Thursday, October 11, 2007

Protecting the Author Label

Are all ‘authors’ created equal? A quick look at the evidence says “No”.

Over the past few years the lines have been shifting, and with the advent of self-publishing options, with it getting harder and harder to get a publishing contract (particularly for fiction) organizations have responded by asking pertinent questions about how to define an author.

The MWA recently made changes to their ‘approved publisher’ list, and this has resulted in criticism and argument amongst some.

I got thinking about it a bit more, looking at the new Barnes & Noble Crime Fiction Club, where registered participants are labeled under categories.

There have been other fights this year, such as the brouhaha over Simon & Schuster’s contract changes a few months ago, and the ensuing argument over the contract amendments.

What if an author gets to the point where their work is only available in POD format? If their membership to an organization lapsed, and they went to renew, would they be considered an author or an associate? The problem is, there are so many gray areas to address, the risk is that the rules will be rendered pointless IF loopholes are created or exploited that allow for double standards.

Meanwhile, a recent decision by an author to self publish their backlist is not meeting with the usual criticism dished out against self-published authors by some.

Does this send a mixed message to authors currently considering self-publishing? Perhaps.

One of the problems is that we try to operate in black and white when the world is varying shades of gray. Archer Mayor is not the first author to undertake a publishing enterprise to keep his backlist alive. However, I’m left wondering about decisions of authors to self-publish their backlists when other legitimate publishers will consider reprinting works. Good idea or bad? Many will be watching to see how well Mr. Mayor does before reaching a verdict.

All of that is somewhat secondary. Here are the simple facts. If you choose to start off self-published, you’ll be ostracized within the crime fiction community. In most countries, most writer organizations will not consider you an author. They will not consider your work for awards… but you will be ‘published’ in the sense that you are no longer eligible for consideration as a debut author by award status, and can’t enter competitions for unpublished writers. And reviews? Forget about it.

If you choose a small publisher that is not on the approved publisher list for various organizations, you will also have a difficult time. It’s harder to get bookstores to carry your work. It’s harder to get reviews. Every aspect of your career will be a challenge, because super-small publishers don’t have the distribution of the big guys, and they don’t have the marketing budgets. That doesn’t mean that you can’t consider that avenue. It just means that if you do, you have to understand that the deck is stacked against you.

For all the talk about it being about the writing, reality is, it’s as much about who publishes your work as anything else. Hey, if you want to be considered for an Edgar Award, know the list of MWA approved publishers and don’t settle for anyone else. It’s that simple.

Why am I posting this? It isn’t a criticism against the new rules. What it is is a reality check. On a regular basis I receive e-mails from people, asking me to refer them to an agent, to recommend them to my publisher, to suggest a publisher for their work, if they can get their self-published book reviewed, for advice about how to get published… etc. etc. etc.

Here’s my wake-up call to the aspiring authors out there. A lot of people won’t consider me a ‘real’ author until my book with Dorchester comes out next May. And if you think it’s easy, think again. I made my own specific decisions, for specific reasons. Would I recommend the same course of action to others?

Not lightly.

It is true that many good books are overlooked by the conventional publishers. MJ Rose started off self-published. However, before you use that justification to do likewise, you need to consider why she did it, how she did it, and ask if you’re in a position where you absolutely have to.

Simply put, many writers are starving for affirmation about their craft. They want to get an acceptance letter so that they can say to themselves (and everyone else) that they’re a real writer. Come on, it’s partially about validation. Otherwise, we’d never try to get published and just write for ourselves, not go through the criticism and angst.

Until you’ve

a) written a full manuscript
b) tried dozens and dozens of agents without getting any requests for full manuscripts
c) taken a course/attended workshops with editors/publishers on how to shop your work and get published
d) written a second manuscript and queried again and again and again, still with no success

I personally don’t think you should consider self publishing. Now, I know there are good books that get self published, but they are so few and far between that most reviewers have strict rules about not reviewing them.

What do I say about the small press option? Well, you just never know. I know others who started off with brand new publishers the same time I did, and we talked about the roll of the dice. With some, it turned out devastating. With others, it turned out well. And for some of us it was somewhere between the two.

I’m not a published author… at least, not by the standards some groups set. Did I pay to be self-published? No. Did my manuscript go through a review process before an offer of publication was made? Yes. Is every manuscript submitted to the publisher in question offered publication? No. Is it fair? Well...

