RWA Gets It (Almost) Right

July 12th, 2007 · 4 Comments
by Kassia Krozser

Since the moment that epublishing was a pipe dream for authors, writer organizations have had an uncomfortable relationship with the medium. No organization, however, has been so publicly awkward in the epub dance than the Romance Writers of America. For nearly a decade now, the RWA has been engaged in a weird battle between the traditionally published and the electronically published.

In creating a tortured criteria of “Subsidy” or “Vanity”, RWA misses the mark.

And for a nearly a decade now, these battles have seemed to be more about protecting an old-school model of publishing rather than embracing changes in the industry. This is particularly galling for authors who have found themselves writing for electronic publishers…only to have New York houses lining up, desperate to sign those same authors. With erotica authors pulling down rumored six figures for titles sold exclusively as electronic books, it’s no wonder that traditional publishers are seeking out proven authors with proven fan bases.

The RWA, in the past, have seemed to put for policies that are designed to create additional barriers for electronic publishers and electronically published authors. In the past few years, a new generation of leadership has worked to change attitudes, but with each step forward, it remains clear that there remains a sense of discomfort with the changing world of publishing.

It should be noted that unlike many professional writers’ organizations, the Romance Writers of America has a broad membership and must serve the needs of writers across the full spectrum of career possibilities. Meeting the needs of authors who are just beginning to learn their craft is as challenging as advocating on behalf of authors who are trying to cope with contractual challenges posed by New York houses. RWA does a very good job at supporting all of its members.

But it continues to subscribe to some rather old-fashioned notions of publishing. After much debate, criteria for authors to join the Published Authors Network (PAN) were modified to include authors who have earned a minimum of $1,000 in advances or royalties from their work. Unfortunately, this low threshold — and it is a very low minimum — requires that the advances/royalties not be paid via a “Subsidy Publisher” or “Vanity Publisher”.

Again, this is a reasonable requirement. In times past, these type of publishers required sums of money — set-up fees, editing fees, actual payment for production, minimum purchases by the authors — in order to “publish” an author’s work. While some vanity publishers pretend to be “real” publishers and many authors, unfortunately, do not do their homework about what they are actually getting, there remains a robust and lucrative self-publishing industry.

The RWA has effectively cut out self-published authors from PAN. Okay, fair enough. Every organization is allowed to make its own rules. But in creating a rather tortured criteria of “Subsidy” or “Vanity”, the RWA adds this clause to its definition:

. . .publishers whose primary means of offering books for sale is through a publisher-generated Web site;

While electronic publishers such as Ellora’s Cave have managed to work their way into traditional bookstores, the primary means of offering books for sale is via their website. Despite the clunky Web .01 technology and clunky shopping cart, Ellora’s Cave authors are regularly cited as achieving the near-impossible in the world of publishing: they are able to support themselves. While the overall traffic is not comparable, it should be noted that when looking at page views on the Ellora’s site versus the HarperCollins site, Ellora’s often exceeds HC’s “stickiness”.

[Side note: at the O’Reilly Tools of Change conference, several representatives from publishing houses noted that e-books are simply not achieving the market share that was anticipated. These reps noted that romance novels are very popular ebooks. They did not seem aware that outside the traditional publishing world, there are several publishers who are doing very well in selling ebooks, primarily, yes, erotica, to a wide range of readers who live between the two coasts. While the erotica craze is sure to peak at some point, it is clear that the ebook buying market is far broader and more popular than these houses realize.]

Most other electronic publishers do not sell their books via any other means than their websites. The RWA completely missed the mark in adding the website clause to its definition of vanity or subsidized publishing. The rest of the definition is good. It makes sense. It creates a fair way of assessing how the world’s multitude of publishers fit into RWA’s mission.

Or it would if the RWA could decouple its notions of “vanity” from means of distribution.

[tags]TOC, TOC2007, epublishing, vanity publishing, self-publishing, publishing, harpercollins, ellora’s cave[/tags]

File Under: Square Pegs

4 responses so far ↓

  • Gina Black // Jul 12, 2007 at 12:32 pm

    I blogged about this, but you said it much better than I did. 🙂

  • Monica Burns // Jul 12, 2007 at 3:19 pm

    Terrific POST!! Succinct and too the point.

  • Nonny // Jul 14, 2007 at 10:36 am

    …several representatives from publishing houses noted that e-books are simply not achieving the market share that was anticipated.

    Gee. Maybe this is because e-books from NY publishing houses tend to be overpriced? Often, the e-books are the same price as the print books or only slightly discounted. I’ve seen e-books of hardcover releases priced at $20. Sorry, but who in their right mind is going to pay that?

    I’m sure there are other factors, but pricing is a major one for e-book readers.

  • Clive Warner // Jul 16, 2007 at 12:57 pm

    It’s strange to me that e-books have this “downmarket, vanity” style image when another form of book that’s equally electronic, the Audio Book, doesn’t attract that stigma. And I note that the market for audiobooks is increasing while that for print is decreasing.