Saturday, June 20, 2009
There's a Storm Brewing
I'm a geek. That's one of the reasons why I was asked to join MGC. My morning routine -- after that first cup of coffee -- consists of checking email, saying a quick but heartfelt prayer to the gods of editors and agents that today will be the day of acceptance, and surfing writing-related blogs. These blogs are written by authors, agents, editors and -- gasp -- readers.
Over the few weeks, there's been a great deal of discussion about the RWA and its views on e-publishing. Okay, discussion might be too mild a term because emotions are running high and, in my opinion, rightly so. So, a little background and some links.
Sign number one that RWA, like so many in the publishing industry, looks upon e-publishing like the bastard step-child is the fact that there are no panels on the topic at the upcoming national convention. One of RWA's main goals is to educate its members and yet there is nothing on this rapidly expanding sector of publishing. As Kassia Krozer says in her May 29th post over at Romancing the Blog:
Where are the sessions on distribution, on royalties, on what digital publishing means? What are the differences between going digital only with a big house versus small? How do the deep discounts demanded by Amazon – especially in light of the fact that Kindle sales equal 35% of all sales for books available in both Kindle and print format – impact author compensation? What does the alphabet soup of formats mean to readers. DRM? Can it be less evil?
Then word came down that RWA had rejected a proposal from Angela James, Executive Editor for Samhain Publishing for just such a workshop. My understanding is that this workshop was turned down simply because it was proposed by Ms. James and Samhain. In the words of RWA president Diane Pershing:
Out of 400 workshop proposals this year, only two focused on digital publishing; one was deemed by the Workshop Committee to not be of the caliber needed, the other was by Deidre’s publisher, Samhain, which is not on the list of RWA Eligible Publishers (From RWA’s Policy and Procedure Manual, section 1.17. “Eligible Publisher” means a romance publisher that has verified to RWA in a form acceptable to RWA, that it: …..(3) provides advances of at least $1,000 for all books; and (4) pays all authors participating in an anthology an advance of at least $500). RWA policy prohibits a non-Eligible publisher from offering a workshop.
No discussion of whether or not the proposed workshop was "of the caliber needed". In fact, the implication is that it met, and probably exceeded, that particular requirement. No, it all comes down to the amount of the advance. If a publisher doesn't meet that magical number of $1,000 or more per author, they don't qualify and, therefore, can't present at RWA. Of course, RWA is more than happy for them to attend and give RWA their money. But, sorry Charlie, you can't push your wares because you don't treat everyone fairly.
This is where I put on my snarky hat, so bear with me. If your job is to protect your members and make sure they are all treated equally, then doesn't that mean you should require dead tree publishers to quit paying out those huge advances to their best sellers? Wouldn't it be more fair to take some of those five and six figure advances -- and more -- and give the new authors more advance money? Hey, you could even put some of it into promotion, right? And yes, I'm being snarky here but the point is made. Don't say you are doing it to make sure all your members are being treated fairly because it doesn't fly in the face of the industry today.
But this issue goes beyond letting Samhain present a panel on e-publishing. Somewhere (and I can't find the site right now and will look for it) it was noted that of the books presented for first publication RITA awards this year, something like 70% of them did not qualify because they were either PODs or ebooks. That alone should warn RWA that there is something flawed about their current perception of the industry.
Now, to give Ms. Pershing her due, she does seem to believe she is protecting RWA members: All digital publishers are not created equal. As recently as 2007, one start-up digital publisher filed for bankruptcy after acquiring the works of an estimated 154 RWA members, and in 2006, two individuals completely unknown to RWA set up a table near registration and started pitching their publishing company to RWA conference attendees. However, this again smacks of a lack of vision. After all, how many dead tree presses have gone out of business in that same period of time? How many imprints have ceased production, stranding who knows how many authors? No, if you are going to apply this standard to one sector of the industry, it should be applied to all.
Maybe I've been spoiled by my exposure to Baen and its view on e-books. But I think this position taken by RWA hurts not only the organization and its members but readers as well. And not just readers of Romance. RWA is the most visible, possibly even the most influential, of writers associations out there. As long as it takes this stance, it will be just one more cog in the old publishing model that prevents the industry from moving forward.
I highly recommend everyone go read Deidre Knight's post at ESPAN (Electronic and Small Press Authors' Network) on the issue. She writes more eloquently and with much more knowledge on the issue than do I. Especially telling, to me, is this:
RWA’s current stance on e-books is that a publisher must offer at least a $1,000 advance in order to qualify for legitimacy. Never mind that many digital authors far exceed that amount in royalties, or sell more than 5,000 copies of print editions of their e-published titles. The problem with RWA’s simplistic criteria is that it ignores one crucial fact. Our industry is changing radically, with traditional publishers seeking innovative models for overhauling their distribution and content.
The industry is changing. Technology is changing. Cell phones, iPhones, e-book readers, netbooks and so many others offer other ways of reading a book besides picking up a dead tree copy. I'm not advocating allowing anyone with a scanner and computer to become a "publisher". Nor am I knocking RWA for wanting to protect its members. What I am suggesting is that perhaps it is time to revisit the business model of publishing and adapt to the changing times.
What do you think?