Tuesday, April 08, 2008

Writing Organizations: Should I?

I recently had a talk with an author friend who was saddened that a writing organization she has belonged to for many years has changed its acceptance guidelines and now doesn't regard her as an active member because her print runs are too small.

My advice to her was two simple words:

Fuck 'em.

Personally, I've never been a proponent of writing organizations. And at the risk of alienating myself from my peers, I'm going to list some reasons why I think you don't need them.

First, let me say that I've belonged to just about all the major genre organizations at one point or another. And they aren't entirely without benefit.

Awards.

You can be allowed to nominate books for awards, and in some cases vote for them.

Promotion.

Your books are mentioned in their promotional material, in print or online.

Meetings.

You get invited to meetings, which allow you to mingle with peers, and banquets, which allow you to mingle with peers while wearing nice clothing. Often these meeting have interesting speakers, and sometimes (more importantly) liquor.

Publications.

You have chances to appear in organization-sponsored anthologies.

Conferences.

You're allowed to participate in conferences and conventions that the organizations sponsor.

Good Will.

The organization often claims to help raise awareness of the genre you're writing in, and may contribute to worthy causes.

Now, readers of this blog already know my feelings about awards. To reiterate: They ain't important. Not a single one.

Sure, they make the writer feel good. And they can get your publisher excited. They might even result in extra sales and interest in your books.

But I have a hypothesis, which I won't confirm because it will take too much time to do so and I'm a lazy bastard. If you take all the bestselling books of 2007, and compare them to all the award-winning books of 2007, there won't be a lot of overlap.

Someone prove me wrong, and then effectively argue that the awards fueled the bestsellerdom.

Besides, this point may be moot, because in the case of many awards, you don't have to be a member of the organization that offers it in order to be nominated.

As for promo material, I think this has a certain amount of worth. Having your latest release mentioned in a widely circulated newsletter certainly can't hurt. Sure, you'll probably be buried among the dozens, or hundreds, of other releases also mentioned in that newsletter. But every little bit helps.

Whether this little bit justifies the steep (and still escalating) yearly costs of being part of a writing organization remains to be seen.

Being invited to meetings, or parties, is a great way to meet peers. Especially if you're a newbie. But you don't need to be a member of anything to meet peers. You only need to attend book fairs, conventions, and conferences, and you'll meet plenty of peers. Along with fans and booksellers, who are more important to your career than your peers are.

You get invited to submit to anthologies. Okay, this is a biggie. A real biggie. But I've been a member of many organizations, and have only been in one antho because of my membership. I've been in around twenty other anthos, no membership necessary. There are plenty of collections that don't require membership.

Many organizations host conventions. I think this is great. While attending conventions holds limited appeal after you've already done several, it's still the best way to introduce yourself and your work to the public, and a great place to shoot the shit with your peers. But even if you belong to the organization holding the event, you still have to pay to get into the event. And guess what? You can go to the event even if you aren't a member of the organization. So where's the real benefit?

As for raising awareness about the genre, I've had the unique opportunity to meet a few thousand booksellers. Some of them know about awards and writing organizations. Most of them don't. Ditto the fans.

The diehard fans who attend conferences do know about the awards, and a few of them care about them deeply. But I'll conservatively estimate the number of mystery, thriller, and horror fans who attend conventions to be less than 10,000 people total.

If your book only sells 10,000 copies, you won't be in this business very long. And chances are high you're not even going to sell to 1/100 of those folks.

The majority of the book buyers don't know, or care, what organization you belong to, because these organizations aren't raising the awareness of the average book buyer. They're preaching to the choir.

If I've missed any benefits to joining an organization, I'd love to hear them and be proven wrong. But now that we've gone through what I see are the positives let's talk about some negatives.

Volunteering.

Boy, can you get screwed volunteering.

The time you spend judging award submissions, organizing a conference, or sitting on a board, can be substantial---taking away from time where you could be writing or promoting. It's also exhaustive, stressful, and never appreciated. No good deed goes unpunished, and devoting your free time to helping an organization that you joined because you wanted it to help you is one of Dante's inner circles of hell.

