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RWA & The Case of the Lack of Vision

In the most recent RWR, a monthly publication put out by the RWA, Diane Pershing’s president’s letter contained a very wordy assessment of RWA’s commitment to its 10,000+ membership which can be condensed into this: digital publishing is not a legitimate business model and those who are in digital publishing are not sufficiently “career-focused”?

How do we accommodate  changes in the publishing industry  environment without diluting RWA’s  focus on “career-focused” writers and standards for professionalism?


In other words, that publisher’s business model is of benefit to all its authors (RWA members). The fact that a publisher might not offer an advance but pays a 37.5 percent royalty rate is inconsequential; that business model is only favorable to the few–or even the several– who manage to sell enough books to make decent money, or at least the $1,000 required for Published Authors Network (PAN) membership. It is not favorable to the rest of its authors (RWA members) who earn very little money, if any at all. When an individual author (What is good for me and my career?) posts on a loop that she’s earned thousands of dollars, really likes her publisher’s royalty rate, and doesn’t see the need for an advance, good for her. RWA is always pleased when an author earns decent money for her work. But–and this is based on real examples, not assumptions–all the authors signed with that  publisher will not make decent money;  most of them won’t.

I never blogged about this because Diane Pershing is two months away from her presidency expiring. What was the point? Several others responded however here, here and here. Deidre Knight responded with an eloquent and cogent argument on E-span, the electronic publishing chapter of the RWA.

Knight argued that to make the argument that advances are the only legitimate business model fails to take into consideration the changing business environment facing the industry.   As Knight pointed out, HarperStudio, the experimental arm of HarperCollins, is testing the no advance, no return, profit sharing model that has long existed in digital publishing.

Publishers’ Lunch reported NYT bestselling author Glenn Beck made a “multi-title co-publishing deal, covering an unlimited  number of titles over an undisclosed term with ….BECK’S COMMON SENSE, “channeling the spirit of Thomas Paine,” for  publication as an eBook original and then a trade paperback original, in  June 2009, also to include picture books and fiction for children and YA  books, said to be a 50/50  profit sharing deal with Threshold Editions, an imprint of Simon & Schuster.

Jason Epstein’s keynote speech at Tools of Change this year argues that the “radically decentralized marketplace” is changing the traditional publishing infrastructure.

Like American automobile manufacturers traditional publishers will persist in their traditional mode as long as they can, but they cannot indefinitely defend their institutions against disruptive technologies any more than the monks in their scriptoria could withstand the urgency of movable type. As factory based production and distribution gradually give way to web based production and marketing the cost of entry for publishers will decline to practically zero. Such traditional publishing functions as publicity, design, marketing, legal, record keeping and so on will be sub contracted as will web marketing and design. Talented editors require only minimal managerial services and in the digital future will require even fewer provided they resist inducements to expand or merge. Today’s unwieldy conglomerates, trapped in a bad economy within their Gutenberg mode and motivated only by profit rather than the intrinsic value of the work itself — the joy of publishing distinguished books, the primary motive of successful publishers — will deconstruct, leaving their surviving imprints to fend for themselves under diverse ownership or vanish. Resourceful agents may become business managers for groups of like minded editors and authors whose imprints will become recognizable brands, distinguishing their content from the great sea of helter skelter digital content while authors, as stakeholders along with their editors, may opt for profit sharing arrangements rather than traditional royalties. Best selling branded authors who require only minimal publishing services beyond manufacturing and distribution may become their own publishers, retaining their agents as business managers, subcontracting essential functions, and forgoing today’s unsustainable guarantees in exchange for the entire net proceeds of their titles. Customers will pay less but pricing must still cover traditional author royalties, residual publishers’ overheads and profit.

At Book Expo America, the biggest buzz word of North America’s biggest trade show was “digital publishing”.    (This one is a great sum up of one of the digital seminars held at BEA ’09).

Diane Pershing’s response to Deidre Knight was posted today.   In it Pershing suggests that Knight’s motivation for speaking out in favor of digital publishing and against the current position espoused by Pershing was because Knight’s Butterfly Tattoo is not eligible for a RITA.   Pershing states that only two digital publishing seminars were ever brought to RWA’s attention:   one offered by Angela James and one deemed not up to snuff by RWA’s seminar committee.