My advice? Try anything else under the sun first. Impatient? Get over yourself. This is a slow business, and until you get in there and have a regular editor/publisher at an established house it takes a while to jump through the hurdles and see your work in print.

If there’s no other way, then there’s a different discussion to have. But when people e-mail me and say they haven’t finished their manuscript, but are already querying and have had ten rejection letters so they’re going to self publish, I want to smack them.

Instead, I’m posting this, as a bit of a caution. Consider every hope and dream you have for your debut, and what it is you really want. If you say it’s just to see your name on the cover of a book, you’re probably deluding yourself. (Okay, if you have a terminal illness, I understand. But if not, you’re kidding yourself.) You don’t just want to have a book with your name on it, you want it to be read, and you want it to be enjoyed. You want people to validate your work and what you’ve poured your heart into.

Don’t settle lightly. Think carefully about what it is you want. If you don’t, you may find yourself facing a lot of heartache on the other side of a bad decision. What do I think about my own choices? It doesn’t matter. I know why I made them. I also know where I’m at now. But my reasons aren’t yours, and my outcome isn’t yours either. For the odd story (like MJ Rose’s) where clearly the publishers were wrong, at least 99 times they’re right when they send out a rejection.

How do I know that? I read short story submissions.

Whatever you do, do it with your eyes wide open.


Julia Buckley said...

Very thought-provoking, Sandra!

John McFetridge said...

There's an article in the paper today about starting a small business and the big advice is - don't expect to make a profit for two years.

Seems like good advice for writers, too, don't expect to make money for a while - and I mean a while AFTER publication. Think of it as any small business.

Sandra Ruttan said...

Well... I guess I hope so Julia. The hard thing about people writing you and wanting you to validate their choices is that, really, it doesn't matter what I think. I don't blame reviewers for having policies not to review self-published titles. Honestly, there are a couple 'legit' publishers I won't take titles from, because they've established a track record of poor editing. Everyone is entitled to make their rules, I guess. These were things I didn't think about much going in, because I didn't think I was eligible for MWA membership as a Canadian anyway. I've just had a few e-mails recently that blew me away, and honestly, I haven't got time to write everyone who asks for publishing advice back. Now they'll get a link.

But anyone who tries for five minutes to get a publisher - especially on an unfinished work - and then bails quickly isn't going to make it in this business. This is a business that requires perseverance, persistence and the best thing a person can do is work on honing their craft.

They should just know what's on the other side for them if they choose to go through certain doors.

John, good point as well. And frankly, if you self publish, the odds are you'll never recoup your investment in promotion. Even not paying to get published I haven't come close to earning back what I spent promoting SC.

pattinase (abbott) said...

Good summary of a bleak situation.

Dave Zeltserman said...

Another suggestion to writers trying to get their first books published--try to get short stories published also, and keep writing + working on your craft--never just send out a mss. and wait.

Graham Powell said...

I don't think the MWA was trying to define "author" as much as it was "professional". It's an organization founded to advance the interests of professional mystery writers. And such a group has the right to define the criteria for membership.

I think that many people have this whole argument backwards, though. Many small presses not approved by the MWA don't sell many books - but it's because they don't sell the books that they're not approved, not the other way around.

And why the vociferous arguments? It seems to me that many writers want some sort of seal of approval that automatically confers legitimacy, instead of trying to earn that legitimacy.

I write, but I don't claim to be a writer, and certainly not a professional. To me it's more important to produce professional-quality work that to qualify for membership in some organization.

Sandra Ruttan said...

Patti, I don't know if it's so bleak. It just... is. And all the wishful thinking in the world won't change that.

Dave, absolutely. I wholeheartedly agree.

Graham, I can only hope all the people considering going down the self publishing road read what what you've said, and really think about it.

However, there is a counter to part of your statement. I think it is partly about the 'author' label or there wouldn't be an 'author' category and an 'associate member' category. Of course, the arguments change organization to organization. "Many small presses not approved by the MWA don't sell many books - but it's because they don't sell the books that they're not approved, not the other way around.And why the vociferous arguments? It seems to me that many writers want some sort of seal of approval that automatically confers legitimacy, instead of trying to earn that legitimacy." As I pointed out over at Lee Goldberg's blog, there are conventions (I think, after much mulling, it's Mayhem in the Midlands but I could be wrong) that will only put approved MWA authors on the panels. Plus, only the approved publishers can submit works for the Edgar. These are promotional venues that the authors not with approved publishers are cut off from, hence some of the frustrations. When I can look at Capital Crimes, and the success they've had publishing Bruce Cook, Sheila Lowe, Robert Fate, Troy Cook - the multitude of other award nominations - I pause, and wonder why.

