Friday, November 20, 2009

Harlequin vs. RWA and a little history

I've seen more than a few comments around the blogosphere, lists, and Twitter about how Romance Writers of America should have been more compromising with Harlequin, that it's making their Harlequin authors some how "not published."  How RWA has always been against innovation, and of course the perennial accusation comes in about how RWA hates ebooks.  RWA just needs to come into the 21st century!

You don't get it.  You really do not get it about RWA.

Let's take a look at their mission statement, right on their web site, up front:
Romance Writers of America is dedicated to advancing the professional interests of career-focused romance writers through networking and advocacy.
Notice the words "advancing the interests of career-focused romance writers."  Notice the word "networking" and really, really, really take note of "advocacy."

There is nothing in this mission statement about cutting-edge technology.  There is nothing about doing what publishers want them to do.  There is nothing there about getting people published in whatever way possible.  Looking further into their web site:

RWA works to support the efforts of its members to earn a living, to make a full-time career out of writing romance—or a part-time one that generously supplements his/her main income.
This does not mean RWA will hand you publication on a plate.  It means they look to support your efforts at Earning Good Money.  Not paying through the nose to get published to the tune of thousands of dollars.  Not offering up your work for some kind of promise in the future. 

Earning. Money. Now.

Most of all, it is not an entrepreneur organization.

I want to state that again:  RWA is not an entrepreneur organization.  Many of their members are entrepreneurs.  But RWA is not.  Its job is not to jump at every new innovation in publishing and make with the clappy hands every time a new publishing venue appears.  Its job is to strive to get good info on whatever venue is out there, make sure you have the info available, and let you be the judge about whether you go for it or not.  But it will not and cannot stand by a publishing venue that takes money away from authors, rather than puts money into an author's pocket.  And that publisher has to promise to do so in the form of a royalty contract and good hard earnest-money cash to prove it means what it says.

Here is some history.

I've been an RWA member since 1988, and was even president of a published authors' chapter way back when we were dealing with the birth of e-publishing.  (RWA was chartered in 1981.)

The standards and recognized publisher issue actually arose, lo these decades ago, because of some scams that happened with such outfits as the the now--thank God--defunct Dime Novels publisher, which was a print, not e-pub.  It turned out to be a pyramid scheme, packaged in a slick and pretty cover. It was so bad, the Wall Street Journal had a cease and desist order on DN for fraudulently using the WSJ name.

Many aspiring authors nevertheless still thought Dime Novels was a wonderful concept and people were being mean, mean, mean for dissing it.  I'm sure there are people who think the court system and the jury were mean, mean, mean to Bernie Madoff.

Big concern.  RWA got the idea from such incidences that there had to be minimum standards to differentiate the scammers from the real deal.  At no time did RWA say that any of its members could not pursue whatever publisher they wanted, whether self- or vanity publishing.  There's not ever been a prohibition on this.  But at the time, Dime Novels had been invited to some chapter conferences, the authors got scammed, and you can bet there was talk of lawsuits against the chapters for not properly vetting who was allowed into conferences and such.  By allowing a scammer into conferences, RWA chapters--and by extension, RWA--were essentially saying, yeah, these guys are okay.

A problem, especially since RWA had set itself up as authors' advocate. 

Many of us looked at the industry and tried to determine what would indicate that a publisher had some stability and good faith behind it.  We talked years in the business, print runs, etc.  A publisher had to show it could sustain business in the long haul, and that the author wouldn't suffer from its practices.

We started out with 5000 copies printed, $1000 advance paid, with royalties, if I recall correctly (any one remember exactly back to 1997, let me know).  That got reduced to (I think) 2500 copies printed (I forget what it is these days).  Why those numbers?  $1000 advance, because we had one or two library-only publishers that were obviously stable, obviously in it for the long haul, and that was the advance they were giving to their authors for the hardbacks they published and sold to the library market.  It's a limited market, and so the copies printed/sold were also low. That, we figured was a legitimate low amount from a legitimate long-term, stable publisher.  And an advance, because that helped ensure the author would not totally lose out on the deal if the publisher suddenly went tits up and the contract was tied up in legalities, as happened, by the way, with one of the small pub/e-pubs not long ago.

The requirements are even less stringent today.  RWA caved because of pressure from some starry-eyed members.  Unfortunate, because even though there are viable small press/epublishers, it allowed some small presses to be "recognized" that eventually went tits-up and left their authors hanging in contract hell.  And of course RWA got the inevitable, "What's WRONG with RWA that it didn't protect its members from this tits-up publisher?"

Then came the e-publishers.  At the time, a lot of us were peering at our 486 PCs with the CRT monitors at this new thing called the World Wide Web (remember floppy drives?).  Though many of us--myself included as the prez of that chapter at the time--thought the e-pub route would some day make it big, it was new, it was start-up, and the mobile technology simply wasn't there.  Remember, it was still during the days of analog cell phones...if people even had cell phones then.  No such thing as G3.  No broadband, or very little (I remember 2400 K baud rate downloads--woohoo!).  I figured, it would definitely be a viable, not-horrendously-risky venture in 5 to 10 years, but not in 1997.  A lot of authors agreed.

