It’s an oft-stated fact about self-publishing that “there are no gatekeepers”. No one stopping your work from being out there and finding an audience. No one to tell you sorry, your book doesn’t meet our criteria at this time.

This, though, is only partly true.

It is true that there’s no one stopping you making your book available for the world to see through whichever channel you choose to put it. It’s not true that there’s no one who decides whether your book finds an audience. (At least, not readily.) Without passing these new gatekeepers, your odds of finding significant readers are greatly diminished unless you already have a large following of your own. These gatekeepers are the cheap/free book promotion sites like Indie Book Bargains, Awesomegang and Pixel of Ink.

Even after the minor massacre wrought by Amazon’s changes to its affiliate income rules (whereby, as I recall, most of an affiliates click traffic earnings had to be for paid items, not free), having a book listed on these sites’ daily deals can make an enormous difference.

Unremarked and unmentioned, either of the Rourke novels on a three-day Amazon freebie weekend picks up a few hundred downloads at most. (I don’t have them in front of me any more, but they’ve varied, probably due to holiday time/not holiday time, between 400-600 on the occasions I’ve tried. Hardly boat-rocking numbers, but consistent.) The last time I put TDI on free I also submitted it around the various freebie list sites, which cost nothing but time. It was picked up by two of them that I know of, and saw about 1,700 downloads, enough to pitch it up to around the #250 mark in Amazon’s free list and into the top 20 crime. TTOG did even better and was picked up by three sites (again, that I know of). It saw 2,600 downloads and peaked around #130 overall, #9 in mystery and #5 in crime.

Clearly getting listed makes a vast difference, but it’s not a given. Unless - in some cases at least - you pay to do it. Otherwise, the sites’ owners pick ones that look/sound good, or, sometimes, filter by review numbers and overall star rating, both of which are very difficult to achieve honestly without first having a large readership already. (Note that this is not a gripe; I quite understand the need to filter from what must be a large number of posters.)

I was genuinely dubious of the effectiveness of listings on free/bargain Kindle sites, but I was wrong. These sites are in many respects the new gatekeepers of self-publishing. You may be able to pay to get through more easily, but they still hold a lot of the keys.

There is a drawback, of course, and that’s the issue of price. Unless the same lift can be provided for ebooks you need to pay for, to some extent free downloads offer an illusion of readership reach. While some people are browsing for something to look at now, many others are just hunting for bargains that they may or may not get around to. I’m no different; I have two books by friends to get round to once I’ve finished the dead tree Jack O’Connell I’m reading (slowly), and only then could I look at the sea of random freebies and bargains and all the rest that have accumulated in various forms and various formats over the past few months. Unless I’m sent to jail or find myself laid up in hospital for a long time, my chances of reading all of them are basically zero.

Still, be that as it may, the numbers are concrete. Twitter doesn’t put books in front of eyeballs. Blogging won’t win you a quick audience. But an acceptance from the right bargain site can. Next up in the experimental numbers stakes would be determining if the same happens for paid books, and seeing what fifty bucks of guaranteed mentions will get you.

(3NJ deliberately unmentioned due to youth of service, only tangential relevance to a gatekeeping discussion since it’s open to all, and obvious conflict of interest.)