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Contrasting Passions

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Photo: Conference Central
Conference Central - The Wardman Park Marriott hosted the RWA 2000 National Conference.
(All Photos by Jean Marie Ward)

Journalism professors claim that the contrast lead makes the best opener for a feature article. "It was the best of times, it was the worst of times…" Sometimes, however, the contrasts simply overwhelm you.

According to best-selling author and Romance Writers of America (RWA) National Conference keynote speaker Mary Jo Putney, "RWA National is about 2,000 introverts pretending to be extroverts for a weekend." Putney could write volumes about that particular contrast. Instead of eating and chatting with her colleagues during the first part of the conference's July 27 kick-off luncheon, the famously private Putney found herself buried in television cameras.

But Putney's absence from the table proved a small blessing to hungry lunchgoers. It freed up a meal. You wouldn't think this qualified as a big deal. But despite the fact that RWA committed its entire seven-person professional staff to organizing the July 26-29 conference and charged conference fees in excess of $320 per person, someone failed to order enough plates for the July 27 lunch. However, the wardrobe of complementary polo shirts provided the staff allowed them to wear a different RWA shirt for every day of the event.

Susan Wiggs: Historical Polish, Organizational Savvy

The career of multi-awardwinning romance novelist Susan Wiggs proves first impressions are far from fatal. Wiggs claims she mailed her first manuscript -- a manuscript composed by hand, typed on a manual typewriter and devoid of standard formatting -- to...

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The stunning generosity of rank and file RWA members contrasted with the amazing pettiness of RWA itself. Christina F. York, who shortly before the 2000 conference "got the call" from editors accepting her first two books, volunteered to fund an RWA scholarship to send a financially strapped RWA member to next year's national conference. Since such scholarships cover travel and lodging as well as registration fees, York's gesture will eat up a large chunk of her advances. But York, the recipient of this year's scholarship, considered it a small way of repaying her colleagues for their support and professional guidance.

Meanwhile, RWA staffers kept the door to the Press Room locked. On the condition of anonymity, one staffer confided that they didn't want "regular" members using the room for private business. Heaven forfend that new and midlist writers -- or worse yet, pre-published ones -- might encounter the press and get a little publicity boost as a result.

In the Annual General Meeting held after the kick-off luncheon, RWA President Jo Ann Ferguson declaimed, "We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all ideas are created equal; that these ideas endow their creator with certain inalienable rights; that among these are an equitable livelihood, liberty to write what the author chooses, and the pursuit of a happy-ever-after."

The roughly 300-member audience waited politely for the punchline. Ferguson continued, "Authors are entitled to equitable payment for their work, detailed royalty statements, timely responses to queries, prompt payments and ownership of their copyright."

Only half of the assembly applauded. Instead of "The Declaration of Independence" glow RWA sought to paint around the conference and its board of directors, the abstainers focused on a much different period in American history. If you concentrated, you could hear the whispered echoes of Lincoln's words: "A house divided against itself cannot stand -- I believe this government cannot endure permanently half-slave and half-free."

Photo: Big Winner - Suzanne Brockmann
Big Winner - Suzanne Brockmann displays the two RITA Awards she won for her 1999 books, Undercover Princess and Body Guard, July 29.

Electronically published authors felt the RWA board of directors viewed them as second-class citizens. These writers considered proposed changes to RWA's mission statement and bylaws, and calls from the board of directors to return to a "more professional" organization as deliberate attempts to deny e-published authors recognition and assistance. E-published writers wondered whether upcoming RWA elections would signal a change in attitudes, or should e-published writers contemplate a more radical solution?

It would be tempting to dismiss the e-published authors complaints as the sour grapes of sore losers who "couldn't get published by a real (i.e., paper) publisher." Admittedly the quality of e-published books varies from awardwinning romances optioned for movie and TV production to amateurish, self-published, first efforts. But sour grapes fails to explain why e-publishers with professional editors, sound royalty agreements and better sales figures than RWA-recognized Avalon Press cannot gain the RWA seal of approval needed to qualify their authors for RWA Valhalla, the Published Authors Network (PAN).

And you can't blame a revised mission statement that fails to include the word "romance" on the sour grapes of e-book writers. The RWA board managed that all by themselves.

Romance Awards Announced

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Member outcry succeeded in changing the statement offered for voting at the general meeting to: "Romance Writers of America advances the professional interests of career-focused romance writers through networking and advocacy." But the protests failed to restore venerable provisions promoting mutual support among members and assistance for members seeking to become published and establish careers.

