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Infinite Shelf Space & the Gatekeeper's Myth

An interesting thought this week, arising from my Summer Festival conversation with Jenny Geras, the CEO of Bookouture, on Tuesday this week.

If you’re a SFOW ticket holder and missed the session, do try to catch up with the replay. If you’ve no idea what Bookouture is, then it’s a British digital-first publisher, that went from being a one-person startup to selling almost 10,000,000 books a year, half of them in the US. Its success was born from aggressive pricing, fierce focus on data and experimentation, excellent social media and a willingness to advertise.

In the course of our chat, Jenny said something that surprised me.

Bookouture runs an open submissions policy. If you have an agent, your agent may well wish to submit to the firm. But you don’t need one. You can just send in your work.

Now, that part I already knew. But – because I always like to know the stats – I went on to ask what proportion of those open submissions went on to get accepted. Jenny didn’t instantly know the percentage. (It’s a stat that matters a lot to writers, but is of little more than curiosity value to publishers.)

I prompted her. ‘One per cent?’ I asked. ‘Maybe a bit less?’

And she told me no, the acceptance rate wasn’t that low. From her response, I guess two or three per cent might be about right.

Now, OK, not everyone has heard of Bookouture, so I’m going to guess that their submissions are of slightly higher quality than those going to the average literary agent.

But still.

Two or three manuscripts in every hundred submitted are good enough for Bookouture to take on.

Wow! The equivalent stats for most literary agents would be about one in a thousand, with, admittedly, quite a broad range of variation in that proportion.

And even when you get taken on by a literary agent, your chance of having your work taken up by a major publisher is perhaps not much better than 50% (with, again, a ton of variation.)

Even allowing for fuzziness in the data, it seems clear that Bookouture is simply accepting work that the traditional gatekeepers never used to consider.

What’s more, Bookouture has no underclass. It pays no advances and every book gets the same level of budget, love, and attention upfront. In Big 5 firms, there are authors who get the huge advances and the marketing budgets – and ones who don’t and don’t. That’s just not the case at Bookouture. All books get the same input – and it’s readers, nobody else, who determine the final outcome.

In a way, that’s the most exciting, and most revolutionary, aspect of Bookouture’s model. Buy widely, invest equally, and let readers decide.

Perhaps all along, those trad publisher gates were built too narrow. The issue wasn’t that good quality manuscripts weren’t there. Perhaps the issue was simply that in a world of limited shelf space – and very limited in the case of supermarkets – gatekeepers were forced to reject far more than they should.

Interesting thought, no?

And the practical takeaway from this? Well, maybe it’s this. That the standard you need to achieve is easier to reach than you thought. The gates that matter aren’t those held by the traditional industry, they’re the ones held by readers – does your book please them?

That’s how it ought to be, right? And the goal is one you can achieve. That doesn’t mean you can discard all those disciplines around writing well and editing hard, but it means you can shift the entire project from “never gonna happen” to “yes, really quite plausible.”

And that’s good, isn’t it? A hopeful message in a worrying age.

That's it from me? What about you? Have you submitted work to Bookouture? What was your experience? And would you want to do it, or do you still prefer a bricks-and-mortar led strategy from a traditional publisher? Let me know, and we can all have a Heated Debate ...

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Comments (4)
  • Are they really selling 10 million books a year? How many authors are they representing? Thousands, I imagine?

    Yes, I've heard about them but they seemed to be quite small just a few months ago.

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    • They said they plan to publish 200 new titles this year and 300 new titles in 2021.

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    • Can you clarify please? Their website says they accept test-lead non-fiction but all their authors seem to be novelists. Have they actually accepted and published any non-fiction authors and if so, what genres? Thanks.

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      • Oh, yes, the gatekeepers should certainly be a little more diverse.

        Unfortunately it doesn't look like they do MG/YA so it doesn't help me much. I imagine it's because they're talking digital...though both my kids (12 and 16) have had e-readers for quite some years and I got a graphic novel on digital recently and the illustrations were amazing quality.

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