What Makes You a “Romance Writer?”

A few weeks ago, RWA (Romance Writers of America) announced that, beginning in 2014, there will no longer be a Rita or Golden Heart category for “Novel with Strong Romantic Elements.” These are books in which there is a romantic arc, but it is not the main focus of the story. Lots of books categorized and sold as women’s fiction tend to fall into this category. Well-known authors who tend to enter in this category include Darynda Jones, Susanna Kearsley, Deanna Raybourn, and, from time to time, Nora Roberts. There was quite a bit of unhappiness about this move among authors who now feel their books, which are certainly romantic and usually have a happy ending, are no longer welcome in the organization.

Then, yesterday, things got even unhappier. RWA issued a clarification to the rules for general membership (i.e., membership with voting rights). To understand the changes, you first have to understand that RWA is unique among writers’ organizations in that it allows authors who are not yet published but who warrant that they actively seeking publication. This means that RWA offers many resources that are exceptionally helpful to authors in the formative stages of their careers, including workshops on craft, the query process, and the entire business of publishing. The result of this is that a fair number of aspiring authors join RWA simply for access to these resources, even though they may not be writing genre romance. Because the writers’ organizations for genres like mystery and science fiction/fantasy don’t allow the unpublished masses to join, RWA has become the de facto option for aspiring authors regardless of genre. There are also a fair number of RWA members who, though they like to write and would not turn down a publishing contract if it fell in their laps, are not really actively seeking a career in publishing. They are hobbyists who joined RWA because it gives them a chance to talk about books with other people who like books and, perhaps to some extent, allows them to rub elbows with big name published authors at conferences or chapter meetings.

I’m not saying there’s anything wrong with either category of writer wanting to be a member of RWA; RWA, on the other hand, has issued a statement to the effect that these writers, while they are welcome to join as associate members, they should not be permitted to join as general members with voting privileges. To some degree, this seemed merely a clarification of previously established but seldom enforced criteria, since the mission of RWA is to support *romance* writers, not writers of every genre. And perhaps, if this had been the only change to the membership rules, there might have been some grumbling but not a huge uproar.

But in addition to these criteria, RWA added a pretty big whopper. To wit, published authors whose currently published books would not be shelved in romance (i.e., those novels with strong romantic elements that have been excised from the RITAs) are also no longer eligible for RWA general membership. This means many of RWA’s superstar authors (the one who pops easily to mind is Linda Howard, whose books are all shelved in thriller/mystery nowadays, if memory serves) must either rejoin as associate members without voting rights or walk away from the organization altogether. (Or, I suppose there is a third option, which is write and publish something that actually would be shelved in romance, but I don’t know how many would do that just to retain their right to be a voting member of RWA.)

THE. FUCK?

Obviously, I don’t think this is a wise move on RWA’s part. Membership in the organization is already on the decline as people become more and more uncertain of its usefulness. Moreover, as membership has declined, dues have risen, driving even more people out as the recession hit. Why would RWA *choose* to eliminate the members who, arguably, are its most visible spokespeople and ardent supporters? It’s baffling to me, but at the same time, it has made me think a lot about what it means to write “romance.” What qualities define the romance genre and how much does “purity” matter?

I’ve had a lot of conversations over the last few days with folks on Twitter about this. For some, the rules are simple: If a book doesn’t focus on the romantic relationship between its main characters and doesn’t end in a happily ever after (HEA) or happy for now (HFN) for those characters, it’s not a romance. For others, the rules are looser: If the book features a romantic relationship, it’s a romance, no matter how it ends (although most genre romance readers seem to unequivocally hate the UNHAPPY ending to a romance). Still others seems to subscribe to the “I can’t define it, but I know it when I see it” rule.

In this era of series like Fifty Shades of Grey (which is classified by some as a romance because the third book ends in an HEA and others as erotica because the first two apparently don’t) and serials like Beth Kery’s Because You’re Mine, it seems it’s becoming harder and harder to draw the line based on the characteristics of any one book. The digital form has made it possible for stories which have an overall arc that’s headed for an HEA/HFN to be chopped up into smaller pieces or, alternatively, packaged as a single, 300,000 word opus. And then there’s the whole question of how much focus must be on the romance to make it a romance.

