Friday, June 10, 2011

MWA(BNSP) - Mystery Writers of America (But Not for the Self-Published)

When I was offered a contract for my first novel back in 2002, one of the first things I did was join the Mystery Writers of America.

As a lifelong mystery fan, I was thrilled to be part of an organization that counted many of my heroes (living and dead) among its members. I wanted to mingle with my fellow crime writers. I wanted to attend the banquets. I wanted to sit at the MWA table at Bouchercon and sign alongside major bestsellers. I wanted to go to the Edgar Awards. I wanted to be included in their many high-profile anthologies.

In short, I wanted to be validated.

The need for validation is often rooted in insecurity--something writers have truckloads of. Insecurity is a wicked thing, and can foster an "us vs. them" mentality. More on that in a moment.

During my first year as a member, I attended a banquet, and had to pay through the nose for it. Sitting at the MWA table at a conference was a job, not an honor. While Whiskey Sour was nominated for just about every mystery award out there, the Edgar wasn't among them. I tried to submit to several MWA anthologies, only to discover the slots had already been filled before I had a chance. As for mingling with my peers, I did that just fine at conferences without needing the MWA.

The only time the MWA got in touch with me was when they needed something--I lost count of the times I was called upon to volunteer for some task or another--or when they wanted me to pay my dues. The dues notices (both email and in person) became so frequent, not only for me but for many of my peers, that it is now a long-running joke in the mystery community. (A friend of mine was even approached during his signing slot at Bouchercon to pay dues, in front of several fans.)

The MWA, an organization that was supposed to exist to help writers, seemed to exist only to sustain itself.

After a few years of getting nothing back (and yes, I aired my many grievances often to board members) I simply stopped renewing. While MWA no doubt does some good things (they rightly fought the Harlequin Horizon vanity imprint, and do various workshops and community events), I felt like I was giving more than I was getting. I was helping MWA, but they weren't helping me.

The annoyance at MWA wasn't only felt by me. The International Thriller Writers came into being at around the same time I quit MWA, and while I would never go on the record to say it was created because MWA was ignoring a large percentage of its members, I can say that ITW quickly figured out how to do things correctly.

While the MWA didn't seem to care I existed (except when they wanted something from me), the ITW actually helped my career. Their first few conferences were terrific. I was involved in two anthologies. I made connections that have served me well over the years. And best of all, the ITW does not have dues. They run such a smart organization, it actually earns money.

Both the MWA and ITW have membership requirements, and these are based around signing contracts with traditional publishers. I understood why this was necessary years ago. By allowing publishers to vet members, the organization would be populated by professionals.

The fact remains that most self-pubbed work isn't very good, and would never have been traditionally published.

But the times have changed. Now it is possible for authors to circumvent the legacy gatekeepers by choice (rather than because they had no choice.) Self-pubbed authors can sell a lot of books and make some real money. Full time salary money.

In my mind, that equates with being a professional.

The ITW maintains a progressive approach to accepting members. They review applications on a case-by-case basis. So even if you don't have a legacy publishing contract, you aren't automatically dismissed. This is because they understand that an organization for writers isn't an "us vs. them" venture. Exclusion doesn't make an organization better. It makes an organization self-important.

So when MWA recently changed its submission guidelines and issued a press release, I was intrigued. Had they finally gotten the hint? Were they looking at this untapped resource of self-published writers and realizing the potential to make their organization relevant again?

Alas, no.

From their release:

Self-published books, whether they are published in print or as e-books, still do not qualify for MWA active membership.

In crafting the criteria below, we had to strike a balance between including books published using those new technologies while also maintaining our high professional standards and our commitment to protecting our members (and writers in general) from the less-than-reputable publishers who seek to take advantage of them.

Now, I'm all for protecting members from less-than-reputable publishers, and I'm all for maintaining high professional standards.

But according to these rules, someone like John Locke, who has sold close to 1 million ebooks, isn't eligible for MWA membership.

How many MWA members have sold 1 million books?

I've sold close to 300,000 self-pubbed ebooks. But apparently that doesn't equate with "professional standards" according to the MWA.

Professional standards apparently mean "You're only worthy if you're vetted by the industry."

This shouldn't bug me. I gave up on the MWA years ago. It's no skin off my nose whom they include among their ranks. In fact, I might someday start an organization for writers who only earn $500k or more annually, and the overwhelming majority of MWA members wouldn't make that cut.

So if it shouldn't bug me, why does it?

Because I see this same casual dismissal of the future of our industry from the Big 6. They don't see the threat self-pubbing has become, and they're going to go extinct because of their denial.

Seeing a similar attitude coming from writers--folks who should know better because they've worked hard and struggled and gotten screwed over and over again--makes me shake my head in absolute amazement.