Pershing goes on to state that for all the complaints that members may appear to have about RWA, the organization has not suffered in terms of membership or money.   Pershing notes that while authors might not get the advance paid right away, when the career focused author is ready, money in the thousands will be waiting for them.

Even so, most career-focused authors have books in various stages of completion and publication, so there is a steady flow of money to them.   And whenever the money does get there, there will be money, in the thousands of dollars.   It is guaranteed.   Can the same be said for the digital model?

Here is what I think about this whole hub-bub.   Why care what RWA thinks? Why advocate for RWA to change? Why not simply withdraw from the organization. It does nothing but to offer a contests, conventions, and help polishing your first three chapters. I don’t know of one editor who cares whether the submission comes from an RWA member.    I don’t know of any reader who cares whether the book is from an RWA member.

In what measurable way does RWA help an author a) sell books or b) become published?   There are plenty of ways to meet editors and agents. They go to Lori Foster’s events or Lora Leigh’s events.   They might be at ComicCon.   They might be at RT.   You can even go to the RWA convention without being a member.

RWA is not forward thinking as Pershing states. If it was forward thinking, it would recognize that its duty to its membership includes equipping the authors with information about all the ways in which authors in the romance industry can make money. It would tell them that a digital publisher offers higher royalties against no advances thus making that publishing path more risky but with possible better reward. It would equip authors to go forth and seek out digital publishers armed with the knowledge of how to distinguish between a good and bad digital publisher.

But why work within the the RWA?   RWA doesn’t make the money an author makes with digital publishing less real.   RWA only serves to delegitimize an author if she allows it.   RWA’s failure to recognize digital publishers makes RWA look bad; not the digital publishers or the authors that choose that model.   For the authors who aren’t aware of the avenues of success from digital publishing or know and don’t want to take advantage of that model, so what? More publishing slots for those who are in the know.

The market will change and evolve regardless of RWA.   The only people it harms are those wedded to the RWA philosophy and you know what, let them go the way of the dodo bird.

Jane Litte is the founder of Dear Author, a lawyer, and a lover of pencil skirts. She self publishes NA and contemporaries (and publishes with Berkley and Montlake) and spends her downtime reading romances and writing about them. Her TBR pile is much larger than the one shown in the picture and not as pretty. You can reach Jane by email at jane @ dearauthor dot com


  1. » What I’ve been up to
    Jun 22, 2009 @ 10:02:44

    […] been commenting at Dear Author and Smart Bitches (even though SB’s blog keeps thinking I’m a spammer and shunting me […]

  2. Sue T
    Jun 22, 2009 @ 13:35:20

    Here here Nora, Allison, Lisa Hendrix and Linda Jones. You all took he words right out of my mouth and in much nicer fashion.

    Still going to give my two cents:

    Let me start by saying I have nothing against epub (I actually published a book initially that way); however, I will NEVER be an ebook reader and that’s a personal choice for many reasons.

    Argue all you want but we, as a professional organization, need rules and boundaries as to what makes us professional. Don’t like the rules? Don’t like Ms. Pershing’s attitude, then run for an office.

    Remember, if you are a member of RWA and you actually voted, you helped elect our officers. And if no one with an e-pub platform runs against them, whose fault is that? You want change? Then run. And I don’t care how many step up – could be all of you – as LH says, could be interesting. But right away, the fact there’d be many is thrown up as an excuse why not to run. I call BS.

    I’m the President of my local union chapter and it is amazing to me how many people want to complain but are not willing to go after an office. Far easier to send emails or letters or talk among yourselves then to step up to the plate.

    And I have to agree with those that say if you aren’t a part of RWA and choose not to be, then why do you care what RWA does? I don’t care if you are a reader and you want your authors to be paid fair. RWA has set up what’s fair. Don’t agree? Support your authors by ordering their books, have your friends order their books – no one’s stopping you. Your support of them has NOTHING to do with whether or not you agree with their professional status within RWA. You buy them because you like them, not because they belong to RWA.

    I’ve been a member since 1997 and plan to be a member until I die (unless RWA changes the definition of romance which is another entirely different subject). And I plan to run for a Board office one day because frankly, I love being a part of RWA. All of it – the good, the bad and the ugly.

    If you’ve ever been an officer, you know that a shitty and thankless job it can be. Each year, at my writing chapter level, we have to push, pull and prod members to step into an office. Sure, everyone is always so willing to take the benefits but then bitch and moan about what’s not getting done but shut up when asked to participate. I call BS on that too.