I don’t have answers. What I have are questions for you. I was planning to use polls for this, but my polling software isn’t cooperating with me, so here are my questions. If you want to answer, I guess you’ll have to do so in the comments. Sorry about that; I know polls are easier.

1. Which of the following meets your definition of a “romance”?

a) The book focuses primarily on a romantic relationship and ends in an HEA/HFN.
b) The book features a romantic relationship (but it is not necessarily the focus of the story) and ends in an HEA/HFN.
c) Each book in a series features a romantic relationship, but only the final book features and HEA/HFN.
d) The book focuses on a romantic relationship and may or may not end in an HEA/HFN.

2. Do authors who write books that fall outside your definition of romance still qualify as “romance writers” to you if their books fall into one or more of the categories listed above?

I’m curious as to what you have to say, so I hope you’ll respond even though I couldn’t make the poll thing work.

A Definition of RWA Terms (Author Edition)

So, I really intended to get this posted last week, but the time-space continuum proved uncooperative. However, with MWA’s decision last week to officially “de-list” Harlequin as a non-vanity/non-subsidy publisher, the question of what RWA will do in the future becomes even more urgent for authors who are published though Harlequin’s traditional imprints.

First, before you read this, if you haven’t read my post explaining the difference between “eligible publishers” and “non-vanity/non-subsidy publishers,” click here. A lot of the terms in this post won’t make sense otherwise.

Okay, so, here’s the scoop on published author recognition in RWA:

Authors can join PAN (the Published Author Network) if they have earned a minimum of $1,000 on any single novel/novella* published by a non-vanity/non-subsidy publishing within 18 months of the date of release. The author does not–as many people seem to erroneously believe–need to earn that $1,000 in the form of an advance. Royalties count just as much as advances do, although it’s obviously easier for an author who receives an advance to join PAN because she can do so simply by submitting the appropriate contract pages indicating the advance to be received, instead of having to wait until she’s racked up enough in royalties to qualify.

So, what do you get for joining PAN? As far as I can tell, the perks consist primarily of getting a link on RWA’s website to yours and having the PAN designation on your name badge at conferences, which means other attendees will squint harder at your name and try to remember if they’ve ever heard of you, which in most cases, they probably haven’t. (In other words, if you are a BIG NAME AUTHOR, they’ll know who you are whether or not you have PAN on your badge. If you’re not, having the word PAN on your name badge won’t help them.)

One misconception I hear quite often regarding PAN eligibility is that you must be eligible for PAN to enter the RITA. This is simply not true. Eligibility for the RITA is book-based, not author-based. Authors don’t even have to be members of RWA to enter the RITA, let alone members of PAN. They do need to have a book that was published during the correct contest year (for the 2010 RITA, that means it had to have been published in 2009), it must be available in print (and this sticks in a lot of exclusively epubbed authors’ craws), and it must have been published by a non-vanity/non-subsidy press.

This year, I was eligible to enter the RITA, but due to some initial hemming and hawing on my part about whether I should even bother followed by two unsuccessful attempts to get RWA’s site to process my entry, I wound up not getting a chance because the contest was full by the time I got around to a third attempt. As they say, them’s the breaks.

But in any event, an author who is not eligible for PAN because she hasn’t earned a minimum of $1,000 from her book can enter the RITA if her book is available in print. An author who can enter PAN may not be able to enter the RITA because her book is not available in print, but also because she doesn’t have a book published in the current contest year. (I will not have the opportunity to enter the RITA next year because there isn’t a prayer at this point that I’ll sell anything that will be out in print with a 2010 copyright date. I’ll still be a member of PAN, though.)

But despite the (IMO) relatively modest benefits to being a member of PAN, there are a LOT of published authors who are very irked that they aren’t eligible to join. In the end, I think the complaints boil down to this: authors want RWA to validate them.

To which I can only ask, “Why?” Why do you care so much whether RWA deems you published or not? Why do you care so much about your eligibility (or ineligibility) to enter the RITA? Honestly, neither has much impact on your career. If you need an acronym on your name badge or a contest to make you feel like a real writer, maybe it’s time to rethink your priorities.

