Weapons of Mass Production

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.

18 thoughts on “Weapons of Mass Production

  1. Maybe I haven’t followed the recent developments closely enough, but we were told in November that Samhain print books were eligible for the RITAs. I know the “mass produce” phrased caused a lot of confusion at the time, but it was cleared up well before the deadline. I assume EC would be eligible for the same reasons. TWRP I’m less certain of, since their print program is different.

    I don’t understand why RWA can’t go back to having a list of approved publishers. I understand that caused controversy for other reasons, but if RWA is looking out for the interest of career-focused authors, shouldn’t it be on them to investigate publishers and know which are legitimate businesses and which are not? The Non-Vanity, Non-Subsidy list suggests they can’t be bothered to take a stand in the issue, even though it includes epresses guilty of some extremely unprofessional practices.

  2. Maybe this is ignorant of me, or counterproductive, or quite possibly a bit of both, but why doesn’t RWA just establish an E-book category for the RITA awards? Wouldn’t that solve everything, or only create more problems?

    But, yeah, I do think e-books need to be recognized more.

  3. Okay, I stand corrected–and that’s something that is very good to know. I do know of several people who asked about what constituted “mass production” who did not get a straight answer–and that bothers me a great deal. Just like I know someone who asked what counted as “published” in terms of the Golden Heart (novella wordlength), and was told that she couldn’t share the answer with anyone.

    I’m not sure how opacity serves the process there. I understand that sometimes a term may end up ambiguous, but when you decide on an interpretation, why not publish it widely?

    I agree with you that an “approved publisher” list is the way to go. It is more work, and it’s likely to cause nearly as much grief–but you are right, that the list of publishers they have now encompasses some people I would tell anyone to run away from as fast as possible.

  4. Ely,

    I think the problem with the e-book category is that (a) they already don’t have enough judges, and (b) there are SO MANY e-books, especially if you allow novella length entries, that the contest would turn into an enter-first free-for-all, where whoever got their form in first would be the one who could enter.

    I would love to see a separate contest for e-books.

    I know, I know–I’ve heard so many people say that separation is not the solution because separate but unequal is inherently unequal, but the thing about the whole “separate but unequal” line is that it only applies when the two underlying things (or people) are the same. Thus, you teach a black student to read the same way you teach a white student to read. They’re the same. Skin color doesn’t matter for the process in question, and so any separation is arbitrary.

    But the method of distributing and judging e-books is not the same as the method for distributing print books–it’s easier to distribute e-books for judging, because you can e-mail them, but it’s harder to judge them, because fewer people want to read on their screens. So yeah, I think they are actually separable.

    That’s a total side point, but I think that one thing is that the RITA just cannot be everything to everyone and right now the fight is over what the RITA is going to be, and not just over how it’s administered.

  5. I haven’t really been following the argument but it doesn’t exactly seem fair to me that they can’t enter either the Golden Heart or Rita. If RWA won’t recognize their work as “published” then it seems like they should be able to enter the GH.

    At the same time, I can’t imagine how hard it must be to draw up these rules and to know where to draw the line. I suppose no matter what you do, someone will be upset. I don’t envy the board.

    One thing that caught me as amusing though, was the 1,000 dollar advance. Some reputable publishers don’t pay much more than that as their advance. Wonder how they came up with that number to draw the line.

    And I really need to find a new little icon to represent me. lol

  6. Yes, I also know people who didn’t get straight answers – or who got completely different answers depending on who at the office they spoke to. Now that you mentioned it, I don’t even know that Samhain found out what “mass produced” means, just that their books were eligible.

    I, too, can’t understand all the secrecy. I worry it will open them to accusations of applying the rules inconsistently.

    I’m with you on the separate e-book competition. I know that still won’t satisfy everyone, but at least if RWA wouldn’t be excluding any one group (that would probably also open the door to categories for erotica and GLBT romance). It’s also wouldn’t be separate but unequal because everyone has a choice. No one is forced to e-publish. If traditional RITA eligibility is a major concern for you, then that’s something you should take into account when seeking a publisher.

    And I agree with Lori that the way they’ve cut certain authors out of both the GH and the RITA is very problematic.

    But like Courtney, I don’t have any plans to run for a position of power. And it’s much easier to sit here and talk about what they should do than to enact major change in such a large organization.

  7. To be honest, I would actually be in favor of the formation of something like ePAN – a separate (potentially overlapping for many members) designation of RWA. I know that sounds horrible and exclusionary, but the truth is that e-published authors and print published authors have very, very different concerns.

    I know my royalty % on e-books would really freak out e-published authors, and they would tell someone who got a contract for e-books to definitely not sign it. But I also know that for print publishers you expect lower royalties. And promotion is somewhat different–epublished authors don’t need to worry about WalMart not picking up their title or coop or any of these other things.

