Monday, February 2, 2009

Why RWA Needs to Revisit PAN Eligibility Rules

Last week, Emily Veinglory reprinted a fantastically perceptive Absolute Write forum post by Xandra Gregory, a Liquid Silver Books author, on the EREC blog about RWA's current rules for Published Author Network (PAN) eligibility. I hope Xandra (whom I've never met) won't mind my reproducing here what I think is the most interesting and salient point of her post:

RWA's biggest problems stem from the dual need it has to both encourage its members in their careers (providing markets, growing readership and increasing visibility for the genre, etc.) and act as a guardian/advocate against the career paths that take undue advantage of authors. For starters, there's just no real good way to do that except on a case-by-case basis. RWA's best intentions are setting up an environment where the organization "norms" include a career path that enables a writer to earn decent money, see his or her books in places where they can be bought by customers, and retain reasonable rights to his or her intellectual property.

What this does is sets up a tacit approval of the "proper" way a career should progress. What this fails to do is take into account new markets, emerging markets, or "breakout" situations where an author can expand the reach of romance, grow her audience, or explore new methods of getting stories in front of people and getting money for said stories.
This is a perfect assessment of the "devil and the deep blue sea" dilemma in which RWA has found itself. Any set of rules it defines for determining what constitutes a "professional" career path for a romance author will inevitably result in some very professional authors falling through the cracks.

But there are ways RWA could improve the definition to better identify and distinguish between members who are making a serious effort at building a publishing career versus those who are primarily hobbyists. This isn't to say that I think all writers who have yet to receive a publishing contract aren't serious about having a publishing career, but to say that I think the RWA PRO designation does a pretty good job of identifying those people. (For those not "in the know," a member can apply for PRO status by submitting a copy of a completed manuscript and evidence that said manuscript has been queried to an agent or editor.)

While I'm sure my suggestions won't meet with universal agreement (nothing ever does), I think they are a darn sight more fair and realistic than the current rules. With that in mind, here are four (IMO) modest proposals:

  1. The income eligibility guidelines should be scaleable based on the length of the published/contracted work. At present, an author must earn a minimum of $1k, either in the form of advance or royalties, on a single published novel or novella. This is patently absurd because an author who earns $500 on a single 20,000 words novella is clearly getting a better rate of return on her work than one who earns $1,000 on a 100,000 word novel.

  2. Recognize authors of short stories (works under 20,000 words) into the "published" club, again using the sliding scale for payment. I know authors who have earned upwards of $2,000 on short stories in the 15,000-19,999 word range, yet because those stories don't qualify as novellas, RWA doesn't allow them to enter PAN. That's just silly, IMO.

  3. The requirement that the minimum income threshhold must be met on a "single work" within 18 months of publication should be revised. The epublishing model works best for authors who put out multiple, relatively short works in a calendar year. As the author builds readership, sales build steadily for her backlist, which allows her to increase her income over the years as new readers discover her and purchase her backlist. Moreover, I would argue that the epubbed author with multiple releases over several years has clearly established a pattern of publication that indicates she is serious about pursuing a writing career. In fact, I believe I could make the case that the multi-published epubbed author has a better "career" in publishing than the print author who received a single two-book contract five years ago but has never sold since (and that's not making any judgments about why that author hasn't sold again--it may be by choice or by fiat, but the principle holds either way).

  4. Authors who do not meet these eligibility criteria should be permitted to enter the Golden Heart. If they are not "professional" enough as writers to be recognized as such by one set of criteria as published, their publication credits should not count against them when it comes to the premier unpublished contest.1

I believe that adopting these proposals would go a long way toward meeting the needs of RWA's published members. If RWA truly believes in advocating and supporting its members' publishing careers, it can't continue to be blind to the changing landscape of publishing and the new ways iin which savvy authors are working new markets and new models to their advantage.

1This doesn't mean that I think the RITA must be restructured to allow all members who are published to enter it. After all, not all unpublished members can enter the Golden Heart, either. To enter the Golden Heart, the member must have a completed novel-length manuscript. If a member's manuscript is either unfinished or less than 40k in length, she's out of luck. So, I have no particular problem with the notion that a published author can only enter the RITA if her book meets the contest's requirements, including by being bound in print by the publisher.

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