Because I’m here to tell you, being a member of PAN hasn’t made an iota of difference in my ability to sell another book in New York, and I know a number of RITA finalists who are also out there searching for a contract. PAN and the RITAs mean way more to people who are in RWA than they do to people who are outside of it (read editors and agents). To those folks, the things that matter are the writing and sales (all hail Bookscan). Nothing else amounts to a hill of beans.

Tomorrow: So what about all those Harlequin authors?


*A “novella” is a story between 20,000 and 40,000 words. Anything under 20,000 words is a short story and, no matter how much you’ve earned from the publication of such a story, you’re not eligible for PAN based on it. You are also still eligible to enter the Golden Heart contest for unpublished authors. I’ve always found it a little ironic that, if Annie Proulx had never written anything longer than Brokeback Mountain, she’d still be treated as an unpublished author by RWA.

A Definition of RWA Terms (Publisher Edition)

In all the brouhaha surrounding the “delisting” by RWA of Harlequin Enterprises and Thomas Nelson as “eligible publishers” for associating themselves too closely with vanity presses, I’ve seen a lot of misinformation bandied about around the Internet, on blogs and on Twitter, about what, exactly, this means. In the interest of clearing up any confusion there may be about what publisher eligibility means and where the lines are, I’ll try to explain the difference between publisher eligibility and author eligibility for published status and/or the RITAs–they’re different things in the RWA universe–as well as why what RWA did in the case of HQE and Nelson affects both the publishers AND their authors.

In the interest of length, I’m going to tackle publisher terminology today, and talk about the author-related stuff tomorrow (unless a salient WTF Wednesday topic rears its head between now and then, lol).

A word of caution: I am only explaining definitions of terms and how they apply. I am not in any way claiming support for these definitions as currently written nor their outcomes.

1. “Eligible Publisher”

In the RWA world, the term “eligible publisher” means one that pays a minimum $1,000 advance for all the books it contracts from writers. Publishing houses that meet the eligibility criteria receive certain “perks” from RWA, including the opportunity to send staff to the national conference without paying the fee, conference space for book signings, the ability to hold a publisher Spotlight session, and the option to have editors take pitches from writers attending the conference.

There is nothing in the RWA guidelines for eligible publishers, however, that exclude authors who are published by houses NOT on the eligible list from being considered “published” under the guidelines of the PAN (Publisher Author Network) program nor does your book have to be published by an eligible publisher to be entered in the RITA contest. Despite this fact, I have seen the two equated time and time again this past week. It is just not true, and although writers who are not published by eligible houses may feel slighted for a variety of reasons, the complaint that only those with contracts with eligible publishers are treated as “real” authors doesn’t hold up to scrutiny because eligibility applies to what the PUBLISHING house gets from RWA, not what authors get.

2. Non-vanity/Non-subsidy Small Presses

In addition to the publishing houses that meet its criteria for eligibility, there are many, many publishing houses that RWA recognizes as non-vanity/non-subsidy presses. A sizable proportion of these are primarily digital publishing houses along with a few primarily print small presses. The key difference between these publishers and eligible publishers is that they either pay some advances that fail to clear the $1,000 threshhold or do not pay advances at all. In any case, however, these publisher DO pay authors for their work, either in the form of advances+royalties or royalties only. This distinguishes them from vanity/subsidy presses and authors who publish with such houses are neither automatically eligible nor automatically ineligible for either PAN membership or entry in the RITA.

What small presses can’t get from RWA is conference space or the opportunity to take pitches, and that’s simply because RWA feels the risk/return for authors from publishing with such houses isn’t sufficiently favorable to justify RWA lending its support to these houses acquiring works from its authors. Whether or not that’s an accurate assessment of the current state of digital and small press publishing is definitely open to debate, but given past debacles like Triskelion and vocal complaints that RWA didn’t do enough to warn its authors away from fly-by-night presses combined with the difficulty of discerning which presses ARE fly-by-night and which aren’t without using some concrete criteria (and the willingness of a publisher to stake a certain amount of money upfront to the author does represent a certain degree of stability), I think RWA’s position on this is, if not right, at least not ridiculous.

Note that there are probably many small presses that qualify as non-vanity/non-subsidy under RWA’s rules that are not on RWA’s list. That’s because RWA requests that publishers apply for inclusion on the list by submitting their boilerplate contract for review. RWA does this to ensure that the publisher doesn’t charge authors for any part of the production/distribution of their books. A few years ago, a number of epublishers actually changed their boilerplates to prevent themselves from being labeled as vanity/subsidy presses and therefore ensure their companies could appear on RWA’s small press list.

