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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


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