"In some cases less is not more," protested e-published Elise Dee Beraru, echoing the sentiments of the majority of the meeting delegates. "The new mission statement is short and sweet and says nothing. It doesn't say who we are, what we are, or why we're special.

"It's polarizing the membership," Beraru continued. "Why was it necessary to change the old one?"

Bylaws Chairperson Carol Prescott answered, "The old mission statement said how we proposed to carry out our goals. A mission statement should be a 'why' statement. We get to 'how' in the bylaws. It's important for our mission statement to advocate the interests of professional, career-focused writers."

A generous minority of attending members applauded Prescott's explanation. "RWA is not for hobbyists and fans," one West Coast member declared. Others echoed the West Coast member's scorn for part-time writers. You couldn't help wondering what RWA would make of L. E. Modesitt and other genre award-winners who choose to keep their day jobs.

For the e-published writers (most of whom work in other fields), the scorn constituted a body slam. The belligerence of protesters promptly increased -- as did the intransigence of their opposition.

At least three lawyers spoke up against the vagueness of a provision granting RWA's board the right to censure "offensive" behavior. They objected both to the word and the secrecy of the judgment process. More lawyers -- the romance genre seems to attract as many lawyers as mystery -- rumbled in their seats.

Prescott brushed the objections aside. "Well, our lawyer said it was OK. I hate dueling lawyers."

Everyone seemed to hate the old process for selecting the finalists for RWA's Golden Heart contest for unpublished writers. Contest Chair Tara Taylor Quinn spoke about the 1999 Golden Heart competition in the hushed tones usually reserved for earthquakes, tidal waves and other natural catastrophes. Writers whose entries were disqualified for errata such as the point size of their headers or the number of paragraph returns on their cover sheets nodded their head in agreement.

But the audience grew restive when Quinn announced that fixing the problems would raise entry fees to $50. Delegates pointed out that adding postage and copying to the new fee would effectively raise entry costs for the applicant to roughly $100.

Quinn countered that RWA needed the higher fees to offset expenses. "The contest has not been supporting itself for a long time," Quinn said. She reminded her colleagues that this would be only the second time RWA raised entry fees in the history of the contest.

"By raising the fees, we've just raised it to be self-supporting," Quinn said.

The attending delegates might have greeted the increase with less skepticism if the board hadn't just announced a preliminary budget well over $1 million -- the biggest of any professional genre writers' organization. New RWA policies to pay for the conference fees of current and recent RWA board members didn't help Quinn's case either.

Quinn persevered. In response to concern about a potential fall-off in submissions, Quinn reaffirmed the importance of the Golden Heart. In recent years, paper publishers accepted the manuscripts of over 30 finalists -- not winners, finalists -- directly as a result of their participation in the Golden Heart. No other writing contest in any genre can demonstrate that kind of success rate.

To borrow a bad romance cliché, few other organizational meetings could demonstrate the kind of passion throbbing in RWA's 2000 Annual General Meeting. Protests and discussions continued least an hour after the end-time specified in the conference program. Yet when the last voice fell silent, all eight proposed revisions to the RWA charter -- even the most contentious -- passed by an overwhelming majority of the roughly 1,400 present and proxy votes.

"The recommendations of the board are almost always adopted because of the proxies," RWA member Linda O. Rice confided. And the board controls most of the proxies.

If that's the case, why should anyone care? Many RWA members don't, or else they don't want to become involved in an organizational process most charitably described as embarrassing in its shortsightedness.

Less than 15 percent of the members attending the conference attended the general meeting. Less than 20 percent of RWA's national members bothered to vote, even by proxy -- a regrettable situation, since RWA could make a crucial difference in the never-ending fight for writers' and artists' rights. The sheer number of RWA members -- 8,200 total and at least 1,500 published under the most restrictive definition of the word -- and their combined economic clout make RWA a force to be reckoned with.

Yet RWA runs from opportunities to help its members.

Photo: Schmoozing
Schmoozing - Author Judith Hand (in the flowered shirt) promotes her historical novel about Minoan Crete to agent Irene Goodman. Writers used every nook and cranny of the Wardman Park's public spaces to network, and promote and sell their books..

For example, during a discussion about recognized publishers in the general meeting, RWA member Tracy Lopez noted, "There's been a lot of talk about what I should and should not accept from a publisher or an agent with respect to contracts. Where can I go to find out that information."

Ferguson replied: "It's not our job to give business advice to authors."

Most professional associations take the opposite view. To cite but one example among professional writers' organizations, The Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America hosts Preditors and Editors as a service to its members.

In a similar vein, RWA member Heywood Smith raised the question: "Is there any way we could arrange for a secret, interactive survey on compensation and agent fees?"

