Breaking down RWA Eligibility

It’s hardly a surprise that I believe that RWA needs to find ways to embrace digital publishing.  But the more I think about the need for RWA to change its ways, the more complicated I find the issues to be.  This is a post that sort of details where I am in my thinking process.  It’s not an official statement from RWAChange.  It’s just what I think about the question.

When I first started thinking about RWAChange, my initial impression was that RWA’s list of Eligible publishers was nothing more than paternalism.  Why require an advance to be paid?  Who is RWA to determine what makes an author “career-focused”?  After reading through the Bylaws and the Policies & Procedure Manual, and listening to what people have to say, I think I’ve concluded that the question of what publishers lands on the list of RWA Eligibility is very important to its membership for one very simple reason:  Money.  Not RWA’s money.  Not the RWA Board’s money.  But my money, and your money, and the money of anyone who attends the RWA National Conference.

Here’s what I’ve gleaned about RWA Eligibility from the Policies & Procedures Manual:

Only RWA Eligible publishers can accept pitch appointments at Nationals.  Only RWA Eligible publishers can hold spotlights at Nationals.  (According to Diane Pershing, but not according to the P&PM, [Edited to add: my apologies to President Pershing; this is covered in the Policies & Procedure Manual at 8.14; I missed it the first time.] only RWA Eligible publishers can offer workshops at Nationals, too).  RWA Eligible publishers are comped at Nationals–that is, they don’t have to pay the hefty registration fee.  (In exchange for this, they must take pitch appointments and/or speak in workshops.)

What does that mean to you as  a member?

RWA Eligibility adds value to your conference if you are unpublished:

  • It allows you to schedule pitch appointments with industry professionals who purchase, publish, and represent manuscripts.
  • It gives you access to workshops run by industry professionals who will give you an inside view as to craft and market outlook.
  • It provides publisher spotlights, book signings, and other events that help you see what’s selling, and what publishers are excited about.
  • It creates an event where editors and agents come together, and networking opportunities abound (last year at Nationals, I was still unpublished, but my book was on submission–and my agent dragged me around to meet the editors who had it on their desk.  This was invaluable to me in my decision-making, because I could see who I “clicked” with.)

RWA Eligible Publishers also provide value to published authors (and I suspect it provides more value to them than to the unpublished):

  • It broadens your audience: At the publisher-sponsored signings, and at the literacy signing, hundreds of readers may obtain free books from you and try you out.
  • It provides natural marketing: If your book is highlighted at a publisher spotlight, many people may put it on their list of books “to buy” to see what’s so hot about it.
  • It provides a forum for you to meet with your editor and agent.
  • If your publisher throws a party (as many publishers do), you will meet with other authors who work for your publisher and be able to network.
  • If you’re looking for a new agent (or a new publisher), or looking to write in a new genre, you get all the benefits that the unpublished authors do. (For many authors, the difference between “published” and “unpublished” are just not that large, believe it or not!)

None of this is a surprise.  RWA Eligibility for publishers does a great deal of work for you as an author, most particularly at the National Conference.  So why not recognize more publishers as RWA Eligible?  More publishers = more value, right?

The flip side of this is that it does it at at cost.  If you look at the list of industry professionals listed on RWA’s conference site, please keep in mind that many of those professionals are not paying a conference fee.  That means that, in determining how much you are paying for conference, part of the cost that you are bearing is the price of the meeting space, the price of comping lunch for those editors and agents, and so forth.  If those editors and agents were not comped, the price of Nationals to the individual might fall from (say) $475 to $400 (I don’t know what the amount is–I just made it up for illustration purposes, so don’t complain it is too large or too small.)

Of course, the fall-off in quality would be pretty clear, too.  You wouldn’t have pitch appointments.  You might not have editors giving workshops on what they look for in a submission, or agents answering questions about how to write a query.  Editors might not come at all, and then many authors might choose not to attend because they couldn’t meet with their editor, and so you’d miss out on those workshops on craft from published authors and those networking opportunities.  RWA comps these editors (and their activities) because they believe that the added $75 (or whatever it is) to the ticket price of conference is worth the value that editor attendance adds.

(I’ve heard that RWA did try to get rid of comping altogether–with the end result that industry professionals did not show up, and the conference was not a major success for those who attended.)