E-publishers and e-published authors didn't like this--wave of the future!  Get on the bandwagon now!--and what frustrated me was that yes, it was the wave of the future, but hello, a majority of businesses created in the U.S. die within 5 years of their inception.  Go check out the Small Business Administration statistics on that. I said back then that I didn't care whether it was a print or e-pub, whether it was a publisher or a hotdog stand, it was a business, and before we could recognize it as a stable one, it had to be in existence for a certain number of years and had to have produced product in mass quantities, and sold that product, with the result that an author was most definitely given money, preferably a sizable amount.  An advance? Sure.  It was earnest money to prove that the publisher was going to do what it said it was going to do.

It never, never had anything to do with whether someone was "really" published.  As far as I--and other RWA folks--were concerned, you were published as soon as you wrote your story and started selling it.  If you wrote it on a piece of brick and someone bought it, you were published.

The issue was business stability, career stability, and risk.  Important points regarding high or low risk:

  • Stable business
  • Produced product in mass quantities
  • Sold product
  • Been around for more than a few years
  • Paid creators of product (authors)
  • Offered contract
  • Paid earnest money

So the standards were set at what we thought was the minimum for a print publisher, with the understanding that in a few years time, an e-publisher could very well outstrip those numbers should new technology come by that would help it along.  And so it has, pretty much in the time frame I thought it would.

The bottom line was, RWA had to adhere to its mission of being an author's advocate, and that meant vetting publishers for business stability in the best way we knew how.  It also meant taking a stand on what was not in the best interests of the writer, and that included risky ventures.

It's unfortunate there are some people who look down on e-publishing and self-publishing as somehow inferior venues.  Obviously they're not, depending on what you want to do with your career, and I certainly never thought so.  Hell, I'm getting one of my out of print books to an e-book publisher as soon as I can find the time to proofread it (yeah, I'm bad about that.  My excuse: full time job, while trying to write another novel).  I personally am an entrepreneurial type and am rather fond of capitalism especially on the small scale, and so am excited about the opportunities for self-publishing that exist these days, especially in e-pub form.

But if I were to be an advocate for writers to make a solid income, I can't tell them to jump on the bandwagon of every new publishing venture that comes by, even if I think it's the bees' knees.

As much as I'm excited about e-publishing and the possibilities in self-publishing with the new technology we've got--always have been--I am also fully aware of the risks and downsides.  Entertainment and information companies, from music and film to book publishing companies are wrestling with piracy; with copyright infringement; and with the millions of ways not only a business can be ripped off, but the ways the MAJORITY of authors, musicians, and other artists can't make a living on the fruits of their labors, because the public thinks all of their work should be free for the taking.

I won't get into how anyone else working 40+ hours a week would squawk big time if someone told them to work another 15 to 20 hours a week for no pay and no promotion for years on end.  Because even if that's a major beef of mine, and this is my blog, it's off topic.  :-D
I love, love, love entrepreneurship.  I love seeing the next Bill Gates or the next Facebook  or the little garage band down the street make it big, or at least do very well.  But being an entrepreneur--whether it's self-publishing, start-up e-publishing, start-up print publisher, or "even" going with vanity publishing--means you have to take some risks, often big ones.  And I don't care if you're Thomas Edison or newbie author with a start-up publisher, people are going to think you're crazy for doing it.  Those are the lumps you're going to have to take, period.  If you work hard and the endeavor is a success, then the payoff is a good living and people will admire you for your guts, stamina, and foresight.  But if it isn't a success, then you're going to have to figure out how to get back on your feet, and do it with dignity and without whining that nobody likes you, it's everybody else's fault.  You have to respect and believe in your own endeavors and you own dreams, and that really means understanding what the bottom line is, the very real risks, spreadsheets and numbers, and what's at the end of that bottom line.  You have to be able to hold up your head even when you're trying to wade through knee-deep mud.

Whether you're an RWA member or not, you're free to publish in whatever way you want.  You're free to be an entrepreneur, or not, and both are cool.  But RWA can't stand by it if it's deemed to be risky for the author, and still remain an author's advocate and true to its mission. It cannot be entrepreneurial.

RWA created definitions for their list of recognized publishers.  They stuck by them when HQ started up a vanity press, and HQ very well knew before they did what constituted an RWA-recognized publisher and what didn't.  RWA responded by doing what it was supposed to do.


Anonymous said...

Thank you, Yoda :)


Eliza S said...

Wonderful summation, Karen.

Melissa Blue said...

My memory is fuzzy. But before RWA went to their current site, didn't they have the list of publishers and agents available to be viewed by non-members?

--Karen H said...

Melissa, I don't think they did. If I recall correctly, I've always had to log onto their site to get to their agent and publisher list.

I could be wrong about that, I think it had always not been viewable by non-members. The reason I think so is because I remember being irritated when they changed over to the new site, because I wanted to access the agent/pub list and there was this new logon procedure. :-D