Many of you who are remotely involved with RWA know that there is a huge kerfuffle right now about the current guidelines for entering the RITA. This year, the following provision found its way into the RITA eligibility requirements:
Be mass-produced by a non-Subsidy, non-Vanity Publisher in print book format.
That clause, “mass-produced” is where things get dicey. What does it mean for something to be mass-produced? Well, I’m not entirely sure. It weeds out self-published books (but so does the non-Subsidy line). It weeds out fly-by-night e-presses that have a contract with PublishAmerica so that authors can see their books “in print” even though there is no distribution program connected to the print program. But it also weeds out authors at some very respectable e-publishers with strong print programs–Ellora’s Cave, Samhain, and the Wild Rose Press are all examples that spring immediately to mind.
My immediate, knee-jerk response was that this seemed like too much weeding for me. But having now read through volumes and volumes of messages on the rwa-org listserv, I am now completely confused. Certainly, some of the things that people have put forward (not allowing Passionate Ink to call themselves the Erotic Romance Special Interest Chapter? Huh?) seem downright discriminatory. But there are some real problems with every alternate solution I’ve seen put forward. And the ultimate inclusionary answer–allow every printed book with the appropriate copyright date–runs smack-dab into the question: What is the purpose of RWA?
We don’t allow non-romances to be entered into the RITA. Maybe someone has written the best non-romantic mystery in the entire world, but nobody thinks that it should be allowed into the RITA, even if it is in some sense objectively better than every published romance during the year in question. So that’s something that’s easy–we’re not wholly about inclusion in the first place. We do draw lines.
Likewise, I can see a clear rationale for saying that self-published books are ineligible for the RITA. After all, the purpose of RWA is to provide an organization of writers of romance who are pursuing professional publication, and although a handful of self-published authors go on to make mega-bucks, the vast, vast majority of them–99.9999%–don’t make enough that they would have to declare the earnings on their taxes. (This is not to denigrate self-publication; just to say that I don’t believe self-publication is professional. It can be the first stepping stone to professionalism–just as sending an agent a query letter is a stepping stone to professionalism–but it’s not itself professional.)
So now we get to the thorny issue of e-publishers. Now, e-publication is not at all like self-publication, and I don’t want to imply it is. But let’s face it–some e-publishers are pretty damned sketchy. I’ve heard of e-publishers who require authors to cough up the money for their own cover artwork, a practice I find extremely shady. And then there are some e-publishers who are not shady, but just gormless–who will buy all rights associated with a book, for the length of the copyright term–and then be able to sell only a handful of copies. I don’t think that RWA should be supporting publishers of either type, print or electronic. There are limited resources available for running the RITA and judging the books in question, and I don’t see why RWA should have to waste those resources on the unethical and the gormless. RWA is about professionalism, and although it may hurt a writer’s feelings to be told that the publishing company that accepted her book is either devious or dumb, I just think that signing away your copyrights to a devious and/or dumb company is just not the act of a professional writer.
BUT–and this is a huge but–there are a lot of e-publishers out there who are neither devious nor dumb. Instead, they are extremely nimble and savvy. They make a lot of money, both for themselves and for at least some of their authors. I would have a hard time saying that someone published through the best e-publishers was not “professional.” But RWA has chosen to draw the line between the gormless and the savvy primarily by means of giving out an advance of at least $1000 for a published novel. This is true in part for PAN membership (although you can circumvent that by sending in a royalty statement), and true in larger part for getting space at National conference. And so the question is: Is getting an advance necessary for professionalism? (I think not.) And if it is not, what alternate criteria could we use?
(Someone put forward the argument on the loop that advances were some kind of necessary symbol for professionalism, because they guaranteed income without risk. I seem to recall that some major print publisher has experimented, at least with some authors, with a no-advance system, and instead implemented profit sharing. Which is a lot closer to the Ellora’s Cave model. Don’t get me wrong; I like an advance. But I just don’t think it’s the only way to be professional.)
I had never really thought about what RWA meant for the published author. I’ve always seen RWA as kind of a romance writer’s association, and now that I am published, I had never actually asked myself what I wanted it to do for me. Aside from accepting our workshop proposal, that is.
I still don’t know what the right answer is, and I think you can find problems with every solution I’ve seen put forward. I like inclusion. I also like merit. I would prefer inclusion here that encompassed more merit, but I would disprefer inclusion that encompassed dismerit, if you catch my drift.
Right now, having read through a whole heap of hurt, confused messages coming from both sides of the fence, here is what I think:
1. I really want there were some way to be more inclusive of professional e-published authors.
2. I am so glad I am not on the Board of RWA, because I am sure whatever they come up with for 2010 will tick off a lot of people.
3. And since I am not running for the Board, and have no intention of doing so, and since I have no good solutions, only a sense that the problem is really, really hard, I should probably not bash anyone. Except the people who said that Passionate Ink couldn’t have “erotic” in their name, because that is just crazy.