Our reading habits are hugely influenced by gatekeepers, people and institutions who make broad judgements on what is and isn’t worth reading. It might not feel like it on an individual level, when you’re picking up the book that your friend recommended, but if you look at the big picture you can see these guardians of our reading experience looming over our selections.
They’re the big publishers, deciding what to put into print.
They’re the bookstores big and small, deciding what to order, what to show prominently on the shelves.
They’re the reviewers and editors who decide what gets attention.
They’re the writers of school and college curricula, making decisions on what counts as ‘important’.
Out with the old gatekeepers
Of course the overt power of any given gatekeeper is crumbling. Western culture developed a healthy and outspoken strain of cynicism about authority in the 1960s. The rise of the internet in the 1990s created a space in which we could easily seek out voices like our own, and so live the fractured and pluralistic culture promised by that previous generation. Now the growth of self-publishing is along many more writers to see their words in print.
The power of traditional gatekeepers is in decline. Bookstores are closing down, or at least being transformed. Ministers receive as much ridicule as praise when they try to tell us what’s worth reading.
And yet the wide range of choices causes us problems. We need a way to filter the millions of books, to decide what to read. We cannot make decisions without the help of some kind of gatekeepers. So what will those gatekeepers look like in ten or twenty years’ time? And will they empower us to make the choices that best suit our tastes, as we want them to, or will they try to make us fit their tastes, as is traditional?
Algorithms as gatekeepers
One of the biggest gatekeepers at the moment is Amazon. Its algorithms are designed to help you find books that you will like through its recommendations on what to read next. Amazon foregoes the opportunity to deliberately point you towards books which provide the company with a larger per-sale profit, instead betting on the long game. If they keep recommending the best choices for you then you will keep coming back and buying through them. It’s part of how they so thoroughly dominate the book selling market right now. If you want to know more, go read the informative books and blog posts of David Gaughran.
If the Amazon story has taught us anything it’s that nothing lasts forever. Damien Walter has predicted that, with the rise of more sophisticated software, Google may eventually take over from Amazon as our best source of book recommendations. This would, as Damien points out, liberate writers from being dependent on Amazon. However, Google’s paying customers are advertisers not readers or writers, and that could have a detrimental impact on how it works.
Algorithms have proved the sort of gatekeepers that empower us and help us to find books we want. The owners might change, but those programs aren’t going away. What will be interesting to see will be who provides the programs and who they help.
Awards as gatekeepers
Awards ceremonies provide a very different sort of gatekeeper, essentially creating a recommendation that the judges or collective community believe everyone should read. Whether it’s the impending Booker Prize directing the entire British reading public towards a single piece of literary fiction, or the fandom-voted awards that accompany the summer’s big science fiction and fantasy conventions, these are hegemonic gatekeepers, trying to hold a group together through shared tastes and identity.
In some ways awards are among the most old-style of gatekeepers. The idea that any single book can be held up as objectively the best in its field feels absurd to me. But these prizes aren’t going anywhere, and they do fill a useful function. They bring us together, scattered as we are by our diverse tastes, help to create bonding conversations before we scatter back to our algorithmically identified reading piles.
What other gatekeepers?
I’m sure there are other gatekeepers still of relevance. Can you think of some I’ve missed? And what difference do these ones make to your reading? Do you find Amazon helpful? Do you single out award-winning books to read?
As always, please share your thoughts in the comments.