    Should epubs be recognized? Sure, they should. What does that mean? Why don’t you all put your heads together and come up with a reasonable rule on what makes you a professional? Not that you publish an ebook?

    I recognize the phenomenal Angela James and I will admit to being disappointed her and Samhain is not recognized and not just because she is an epub but she gives a lot back to writers.

    So, want to be recognized? Send in a realistic proposal. Maybe our ELECTED leaders would have an easier time figuring out what the majority of members want if you acutally presented an idea versus complaining. Contrary to what is said above, Board members are doing the best they can for the majority of the members.

    Sorry – I know this is harsh. I’m ready to be beat via blog comments.

  3. Arwen
    Jun 22, 2009 @ 14:49:47

    I think we need more change and less bashing (and I have taken my fair share of shots at the Board on the digital publishing kerfuffle). Because I feel strongly about this, I am part of the nearly (at last check) 500 member group called RWAChange. We are dedicated to putting our sweat where our mouths are.

    Of course there are going to be hard feelings. This is about feeling validated by a group I have chosen to support since 2001 when a non-romance author’s agent first told me about RWA. I personally have my panties in a wad because it seems that my own organization’s president (whom I voted for even) thinks digital publishing does not deserve the same educational leverage as that of print publishing.

    $1000 in one year on one book? Okay. Fine. Accomplished on two books last year out of three.

    But what good will joining PAN do me? I have to tell you that I wanted to be PAN for all the reasons of “belonging”, “validation”, “acceptance” and “acknowledgement” as mentioned.

    I want my organization that I very much love to stand by digitally published authors with the same fervor and fierce protectiveness as it does print published and aspiring authors.

    Is that too much to ask?

  4. Jennifer McKenzie
    Jun 23, 2009 @ 17:26:34

    I don’t think people should be mistaken about the intentions of those voiced here.
    The reason so many of us complain about RWA’s stance is that we recognize something you seem to have missed.
    It isn’t about the published authors.
    It’s about the UNpublished authors.
    I don’t know about you, but the first place I went when I wanted to write a romance was the biggest name in the industry-Harlequin. On the eHarlequin boards, the first thing I was told was “Join RWA”.
    I’m sure I’m not unique. Those unpublished authors need to know all their options. ALL of them. Perhaps epublishing is the right place for some of them, but they know nothing about it. Why? Because the national organization has been dragging its feet, unwilling to acknowledge this unique and different career in publishing.
    Several epublished authors HAVE stepped up to the plate, willing to share their experience with new authors. We have over two thousand of them.
    We call it Romance Divas.
    But the truth is, RWA is the FIRST place these unpublished folks go. And there’s nothing there to guide them.
    One more thing.
    Several people have piped up and said how their local chapter has been so supportive of them in epublishing.
    The nearest “local chapter” for me is five hours away. I’m a member of ESPAN because online is the closest I can get to author interaction. (Other than Romance Divas).
    So, you see, it DOES matter to me that the national organization rejects me as a “published” author. It DOES matter to me that I can’t enter the RITAS OR the GOLDEN HEART.
    I’m a romance writer. I’m not asking RWA to give me a big hug and pat me on the head. I want the RWA to stand up and say we’re a growing market and we’re just as important as the print market.
    I’m hoping to learn what I need to know so I can run for office. It’s the only way I know change will be implemented and I think RWA is valuable enough to “stick and stay.”

  5. Gina Rosavin
    Jun 23, 2009 @ 20:06:33

    I’m still wading through all of this, and I am outraged by RWA’s callous attitude toward digital publishing. I’ve been going through everything I could find, and I am seriously considering giving up my membership. I will lose the benefits of my chapter, which I adore, but my critique group is made up of those members I most want to see and the group does not require being a chapter member to participate.

    In any case, I saw someone make the comment about taking ESPAN and breaking off and forming a new group. That has actually been done in the past. EPIC, the organization for digital publishing, started out as an RWA chapter. But they quickly found out what RWA National thought of them and left. The only requirement to join EPIC is that you be digitally published – there are specifics for genres, novellas and such. There is also another new fiction writer’s group, though again, you must be published, either digitally or in print, to join, Liberty States Fiction Writers. These groups are both made up of romance authors, as well as authors of other genres. These new organizations are growing, and while they also will suffer growing pains as they do, I think they just might show RWA a thing or two.

