This is brilliant, but I can't sell it
On traditional publishing, diversity and implicit gatekeeping
You said it yourself in the post, publishers are looking for things they can sell. You, personally, may never take on a project that you don’t absolutely believe in, but I wonder how often you’ve had to say, ‘This is brilliant … but I can’t sell it’?
— Ian S Bott
The above was found in the comment section of an article about how traditional publishers and agents are not gatekeepers. A commenter asked the literary agent if she'd experienced a moment where she had to make a choice between art or profit. To this day, the comment remains unanswered.
I have no ill will against this agent. My problem is that this comment toggled the part of my brain that needs to analyze. Mostly, leaving this comment stranded in a sea of positive responses felt like ignoring integral critique. Integral critique about the nature of sales in publishing.
Integral critique often made by marginalized authors, both self and traditionally published. The wheels in my head started turning: Diverse voices in literature are often courted in publishing. Diverse voices that must comp to titles sometimes so unlike their own. Titles so unlike their own because what sells is so unlike their Own Voices.
I had to ask myself "Why?"
If sales reign, what dictates what can sell in publishing? What can sell to whom, and is this subtly decided? I think it may be, which means we need to talk about implicit gatekeeping.
Gatekeeping marginalized authors isn't always about explicit bigotry
Sometimes, it's embedded in the tapestry
In a classist world predicated on othering people, publishing positions itself as a megaphone for historically excluded stories. Is it truly?
While I have no doubt that there are many publishing houses and organizations that actively work to uplift marginalized authors, I'm also under no illusions that the unaddressed issues and mechanisms of publishing aren't a form of gatekeeping. This matters, because we cannot address issues without examining what tapestry the titular comment was born from.
In the following section, I'll outline two ideas to paint the fuzzy implicit gate: Gatekeeping via hostile tapestry left unchecked and via systems not designed for disabled and neurodivergent authors.
Allowing hostility to thrive in publishing spaces pushes marginalized authors out
Lack of diversity also keeps the tapestry constrained
Starting from the top, let's discuss #OwnVoices from my lanes. The movement was created to platform marginalized authors. Authors use the tag, publishers promote submissions under it, etc. A novel, worthy idea.
Sadly, #OwnVoices has also been used to denigrate and reject marginalized authors for not fitting queer categories the "right" way. Moreover, it's clear that certain intersections are ignored outright. Namely, disabled and neurodivergent narratives
Furthermore, there's a sentiment circling Own Voices that queer authors must come out on other peoples' terms in order to be "authentic." As if the queer reader community is owed a performance versus the safety of those who may not live in a space where this is safe to do. For this reason, authors get pushed out of the closet, which is fairly hostile.
Another example is the case of Isabel Fall. Fall was bullied off the internet for writing a short story inspired by an anti-trans meme. Isabel Fall was—at the time—a closeted trans woman. That didn't stop readers and publishing professionals from attacking her and pushing her out of the industry and back into the closet.
On this thread, the diversity baseline in publishing is still a challenging picture, even with DEI work by large publishers like PRH. Not only that, but trans authors continue to struggle getting published, and admission of queer authors with queer work still lags behind.
It appears there's a lot of inclusivity yet to be done in publishing: Reader-writer communities, the workforce itself, accepted authors and more. Unsurprisingly, this exclusionary tapestry is why many marginalized authors pick self-publishing. And that, my friends, is an implicit gate.
Let's move on to a brief slice of systems and processes.
A system not designed for marginalized writers
Will inevitably exclude them from participating
Let's frame this section through neurodivergency and disability. As per query submission requirements, nothing is standardized. All use a different rubric with varied formats. Not only that, but there are many guides and few concrete answers. To make it simple: There is no true target to hit. It's all subjective.
If online submission forms exist, they're opaque, many require referral before one can click "submit" and many more are sadly broken. Referrals can be difficult for marginalized authors, which is a systemic class issue. Furthermore, opaque and broken forms are an accessibility problem.
If these form don't exist, ND/disabled authors must craft many emails, which requires countless spoons. Keeping track of rejections, trying to reach an unclear target, never knowing how you're doing? That's certainly a gate.
If none of the above rings true, QueryTracker is available. Sadly, QueryTracker is a curious object of antiquity. It is helpful for many, but it should've been updated for accessibility ages ago. Publishers Marketplace is much the same: A worthwhile yet ancient tool stuck in the early aughts. Take a look at what ND/NA authors say in this thread for similar concerns about accessibility.
When it comes to comp titles, any querying author must measure their manuscript to something currently popular. But what if your books do not mimic anything currently popular, as the audience you write for is historically excluded?
Many marginalized authors try to make their books fit regardless. Moreover, we lean into legacy systems. Both of these issues point to the nature of what work's historically included, and what isn't.
Let me be frank: Accessibility is a low priority in an ableist world, which publishing exists within. Therein, the process of querying wasn't built with many marginalized authors in mind.
So what does it all mean?
It's about broad patterns of implicit gatekeeping
When you stir this publishing tapestry of lagging diversity and inaccessible barriers together, you get a mess. A mess called slow-moving hegemony. That's the nature of implicit gatekeeping.
Sadly, gatekeeping is something publishers might have statistics on, but publishing professionals hesitate to admit. In part, because to admit a thing may put professionals at risk. However, this silence is beneficial to keeping things the way they are—exclusionary.
Don't mistake me: It isn't that literary gatekeeping comes from members of some secret illuminati hellbent on keeping marginalized professionals at bay. It's that the implicit nature of publishing itself affords gatekeeping via what it doesn't address and doesn't admit: Privilege.
This is brilliant, but I can't sell it
Let's get very honest about what this means
"I can't sell this book to the dominant culture." Don't mistake me: This sentiment is not always knowingly insidious. Rather, it's the laissez faire by-product of privilege and professionals getting swept up from promises into precarious careers. Promises made in optics via equity that sorely lags behind. Careers, precarious and forged in tapestries exclusionary, navigation obfuscatory, accessibility meager and processes ancient.
Implicit gatekeeping is wildly difficult to tackle, as it's made unobvious every time a push can't be made to forge a new path. To adopt a better tool. To adapt and evolve. To present real problems publicly without fear of retaliation.
There are implicit and explicit politics at play in publishing that keep systemic barriers in place. Systemic barriers that must be excised for marginalized books to be allowed to sell.
So. Can publishers sell the books of historically excluded authors and help push the industry in a robustly inclusive direction?
They can, but my honest question is "Will they?" (and maybe even: Can they?)
K. Leigh is an ex-freelancer, full-time author, and weirdo artist. Read their lgbt+ sci-fi books, connect on Twitter, visit their site, or send them an email if you’d like to work together. 🌈 🏳️⚧️