"We can't list the compensation and fees of individual agents or publishers," Ferguson said. "That would be a violation of anti-trust laws."

Sisters in Crime (SinC), a 3,000-member association created to combat discrimination against women in the mystery field, most emphatically disagrees with Ferguson's assessment. Less than a month after the RWA 2000 National Conference, SinC announced the development of an anonymous author's survey to determine exactly the information Smith sought. In the lead article of the September 2000 SinC Newsletter, SinC President Barbara Burnett Smith wrote:

"[The survey] will tell us, without naming any names, what the averages, highs and lows are in advances. We'll find out whether authors are improving their lot, or not. The statistics will give us a baseline of information to help us make important career decisions; after all, this is a career and a business, and we are professionals. We deserve to have sufficient knowledge so that we can operate as such."

However, RWA traditionally folds in the face of real or imagined opposition by the big New York publishing houses. A class action suit against Dorchester Publishing led by former RWA President Robin Lee Hatcher received no RWA support. RWA never even notified members of the pending action. Hatcher and her colleagues won anyway. [Editor's note: According to a correction sent by Hatcher following this article's initial posting, RWA published a brief press release when the law suit was first filed, but made no additional mention of the suit until after settlement was reached. For the full text of her message, please, see below .]

One could argue the publishers themselves fight harder for their writers. Earlier this year, RWA attempted to rescind the PAN status of authors of Kensington's Precious Gems category romances, because Kensington purchases manuscripts for this line on a flat fee/no U.S. royalty basis. Kensington responded by withdrawing all financial support for the 2000 National Conference. RWA promptly folded and reinstated Precious Gems writers in PAN.

RWA's stance on e-publishing demonstrates a similar New York/big money bias. RWA enthusiastically report new developments in the e-publishing ventures of romance staples Time Warner and Harleuin, and promises to extend PAN privileges to writers for these publishers' electronic lines.

Time Warner's venture, iPublish.com at Time Warner, promises 20-25 percent royalties on electronic sales. Standard e-publishing contracts offer royalties between 35 and 50 percent of sales. But Time Warner can argue e-publishers lack Time Warner's marketing machine and related opportunities for much higher sales, which would translate into higher revenues for iPublish writers.

In contrast, Harlequin maintains the highest secrecy about its e-publishing venture. Harlequin Vice President for Public Relations Katherine Orr recently confirmed that Harlequin is working on an e-publishing venture, but could not offer a launch date. Orr continued, "We do not release royalty figures, because we consider that a confidential arrangement with our authors."

However, among romance writers themselves, rumors of addenda to Harlequin contracts relating to e-publishing rights abound. Unconfirmed reports place Harlequin e-publishing royalty rates between 5 and 8 percent -- without additional advances. But regardless of the royalties or advances or lack of same, Harlequin will not lose its RWA stamp of approval.

When challenged on recent RWA decisions, board members point to the results of general meeting votes, but their trust in their own mandate rings hollow. Their actions display a definite "circle the wagons" mentality. The July 29 presentation of this year's RITA Award for Lifetime Achievement provided a perfect case in point.

RITAs honor PAN members' books and careers of over 15 years as a published romance writer. This year's nominees for Lifetime Achievement included Heather Graham Pozzessere, a powerhouse in the genre who qualifies as two of romance's top 50 authors in terms of sales (both as Heather Graham and under the pseudonym Shannon Drake). Jane Toombs, one of the first paper-published romance writers to experiment with e-publishing, also made the finals.

But the award went to Rita Clay Estrada, who helped found RWA. Tara Taylor Quinn and fellow RITA presenter Laura Hayden applauded the selection, because the RITA was named for Estrada.

Viewed objectively, you couldn't expect anything else. Also taking the objective view, you could even call the conference's sound and fury, the willingness of participants on all sides of the issues to risk ridicule to defend their views positive developments. Even organizations need passion to survive.

As keynote speaker Putney said in the confines of the luncheon banquet hall, "It's passion, not reason, that gets books finished…. Ambition won't carry you through the hard times, but passion does."

Jean Marie Ward (with additional material by Kim D. Headlee)

Readers Respond:

Thank you for bringing to our notice the typo in the spelling of Tara Taylor Quinn's name. We regret that no one brought it to our attention sooner so that we could correct it as we did in the one factual error brought to our notice (see Robin Hatcher's note below, and our response to Carol Prescott’s demand for prior approval to report remarks made in a public forum)." . Nevertheless, it's extremely flattering to find that RWA officials continue to read this article with such close attention to detail more than six months after its publication and that it continues to merit such intense expressions of opinion.

