest. More subtle moves like deciding what books are taught in schools also matter, but put people off the supposedly ‘great’ books as often as they create enthusiasm.

  5. glenatron says:

    In direct answer to your question, I don’t even know if Reading has any gates for them to keep. I usually just drive straight up the A33 there.

  6. Sue Archer says:

    I have mixed reactions to algorithms. I read a wide variety of books, and I find Amazon keeps trying to peg me into corners and doesn’t really know me well at all. In some ways I find this reassuring, because I’m not that keen on being profiled. I also see, though, how algorithms are useful for helping people wade through the overwhelming amount of content. I think part of the reason why algorithms don’t work is because they can’t yet see the entire picture – like not seeing what I borrow from the library (another gatekeeper, as Ben pointed out). Someday we’re going to be tracked by mega-algorithms. And given the agendas of some of these companies that do the tracking, this is a little creepy. Guess I’ve been reading too much cyberpunk. 😉

    • I’m with you on the creepiness of it. My algorithms sometimes get a bit screwy as well – Amazon keeps recommending things I’m completely disinterested in based on what I’ve bought people for their birthdays or books that Laura’s downloaded using my Kindle. But over time, as they get more nuanced and we share more data with them, I’m sure they’ll get ever more creepily helpful.

      I think that Glenatron’s gold-panning metaphor’s a useful one here as well. The algorithms help to sift through the muck and find lumps. That saves us a lot of effort, but doesn’t mena every lump’s going to be gold.

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