Since Microsoft Word 1.0, there has been a low barrier to entry for anyone whose dream it was to write a book. If you had an idea for a story and the time to dedicate to the keyboard, you could produce a manuscript to enjoy by yourself or share with others. There have always been writers… with stories to tell… and very little friction – besides hard work and determination – to get in the way of completing a manuscript.

Now, if your dream extends beyond a Word document, let’s say, to getting your book sold through the retail channel, the barriers to entry become very large, very quickly. Unpublished writers are faced with trying to convince the gatekeepers of the publishing world – known as literary agents – that they have a marketable asset… something that can sell in volumes large enough to offset the tremendous costs of getting books into stores and in the hands of readers. Before the Kindle and e-publishing, this was practically the only path to getting published.

If you think of the publishing business as a funnel, the widest part of the funnel – the top – is where writers create their manuscripts. The bottom of the funnel represents published books made available to consumers. The middle section of the funnel is where agents and editors vet manuscripts that have been submitted through query letters. Their role is primarily to seek out and refine marketable manuscripts… trying to judging the quality and predict the market potential of a writer’s work.

Imagine if print publishing were a low- or no-cost industry. It’s likely that the number of books available in stores would be much higher than what you see today. The market itself would be left to decide what sells. But that situation doesn’t exist, because it costs publishing companies considerable money to bring a book to market. The agents and publishers act like a giant filter, not because the buying public can’t tell a good book from a bad one, but because printing, distribution, and retail shelf space cost money. Publishers can simply not afford to turn every manuscript into a book.

Are they always right about what will sell? Um, no. There are plenty of books that fail and probably just as many manuscripts that would have succeeded in the market had one of the gatekeepers recognized its true potential. We can only guess at the latter.

A positive outcome of this profit-driven process is a balance between the number of new books that make it to market and the number of readers buying books. It’s a fairly efficient market, too. As long as consumers are buying a publisher’s books, the publisher can continue to release new books.

However, with the recent introduction of e-publishing via the Kindle, Nook, and iBooks store, the market balance is upset and efficiency shifts. As the cost of publishing approaches zero, the number of manuscripts that reach the market will grow dramatically, and if you can imagine that the number of writers will also grow (due to the removal of aforementioned barriers) the funnel will certainly change shape, likely resulting in something that resembles a tube rather than a funnel – and something that behaves more like a fire hose than a faucet.

My question to readers, writers, agents, and publishers: Does the market need a gatekeeper in the era of e-publishing?

One of the challenges for readers will be how to discover new books and writers. In the new world, the biggest challenge for writers shifts away from querying busy literary agents to actually marketing their work to a potentially overwhelmed book-buying public.

And while there will certainly be new technologies introduced to help readers find good books, what of the writers? Is trying to find agent representation easier or more difficult than marketing a Kindle book?

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