The difference between “eligible” and “small press” publishers, then, boils down to what perks the publishers can get from RWA, not the perks/recognition authors get from RWA. I truly feel this is an important distinction to make, and it can’t be made too often. The fact that your publisher is not eligible for conference freebies does not make you an invalid/illegitimate author. The fact that your publisher doesn’t appear on the RWA list of small presses doesn’t mean it’s not a legitimate press, either–it only means it hasn’t bothered to submit the requisite information to RWA to be included (or perhaps doesn’t publish romance, in which case, why should it bother?).

I’m not saying that everything about this system of recognition is good or sensible. I am saying that authors taking/not taking validation from whether or not their publisher is “eligible” by RWA’s criteria is, to me, a little silly.

Now, as to HQE and Thomas Nelson:

These publishers were originally considered “eligible” because they paid the minimum $1k advance on every book they published. By choosing to begin referring rejected authors to Harlequin Horizons and Westbow respectively in their form letters, it became impossible to say that either publisher was offering a $1k advance on every book they published. If they had been referring these authors to presses that simply paid <$1k (such as Harlequin’s new epublishing division, Carina Press), it’s possible that they would have lost their “eligible” designation but would have still been considered small presses, with their authors still eligible for PAN status and their books still eligible for the RITA. However, they crossed the eligibility line farther than that by suggesting “pay-for-publication” models, which are never under any circumstances considered acceptable by RWA, and thus, neither publisher is on either the Eligible list or the Non-Vanity/Non-Subsidy Small Press. It’s worth noting that at this point, RWA makes no distinction between vanity/subsidy publishing and true self-publishing (where the author acts a bit like a general contractor and subcontracts tasks like cover art, editing, etc. to third parties, but retains the right to all profits from the sale of the work). I don’t think the two models are in any way equivalent, and I’d like to see the self-publishing model gain more credibility in the industry, if only because self-published free or very low cost stories are a great marketing tool for authors. I don’t think publishing/RWA should frown on that to the degree they currently do. That said, vanity/subsidy publishing is almost always a bad deal for the author. It’s hard to think of any justification for a publisher to steer rejected authors toward a publishing model that is so rarely in the author’s best interests (and they’d never steer an author to true self-publishing, because they wouldn’t make any money from it). Okay, I’m off to write my soon-to-be-self-published New Year’s freebie. Please feel free to tell me in the interim all the ways I’m wrong :).

WTF Wednesday: Bait and Switch

It’s a fact of life that vanity/subsidy presses exist. It’s also a fact of life that some authors, desperate to have their book in their hot little hands, will pay for publication. And in some cases, that’s the best decision the author could make, because the author’s goal isn’t to make a career out of writing.

Here are a couple of scenarios in which I think authors who self-published made a right decision:

1) The 80yo woman I met at an RWA chapter meeting who was hand-selling her vanity-published romance novel. Yeah, she could have gone through the traditional channels to try to get it published, but it was set in an odd time period/place for the traditional markets and, let’s face it, at her age, she’d probably be dead before it ever saw a bookshelf. She wanted to have her book published and she didn’t mind selling it herself. She knew what she was getting into, and she was pleased with the result because she had the right expectations.

2) My SIL wants to write a children’s book about her experiences growing up with a significant disability. This would be a hard sale in the traditional market AND the main reason she wants to do it is to gift the book to the hospital that did her surgeries pro bono. She’s not looking to make money from it, but looking to “give back” for something that was done for her. Given her desires and expectations, a vanity-publisher looks like the best/most likely option.

But now, along comes Harlequin with a new vanity publishing venture called Harlequin Horizons. If you haven’t already encountered the kerfuffle that’s ensued in Romancelandia over this, you haven’t been paying attention or your Internet has been down for a couple of days. The primary thread on the topic can be found over at Smart Bitches, so if you have a few hours to invest, feel free to hop on over there and read the 200+ comments.

