Fans and “Gatekeepers”


A short while ago, a friend sent this link to a mailing list I’m on: Patton Oswalt’s Letters to Both Sides: His keynote address at Montreal’s Just For Laughs 2012. I enjoyed reading it but I wasn’t sure how to respond at first. Now enough time has passed that I think it’s too late, if you know what I mean.

So I want to talk about it here. If you didn’t click the link, you should. Oswalt’s a funny guy and he brings a historical precedent to the changes in the arts and entertainment biz: the last upheaval in the stand-up comic world was when Johnny Carson retired, and what that meant.

Anyway, the piece is broken up into two parts: the first is addressed to other comedians, telling them they don’t need to worry about pleasing “gatekeepers” anymore, and the second to the supposed gatekeepers, telling them that they are welcome to remain part of the process if they change their relationship to the artists doing the actual work–instead of approving/disapproving/demanding changes, they should become “fans.”

Now, on one level, this speech is the same thing you hear from everyone else nowadays, with the bit about Carson thrown in to give it weight. Boogedy-boogedy gatekeepers! Hamina hamina reach your audience directly! Woogity woogity [name of person who found success this way]. Those who did a runaround of the system and hit it big draw our attention the way iron draws a magnet, but the ones who struggled and failed are ignored.

Now, in TV and film–where Oswalt works when he’s not touring–your big break gets you the chance to work on the gatekeeper’s project. You write a spec script, they love it, they have a project they want your take on. With actors, it’s always someone else’s project unless they’re the producer, too. (See “The Room” and “Jake Speed.”)

For a novelist, you make your work and you send it into the world. If you self-publish, you hope readers like it and tell their friends, creating a snowball effect. If you other-publish, you hope you make fans among the people with access to good distribution and excellent production staff, at which point they turn it over to readers.

That’s what it is, and what it’s always been: making fans. Look at this post from Jennifer Laughran, in which she addresses a question I’ve seen authors bring up for years: Why do agents have to love a book before they represent it? Aren’t they salespeople? Can’t they just take the product and sell it, the way my cousin does with window blinds/radio airtime/insurance policies?

But as Laughran says in the post, she has to love it before she will invest her time and energy into it. What Oswalt is asking for in film and TV already happens in the book world. When you see those lists from self-published authors showing how many times this or that debut best-seller was rejected, they always try to pass it off as The gatekeepers don’t know what they’re doing and never have.

What I see when I look at those lists is this: those other places looked at an early draft and they didn’t fall in love.

Of course I’m talking about my own experiences here, and I’m not exactly an industry veteran. I’ve heard the stories, like everyone has, of books that are picked up because a publisher needs to fill a slot in a popular genre, or that a writer with a great first book (or few books) falls into a slump. It would be ridiculous to suggest that an industry as large, diverse, and complex as trade publishing always did everything one way.

But Oswalt is asking TV/film people to become fans of the artists they work with. Publishing people have already done that; it’s on us as writers to show them work they want to love. So, Oswalt’s speech is great, but I’m glad it doesn’t apply to me.