RWA and the Advance Stance

by Sarah on June 21, 2009 · 16 comments


The latest bitchfest concerning Romance Writers of America and their lack of support for their electronically published members is making my head hurt. Literally. (OK, that might be at least partly due to my cold.)

Every year in the five years I’ve been a member, someone at RWA does or says something to piss someone else off and complete uproar ensues. Members are irate and threaten to leave the organization. Others plan a veritable revolution. Yet every time the fuss dies down within a few weeks and nothing fundamental changes. It’s all highly entertaining in a trainwreck sort of way.

The issues at stake are a variation on a theme:

  1. RWA disapproves of erotic romance, particularly those which contain homosexuality, BDSM, ménage à trois, etc.
  2. RWA sees electronically published authors as inferior, wording their guidelines for PAN (Published Author Network) eligibility in such a way as to ensure the exclusion of many epublished members. One particular bone of contention is the requirement of a minimum advance of $1000 upon selling a book to a publisher. As electronic publishers do not pay advances, this immediately excludes their authors from being considered published under the terms laid down by RWA.
  3. RWA has too many members with diverse needs and should therefore exclude all unpublished writers from the organization.

Here’s my take on those issues:

Given the amount of time and effort RWA has gone to in order to exclude authors of erotic romance and epublished authors – they are often synonymous – from entering various contests, participating in the annual conference literary signing, etc., it’s hard not to accuse them of discriminating against those members. It’s not the place of a professional writers’ organization to dictate its members politics or sexuality. Epublished authors should be treated equally to their print published counterparts. People who write erotic romance have as much right to be in the organization as those who write mainstream or inspirational romance. RWA should HELP its members, not discriminate against them.

I don’t think it’s RWA’s role to make seemingly arbitrary decisions on who is published and who is not based on the presence or absence of a $1000 advance. RWA should be there to educate ALL of its members on ALL of their options on the path to publication. Under the current terms, an author who released one print book ten years ago but nothing since is considered published, but one who has released several ebooks in the last couple of years is deemed unpublished. It’s all rather ridiculous.

Having said all that, I do agree with RWA that an advance is preferable. I understand that the traditional model of advances in print publication is collapsing, but I firmly believe authors should not be expected to bear all of the financial risk. Also, epub scandals (e.g.: Triskelion) and rumours of financial woes (e.g.: Ellora’s Cave) DO make one nervous. Obviously, this is not the fault of the epubbed authors, but RWA does not seem to see it this way. In a hamfisted effort to “protect” its members from potentially dubious epublishers, RWA has succeeded in alienating a large segment of its membership. It would be far better if they kept a list of dodgy publishers so that members could inform themselves before signing a contract. They already have something similar for agents, so why not extend this to include publishers?

As for excluding unpublished members: according to RWA’s website, it was founded in 1981

…to advance the professional interests of career-focused romance writers through networking and advocacy. 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.

There are currently over 10,000 members of RWA. Of those 10,000 members, 1,885 are published in book-length romance fiction. Even if epublished authors were added to that figure, unpublished members would still outnumber published ones.  Many – if not more – unpublished members volunteer their time to help RWA national or their local chapter. I’ve edited the newsletter for my chapter for the past four years. If all of us who are not yet published were to be excluded, it would (a) completely undermine RWA’s stated purpose and (b) strip RWA of thousands of membership dues and volunteers to help make the organization the powerhouse that it is. In short, RWA would not have the clout that it does were it not for its large membership.

So what can be done? Volunteer your time and run for positions on the RWA board. Both RWA National’s board of directors and the leadership of local chapters are elected positions. If I recall correctly, the last national election ballot featured several positions with candidates who ran uncontested, so of course they got voted it. Basically, if members want things done differently, they need to stop bitching and take action. It really is that simple.

