The Big Deal about Epublishing and the RWA

By Poison Ivy,

The RWA is the Romance Writers of America, a 10,000-member-strong writers organization that maternally tries to look out for the welfare of its members. When epublishing started out, only a few years ago, the ethics, business behavior, and capital backing of some epublishers were shaky—to say the least. Some epublishers were downright crooks, soaking writers enormous fees for supposed editorial or production costs. Others were merely incompetents, who couldn’t figure out how to publish a professional product or make a profit, and left writers with their rights tied up in bankruptcy courts. Still others were run by individuals who looked upon the writers as belonging to them, body and soul. They practiced the tactics of harassment, shaming, and Internet flaming to keep their writers hewing to the party line. And the only epublished authors making significant money seemed to be the ones writing erotica.

In this atmosphere, it was no wonder that the RWA took a dim view of epublishers. That dim view was warranted, and still is in the case of some epublishers. But a lot has happened in the past year or so to change the face of publishing.

It is a lot easier to sell erotica or any other kind of romance on the Internet than in a bricks-and-mortar bookstore. I can remember the scorn with which I was treated years ago when I bought some mild Regency romances at Charles Scribner’s upper-crust bookstore on 5th Avenue in New York. (Not too upper crust to sell such things, you’ll note.) The clerk, a young man of my generation, wrote on the charge slip that I had bought three books and two romances. As if a romance was not legitimately a book. (I’ve told this story before, so please excuse me if the number of books and romances has changed. The effect of the experience remains the same.) You can bet that a woman who wants to buy erotica does not want to subject herself to the modern version of that same scornful attitude. We want to read the books, not be judged for our tastes. The Internet makes a perfect marketplace for whatever we want to read: we get no attitude from an etailer. Then there is the privacy issue. Printed books bought online still get delivered by the postman or the UPS lady, and neighbors or the family may see them. An ebook is downloaded directly to a reading device or a computer. The reader thus has complete privacy about her reading tastes and the frequency with which she indulges them. This is the number one reason that erotica sells so well to women on the Internet. But so do many other kinds of books.

Once the inevitable failures in epublishing made their glaring errors, other epublishers arose who took note of them and did not follow in their lame, corrupt, or unprofessional footsteps. We now have epublishers who have been in the conventional publishing game for years, and know the ethics of the business, and follow them. We also have epublishers who have weathered the storm of the first shakeouts in this new field. The successful epublishing programs of some companies have given newcomers a paradigm they can follow for success. And now there are more epublishers around whose focus is not limited to erotica, who in fact publish a broad range of romance-oriented novels.

Has epublishing finally become respectable? Almost. The plain fact is that in the past year or so, conventional media have been dying. Newspapers as we know them are on their last legs, dying from lack of circulation, not just lack of ads. Magazines (except Oprah and Brides) have been losing ad revenue, their lifeblood. Have you noticed how thin most magazines are today? Network television is on the ropes, competing with cable stations for a smaller and smaller audience. Who gets their news from ABC, NBC, or CBS at dinnertime anymore? And people in Japan are reading manga and novels on their cell phones.

But sales of romances are way, way up. Print romances. But ebooks, too. As a generation of romance readers who grew up with computers and the Internet starts to have buying power, more and more, they are turning almost exclusively to the Internet for their entertainment, just as they turn to it for everything else in their day. It won’t be long before the vast majority of us who like to stay near the cutting edge of technology carry the kind of phone that is directly linked to the Internet, whether an iPhone or a BlackBerry, or whatever. Police detective Dick Tracy’s wristwatch radio, that marvel of early 20th century fantasy, is almost a reality. I’m not the first one to note this.

Meanwhile, the RWA, being a very large organization that has always been heavily into bureaucracy, is finding it hard to change with the times. More and more of the members want the RWA to help them decide what constitutes legitimate, trustworthy epublishing. But that is hard to do since the RWA has taken a complicated stance on epublishers that essentially blocks startups from coming to RWA national conferences and pitching their programs. And blocks RWA members from educating themselves about new publishers by meeting them and seeing what they have to say at a writers conference. HarperCollins or Harlequin is free to come and announce a new epublishing program and be subjected to instant scrutiny by the members, but Jill Nobody from Peoria is not.

Here we get into the nitty gritty. A major brouhaha has developed because of this post by Diedre Knight, which drew many responses from writers, plus this post by RWA president Diane Pershing in reply. Now a survey is floating around various romance-writing-oriented sites and RWA local chapter e-mail loops. The RWA has issued a stern notice that this is not an official survey, since just anybody could answer multiple times. Meanwhile, within the RWA, since their annual meeting is in two weeks, a proxy fight is happening. Votes are being gathered by individuals who want to make the RWA change its position on who is and who is not an RWA-recognized epublisher. I won’t go into the mind-numbing details. Follow the links and you can find out for yourself.

As much as this might seem like a tempest in a teapot, it’s not. It’s the kettle boiling over because the face of publishing is changing, dramatically and very quickly. Many new writers are not even considering submitting their work to any kind of publisher. They are going straight to self-publishing, through the many Internet printers such as iUniverse and Lulu. And then they self-promote their novels via their web sites, blogs, Facebook, or Twitter. Meanwhile, others are starting up their own mini-publishing companies, using the Print on Demand (POD) paradigm so they don’t need significant capital. MyRomanceStory.com has turned its graphic romance novellas into ebooks downloadable to the iPhone, and is also publishing paperbacks. And there are many other versions of publishing being developed even as I speak. We are fast reaching the stage of publishing becoming a free-for-all. Meanwhile, the RWA, a slowly moving ocean liner that can’t adjust its course easily, has to somehow navigate its way through all the flotsam and jetsam of this crazy ocean of new publishing possibilities. The problem seems to be that the RWA leadership is so conservative that it may not even notice the big icebergs ahead.

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