Jean Marie Ward

Graphic - EnvelopeYou said, "But the award went to Rita Clay Estrada, who helped found RWA. Tara Taylor Quin and fellow RITA presenter Laura Hayden applauded the selection, because the RITA was named for Estrada."

I would like to correct your misassumption. My applause was for the winner of the Lifetime Achievement Award winner. It happened to be Rita Clay Estrada. Had it been Heather, Jane or the person you neglected to mention was also nominated, Barbara Keiler, I would have applauded for them as well. Your lack of factual accuracy is far more damning than my actions in this case. The proper spelling of Tara's name is Tara Taylor Quinn.

All said, I resent that you tried to portray my good manners of applauding the winner as some sort of editorial comment or secret preference. So please, this coming year, when I applaud the Lifetime Achievement winner, please note it is because it is the PROPER, POLITE and GRACIOUS thing to do.

Laura Hayden
2000 RWA Award Ceremony chairperson
2001 RITA/Golden Heart Contest Liaison

Graphic - EnvelopeI just read your article on RWA and saw the reference to the class action lawsuit, which I led. There is an inaccuracy in that paragraph. RWA did publish a brief press release of the lawsuit when it was first filed, but after that, no mention was made again until the settlement was reached. Thus, most members were unaware of the suit. RWA, as an organization, remained both quiet and neutral.

Robin Lee Hatcher

Editor's Note: Thanks for the correction, Robin. I've appended a note to the relevant paragraph.

Graphic - EnvelopeExcellent, excellent article. It perfectly explains why I let my RWA membership lapse. I'm print pubbed as well as e-pubbed (so I have access to ALL the RWA cliques, lucky me), but after seeing how RWA treats members, I wouldn't touch an RWA membership with a barge pole. At least, not until significant changes are made. RWA's rebuttal to your article perfectly illustrates either a) their need for medication, or b) their refusal to acknowledge poor behavior. Yes, I realize I sound shrill and childish, but I can only watch two-faced abuse for so long before I lose my temper.

Mary Janice Davidson
Book reviewer for Bridges magazine and Escape to Romance

Graphic - EnvelopeI've been a member of RWA since August of 1981 -- just missed being a charter member. For many years I have looked up to the leadership of RWA, been a contest judge, chapter president, newsletter editor, faithful spear carrier. But I have to say that the current leadership, in treating electronic publishing as they have done have let down their membership.

Look at it this way. For years RWA has been training romance writers, but there have not been commensurate slots opening for those talented writers to sell their work. Along comes a new technology and RWA discounts it, saying in effect that if books are not paper-published they are not books, are inferior. And those writers do not deserve recognition. What have we expected to happen! We developed these talented writers. Like Dolly Parton said, "You can't put ten pounds of flour in a five-pound sack." The explosion was inevitable.

RWA must make radical changes in philosophy and in leadership, or wither. It is caught up in the writer mystique, in a selfish mindset. And this trend began before electronic publishing became available.

Unless the leadership of RWA changes in favor of electronic publishing in the coming election, I'm not going to waste my money on membership for another year.

Jane Bierce, print and electronically published since 1983

Graphic - EnvelopeExcellent, Jean Marie! RWA lost my allegiance when Jo Ann Ferguson sent me a "heads up" note (as if it meant nothing) that the RWR would no longer be posting upcoming titles of electronic books. RWA was the one who recruited me to perform that function, which I did for several months before some of their hierarchy got too nervous about how many wonderful titles the e-world was putting out, and therefore pulled the plug. EPIC (Electronically Published Internet Connection) far exceeds anything RWA can ever, ever offer those published electronically. I'd much rather send my dues to them than RWA.

Marilyn Grall, proudly a professionally published e-author

Graphic - EnvelopeI dropped my membership to RWA because of their stubborn and misguided refusal to support ebook authors. Many of the members of this organization do not want e-authors to be considered professionals, and they make remarks that we are not "properly published." That's a crock of poop and it smacks of "I-have-mine-and-by-golly-I-ain't-gonna-let-you-have-yours!" I think the whole thing is fear that the advance against sales checks are gonna go the way of the dinosaur if ebooks ever take hold. That and the fact that epublishers are doing the cross-genre storylines that readers are searching for and traditional print publishers are still shying away from. That translates into sales the cookie-cutter authors aren't getting, and generating new fans for up and coming authors. Despite what the RWA says, I am multi-published; I have a large fan base for my dark fantasy and speculative fiction novels; I have two fans clubs that were started for me by readers who tell me they will read anything I write...even if it's on a cereal box; I have had ladies name their newborns after my heroes; I get paid royalties and I did NOT pay to have my books published. RWA can keep their organization, their clique, their turned-up noses, and their supposed prestige. The organization never did anything for me. EPIC, E-Authors, Writers Guild and the National Writers Union, my publisher Dark Star Publications, not to mention the wonderful review Web sites like Crescent Blues, have bolstered my career and put me out there. I will be eternally grateful for their support.