There are a lot of self-pubbed authors earning more money than a lot of MWA members. Certainly the MWA could use this new blood to teach longstanding members how to thrive in this brave, new world. And they NEED this information. MWA members have backlists and trunk novels and are getting repeatedly shafted by the Big 6.

How much could John Locke teach them about ebooks and marketing? How about 200 John Lockes, attending banquets, speaking at conventions?

But in their quest to maintain "professional standards" the MWA have shown themselves to care more about the validation of being a traditionally published author than what they should really care about: actually helping writers. (Which is ironic, because their noble stance against Harlequin Horizon helped newbie writers who wouldn't be allowed to join MWA.)

This is from the MWA's mission statement: "Mystery Writers of America is the premier organization for mystery writers, professionals allied to the crime writing field[...] MWA is dedicated to promoting higher regard for crime writing and recognition and respect for those who write within the genre."

Perhaps they need to add: "Unless you self-publish."

"Us vs. them" has a longstanding history in organizations. It's ingrained in the human genome. Sports. Fraternities and sororities. Secret clubs. Unions. Belonging to something exclusive makes you feel special. In worst cases, it makes you feel superior.

Newsflash: no writer is superior to any other writer. Some may have more talent. Some have had more luck. But if you toil away at your computer, day after day, month after month, and finally reach that magic "the end", you're a writer.

If you want to have a group of writers, you include everyone. If you want to have a group of professional writers, you can look up Merriam Webster's definition for "professional":

a : participating for gain or livelihood in an activity or field of endeavor often engaged in by amateurs
b : having a particular profession as a permanent career
c : engaged in by persons receiving financial return

According to the dictionary, I believe there are a lot of self-pubbed writers who qualify as professionals.

MWA also mentions in its mission statement that they accept: "aspiring crime writers, and those who are devoted to the genre." Which means newbies and fans. That's fine, but these people can only get an associate membership. Which means they pay, but aren't allowed to do many of the things that regular members do.

Can you say taxation without representation?

Again, I can understand why these rules were formed. The MWA rightfully wanted to be an organization of pros.

But it seems to me that the new pros are the ones succeeding in this emerging, self-pubbing ebook world. When legacy published authors begin turning down Big 6 contracts, it says something loud and clear about the direction the industry is headed.

In the past, you needed to be validated by gatekeepers (i.e. get fucking lucky) in order to make money.

Now you can bypass the gatekeepers and reach readers directly, making a greater percentage of money than any time in the history of fiction writing.

I busted my ass trying to get published. But I don't feel that I deserve success. I have no sense of entitlement. Hard work is mandatory in any career. It doesn't guarantee anything.

I realize I was lucky to land some legacy deals, and I'm even luckier that self-pubbing has become so lucrative.

That doesn't make me worthy. It makes me fortunate.

If each and every member of the MWA realized that their careers and their legacy deals were the result of good fortune, I doubt they'd exclude self-pubbed authors from joining.

Now, I don't advocate letting anyone at all join. There should be standards. An organization for writers should be filled with writers, not posers.

So what would my membership requirements be if I were running the MWA?

I'd have just one. Prove that you've sold 5000 books. Once you do that, you're in.

I'd say that selling 5000 shows a dedication and commitment to this business that qualifies as "professional", without any arbitrary gatekeeping dinosaurs intruding. Let the readers be the gatekeepers. They ultimately are anyway.

Popularity is truly the only equalizer when it comes to publishing. If you manage to sell 5000 books, you're doing something right. The current MWA guidelines are elitist--they only accept those who are chosen by a few dozen gatekeepers in the establishment.

The majority of writers I know got offers from a single house, rather than competing offers from multiple houses. Eliminate that one house, and they would still be unpublished. That's luck. If the publishing gatekeepers really knew quality, a truly worthy book would get bids from every major house. That never happens. In fact, many houses pass on books that go on to make millions and win awards.

The gatekeeping system has long been broken, and it's a very poor determiner of quality. The fact that I'm on track to sell more of my rejected novels than I have of my legacy pubbed novels is more proof they have no idea what people want.

But the readers know what they want. They have the ability to choose what they want to read. And if 5000 people choose to buy a book, that carries a lot more weight than some self-important editor (who may or may not be having a good day) being the sole decider on whether to buy or pass.

We all work hard. We all write one word at a time. Some of us succeed. Most of us fail.

But all of us are writers. We can all learn from each other, and help each other.

And we don't need any organization that says getting a $500 advance means you're a pro, and making $500k a year self-pubbing means you're not.

Legacy publishers are quickly becoming obsolete. If the MWA doesn't change, they'll be close behind.

Before posting this blog entry, I gave the MWA a chance to respond. According to my contact, "they very much appreciate the offer to respond, but politely decline."

That's a shame. But I'm allowing anonymous comments, so hopefully some members will engage in debate. I have many friends who are members, and this blog post isn't meant to hurt them. It's meant to help.

Ignoring the future has never been a smart move.