For other viewpoints:

Jane at Dear Author

AztecLady at Karen Knows Best

Teddy Pig at The Naughty Bits

Sarah at Smart Bitches, Trashy Books

Katiebabs at Babbling About Books

Lauren Dane

And, of course, the original posts by author/agent Deidre Knight and Diane Pershing, RWA President.


katiebabs June 21, 2009 at 23:24

The number 1,885 members being published really caught my eye and is very telling. It RWA decides to say only published writers can join their organization, they are doomed for failure big time. RWA was founded by writers for writers. Where and when did they decide what they deem writers who are published to be a part of this organization? I really can’t see it coming down to that. Can you imagine if it did?

heidenkind June 22, 2009 at 01:13

Drama like this makes me happy I’m not a member of RWA, to be honest. I do agree that they need to accept e-Pubs as legitimate. Even if there are sketchy ePubs, they can help their member separate the good ones from the bad ones–instead of just ignoring the whole lot, which doesn’t do anyone any good.

I really like the fact that you gave a way to work for a solution to the problem in your post.

Ames June 22, 2009 at 01:35

Someone, somewhere said, if pubbed writers want an org for pubbed writers there’s NINC and Authors Guild.

The saddest thing I see is RWA was founded because romance writers couldn’t get no love from other writing organizations and now they’re doing it to epubbed authors.

That said, I’m very very tired. No writing organization can (or should be expected to) meet all the needs of all it’s members. That’s just not possible. Bottom line, nobody has to let RWA determine their value.

Edie June 22, 2009 at 05:47

Definitely no writing organisation can be everything to every member, but realistically, e-publishing is a growing concern. Even the big houses are starting into it, in a rough, hap-hazard way, so that means that the RWA’s precious print crew, are going to be affected (effected? good thing I am not a writer!) by it. So to me how they can justify not putting it on the conference-workshop list, at least is well beyond me?
While yes there are problematic e-publishers, and many issues regarding the e-book world, there is no ignoring it is a growing part of the market today, to turn your back on it completely is shooting yourself in the foot IMO.

I must admit to being curious as to how many of those 10,000 members are e-published, including just having print books through NY available in ebook…

Plus can anyone explain to me, how it is unprofessional to try to pay your way with your craft? Why it would be better to spend years burning the candle at both ends fighting for one of the few coveted slots, then to grow your craft through getting published, establish a readership.. etc

Sorry I am finding all this quite exciting as a complete outsider..

Edie June 22, 2009 at 05:48

exciting should read fascinating.. told ya I wasn’t a writer!

Sarah June 22, 2009 at 10:47

@katiebabs I don’t see RWA excluding unpublished members. Apart from it undermining the whole purpose of the organization, it would be financial lunacy. I’ve heard this suggestion a couple of times over the years, but never from the RWA board. Most recently, it was brought up by Dear Author’s Jane and author Kalen Hughes in response to Sarah at Smart Bitches post on why she’s a member of RWA.

Sarah June 22, 2009 at 11:01

@heidenkind Absolutely. RWA should inform their members, educate them on what to look out for in their contracts, then let them decide for themselves whether or not to sign on the dotted line.

@Ames I know Nora Roberts mentioned this on the Smart Bitches comment thread because her comment appeared directly after mine.

@Edie I’d also love to know exactly how many RWA members are epublished and excluded from that official figure of 1,885. There are probably a couple of hundred at least.

Whatever the majority of RWA members think of digital publishing, it makes sense to at least inform them of their options. One of the scariest things I learned from this brouhaha is how many print-published authors don’t realize they are being ripped off by their publishers when it comes to the percentage of royalties paid to them for electronic versions of their print books. By accepting such a piddling amount (someone said it can be less than 10% of the NET price), they are setting everyone up for a fall. If I understood correctly, epublishers pay their authors 30-40% of the GROSS price of the book. That’s quite a difference.

Edie June 22, 2009 at 16:26

Ditto on the scariness of some of the NY figures on e-rights, just had that confirmed at an agents blog I stumbled across in my procrastination journey today.. sigh

This is just the thing my lack of eloquence didn’t allow me to post in my earlier comment, digital publishing is something that will impact on everyone, so I am at a complete loss about why the RWA wants to ignore and not educate.

Sarah June 22, 2009 at 20:32

@Edie Which blog was that, if you don’t mind me asking? I’d be curious to know an agent’s take on e-rights as they are usually the ones negotiating directly with the publishers. Deidre Knight is also an agent but I got the impression her post at ESPAN was written more from an author’s perspective.

