Epublishing and the RWA: In Opposite Corners Again

By Poison Ivy,

Just last week, at its annual national conference, the Romance Writers of America (RWA) announced new guidelines under which it would recognize publishers. The effect was to de-recognize various epublishers already recognized, and to block the recognition of various newer ones. (Epublishing is electronic publishing.)

The RWA has been trying to feel its way about the basis on which to grant recognition to new publishers, having gotten so confused about it that all recognition was suspended for a while. After cogitation and legal advice (from lawyers who apparently are not New York City publishing lawyers but whatever is available in the RWA’s Houston area headquarters—and that’s a mistake), they decided on new rules. The RWA has now lumped epublishers with subsidy and vanity presses and demanded actual printed books as proof of being a publisher. The cries of outrage from the membership were immediate. Maybe RWA will reconsider its position; maybe not. Its governing board is bulky and conservative. You can read the new guidelines for yourself on Lucynda Storey’s blog.

For anybody involved with an epublisher, this is frustrating. Epublishers chiefly offer books or single stories via downloads directly on the Internet. Sometimes epublishers venture into print, but often they do not have print expertise and it shows. Regardless, epublishing is not the same as subsidy publishing. Subsidy publishers demand that their writers pay some of or all of the costs of publishing their works from editorial through printing and distributing. Epublishing is not the same as vanity publishing. Vanity publishers will publish anyone who comes up with the money, although their chief stock in trade is to pretend that they are legitimate publishers with the same vast distribution networks as, say, Random House. Epublishers maintain an editorial staff that is selective about what is accepted and then attempts, through the use of other experienced professionals, to produce a professional grade final product and market it. Subsidy publishers sometimes do this. Vanity publishers almost never.

Now granted, some epublishers show a marked lack of editorial taste or skill. And some have the nerve to ask their authors to create their own covers, or to do the interior page makeup themselves, instead of actually employing graphic designers to do such work. Frankly, this seems like sheer ignorance. A reputable global firm (in India, Barbados, or Hong Kong, take your pick) would produce beautiful, professional-grade page files dirt cheap. So epublishers do make many beginners’ mistakes. Their print versions are even worse, often with muddy covers, horrible typefaces, bad page design, amateurish errors such as the copyright notice on the wrong page, and more.

Additionally, some epublishers veer into an ethical gray area by involving their writers in paying for the print versions of their books. I don’t consider this acceptable. It’s subsidy publishing. And if writers weren’t desperate to be published and to obtain RWA recognition, they might not deal with these folks at all. Another questionable practice is for epublishers to demand that their authors spend their own money to promote their book. And an even worse situation is the one in which the epublisher actually is a network marketing company in disguise. They’ll print the book, but then it’s entirely up to the author to get copies sold. Mary Kay, anyone? (Incidentally, MyRomanceStory.com practices none of these questionable policies.)

So to be honest, epublishers have a distance to travel before they will merit unquestioning acceptance as a respectable branch of the publishing industry, whether that acceptance is from the RWA, or from other writers’ organizations, or from other publishers. But what most people will agree on is that epublishing represents a publishing revolution, just as the downloading of music via the Internet represents one. It cannot be stopped, and who wants to stop it anyway?

New technology is the parent to new publishing paradigms and this is the early development period. There’s bound to be confusion for a while. What authors could use from their writing associations at this time is some help identifying which epublishers are the most professional and which are the ones whose manner of doing business is skating too close to the shady. Authors mostly can’t do this, because their are blinded by their intense desire to be published. But writers’ associations such as the RWA can. Unfortunately, they currently are washing their hands of making distinctions between epublishers. The very fact that they insist that the epublisher produce printed books is proof. It occurs to me that this is kind of like insisting that a new television network, to prove that it is television, produce a movie and market it in theaters! The secondary item is related, but it’s not the same format or process at all.

Since the RWA is a writers’ association that is particularly dedicated to helping unpublished writers become published, it ought to deal with the complete spectrum of publishers, including epublishers. The RWA could be very useful to its members by dissecting the contract terms of these newcomer publishers. Instead, the RWA insults and ignores them.