    I don’t mean to imply that e-publication is worse, but it’s certainly different in many respects, and different enough that I wonder if it might be time to celebrate the differences instead of trying to minimize them.

  8. What makes the issue thorny is that authors whose works are published by firms that do not pay advances are eligible for PAN as long as they produce proof of earnings on a single novel/novella equal to or greater than $1K. It appears that the judging pool is insufficient to handle the larger number of entries due to an insufficient judging pool.

    I’m undecided about the idea of a separate e-PAN, but I do think a separate contest for authors with small publishers who meet PAN requirements (whether they are electronic or print) could possibly work. Authors with small firms would be far more likely to judge books in this category and hopefully would volunteer in droves. :-) Certainly I think the books would be more likely to get a fair shake from these judges. While it would likely result in larger handling costs of the contest, presumably the additional fees would offset the higher costs. Regardless, RWA has appointed a task force to review the matter and decisions will be made at the July BOD meeting.

  9. Hm. I keep meaning to blog about this issue, but I have a hard time getting all my thoughts organized and keeping them brief. :)

    Specifically in regards to this discussion, I would not support a separate “ePAN” or “eRITA” category, because I think it’s too likely to be obsolete within a decade. I really believe this era of RWA struggling to re-define and adjust is going to sort itself out eventually, as larger publishers begin putting out more e-books and the sketchier e-publishers weed themselves out of the market. We’re already seeing traditional print publishers (like Harlequin) put out e-book originals, and “e-publishers” put out print books with wide distribution (EC/Samhain). It’s my belief (hope?) that the interests of e-pubbed and print-pubbed authors will eventually converge, and I’d rather not have a big administrative divide that would be hard to undo later.

    I do appreciate that the people involved in RWA decision-making have a very difficult job, and I don’t envy them! It’s obviously impossible to make everyone happy – but I do think some more transparent, consistent policy-making would do a lot to make a larger number of members happy. :)

  10. I’m not sure if a seperate epub contest would work. I mean, I have no idea since I’m not epublished and haven’t seen what people are writing on the boards. But its my idea that the problem is those epublished feel like they’re being treated differently. They’re the black sheep. Producing a seperate category for them seems like it’s just highlighting the problem, like we’re patting them on the head and pushing them aside when they just want to be part of the group. But who knows, maybe they’d be fine with this. As I said, i have no idea. Sounds like it should be a voting for the masses!

    But like most of us are saying, glad I dont have to decide! I feel for everyone involved, including the board.

  11. Vicky,

    I’m definitely undecided about an ePAN. I’m not sure it’s a good idea.

    Lori,
    I guess my question is, work for what? The mere fact that people are complaining is not a reason to change things. As it stands, I think if we allowed e-published titles into the RITA, you’d hear a lot of complaining, too–just as we hear from people who write erotica in print today, and people who enter erotic romance into the Golden Heart–about how authors don’t respect their genre.

    I don’t think the goal of RWA should be to minimize complaints of individuals. I think it should be to maximize the prestige of the genre and to advance the genre in as many ways as possible.

    I think it is okay to treat people who distribute and sell their books in a different fashion differently–as long as you make an effort to ensure that you are doing so fairly. I would *love* someone to recognize that e-published books are the wave of the future, and thus not try to slot them into the same square hole that we’ve built for print published books. And I think that’s what we’re seeing right now–two forms of publication that are not precisely commensurate, but are both worthy.

    I’d like to see someone recognize that both are worthy, and in fact both are deserving, without having to pretend that both are precisely identical.

    They’re not. E-published authors have to work much, much harder at bringing in readers. They have to work much, much harder at establishing a brand. They get a much, much higher percentage of royalties. And because of that, they can write books that are microtargeted in much, much superior fashion in ways that print published books cannot–at least not yet.

    This doesn’t make e-publication “bad” or print publication “good.” It does make e-publication different.

    Incidentally, I realized that in terms of self-publication, one of the best damned stories I read all last year was a self-published e-book, available for free: Bettie Sharpe’s Ember. She so rocked my world with that. I will buy and read anything she writes. Am I sad that this story will not receive any formal recognition? Yes–it was easily and by far the best novella-length piece I read all year. I want everyone to read it. But do I think that matters for this conversation?

    Sadly, no. Not one bit.

  12. I’d like to see someone recognize that both are worthy, and in fact both are deserving, without having to pretend that both are precisely identical.

    They’re not. E-published authors have to work much, much harder at bringing in readers. They have to work much, much harder at establishing a brand. They get a much, much higher percentage of royalties. And because of that, they can write books that are microtargeted in much, much superior fashion in ways that print published books cannot–at least not yet.