The more RWA-Eligible publishers there are, the greater the cost to the paying attendees.  I’ve seen people claim that RWA doesn’t open up eligibility to e-publishers for monetary reasons.  This was presented as something hugely sinister, like RWA was selling out publishers for filthy lucre, and I don’t think that is a fair representation at all.

It’s not RWA’s organizational money that is at stake here.  It’s ours, the authors who attend conference.  I don’t know about you, but I personally don’t want to pay $800 to go to conference just so that the Mesopotamian Press of Bluebirds, a group that publishes three authors and sells 60 copies of books each year, can hold a publisher spotlight and pitch appointments, and their editors can attend for free.  Neither do I want to pay $300 to attend a conference where my editor and agent don’t show up, and neither do three quarters of my good friends on the author circuit.

RWA Eligibility is like a spigot that must be finely tuned: Set the bar for eligibility too high, and you exclude too many publishers; as a result, the authors affiliated with those publishers, and writers who wish to be affiliated with them, stop attending Conference and Conference loses value.  Set the bar too low, and you include too many publishers, and the price of Conference becomes too high.  Somewhere in between is a happy medium: the place where the value of Conference is high, but the price of Conference is not exorbitant.

It’s not paternalism to set standards for RWA Eligibility (which was my initial thought); RWA Eligible publishers are publishers that conference attendees subsidize, at their own very personal dollar cost.  I apologize for calling it paternalism; now that I’ve thought it through, I’ve changed my mind.

The only thing I disagree with in the current Policies and Procedures Manual (on this point) is where the spigot has been set.  I think the advance model is not the only way to build a career, and I think there are significant advantages to the e-business model that RWA should recognize.  As such, I would like to see a standard for determining RWA eligibility that includes intelligent e-publishers, who offer the means for their writers to make a career of writing.

Should this standard let in all e-publishers, or all small press publishers?  No–that would be too costly for the membership of RWA, and would provide too little benefit to justify the added cost.  But just as we don’t want to exclude all print publishers from RWA Eligibility, or the cost of conference suffers, we also don’t want to exclude all e-publishers.  If e-publishers must pay for their conference fee, if they cannot hold pitch appointments or spotlight their top authors, they might not show up, and then their e-authors won’t show up either.  If e-authors see no benefit to going to RWA, they won’t hold workshops, won’t network with others. . . .

When Diane Pershing said there were only two digital workshops suggested to RWA’s workshop committee this year, that should have been a warning sign, not an indication that nobody cared about e-publishing.  That signaled that the National conference is not providing sufficient value to the people who are skilled in e-publishing–even though there is tremendous interest among the membership to learn more about e-publishing.  RWA’s current stance is driving e-authors and e-publishers from Conference, and that means that we are all losing value.

You’ll note I haven’t talked about where the spigot should be set, except to say that the current model is too restrictive.  I’ll try to cover what I think there in later posts.

11 thoughts on “Breaking down RWA Eligibility

  1. Hi Courtney, A well thought-out post and I agree with you. When it comes down to money spent/investment into the conference and giving the attendees the best options for them, choices have to be made and not everyone will be eligible.

    I do agree that the spigot needs to be placed elsewhere, and perhaps it doesn’t need to be so restrictive, where publishers who are comped are the only ones allowed to take appointments. If an epublisher or small press wishes to pay for their conference attendance and be available to authors to take appointments, I believe RWA should consider it.

    They can be selective about those publishers, without excluding them all together or making it impossible for those who ARE going, who are paying, to have access to members who want to meet them.

  2. Great post, Courtney. I completely agree with your conclusion. I have not yet, myself, arrived comfortably at a place where I feel like I know my stand on this issue, so there’s lots of room for me to change my mind.

    One thing that concerns me about your post, though, is tying publishing recognition to the cost of Nationals. I think it’s incorrect to suggest that the cost of the National conference is the sole criteria for RWA recognition. I hope like heck it’s not.

    I have heard, practically ad infinitum, from RWA that recognition standards are in place to give authors an assurance that a recognized publisher has accepted business practices from the author’s point of view. This has been tied, more and more directly to the payment of royalties and now to advances.