  6. Jo Vandewall
    Jun 24, 2009 @ 19:28:11

    Allison Said:
    Can you imagine the auto workers waiting for their pay checks until the car they built was sold by the dealer? Or a teacher to wait for their pay check until the student they educated graduated? Why is the products of creative artists treated any differently? As I've argued with some editors who stated publicly that advances aren't important because the author gets royalties, would an editor wait for their paycheck until the book they edited sold? Or accept a percentage of payment based on the sales of a particularly book?

    But this argument is flawed. The auto workers are not self-employeed. Authors are. And anyone who has owned a business knows that they only make money when a customer walks in and buys something.

    Why should authors be any different?

  7. Allison Brennan
    Jun 24, 2009 @ 19:46:29

    @Jo Vandewall:

    I sell my book to the publisher. The publisher is my “customer” since I don’t sell directly to readers. I enter into a contract with the publisher that I will produce X number of words in Y genre by Z date and in return they’ll advance me $$ against future royalties based on how well they think that book will sell–based on their internal analysis of like books, etc. It’s not a perfect system. It works.

    I’m self-employed, and I understand the point you tried to make, but most self-employed businesses start with capital–and it’s not theirs. They get a small business loan based on market analysis that such a service or product is in demand in a specific area. If I wanted to open a book store in Elk Grove, I would show to a bank that I had retail experience, that I’ve managed staff, that there is a need–based on demographics that I may commission a marketing firm to put together. I would pick a location that based on the proposal would be the best for my venue. Then I would share the risk with the bank in that they would loan me money if they felt the business was viable. If the business fails, they know they won’t get paid back. Business bankruptcy is far different than personal bankruptcy.

    Publishing is the same. They see the product they’re going to invest in, rather than a loan that won’t be repaid if there is failure, they give an advance that isn’t repaid if there is failure. Which is why publishing is truly a partnership with both the publisher and the author taking risks. The publisher puts the best “package” together for the project and sometimes throws it out there and hopes for the best, and sometimes pushes the book believing they can easily find an audience. But without sharing the risk with the author, they can dump more books out hoping something will stick.

    If you read my previous comments, you’ll see I have no problem with the e-publishing business model–that’s a completely different thing that print publishing and the advance structure. I was responding to comments that advances were inferior to higher royalties. I don’t believe this is the case, and I don’t think that it’s an either/or situation.

  8. Jo Vandewall
    Jun 24, 2009 @ 20:24:10

    I have to disagree, Allison. The publisher is not your customer. It’s a joint venture. What you’re putting up is sweat equity. What they’re putting up is manufacturing and distribution.

    If an author can cut a deal that gets them money up front, that’s great, but in no way can an advance be equated to wages that come from a job. To be in business for yourself is to take a risk. Anyone who wants or needs the security of a guaranteed paycheck gets a job. Self-employeed people get profits (if there’s anything left over after expenses.) To say that an author is entitled to a specific wage is trying to create a class of entrepreneur that is radically different from any other out there. Being self-employeed means taking risks. There is no entitlement to a salary when you’re self-employeed.

    And I just don’t see the validity of comparing an advance to a business loan because, unlike most advances, whether the business folds or not, you have to pay back the loan or declare bankruptcy.

  9. Allison Brennan
    Jun 24, 2009 @ 20:56:41

    I don’t want to get in a tit-for-tat argument, but I don’t agree with your comments or your interpretation of what I said. Maybe I wasn’t clear. I’ve never said that an author is entitled to a specific wage. Authors who choose to enter into a contract for no advance can do so. Authors who choose to not sign a contract that doesn’t have an advance have the right to do so. It’s my choice, your choice, every author’s choice, provided that a publisher wants to publish the book. I don’t want a salary, nor a wage. I do want an advance. I’ve never said on this thread or anywhere that all authors should only sign contracts that have an advance. I take plenty of risks–if an author has excessive unearned advances (unless you’re a mega author) then you don’t get another contract–sometimes even if you are willing to take a lessor advance. That’s a huge risk for an author who is dependent on writing income. Maybe the business analogy wasn’t perfect, but it still relates to the over-all sharing of risk. You don’t have to pay back the advance if you flop, but you may not have another contract. You don’t have to pay back the loan if you fail in a business (i.e. bankruptcy) but you may not they get another business loan.

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