Now, anyone who thinks I'm personally invested in the MWA decision and taking sides can think again. I'm not. I am simply pointing out a reality. I am thankful for small publishers who take on select works and do something innovative. Soft Skull Press is an example. African Psycho is a great book, and a lot of trash will sell more than that book because they're small and obscure, but it hasn't got a damn thing to do with quality.

All I'm really sure of here is that as the lines become more defined with the organizations making rules about eligibility, we'll see more bickering. Is it right? I'm not saying that. I'm just saying it is. By setting up the rules it stands to reason some will question the changes. I was part of a writing organization, and on the board, and went through drafting changes to the qualification regulations, and believe me, people who were full members within that argued strenuously over them. It isn't just about people who don't qualify being grumpy - it's about a whole slew of issues that such changes draw into question. And some of those questions - like mine about contests where companies usurp author rights, and agents who charge fees for representation - HAVE to be addressed along with everything else in order to really maintain a standard of professionalism.

But there will be an eventual question of what really defines 'professional'. Many careers require you to upgrade training and earn a minimum amount per year in order to work in the field or maintain the license. As someone in education I was required to do a minimum number of upgrading hours per year.

Should an author be allowed to qualify once, and then maintain membership indefinitely, even if they never publish another book?

Your comment also touched on volume of sales. What if someone's with a legitimate publisher and only sells a few hundred copies of their work? Are they no longer professionally published?

What one organization told me was that I should join as a reviewer, and then they'd tout my books along with everyone elses in their promotional efforts. (No, it wasn't the MWA, who I really have no issue with.) But my response to that is, what's the point of the qualifications then, if you'll back door people? I didn't join. Nothing will undermine credibility faster than a long list of exemptions and double standards - it calls into question what the point of the rules are to begin with.

Brian said...

An interesting post from Jim Hines on self-publishing

Sandra Ruttan said...

Brian, that's a great article. I think one of the main things for me, starting out, was that I only thought about avoiding scam publishers. People always talked about Publish America and the others, and I had my own experience with one that offered me a contract, everything appeared up and up and then I saw the fine print - I had to pay 10,000 pounds to publish the book and the terms of the contract applied to all books I would ever write in the future.

Sadly, there were people stupid enough to sign on with them.

People often pull out the bad cases from conventional publishing - I believe Agatha Christie had a prohibitive contract and when she couldn't get out of it I understand she rushed off work to fulfill her end and went elsewhere. (Someone correct me if I'm wrong that it was her, but I'm pretty sure it was.)

In my own experience, it isn't just the scams that people look down their nose at. However, there's a definite caution for the people who are conventionally published in how they deal with the gray areas. One day, the small 'currently unapproved' press might qualify, or the author at a smaller unapproved press might move up to a bigger one. When they can find references to people attacking them publicly online just because they aren't with a big publisher it's something that remains forever. Some of the stuff I've seen is horrid.

I only encourage people to think long and hard about that (mainly before self publishing) because if you think that acceptance and recognition is what waits on the other side, you'll be in for a big disappointment. The approved/unapproved publisher thing has all sorts of issues. I'm not going to say 'don't go with an unapproved publisher'. I'm going to say that if you want to win and Edgar, don't go with an unapproved publisher. But there are fantastic publishers - like Capital Crimes Press, amongst others, bringing something fresh to the table - who anyone should be proud to be published by.

Josephine Damian said...


There's are several self-published writers in one of my groups. When I got a non-fiction article published in a forensics trade magazine, I showed it to a self-published gal and she asked me: How much did you pay for this?

Meaning she thought I paid to have the magazine printed up.

As if!

I told her I got my piece published the old fashioned way, by submitting it and taking my chances.

At a recent RWA chapter meeting, the members were discussing the RWA rules for contest eligibility re: type of publisher. After some discussion, member Tina Wainscott said: Self published is NOT published.


Sandra Ruttan said...

Josephine, the way I put it is, the different between self-published and not is the difference between buying a mail-order bride and falling in love. Actually, maybe I should say it's the difference between being with a "pro" and a girl/boyfriend. Few people aspire to be in the position where they're nothing but a commodity - culturally, we want to fall in love and have someone choose to be with us, not settle or buy us to fulfill some need. That's a one-sided dynamic.

