The Gatekeeper’s Burden

by Josh Schlossberg

As a horror author who submits fiction to publishers, I often find myself standing in the cold outside the gates of the City of Readers. As an editor who gets submissions for anthologies, I’m also someone who decides who gets to come in.

In other words, I’m both a “gatekeeper” and someone who is “gate-kept.” So a question I’m always pondering is: What is the role (and responsibility) of a gatekeeper?

Over the years I’ve submitted my work to hundreds of editors and agents. In my experience, about half of them never respond at all. Many of the rest send a form rejection, usually months to even years later. Only a small percentage get back to me within several weeks to tell me they’ve passed on my work or not, and a handful of those will explain why.

Turns out, every gatekeeper I’ve interacted with has taught me how to become a better gatekeeper myself, sometimes by example, often by teaching me how not to behave.

Needless to say, a gatekeeper’s job is to let authors into the City of Readers who might interest at least some of its citizens. And because art is so subjective, taste plays a big role, and a gatekeeper is entitled to their tastes, however prosaic or peculiar.

Yet most gatekeepers primarily let those in who they know on sight or by reputation, nearly all of whom have passed through the gates before. Which makes sense since many citizens will be glad to see those familiar faces, and it’s a safe bet that the gatekeeper’s position won’t be called into question for this choice.

For instance, for each of the two anthologies I’ve edited—THE JEWISH BOOK OF HORROR (coming soon!) and TERROR AT 5280’—I’ve chosen a handful of “familiar faces” to showcase their talents and drive sales to the benefit of everyone involved.

But as I see it, the real test of a gatekeeper is how we treat those we’ve never met before, many of whom have yet to set foot inside the city walls. Here is where we gatekeepers must take the time to think for ourselves what this new person might have to offer the citizenry.

In my role as editor, I try to judge each story on how well it fits into a particular anthology, which means that sometimes seasoned authors with polished stories don’t make it in while emerging writers with a cool idea do.

Finally, some gatekeepers are on the lookout for someone who might have potential for pleasing the citizenry but may need a little help smoothing out their rough edges.

Which is why I always choose a few fledgling yet promising authors who can make use of my own limited skills to help hone their product into something that makes the cut. This isn’t charity, it’s collaboration, and it’s for the good of the City of Readers.

Speaking of which, I’d like to take a moment to thank two gatekeepers in particular. The first is Julie Ann Dawson from Bards and Sages Quarterly who published my first short story (a vampiric bedbug tale called “Drain”). The second is Dawn Shea of D&T Publishing who published my first long fiction (my cosmic folk horror novella, MALINAE). Both of them let me into the City of Readers—making it easier for me to return over and over again in the future—and they inspire my gatekeeping today.

Now, if you’re a struggling author who can’t seem to find your way into the City of Readers, keep hunting, there are many gates aside from the main entrance. And if you still can’t find anyone to let you in…build your own damned gate!

But ultimately, I think a lot of the responsibility falls on the citizens of the City of Readers. It’s up to you to keep an eye on your gatekeepers, and if they’re preventing too many authors who you might like to read from passing through the gates, you have to let them know, because, ultimately, they work for you.

And if you’re a particularly bold and adventurous citizen, you might want to step outside the city walls yourself once in a while and see if there’s anyone out there in the cold you can escort in yourself.

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