Friday, 20 March 2015

Thoughts on Being a Gatekeeper

I recently had to be a “gatekeeper” – in this case, evaluating about 100 candidates for a data science job at my day job workplace.  Some observations:

  • It may just be a local thing, but 100 applicants for the job would indicate that the economy is heading for trouble.  It’s a good job – good employer, good pay, good benefits, interesting work – but not necessarily a great job.  The majority of the candidates have advanced qualifications in math/stats, and many have very high programming  skills (though it is not really a programming position).
  • It’s not easy to sift through all these C.V.s (resumes) and pick the potential winners.  One is acutely aware of the fact that, by definition, most of these 100 people will have to be turned down.  It’s emotionally draining, thinking about this.  You are going to shatter a lot of dreams.
  • It is tempting to take shortcuts and use trivial or irrelevant criteria to cut down the pile.  “Oh, there’s a small spelling mistake or some awkward wording – out it goes”.  I am avoiding that, via maintaining a spreadsheet with a as objective a set of criteria as I can. Nonetheless, I can see where it would be hard to maintain that discipline, if you did this all the time, and were always pressed for time.

What’s this got to do with writing and publishing?  Well, you can probably predict that I am going to compare this to the gatekeeping that agents and editors do/did, with traditional publishing.  And, I would have to think that their position is much worse than mine, in this regard:

  • At least I am evaluating a peer – I know how to do the sorts of statistical analyses and level of computer programming that the job requires.  How much more impossible must it be for an agent or an editor to truly evaluate the worth of a novel, when the majority have never written one themselves?
  • I have the time to read through the entire cover letter and C.V. (resume).  An agent or editor might only read a page or two before making a decision.  That would be equivalent to me reading the first half-sentence of a cover letter, then making up my mind whether to toss the resume into the rubbish heap.
  • This is an activity that I only have to go through, now and again.  An agent or editor is steeped in this sort of thing constantly.  It would be difficult not to get callous over time, if only as self-preservation, the way that ER doctors get callous about the tragedies that they have to deal with.
  • An editor or agent is relatively free to indulge his or her biases, during the selection process.  Those could be conscious or unconscious.  When you have hundreds or even thousands of submissions to choose from, you can be sure that a lot of high quality stuff will get through even the filters.  

So, all in all, I have to say that making the readers the ultimate gatekeepers is the fairest way to go, for the following reasons:

  • It puts the decision at the right level.  The ultimate consumer of the product makes the decision, rather than some intermediary.
  • Though the reader can still indulge his or her personal biases, it only affects that one decision.  Furthermore, the reader will be mostly ignorant of irrelevant criteria, other than what they can infer from the writer’s name, bio, or picture.
  •  Each reader decides which writer to read, one book at a time.  Contrast this with an agent or editor deciding whether most writers will ever have any readership at all.
  • It’s not life or death.  If a reader sees your cover and gives your book a pass, you might get the next one.   If an agent or editor rejects you, it is a major blow.
  • It provides more diversity to readers, and provides more opportunity to writers.  If one believes in democracy and diversity, if is better that many writers are read by a smaller number of enthusiastic readers each, than that a few writers are read by a larger, somewhat unwilling number of readers.
  • It removes the psychologically unhealthy role of gatekeeper from agents and editors.  In the long run, it will be better for their karma to be doing something else :).

And here’s a cartoon about gatekeeping, from the always reliable XKCD:

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