Magdalen June 22, 2009 at 22:02

I belonged to RWA for about a year in the early 90s; most of the drama happened in our local chapter, so I was pretty unaware of any national drama. I never went to any of the national conventions. I did try to write stuff, but I was in law school at the time, so my efforts were feeble, half-hearted and did not result in publication. I have a friend, though, who has belonged to RWA for ages, goes to all the conventions, has tons of published friends, and has never (to my knowledge) written a word of a novel, novella, etc. I suspect RWA will never turn away a dues-paying member. The question then is, whom do they “support” and/or clasp to their heaving bosoms and celebrate as their own?

My guess is that this has more to do with attitudes about sex than the digital/paper divide. There has been pornography/erotica/sexually explicit literature for as long as there have been romance novels. Never the twain did meet, though, until our lifetimes. Now that one can’t deny that there’s sexually explicit elements in even the most mainstream romance writing, the issue is how much of that material is still shoehorned into some relatively narrow (or narrow-minded) definition of an acceptable level and type of sex for it still to be a romance. I gather — I’m a bit behind the times on this score — that some more sexually-oriented romance writing is being marketed and sold digitally. This makes sense given the misgivings some people have about finding “smut” in a big box store. [Although, can I just tell you that I grew up with a newspaper/magazine/candy store in my neighborhood in the 1960s where the smut was on display in the front of the store, and the comic books (!!) were in the back, out of sight?!?] RWA leadership is probably reacting to the voices of the sorts of members I used to know — women of a certain age and certain mindset who love to read the smutty bits in their mainstream romances but can’t understand, defend, or celebrate the idea that romance AND sex isn’t always one man/one woman.

Hey, just my opinion, mind you. And as I’m neither published nor an RWA member, my opinion and about $3.50 will get you a cup of fancy coffee.

Sarah June 22, 2009 at 23:07

@Magdalen Well said, Magdalen! It’s also occurred to me that many of us who are active online are possibly more…liberal than the majority of the 10,000 members of RWA. Therefore, our perception of how things should be might be radically different from that of the bulk of the membership.

Edie June 23, 2009 at 01:40

Being the airhead that I am, can’t remember the main one I was looking at, but there is something on pub rants:

“But here’s what you need to make note of. The royalty rates being offered by foreign publishers for eBooks is all over the place. On the higher end, it’s 25% of net receipts. The emerging standard that I don’t agree with and fight it every time seems to be 20% of net receipts. I’ve also seen as low as 10% of net offered (heck no that ain’t happening) and I’ve also seen 15% of net which is way low as well.”

Edie June 23, 2009 at 01:41

“So you published authors need to review those foreign rights deal memos you receive (if World wasn’t granted to the Publisher because than the Publisher subrights department negotiates the foreign deals and you probably won’t see the deal memo until after the fact).”

Sarah June 23, 2009 at 19:46

@Edie Thanks, Edie.

Magdalen June 24, 2009 at 16:50

Sarah — I followed your link over to Smart Bitches, and read all the comments on the paper/digital divide over there. I get it now that a chunk of the problem is an issue of technological advances and how to keep pace (at least from the RWA perspective). Linda Howard (a fav. author for me, as you know from my previous post on the July release of Burn) speculated that RWA can’t favor some e-publishers without risk of lawsuits from others. I responded to that, saying that as a lawyer I could think of an obvious way {publish neutral standards for e-publishers upfront} to avoid or defend against litigation.

That made me think, though, about what may really be going here, which is a generational issue as much about technology as the, uh, progressive-attitudes-toward-sexuality issue. RWA would have to make a major, and probably obnoxious, effort to accommodate the current realities of e-publishing. I hope they do (although, as I am NOT a dues-paying member, my hopes are as wet tissue paper to them!) because it would be a benefit to their membership I can’t imagine anyone else supplying.

And, really, if e-publishing is our future (in parallel with paper, and then gradually surpassing paper) then some future leadership of RWA will have to deal with the issue. Diana Pershing may not be willing to clasp digital romances to her bosom (sexually explicitly or not!), but you can be sure one of her successors will have to.

Sarah June 24, 2009 at 19:52

@Magdalen You might be on to something re: the generational aspect. Looking at the board members on the RWA website, many are probably 50-plus. At the risk of sounding ageist, it might well be a resistance to new technology, and not merely a reaction to sexually explicit content. I don’t know what age the average epublished author is, but from the bio pictures I’ve seen, many seem to be quite young.

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