I’m very troubled by this, but not because I think Harlequin might be diluting its brand or because there’s anything inherently wrong with a traditional publishing house holding an interest in a vanity publishing house. (Random House has a 49% share of Xlibris, and I see no issues with that.) It’s that Harlequin is playing a bait-and-switch on aspiring authors, and they are doing it in such a blatant fashion, as if they think it’s business as usual.

But it is NOT business as usual for reputable publishing houses to refer authors to their vanity publishing arm in their form rejection letters. Yet this is precisely what Harlequin is apparently planning to do.

Let’s be clear here…an agent who refers an author to a vanity house for publication and receives a cut of the profit if said author ends up publishing there is considered a sleaze. RWA will not recognize said agent as reputable and will not allow him/her to schedule pitches at conferences, etc.

And yet, this is EXACTLY what Harlequin is proposing to do–funnel rejected manuscripts to a vanity publisher from which it gets a cut of the profits. (It is worth noting here that Random House, while owning 49% of Xlibris, does NOT mention or recommend Xlibris in their rejection letters. Why not? Because it’s always been considered unethical to do so. And it should, in my never to be humble opinion, remain that way.)

/Boggle

And then, to add insult to injury, the Harlequin Horizons site makes a lot of vague promises about how publishing with it will help authors achieve their dreams of being picked up by Harlequin’s traditional publishing arm. It suggests Harlequin will be “mining” Horizons for bestsellers to bring them over into their traditional lines. This is akin to the NBA starting a “pay-to-play” league for basketball hopefuls and tell them they’ll be “scouting” this league for new stars and that said players will have a better shot at making the big time than those who go through the regular slush pile (i.e., colleges, where players who are actually good enough to go onto the NBA typically pick up scholarships AND an education). It’s flat-out deceptive, not because there’s NO chance that it will happen, but because the chances it will are as ridiculously tiny as that the next Michael Jordan would have to pay the NBA for an audition.

Now, I know there are plenty of people out there who subscribe to the “buyer beware” model and think that this is all just fine and dandy. Harlequin is in business to make money and this is just another avenue of revenue for them. It’s up to authors to know what they’re getting into and be savvy.

I agree with that to a large extent. I do think it’s up to authors to do their homework and understand what, exactly, they’re signing up for.

But by the same token, I am disappointed in Harlequin. I have always considered them to be one of the most reputable, honest, and author-focused houses out there. For years, their website has been a reliable source of information about the busines and the craft of writing, and they have helped so many authors achieve their dreams for real. To now see them now embrace a model that involves selling false ones (and at very high prices) makes me more than a little sick to my stomach.

So, please, Harlequin, invest in a vanity publisher if you must, but please, don’t weaken your reputation as one of the most ethical, author-friendly houses out there. I have loved you for so long for your commitment to doing the right thing by authors, both those you publish and those you reject. Please don’t change.

It’s All About the Pie

Every time the debate over the legitimacy of epublishers erupts within RWA (which it seems to do with frightening regularity of late), there’s always speculation about why the debates get so heated. Or, more accurately, why the folks who are published by ‘recognized’ publishers who offer advances that suit RWA’s guidelines get so fired up and snippy when epublished authors pipe up and say they’re quite all right with the “no advance, higher royalty rate” model.

I’ve heard a lot conspiracy theories suggesting that the outrage isn’t directed so much at the payment model as at the content of the books. Specifically, a lot of epublished authors speculate that the contingent that’s “out to get” them either a) hates “those books” (erotic romance) and/or b) thinks their books are just not good (which is why they haven’t been able to land a NY contract).

Now, I’m not saying there isn’t SOME of this attitude out there. But the reality is, I think, that most of the authors who are vocally in favor of RWA holding the line on its publisher recognition standards1 have far more personal reasons for holding their beliefs. I really don’t think they care that much what other writers are writing or whether it’s any good or not.

What they are fearful of is the possibility that their publishers will be the next to hop on the “no advance” train. And that hits them right in the pocketbook, which, let’s face it, is almost everyone’s most personal space. (To support this statement, I observe that authors, in general, are much more willing to share dirty secrets about their sex lives than tell you how much they earned on their last book! Talking about money is pretty much taboo in the publishing world. Which is a shame, because if we could actually ferret out a realistic picture of how much authors earn under each model, we wouldn’t be arguing based on assumptions.)