    This doesn’t make e-publication “bad” or print publication “good.” It does make e-publication different.

    This is all true – and a good reason to have a special interest chapter where e-pubbed authors can discuss these things – but I don’t think it’s nearly enough reason to divide the “Published Authors” of RWA into two distinct groups. The challenges of category authors are much, much different than those of either single title or e-pubbed authors, since their books are only in stores one month, there’s basically only one house they can target, and their royalties are structured differently too. Yet we don’t have a “separate but equal” section of PAN for them.

    I see no reason why giving e-published authors full inclusion in PAN means pretending e-publishing is “the same” as any other kind of publishing. It means acknowledging that a professional author is a professional author, and trusting we’re smart enough to pursue the venue(s) that will best further our individual career goals–large press, small press, series, electronic, or, as is increasingly the case for many authors, including me :), some combination of the above.

  13. No, you’re right, Tessa. ePAN was a spur-of-the-moment idea and I knew the second after I hit the comment button that it was probably not going to work and that I would be talked out of it the instant someone put forward a cogent argument, which you did.

    My other comments were meant to be directed at a separate e-book contest, as compared to finding a way to slot them into the RITA. Because as far as I can tell, the one logistical problem with the RITA right now is that it just isn’t set up to deal with e-published books. And I’m not wedded to that idea, either, but I do think it has more merit than ePAN.

    Here’s one change that I can say, without equivocation, MUST be made to the RITA contest:
    The description. Currently, on RWA’s website, it says: “RITA awards are presented annually to the best published romance novels of the year.” This is no longer a statement that can be made with any semblance of accuracy.

    RITA awards are presented annually to the best romance novels that appear in print during the year. If non-print books are not eligible, the RITA contest should not claim to represent the genre in its entirety.

  14. Just like I know someone who asked what counted as “published” in terms of the Golden Heart (novella wordlength), and was told that she couldn’t share the answer with anyone.

    That would be me. And yes, I was told that I should not announce the definitive answer I had been given because I was not an official spokesperson for RWA. The fact that RWA’s guidelines nowhere specify precisely what constitutes a novella, leaving other writers either to guess what that meant or contact the RWA staff themselves, was ignored.

    I suspect (though I certainly have no proof) that part of the reason RWA didn’t want to be specific was because to do so would risk offending authors who are actually members of PAN but whose published works all fall, in word count, below the novella minimum. (And just because the irony never ceases to amaze me, if the only thing Annie Proulx had ever written was _Brokeback Mountain_, she would be eligible to enter the Golden Heart. How’s that for crazy?)

    As for the question of the PAN eligibility of members versus RITA eligibility of their books…well, I have enough to say on that subject to justify a post of my own–a post I’ve been mulling for several days. I imagine it’ll be up later on my blog if you want to stop by :).

  15. RITA awards are presented annually to the best romance novels that appear in print during the year. If non-print books are not eligible, the RITA contest should not claim to represent the genre in its entirety.

    I absolutely agree, however…the mass-produced element that was introduced this year effectively means that the contest isn’t even for romances that appear in print since print-on-demand books are not eligible. If POD were made eligible, then that would be an accurate description.

    I am not opposed to the notion of a separate contest for books in electronic format. And since pretty much all the books published by the major NY houses are available in eformat as well as in print, there would be nothing to stop a print-published author from entering that contest as well.

    Division by format makes a certain amount of sense, particularly since there are some people who simply refuse to judge a book in electronic format. They just can’t bear the medium. Other people (like me) would be just fine with electronic judging–in fact, when it come to unpublished contest, I much prefer judging electronically than dealing with paper!

    Now, would the electronic format contest have the same “cachet” as the print format RITAs? Not at first, I’m sure. But eventually, I imagine it would surpass the RITAs.

    The reason I believe that is because I believe paper books will be increasingly outpaced in sales and distribution by ebooks. My kids are already so comfortable reading on screen (my oldest child, who’s 11, actually PREFERS reading on the computer to reading a book) and the costs of print production are so high that I’m fairly certain we’ll see a significant changeover within a generation.

  16. I suspect (though I certainly have no proof) that part of the reason RWA didn’t want to be specific was because to do so would risk offending authors who are actually members of PAN but whose published works all fall, in word count, below the novella minimum.

    Really? That would . . . be an insane reason to avoid transparency. Ugh.

  17. Wow! I missed a lot. For me, the issue still comes back to RWA’s refusal to create a list of approved e-publishers. The question at the core of all this is “how do we define ‘published’?”, and I think a lot of the fear of including epubbed authors in PAN and the RITAs is that it potentially opens the doors to authors from any fly-by-night press. RWA sets standards for traditional publishers that ensures PAN isn’t flodded with Publish America authors. I don’t understand why they can’t do the same for epublished authors.

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