Charlotte Boyett-Compo

Graphic - EnvelopeAn interesting, insightful and informative overview of the RWA National Conference! All things considered, one has to wonder exactly what it is that RWA believes it provides for its members!

Plainly, from the remarks on professionalism, the RWA dismisses about 95 percent of its membership as "non professional" and therefore of no importance, while at the same time collecting those membership dues. It's a well known fact that only a tiny fraction of published authors make enough in sales to "be full-time, professional, authors"... and "business information" is only passed along through PAN, leaving all other members with the necessity of "networking" in an attempt to gather sketchy, and often unreliable, information.

Their (RWA's) stance on the small, independent epublisher is well documented and was no revelation...nor was I surprised to learn that they refused, again, to budge so much as an inch in what could only be called a vendetta, all things considered. One has to wonder, however, given the potential for ebook sales, just when they'll become "believers?"

Madris Gutierrez, Publisher, New Concepts Publishing.

Graphic - EnvelopeI enjoyed the piece on RWA. Thank you. I didn't agree with everything, but you articulated many of my concerns. Honest, straightforward, and insightful are other words that come to mind.

Cathy Maxwell

Graphic - EnvelopeI'm sure that any journalism professor will tell you that even more important than that "contrast lead" you cite is getting your facts right, which you unfortunately failed to do in your article on the 2000 RWA National Conference. While I won't go into excruciating detail (why would you think RWA, rather than the hotel, is in charge of plates for meals?), I will ask that in the future, if you're going to quote me or comment on the process of the work that I did as RWA's Bylaws Chairperson, that you contact me directly to verify that your information is correct. My name and contact information are in the front of every RWR. Sincerely,

Carol Prescott, RWA Bylaws 2000 Chairperson

Editor's Note: All the Annual General Meeting (AGM) quotes were taken directly from my meeting notes. My Assistant Editor Teri Smith and I attended the meeting at the invitation of RWA Communications Director Charis McEachern and were escorted there by RWA Intern Nicole Kennedy. Not only did Teri and I take great pains to assure the accuracy of those notes in situ, we used follow-up conversations with RWA members as an additional safeguard.

As an RWA member, I received the initial bylaws package offering the "no romance" mission statement and the red-ink version which reinserted the word "romance." RWA statistics used in the article were taken directly from the RWA National site. The notes on RWA's stand with respect to Time Warner and Harlequin e-publishing efforts were taken from back issues of Romance Writers Report (RWA's official magazine) and AGM notes. The citations for other organizations, publishers and materials are listed in the article. The paragraph relating to Robin Lee Hatcher relied on a third party source for information, but that information has since been augmented by Robin's comment (see above).

With respect to the issue of meals, I recommend you speak with professional events planners outside RWA to ascertain how such functions are staged. In my experience as an events manager for numerous Department of Defense functions, the hotel provides a set number of meals based on the count offered by conference planners at pre-agreed dates in the preparation cycle. RWA staff was aware of the shortage before the luncheon; Charis specifically warned Teri and me not to attend the luncheon for that reason.

Finally, to address your demand for pre-approval of Crescent Blues copy: Crescent Blues is wholly owned by Crescent Blues, Inc. It is not associated in any way with RWA, Mystery Writers of America, Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America or any other professional writers or artists organization. It is an independent electronic magazine. The Washington Post and USA Today do not submit their copy to you or the RWA Board for approval. Neither does Crescent Blues.

Graphic - EnvelopeBravo Jean! Your RWA article clearly exposes the basic problems in today's RWA. My thanks and appreciation for your courage and honesty in writing and posting it! I'll be posting a link from the HSWF site, to be sure and send as many readers over as possible...

Mary Z. Wolf, Publisher, Hard Shell Word Factory

 

Graphic - EnvelopeThat is an EXCELLENT article, and points perfectly to the reason I have decided to let my membership in RWA lapse after many years in the organization. As an e-published author, I see no reason to support an organization that definitely does not support me. I have gotten more from my membership in EPIC and lists such as E-Pub and others than I ever received from RWA. Now, if you could get that published in the RWR, possibly the ones who SHOULD read it would.

Kate Moore w/a Kate Douglas

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