Red-Headed Stepchild to the RWA

By Poison Ivy,

I’d never heard of the term “red-headed stepchild” before a friend of mine started editing a professional wrestling magazine and sought in vain for any kind of cooperation within that industry. He and his magazine were treated like a red-headed stepchild, he told me. Ignored, pushed aside, not given a fair share of the family (industry) resources.

New publishing ventures in the romance world are often in that same situation. Press releases sent to the major romance industry publications do not generate any editorial interest. Instead, they get shunted to advertising departments, where the new publisher is handed a consolation prize—an opportunity to buy ads. Offers to go to conferences and make presentations are either refused or again directed to the ad department. The RWA (Romance Writers of America, and where have you been?) simply won’t talk to a new publisher that doesn’t have a year’s track record. Huh? If you’re brand new, how can you have a track record?

It used not to be this way. New romance publishers were welcomed at romance conferences, and specifically at the RWA conferences. Let me tell you about a few publisher presentations that I went to at the big conventions. One time it was a company that was going to do films of romance novels. They sponsored a luncheon at the con, and at each place at the table was a pair of sunglasses with the glass in the shape of a heart. Cute, and very 1980s. I may still have them. Then there was the presentation for Torch and Torchlite, two digest-sized magazines. Then there was a company that did tabloid-style, photo-illustrated contemporary romances (not fumetti). These romance publishers all went bottom up. But to my knowledge, none of them were fly by night. The crooks of the world generally want your money; they don’t want to spend their own on publicity.

All these publishers were allowed in at the major romance conferences and were able to alert the thousands of RWA members attending that they existed. And the RWA members could make their own individual evaluations of the likelihood of success or failure, and decide whether to do business with these publishers. Or not.

So what happened? Why, did the RWA in 1997 adopt a set of criteria to determine whom it considers a legitimate publisher? Why does the RWA now specifically refuse to allow “non-recognized publishers” to make presentations or sponsor anything at their annual national conference? Why does the RWA treat new romance publishers like red-headed stepchildren?

Two important technological advances have changed the face of publishing: The Internet and Print on Demand. It appears that the RWA has decided it must protect its members from both.

We all know what the Internet has done. An epublishing industry has sprung up to capitalize on the Internet’s potential connection to millions of people worldwide. Because little or no capital, and zero editing, design, production, printing, advertising, or distribution expertise are required, anyone can set up as a publisher. Whether they hew to accepted publishing industry standards, or whether they are able to sell books on the Internet is a different story. All is not rosy in epublishing, although in theory the opportunities are limitless. Some epublishers want their authors to pay for their own printing. And royalties have been reported in such tiny dollar amounts that the epublishing industry’s standard model contract created by EPIC (Electronically Published Internet Connection, an authors association) even requires that when royalties reach $10 in a calendar quarter, they must be paid promptly to the author. Ten dollars!

At the same time, Print on Demand means that anyone can arrange to have an economical number of books printed. If an author does it herself, she thus avoids a garage filled with copies of a book she can’t sell to anyone but her relatives. But she still has paid someone to print a book instead of finding an existing publisher who believes in her writing, edits it, and pays her for the privilege of publishing it. When the author pays for any part of the printing process, most respectable people in the publishing industry consider this to be vanity or subsidy publishing, not real publishing. And vanity presses are flourishing through Print on Demand, conning the unwary or the impatient author into paying for publication. Just as dishonest editing and agenting services of all kinds continue to exist.

It’s decent of the RWA to want to protect its members from subsidy and vanity publishers, many of whom are either unscrupulous or inept or both. And maybe it’s even necessary, given that the RWA makes no requirement of publishing experience before a romance writer may join the organization. Potentially, a very large percentage of the RWA membership is wet behind the ears.

At the same time, the RWA is creating a paradox that does its members a disservice and harms new romance publishers. Because a publisher must have been in business for a year, must not charge its authors for publishing their books, must have sold 1,500 hardcover copies or 5,000 copies of a specific romance in any other format (not an aggregate total of many different novels), and must have national distribution-—all reasonable enough proofs of legitimacy per se-—because of these requirements, no new publisher gets substantial access to the RWA membership until after it has already found an alternate source of writers.

Yet getting in on the ground floor of a new publisher is a priceless advantage to a writer. And getting access to writers who love and understand romance is a priceless advantage to a new romance publisher. The two were made to go together. But instead, the RWA now treats all newcomers like red-headed stepchildren, basically ignoring them and leaving them to find their own road. RWA members whose publishing credits are with non-recognized publishers are pretty angry at this situation. I know; I’ve heard them bitterly complaining.

Possibly as a response to members’ anger, the RWA has decided to stop even considering publishers for recognition. Instead, the organization plans to reevaluate their evaluation process. Make that red-headed stepchild to an unwieldy bureaucracy.

I wonder if the RWA even realizes that by avoiding contact with new publishers in their infancy, the RWA loses a key opportunity to influence them on the behalf of writers. If the practices or contract terms these publishers come up with unaided are not to the eventual taste of the RWA, any motion to correct must come after the fact instead of during the publishers’ earliest and most malleable period. By the time a publisher is accepted as recognized by the RWA, the publisher has established its way of doing business, probably has felt the effects of the RWA cold shoulder, and frankly no longer cares what the RWA thinks about anything.

Well, the stepmom never gets it about the red-headed stepchild’s worth, does she?