Lack of Representation.

By a show of hands, how many of you have ever joined an organization and gotten EXACTLY NOTHING for your dues? Where did your money go? How did being a member benefit you? What exactly did the organization do for you that you couldn't have done for yourself?

Professionalitis.

This is when, because you consider yourself a professional writer, you must cloak yourself in the trappings of professionalism, one of which is joining an organization that reinforces the fact that you're a professional.

Bullshit. A union is one thing. But as far as I'm concerned, the only single criteria needed to prove you're a writing professional is if you've gotten paid for your writing.

Groups, clubs, cliques, and gatherings of like-minded folks are part of human nature. As is excluding other folks. Us and them is genetic. We all want to be us rather than them.

But here's a better idea. Be you. Because it's your books, your career, and if your feelings about either are dictated by the approval of your peers, you need to seek some therapy. Which brings us to:

Peer Pressure.

I've had some writing organizations give me the hard sell. A really hard sell, that becomes embarrassing and uncomfortable. Talking candidly with many of my peers, they continue to renew their memberships because they feel pressured into it, are worried about being though less of, and figure a few hundred bucks a year is worth not having to deal with the hassle of actually standing up and saying, "Wait a second, you're not doing shit for me."

Of course, if you do say that, don't be surprised if that organization offers you a volunteer position so you can help to change the very thing you're complaining about.

Conclusion.

If this blog post angered you, it's probably because you're a member of an organization that you feel has helped you. That's awesome. I'd love to hear from you.

Just don't be shocked if I reply and explain how you could have gotten the same benefits on your own.

I've done a lot of self-promotion, to varying degrees of success. In JA's World, joining a writing organization shouldn't be at the top of any writer's Must Do List.

Maybe it can't hurt. Maybe it can even help. But I think that rising dues, increasingly exclusionary practices, and very little return on investment for the average member has taken what was once a good idea: helping like-minded people succeed in a hard business, and turned it into organizations that exist solely to be self-sustaining rather than beneficial.

Of course, I'm also an opinionated jerk.

The Alternative.

Naturally, I have an idea for a writing organization I'd like to see. Let's call it WWJAD. Here are the rules, and what the organization does for you.

1. You must have written and published a book. If you have, you can join.

2. Your $100 a year dues invites you to attend WWJAD Con. You do not have to pay extra admission to get in. And at the con, you get 15 minutes of time to speak to everyone in attendance. No competition. There's one mike in the convention room, and that's the only program going.

3. WWJAD Con has a printed program book, which contains your bio, and a page about your work that you write. Could be an ad. Could be an excerpt. But it is only a page.

4. WWJAD Con is a three day event held at a cheap hotel. Admission is free to all attendees, but, like a carnival, they can buy tickets for $1 each. This fee goes toward paying for the hotel space, program book, and the poor bastards who are helping to run the con. No volunteers. If you work the front door, you get paid for your time.

5. During WWJAD Con, all authors have table space for their books. They give their book, for free, to anyone who gives them a ticket. How long you spend at the table depends on how many books you have to give away. Can this be expensive? Sure. But the best advertisement for your writing is your writing.

6. The WWJAD Award will be given at the end of the conference. Whoever has the most tickets wins the prize. Just like Chuck E. Cheese. Awards are popularity contests anyway, so why not be honest about it?

What's the Point?

The purpose of belonging to WWJAD is to give you an opportunity to mingle with peers, speak in front of an interested crowd, meet fans, possibly win an award, appear in a program, and give away as many copies of your books as you can afford to.

In other words, most of the pluses and none of the minuses of every other writing organization.

Dues, and $1 ticket sales, go toward running and advertising the event, and maintaining the WWJAD website.

Oh, and if you miss the event, your dues get refunded. And depending on the number of members, this could be held in different areas at different times of the year, to minimize travel costs and maximize fan attendance.

I'd join. Would you?