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 :).