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Tree Forts for Grown-ups

  Win one, lose one.

Romance Writers of America (RWA) finally admitted an electronic publisher to the ranks of its accredited publishers. Ellora's Cave met all RWA's editorial, time-in-operation and sales requirements.

The move, announced, appropriately enough, in RWA's August electronic newsletter, represents a victory for all e-published romance writers and publishers. It also grants Ellora's Cave authors a number of tangible and intangible benefits.

Ellora's Cave authors will now become privy to the secret handshake of RWA's Published Authors' Network. More importantly, their books can compete in RWA's annual RITA Awards, which like the Oscars provide a big boost to the careers of winners and nominees alike.

On the minus side, in August the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America posted additional restrictions to their membership requirements. SFWA's vehicle: an RWA-style list of "Qualifying Professional Markets."

In addition to vanity presses, this list makes a big point of excluding small presses and nonfiction venues. When queried on these points, SFWA Treasurer Lawrence Watt-Evans replied:

"SFWA is a professional fiction writers' organization; non-fiction is not considered a qualification for active or associate membership.

"Our Bylaws specifically forbid consideration of work for small presses, no matter how respected they may be, as membership credentials; this has been the case for decades, and the current Membership Committee does not have the authority to change it."

I understand and appreciate the desire of SFWA (and RWA, for that matter) to promote professionalism and champion the rights of genre authors. However, the arguments for restrictive definitions of membership obscure the larger issue -- helping genre writers earn a decent living without harassment by parasites, whatever form those parasites might take.

My questions arose not from a particular desire to belong but from the conflict between SFWA's intense push for new members at Capclave 2002 and the stringency of the new rules. Nonetheless, I feel insulted by the notion the reviewers, interviewers, real science writers and others make no measurable contribution to SF and fantasy fiction.

Nonfiction writers play a key role in the development of a genre and its creators. The press and public relations community build the audience necessary to support the apparatus that ultimately channels the money back into the hands of the artists.

Writers cannot make a comfortable living on their advances -- much less obtain royalties -- without a broad-based sell-through. Contrary to the popular fallacy, you cannot build a writing career by word of mouth, unless the word happens to fall from the mouth of a U.S. president. Unfortunately for science fiction and fantasy, American presidents make the careers of suspense and mystery novelists like Ian Fleming, Walter Mosley, Jan Burke and Tom Clancy. The folks who select the President's reading matter view science fiction and fantasy (and romance) as too frivolous for Oval Office consumption.

The comment about small presses also strikes a sour note when at least one of the qualifying short fiction venues asks for donations more often than my local public television station. Although I know it's an unworthy thought, every time I see that request in the publication's newsletter, I can't help wondering if the editorial staff checks all incoming submissions against their benefactors' list.

Admittedly, my relationship to niche organizations tends to be mercurial at best. For the most part, they strike me as tree forts for grown-ups. Too often they obsess so much about distinguishing "us" from "them" they forget that exclusion ultimately destroys a community by destroying its ability to grow and adapt. Witness the Shakers.

The admission of Ellora's Cave to the list of RWA accredited publishers signifies that RWA is growing. Maybe I should suggest Tina Engler, the president of Ellora's Cave, tackle SFWA. After all, Ellora's Cave specializes in fantasy erotica.

Sounds like a match made in the literary heavens to me.

Jean Marie Ward

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