Wednesday, January 21, 2009

The Meaning of "Published"

If you're a member of RWA (Romance Writers of America) or are at least tangentially interested in the organization, you're probably aware that it sponsors two annual contests for writers:

  • The Golden Heart: For completed, uncontracted manuscripts in one the romance/YA genres by authors who are not published in novella or novel-length fiction.

  • The Rita: For published romance novels and novellas (though novella is its own category) with a first print run in the past calendar year (i.e., the Rita in 2009 will be presented to a book first published in 2008).
There has, for some time, been a bit of heartburn on the part of epublished authors that, due to the print requirement of the Rita, they are ineligible to enter either contest. But this year, the low, slow burn has been fanned into a full-blown conflagration by the addition of these words to the Rita eligibility guidelines:
Be mass-produced by a non-Subsidy, non-Vanity Publisher in print book format.
The "mass-produced" is the problem.

First, this wording is completely vague. How many copies must be printed in order for the book to be "mass-produced"? Without any clarity on that subject, how is an author to determine whether or not her book qualifies for the Rita? In fact, a fair number of people entered their books in the contest only to be informed that their book didn't meet the "mass-produced" requirement.

But second, why should it matter? It's pretty clear that this clause is designed primarily to eliminate print-on-demand books from the competition, but I have yet to understand why that is either necessary or desirable.

The reason this has caused massive unrest and anger, I think, is that epublished authors were willing to accept (if sometimes grudgingly) that the Rita is a contest for print books and that their ineligibility was solely a format issue. But when RWA moved to exclude some print books as well, it looked suspiciously like the rules had nothing to do with format and everything to do with trying to limit the competition to books published by major New York houses. And that, in turn, looked suspiciously like a statement that authors published by epublishers (with or without print programs) and small presses aren't "published" at all.

This brings me back to the eligibility guidelines for the Golden Heart. The manuscript must be uncontracted at the time it's entered and the author must not have published a fictional work of 20,000 or more words with a non-vanity, non-subsidy publisher. No problem, right? Except--here's the kicker--an author could be eligible to join RWA's published author network (PAN) by virtue of having earned $1,000 or more on a single work in the romance genre, and yet remain eligible for the Golden Heart because that published work was under 20,000 words!

My first published manuscript was just shy of 15,000 words, and therefore, qualified as a short story, not a novella. While I didn't earn the $1,000 minimum for PAN membership on it, Harlequin's Spice Briefs program offers (I've heard; maybe it's not true!) advances in the range of $1,000 for stories under 15k in length, and I did (belatedly) get an offer on that manuscript from them. In other words, I could have earned the PAN minimum on a short story, yet remained eligible for the Golden Heart.


Now, I've heard some authors argue that PAN eligibility and Rita eligibility have nothing to do one another, and rightly so. After all, I'm a PAN member now, but my print book isn't eligible for the 2008 Rita because it doesn't come out until May of 2009. It would be ridiculous for me to bellyache that I can't enter because my book's not out yet.

Notwithstanding the accuracy of that observation, the fact remains that what's getting up people's noses here less to do with the Rita than with what it means to be "published." Authors who have been offered a contract for publication by a non-vanity, non-subsidy publisher want (by and large; I imagine there are exceptions) to be considered published by the professional organization to which they belong--and they want that regardless of how long the manuscript is, how much money they've earned from its publication, or what format(s) it was released in.

The current system for PAN eligibility is, IMO, both unnecessarily invasive and unfairly restrictive. To join, authors must submit proof of their earnings (in the form of either royalties or an advance or a combination of the two) on a single published work over a period of 18 months. RWA's argument in favor of the earnings clause is twofold:

1) It establishes the notion that money should flow from the publisher to the author, not the other way around.

2) RWA wants to support the idea of professional writers; that is, writers who earn a decent income from their work.

I think those are both worthy goals. The problem is that the non-vanity, non-subsidy clause already makes #1 clear. And as for #2--the percentage of published authors who earn sufficient income from their writing to do it as a full-time job is very, very small. It's greater than zero, but my understand is that the majority of published authors either have a wage-earning spouse/partner or work a day job in addition to writing. Writing has never been a "get rich quick" scheme, and it never will be.

Furthermore, requiring that authors earn a minimum of $1,000 on a single work to be treated as published ignores and excludes many epublished authors who actually are making a living from their writing. These authors have multiple books, none of which individually breaks the $1,000 threshhold but which, together, easily provide $10,000 or more in income each year. These authors are, IMO, as "professional" and "published" as an author who has received a $10,000 advance on a two-book contract from a NY house, yet they are excluded from being treated as such by the very organization that claims to represent their interests!

In the end, it isn't about whether or not an author can enter the Rita; it's about receiving a modicum of respect for what you've accomplished. Published ought to mean "published." And I am radical enough to think that a short story writer is just as published as a novella or novel writer. Brokeback Mountain is a short story--does anyone really think it's less worthy of recognition as a "published" work because it's less than 20,000 words long?

I honestly believe that resolving the issue of what constitutes a "published author" would go a long, long way to resolving the internecine battles within RWA over the Rita. Granted, it won't make the "print" vs. "ebook" problem go away, but that is going to go away in the next twenty years or so, regardless of what RWA does. Because print is on the way out as the primary method of distribution for books; ebooks are the future.

But that's another post!


Courtney Milan said...

Yes, I agree with this! Here's the thing--I think it's impossible to come up with contest rules that are both perfectly clear and not arbitrary. Either you have a bright-line rule (e.g, "A print run of at least X") which is hard to police (who discloses print runs?) and leads to whines by people who had X-1 of their books printed--or you have a rule with a little play in the joints.

It's reasonable to say, okay, we want a rule with a little play in the joints.

But it's unreasonable thereafter not to disclose how the joints are playing, if you get what I mean. That sort of thing should be completely, utterly transparent. It's okay with me if a staffer makes the call--just put it up on the website so that we know the call has been made.

I think the obfuscation is maybe a quarter of what has people up in arms. It makes people think that they're trying to hide something.

Tessa Dare said...

Great post, Jackie. I hadn't even thought of that scenario, where an author could be eligible for PAN *and* the Golden Heart!

Like Courtney says, I'm not sure there is any way to come up with a set of rules that will please everyone - but more transparency and explanation would probably help a lot of people feel better about it.

Writer and Cat said...

Are you sure you can join PAN when you've made the "big bucks" on a story that's under 20K? I thought it had to be for something at least 20K. I could be wrong.