    I do believe that the ePublishers can make a good case that their business model does not necessarily require an advance. When a print publisher may not have your book in the retail chain for 1-2 years after the sale, the advance against royalties is, for the author, if not a necessity, certainly close to it.

    ePubs, as I understand it, get an acquired book into their retail chain much more quickly and because they’re not dealing with the effect of returns, can account for sales much more quickly. The advance, in such a case, does not seem quite as necessary.

    As an RWA member, what I want from RWA is for them to be looking out for my long-term interests as a writer and that means examining the financial impact of a new or changing model.

  3. Carolyn,

    I completely agree that publisher recognition should be about more than the cost of Nationals. I probably should have prefaced this with the comment that, at least under the current Policies & Procedures, publisher eligibility is tied to the cost of Nationals. Is that the only consideration? No, nor should it be–and if the cost issues become prohibitive for members, P&P may need to be amended to prevent such effects.

    All I meant to say was, the members of RWA effectively pay for publisher recognition–and that means our hands are doubly tied, not only by the important issues that you mention regarding viable business practices, but also by some very real cost concerns.

    I don’t have a good answer to any of this either. Jeannie’s suggestion, that we consider decoupling certain comps, might be a good way to proceed?

  4. Jane,

    It’s true for agents as well. The answer appears to be that if they weren’t subsidized they wouldn’t come, and if they didn’t come, there would essentially be no conference.

    Apparently they tried not comping publishing professionals one year and it just didn’t work out.

  5. Courtney,

    You have outlined some of the problems but I believe you’ve missed something. Not all members of RWA go to conferences. I’ve been to a couple, and I rather got the impression published authors were there to promote themselves and their books, and not much else. Nothing wrong with that, because I try to promote myself, but I think small chapter conferences are a better deal for all concerned.

    They are much less expensive, usually closer and less time consuming. They also provide
    easier access to the attending publishers and agents. I hesitate to suggest this, but in the
    current financial situation, perhaps a national conference is not a good idea.

    I will also add there is an organization in RWA for e-published authors, and another organization which is growing as the industry grows, EPIC.

    I get to straddle the fence, because I am print published and now e-published. If I didn’t think the business models for the better e-publishers was good, I wouldn’t be contining to pursue my career in the digital market. There are good publishers out there.
    They should be included, at least at chapter conferences.

    Allison Knight

  6. Allison,

    It’s true that not all members go to conferences. As far as I can tell, however, RWA Eligibility of publishers matters for three things:

    1. Determining RWA Eligibility of agents (they have to sell to RWA Eligible publishers)
    2. Market updates in the RWR.
    3. Pitch appointments at conference
    4. Offer workshops at conference (I need to edit the above post because I missed this one in the P&PM)
    5. Comped registration fee.

    I imagine that #1 may matter more in the future, but right now very few agents sell to e-publishers, so that’s not at issue. The main advantages of RWA Eligibility of publishers is at conference.

    They’re also featured in the Market Update of RWR, and that’s significant for the membership and I don’t want to downplay that, but I do want to point out that RWA Eligibility right now is almost entirely about benefits at the National Conference.

    I know that many local/regional conferences include digital publishers and their representatives.

  7. Okay, maybe someone can help me understand this. If epub eligibility is connected directly or primarily or even largely to the cost of Nationals (and I think Courtney has laid out the pros and cons of more inclusivity very incisively and reasonably), why not just say that whenever the topic of eligibility comes up? Why the whole explanation about the legitimacy of epublishing, yadda yadda yadda? Why introduce PAN author eligibility? And why restrict the chief officer position to someone published by an eligible publisher as specified in RWA P&P’s:

    8.2.2. President-Elect. Candidates for President-Elect must: (1) have been general members for a minimum of three consecutive years immediately preceding filing for office, (2) be the author or co-author of at least five published romance novels as defined in RWA policy, (3) have contracted to publish at least one romance novel with an RWA-Recognized Publisher, as defined in RWA policy, within the four years immediately preceding filing for office, and (4) cannot have more than six years of accumulated Board service.

    Isn’t restricting the leadership of the organization in such a way moving far beyond cost considerations for Nationals?

    I don’t understand why no one has addressed this leadership issue, because IIRC someone on DA indicated that *anyone* is eligible to run for RWA president. But that seems not to be true, yes? And isn’t this a pretty strong statement on RWA’s part, albeit quietly and somewhat indirectly delivered?

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