In Monty Python and the Holy Grail, we follow the saga of King Arthur and his knights when, at one point, they encounter the Keeper of the Bridge of Death. Arthur explains that the Keeper of the Bridge of Death asks each traveler three questions. He who answers the three questions may cross in safety.
Sir Robin asks, “What if you get a question wrong?”
Arthur answers, “Then you are cast into the Gorge of Eternal Peril,” which appears to be a fiery, hellish pit shooting up flames now and then for effect.
Sir Lancelot courageously agrees to go first. “Ask me the questions, Bridgekeeper. I’m not afraid.” The questions turn out to be:
What…is your name? What…is your quest? And what…is your favorite color.
Lancelot answers each question easily and crosses directly. “Right, off you go,” says the Bridgekeeper.
The next knight, excited that the questions are so easy, rushes up to take his turn.
The Keeper of the Bridge of Death asks, “What…is your name?”
“Sir Robin of Camelot.”
“What…is your quest?”
“To seek the Holy Grail.”
And then the Bridgekeeper asks, “What…is the capital of Assyria?”
Sir Robin exclaims, “I don’t know that!” He flies into the air screaming, as he is cast into the Gorge of Eternal Peril.
What Is a Gatekeeper?
A gatekeeper, like the Keeper of the Bridge of Death, has the authority to grant (or deny) you passage into the next stage of your publishing journey—perhaps one of the final stages: that of landing a book contract or getting a byline in a coveted journal.
Traditionally, we writers seeking publication have to enter a system and gain entrance from someone in order to be published.
A gatekeeper might be the acquisitions editor you meet at a conference, who listens to your pitch and asks to see your full proposal.
It’s the agent you query in hopes he’ll represent you to publishers.
If you’re hoping to land an article in a periodical, the gatekeeper is the editor who reads and responds to your query with a yes or no regarding your idea.
It’s the person who receives your poems, essay, or short story through Submittable and decides if it will find a place in the spring issue of a literary journal.
Generally, it’s someone who is in a position to green light your project or at least get it to the next stage.
Gatekeeper as Decision-Maker
Gatekeepers may or may not be the final decision-maker, depending on how a company is structured and how big the staff is. But especially someone you meet at a writing conference is there, representing the publishing company, and has been granted the authority to say yes or no on the spot, allowing you to move on to the next level with them if they say yes or ask for your full proposal…or move on to another publisher or publication if they no.
Most gatekeepers have been in the business a long time—long enough to recognize quality art when they see it; they can sense that certain something that sets one project apart from the rest. They can tell if it pops, if it sings.
And they know it from the business angle, too. They know what sells. They know their publishing company’s standards and style and whether your project is a good fit.
Gatekeepers are people who have the power to invite you in or turn you away. If you’re turned away, you move on. You approach another gate and stand before another gatekeeper.
Brooke Warner writes that the gatekeeper role is more complicated these days than in the past. As a former gatekeeper, she knows firsthand what it’s been and is noticing what it’s becoming. At her website, she writes, “[T]he role gets falsely propped up by supporters of traditional publishing and completely dismissed by those who favor the indie space.”
Gatekeepers as Cultural Heroes
In that article, she excerpted a Slate article by Random House editor Daniel Menaker, who estimates that about 20 or 30 gatekeepers—he says these are New York editors and publishers, publicists, marketers and sales reps—“have over the decades regularly and successfully combined art and commerce and, in the process, have supported and promulgated art. They are in fact the main curators of our life of letters.”
He calls them “cultural heroes.”
Indie Publishing’s Lack of Gatekeepers
To provide an alternative view, Warner cites Hugh Howey, who wrote in a 2015 blog post, “[T]he best thing about indie publishing is the complete lack of gatekeepers.”
Distributors as Gatekeepers
But Warner points out the gatekeeping power in the distributor. Those writers hoping to bypass gatekeepers altogether by becoming an “independent publisher,” self-publishing their work, may find themselves standing in front of some kind of gatekeeper denying entry or passage.
The writer may find it challenging or impossible to get their book into libraries and bookstores, for example. So you may find that even independent publishing requires us to face a few gatekeepers.
Facing a Gatekeeper
It’s natural to feel a bit like Monty Python’s Knights of Camelot when we face a publishing industry gatekeeper—nervous, intimidated, uncertain and unsure what to expect. We gather as much information as possible and then step up to face these individuals who have some degree of power over our destiny as a writer. They can invite us to pass through the gate or over the bridge, or they can turn us away.
Like Sir Lancelot, we may approach boldly—or we can fake bold with a big dose of moxie. Many of us are shaking in our boots, afraid to even approach the gatekeeper for fear of being cast into that gorge…we’re afraid we’ll be locked out of publishing for life, banished.
Or we imagine the gatekeepers all gathering at a pub to talk about who they rejected. “Watch out for Ann Kroeker. She’s approaching all the gates and her project, wow, let me save you some time. It’s a real stinker.”
Fortunately, that’s not how it works. You are not the gossip of gatekeepers—they’re way too busy to sit around and chat about your proposal and the forty-five others they had to read through and decide on that week.
The Gatekeeper Does His Job, We Do Ours
Like any industry, you’ll meet some professionals who seem to sort of relish their power or think more highly of their position than they ought. But most gatekeepers are hard-working individuals simply doing their job, serving their publisher to the best of their ability, searching for the best projects that are the best fit, seeking a balance of marketable material that also serves to increase the role of art in this world.
Respect their workload, their deep understanding of the business, their talent that got them where they are today. We need not fear them. We simply need to do our job as well as we possibly can.
Improve as a writer; submit the best possible work. Be patient. Persist.
We may feel like a “no” is as terrifying and final as being cast into the Gorge of Eternal Peril, but we will live to see another day. We’ll revise our proposal if need be, and step boldly forward to the next person who stands before the next entry.
“Go ahead, Gatekeeper,” we’ll say. “Ask me the questions. I’m not afraid.”
- Why Distributors are Book Publishing’s New Gatekeepers (by Brooke Warner)
- The Gatekeepers (by Daniel Menaker)
- Gatekeepers for Indie Publishing (by Hugh Howey)
- Bridgekeeper Scene from Monty Python and the Holy Grail (skip to the 0:52 mark to get past the animation)
- All podcast episodes
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