The authors who are accustomed to and have benefitted from the advance model are naturally wary of any payment structure that doesn’t guarantee them a minimum income stream for their work. They also believe, not without justification, that a larger advance translates into greater publisher support in the form of marketing, promotion, etc. If their publishers stopped paying up front for their work and didn’t have to guarantee a minimum rate of return on the sale of their books to make a profit, would they still put as much effort and support behind marketing and promoting it?

The truth is, I don’t know the answer to that. I don’t think anyone does. But I do think that whatever the model–be it an advance+royalties or royalties only–the publisher benefits when books sell well. This is just as true for e-only publishers as it is for traditional print publishers. The more copies sold, the better the publisher’s profit. Period.

Moreover, for traditional NY print publishers, there’s really no benefit to NOT marketing the books they put out because the profit model depends on volume–the more books are sold, the more profit there is to be made. Whether or not the author is paid in advance for the book’s content, the “packaging” of that content requires a significant upfront investment on the part of the publisher, and the publisher is going to make a better return on that investment if the book sells well than if it doesn’t.

So I don’t necessarily believe that if print publishers started paying authors on a model similar to that used by most epublishers, the result would be an abrupt change in the way those publishers market and promote their authors books. And those authors who are regularly hitting the New York Times/USA Today bestseller lists would almost certainly have the clout to continue to demand those six and seven figure advances. By the same token, it’s entirely possible that newer and/or midlist authors might actually find it beneficial to be paid based on actual copies sold (especially if the royalty percentage were higher and returns were somehow capped/limited) because the pressure to earn out the advance in order to get that next contract would be considerably less.

But of course, this is all just speculation. I think authors who are accustomed to receiving advances are frightened of the possible repercussions if the no-advance model becomes “legitimate.” And I can’t really blame them for that. It’s working for them. It’s what they know. Why would they want to risk lending approval to a different model with such an uncertain outcome?

Well, here’s why: Because that model doesn’t work for very many of RWA’s members.

Advances (and nice ones much bigger than $1,000) might be the way we’d all like to be paid for our work, but realistically, only a small minority of RWA’s 10,000 members have gotten multiple, advance-paying contracts from NY houses. I believe roughly 20% of RWA’s members are currently considered “published” by the organization, but the rules for qualification have changed enough over the years that there’s no way of telling what percentage of those members are still actively contracted by advance-paying publishers. (Right now, I am one of the 20% who qualifies as “published” but I’m between contracts. And I will continue to qualify as such whether I sell another book to a advance-paying publisher or not.) In other words, of that 20% who qualify as published, there’s only an even smaller subset of authors who are actively continuing to be contracted and paid under the advance model.

Which means that well OVER 80% of RWA members aren’t in any way benefitting from the “preferred” method of earning income on their writing. It is, in my estimation, 100% true that the “real” money in publishing is made by authors who write for the big NY houses and receive advances for their books, but it is also true that there is more money to be made in epublishing than in not being published at all. Whether it’s $20 or $20,000, the author who contracts her book with a reputable epublisher is earning 100% more income from writing than an author whose books are just taking up space on her hard drive. And to deny that is to be blindered to the reality that NOT EVERY BOOK and NOT EVERY AUTHOR is NY material.

It wasn’t that long ago that NY and a few small print presses were pretty much the entire pie when it came to publishing. If you couldn’t get a contract from those places, you were sunk. But now, we have epublishers making the pie bigger. One of the ways they’re able to increase the size of the pie is by publishing books that don’t have a market in NY but do have a market.

So rest assured, advance-receiving, multi-NY-contracted authors…those of us who epublish aren’t trying to steal any of your pie. We’re just taking our slices from a different part of the expanding pie. And that is something we should be celebrating, not denigrating.

Because a bigger pie means more for everyone, not just the limited, lucky few.
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1RWA will only “recognize” a publisher and grant them workshop space and editor appointments at the National conference if the publisher pays a minimum advance of $1,000 on every manuscript contracted. This doesn’t mean that all publishers that DON’T offer an advance are considered vanity or subsidy publishers, or that authors who publish with them can’t be recognized as published under RWA’s rules. It’s important to understand this distinction, since confusion between PUBLISHER recognition and AUTHOR recognition is rampant and leads to a great deal more ill will.