When a legitimate agent/publisher chooses to publish your work, it's a genuine seal of approval on your efforts. And even if it is a small publisher, it's the same. For me, anyway, all the arguments about how much money you have to earn to be a pro writer are pointless. I live in a country where wages vary greatly from one part to the other. I've known educational assistants, working in schools, making $8/hr and I've known people doing the same job elsewhere making $20/hr. In my own experience, the lowest I was paid was $7.50/hr and the highest $18 and there wasn't a bit of difference between my job, my legal responsibilities, my qualifications. Just the location where I punched a clock.

So that stuff, I roll my eyes over, because I see the point as weeding out the scammers. But when it comes to self publishing, people really need to understand they'll never be afforded the respect they're after. Getting a publishing contract offer from a legitimate publisher is like passing a test. Self publishing is like saying that you can't pass your finals, so you're going to pay to get your degree. For the few true success stories out there, people should really stop and consider what they're doing, where they want to end up, and what that choice means.

One of my favourite authors received over 300 rejection letters on his journey. Now published internationally, six books under his belt, sales in the hundreds of thousands, multi-award nominated. Sure it can take a while, but if you've got talent hard work will pay off in the end.

(I personally have no issue with people going with smaller, legitimate publishers in order to build profile if they feel it's absolutely necessary - I only suggest they be aware of the policies and what it will mean for them as they start their career. If they aren't prepared to deal with those things, they should hold out for a bigger publisher to start off with.)

Lee Goldberg said...

I am speaking only for myself here, and NOT the MWA.

Before you start fanning the flames of hysteria, please get your facts straight. You wrote:

"What if an author gets to the point where their work is only available in POD format? If their membership to an organization lapsed, and they went to renew, would they be considered an author or an associate?"

As the MWA has said, and I have said repeatedly on my site (including the post that you linked to), the status of ANY CURRENT ACTIVE MEMBERS WILL NOT BE AFFECTED BY THE RULES CHANGE, THEY ARE GRANDFATHERED IN, EVEN IF THEIR MEMBERSHIPS LAPSE AND THEY HAVE TO RENEW. I put that in caps so you won't miss it this time.

POD writers are not published authors. They are aspiring authors with valid credit cards.
There is no gray area or confusion here. Active members are, by definition, professional authors who are paid for their work. Self-published authors PAY to be published. There is a significant difference.

We are not attempting to define an author... we are establishing criteria for what the MWA will consider a PROFESSIONAL author who qualifies for active membership in our organization.

Graham wrote: "Many small presses not approved by the MWA don't sell many books - but it's because they don't sell the books that they're not approved, not the other way around"

That also isn't true. No small press has been denied approval because of low sales. The MWA denies approval to vanity presses, thinly disguised vanity presses, and any "publisher" that charges author to publish their books (even if they do it in reverse by, for example, with-holding royalties against a ridiculous litany of non-standard charges).

Any publisher who has been denied approval doesn't meet one or more of the criteria listed on our site. Those are the only reasons. Anything else is smoke.

Sandra Ruttan said...

Actually, Lee, POD is a form of technology. Print on demand. Simon & Schuster use it, amongst other legitimate publishers.

It's become a bastardized shortform for vanity presses and self-publishing options and contributes to misunderstandings.

You interpret most of what I say assuming I'm stirring up conflict. I DIDN'T MISS IT THE FIRST TIME. But I am raising the question that if there are rules for what determines who is a professional author, then should there be a point where people have to requalify? That's true with many other professions. It isn't once a nurse, always a nurse, or even a firefighter. You have to maintain a certain number of upgrading courses. True for many jobs that require licensing. My question is, in the future will this change, and should it change? How does it protect the standard required to be a professional author if there are a number of members there who no longer meet the requirements?

And it is a fair question. For all your talk over the rules, which I really have no problem with, you're leaving loopholes. Eventually, organizations will have to address the issues of questionable contests (particularly since this is now the new thing and everybody seems to be doing it) and the agent realm as well.

But the reality is, the reason I wrote this was to strongly encourage aspiring authors to consider their options carefully and be aware of the repercussions of each choice. This wasn't about picking on the MWA, who can do whatever they want. It was to drive home the point that not all publishers are equal in the eyes of most organizations. But then, one only needs to read your blog on the average day to know that. I was hoping to discourage someone from self publishing after amassing only a handful of rejection letters.

But thanks for the lecture and blatant misinterpretation.