Saturday, July 17, 2010

Publisher "Approval"--The Bad Idea that Needs to Go Away

The first time I encountered the idea of a writers' organization having a list of "approved" or "non-approved" publishers was several years ago, in RWA. The idea, on its face, was presented as an honest effort by a major national organization at some author advocacy.

Unfortunately, that's not how it turned out. And it's an idea whose time was never good in the first that needs to go away.

For those of you unfamiliar with how "approval" works, it breaks down this way: certain publishers are "good" for authors, while others are "not so good." In a well-intentioned effort to differentiate the two, RWA came up with criteria by which it would judge a publisher as "good for authors," or "approved."

Those publishers would then be the only houses from which authors could consider their books "recognized" in RWA as "real books." If your publisher was "approved," you could send your "new sales" information into the RWR, and it would be printed; if your publisher was not, it wouldn't. If your publisher was "approved," you could enter your book in RWA contests, including the national RITA awards. If your publisher was not--for the first time--you were ineligible for all of it.


Overnight, the complexion of many writers' careers changed. No grandfathering, no provisions for previous achievements, no retroactive crediting...nothing was going to crack that "approval" wall except publishers who could document that they met certain criteria.

Those critera included longevity/stability (the publisher had to have been in existence at least a year); sales (the publisher had to have sold X number of copies of X kind of book--specifically, romance fiction); and adherence to conventional "publishing norms" (the publisher had to pay royalties). Those don't sound so bad, do they? On the surface, no, of course not.

These rules were also--once again, to be fair--put forth in an effort to counter much of what was increasingly emerging as "publishing" but wasn't legitimate in one way or the other: scam "publishing," in which authors would underwrite anything from a portion of book production costs to the whole bill--and then might be left holding nothing at all, including the rights to their own work, when the companies went under. Added to this the number of non-subsidy "presses" that came and went, either from vast undercapitalization or sheer larceny on the part of the "owners" (or both!)...and the time might have seemed right for something like this, especially to protect newbies from the Web predators out there.

What was unfairly discriminatory about this policy, however, was something discovered only after many e-publishers had dutifully requested the paperwork, filled out the apps, provided the numbers, and jumped through hoops to "prove" themselves just as good as the big traditional guys: the "copies of books sold" had to be print copies.

You can see where this is heading.

E-book publishers, of course, raised a stink--as they had every right to do. This came about in the era before Kindle, Nook, and iPad...but that didn't mean that e-publishing was nonexistent, or that its books shouldn't have been considered "real books" if they were produced by royalty-paying publishers who could prove both longevity and the ability to market the books to readers to download in sufficient quantities that the author was paid for X sales of X number of books.

So, after having their collective heads slammed into a few walls enough times (executive boards don't do subtle), the powers that were at RWA at last decided to make a magnanimous, outside-the-box offer: they decided that the word "print" could be removed from the regulation of "approval." But, at the same time they took away the word "print" from the regulation for e-books, they added another new twist to the formula; by the time they got done, e-publishers would have to sell more copies of an e-book than a publisher would have to sell of a print book to get the same recognition.

Unfair? Yep, you bet it was. Deliberately targeted to eliminate e-book competition? RWA claimed not. The big monoliths--who, of course, cleared "approval" almost instantaneously--claimed not. But at least one e-publisher--who also put out print books--went through hoops not once, but twice, and still failed to qualify. As they put it, "Every time we filled out the paperwork and gave them figures, they raised the numbers." So they stopped. They warned their authors that this was how things were going down. They thanked their authors for being willing to be part of their adventure...but they would also understand if their authors decided not to submit any more to their house--since those books were no longer going to be considered "real" books by RWA anymore.

If this sounds crooked to you, it ought to. People who knew about what had happened to this reputable e-press began lobbying, and lobbying, and lobbying...only to be stonewalled. And when the dust settled, what was appallingly clear was that this kind of "approval," in the hands a few multipublished authors who all had firm footings in the "big guns" on the block, could be doled out as they saw fit--with rules changing as they saw fit--and with no accountability whatsoever to the membership. Why? Because this whole idea had never been put to the membership for a vote in the first place.

Now, since I've been out of the RWA circle for a couple of years, I don't know if anything has changed substantially in the interim. But the basic idea behind this "protection" was never a good one; was always biased against new voices, and smaller or newer firms, in the publishing world--no matter how successful they were proving to be, or maybe because of how successful they were proving to be; and, since it was never put to the membership as a question but imposed from above, it at best appears arbitrary and at worst verges on restraint of trade.

No, no one's saying you can't sell to a "non-approved" publisher...just don't expect your professional writers' organization to give you credit for having a real book, a real sale, or any standing in possible award or contest eligibility, no matter if you've written the next Gone With the Wind.

Fast forward to the ACFW decision to also have "approval" for publishers...and many of the same things are possible. That's scary.

No, I don't assume that because ACFW is a Christian organization, that that means this process will be above reproach. We're all sinners. We're all human. If we get a chance to seize power and apportion out "approval," some of us, eventually, are going to abuse it. But even if that never happens--even if by some miracle the ACFW use of "approved" publishers is always evenhanded, fair, and non-discriminatory--the point remains that this is a stupid provision. It divides authors into "real authors" and "those who aren't quite real yet." It divides books into "real books" and "those that aren't quite real yet."

And it sets up a "pecking order" that puts yet another burden on already understaffed and overextended publishers, to "prove" that their authors "deserve" to be recognized for selling "real books"--on the basis of a writers' organization's say-so, rather than where the recognition, the sales credits, and the kudos ought to come from...which is the marketplace.

Yeah. Readers and book buyers. Remember them? They're pretty smart people, yanno? They buy books, they like books, they write about books they like on their blogs...they tell other people...and those people buy books. "Real" books deserving of real honors come out of that kind of "sorting" process...not out of some artificial designation of "real" versus "not real" arrived at by a foolishly self-important organization of writers.

Writers don't determine what succeeds in the marketplace, except as readers and buyers. They shouldn't determine who can consider themselves a "real" publisher or a "real" author, either. That's not their decision. It never has been. It never will be. And the notion that a writers' organization's board should be able to "mother hen" the process like this is only borrowing trouble from one organization and putting it into a place where, if anything, the discrimination could be based on even more nebulous criteria than mere sales or print versus e-books...

This "approval" mechanism was never a good idea in a secular organization. It's far worse an idea in a religious one. It's a disaster waiting to's pandering to big guys while reducing a great many members to "nonentities" despite sales contracts...and it needs to go away.



Deb said...

If ACFW's actions look similar to RWA's kerflummery -- well, there's a reason. The Big Dog houses in each scenario are in many cases the same ones. Do they have a vested interest? You betcha. Do they want smaller and perhaps more flexible and more inclusive houses nudging the boundaries of "their" territory? You betcha not.

That said, when it all comes down to it, these associations' actions are nothing more than writers dumping on other writers. If it were the readers doing this, I'd be bothered. But the community of readers don't know or care whether my books are from an "approved" house or not. It's only us writers in our playpens to whom it matters.

Also, when Desert Breeze applied for "approval" from ACFW, it was a much more transparent and an easier process than ever RWA's approvers-with-agendas used.

I still wish the whole "e-books aren't real books" conundrum would simply go away. Isn't it time and past time that it should?

Deb said...

You get your wish--part of it, anyway. In a news flash from one of my unnamed-to-protect-the-innocent minions, RWA has this week dropped their Rita criteria. No more "publisher approval." High time they did this logical thing, methinks!