One of the biggest news stories coming out of RWA Nationals in Washington, D.C. last month was the flap over eBook discrimination within the RWA. Romance eBook programming was notably absent from the official schedule for the conference, and eBook authors within the organization took exception to this by holding their own Rogue Digital Conference, which attracted a sizable crowd.
The difficulty most eBook-only novels and novellas face in qualifying for the RITAs, continues to alienate authors who might otherwise join the organization. In a poll conducted on this blog during the conference, 51% answered Yes, they would join RWA if it offered the same rights to eBook authors as it does to print authors. Only 17% responded that they had no interest in the organization regardless of its stand on eBooks. Granted, this was an unscientific opinion poll, but it does demonstrate the interest eBook authors have in gaining respect for their format.
Quality and eBook Legitimacy
As discussed in Part I of this post, RWA and its 145 chapters strongly embrace the writing award concept. Awards assist unpublished writers by drawing the attention of agents and editors to exemplary writing. They also celebrate published authors and help them promote their work to the reading public. Yet the RWA doesn’t offer a single award for romance authors published in eBook format, and all but shuts them out of the RITAs.
Should there be a pathway to award recognition for these authors within the RWA?
Hardliners contend that only books from qualifying publishers should be eligible for awards (i.e. those that pay a $1000 or greater advance against royalties). eBook authors and publishers argue that this rule is outdated. Advances don’t fit the business model for this rapidly growing segment of the publishing industry, and bestselling eBooks often earn out well above the $1K threshold.
If money is being used as a determinant, and not the quality of writing, why not base eligibility on how well a book sells? Because hardliners could return that volley with an appeal on behalf of “deserving” books published by mainstream publishers. These, they would argue, may not have earned out or even come close, but evidently someone in New York felt passionate enough to lay out money upfront.
What is it exactly about an editor’s location, and the ability to purchase manuscripts with a large corporation’s money, that determines worth?
Do eBooks Need Their Own Awards?
It’s tempting to want to bypass the issue by establishing a different way to award achievement in eBook romance. Marginalized groups do it all the time, in a variety of fields, from acting to sports to business. They create their own awards to recognize excellence when the older, more established group ignores or excludes them. If you think about it, print romance writers already fit the definition of marginalized. How many romance novels do you think are going to find their way onto the nomination lists for the National Book Critics Circle or Pen Awards?
What would happen if RWA opted to create a special class of RITA Award or even a different set of awards all together? Let’s call them the GENAs (Good ENough for an Award). A dozen different award categories for the GENAs cover everything from subgenre (contemporary, erotica, fantasy, suspense, etc.) to entry length (novel, novella, short story). The main qualifications are that nominees are released as eBook-only during the award year, and that they aren’t self-published. No one on the GENAs committee cares if the entry got an advance or how many copies it sold.
First off, you would excite a hell of a lot of romance writers who up until this point had been completely shut out of the game. The impact on sales probably wouldn’t be that profound. I once had an editor tell me awards add absolutely nothing to the bottom line. Still, the effect on public opinion, while intangible, could bring in curious readers who until this time may not have even realized romance existed in eBook format.
On the other hand, I can already imagine the cries from some who would take offense at being relegated to a “special” category of awards. Why do I need an eBook ghetto award? What’s wrong with my work that I’m not allowed to compete with print?
Ghetto award or not, if offered, many would accept one with a gracious thank you. Nor would the fact that talent is being rewarded go unnoticed by industry media. eBook romance writers would incorporate the awards as just one more strategy to build the audience for their talent, until gradually they were on a level with mainstream members, and in some cases eclipsed the old guard. At this time, different awards for the two formats would seem redundant, even indulgent.
Not Really a Matter of Respect
I offer the above scenario not to advocate for it, but to illustrate that eBook authors, like a lot of marginalized groups, are determined. Give them award, don’t give them one, they’re still going to press forward with their work. Numerous indicators in the market suggest the tide of consumer resistance toward eBooks is turning. eBooks are the only segment of the book industry experiencing not just strong, but explosive growth (166.7% in the first five months of 2009 alone).
As much as I would like to say that the lack of acceptance of eBooks by the RWA constitutes a lack of respect, what I more firmly believe is that it shows an absence of foresight.
eBooks have the potential to level the playing field, democratize publishing. True, it isn’t that much cheaper for a publisher to produce an eBook than a print one, but other than server space, eBooks don’t have to be warehoused. Returns don’t constitute the gut wrenching financial worries they do with print. What the future of eBooks portends is a revitalization of the smaller publisher, reinvented for a new era, to replace those modest-sized print houses who found themselves gobbled up ten and twenty years ago by megapublishing groups.
Let Judges (Readers) Decide
Generally, editors at print publishers know their market. They tend to have finely-honed buying skills. Many possess degrees in English literature or creative writing, or years of experience working under someone else who has taught them how to critically assess the merits of a piece of writing. But so do editors working for eBook publishers. Should their tastes and judgment as to what does and does not constitute good, even great, writing be discounted?
Just because a print publisher has the advantage with a larger budget and deeper promotion pockets doesn’t mean it’s infallible. Both print and eBook publishers buy books that soar or bomb. Nor does a lack of an advance indicate a lack of respect toward the author, as long as that author is compensated in other ways, such as a higher royalty rate and faster payments.
Here’s the scenario I’d like to see happen. RWA calls in whatever committee has the power to make policy on the RITAs, and tosses out the old eligibility rules. Just tosses them. They refuse to ignore or separate eBook authors into a different class of awards. If they’re that concerned with money, they specify a publisher must fit one of two criteria to qualify, either the traditional publishing model (advance plus low royalties), or the new model (no advance, but high royalties).
While they’re at it, they create a couple of additional categories to accommodate the inherently shorter length of many eBook romance offerings. Finally, they don’t force eBook publishers to produce bound copies of their books for judging. What silliness in a time when RWA chapters routinely prefer electronic vs. paper entries for their own contests.
eInk is still ink. Give the judges both formats to read and let them decide what’s worthy of an award and what’s not. All authors deserve a chance to compete.
Note: Wednesday’s bestseller lists are below. This post has been bumped to the top from its original posting yesterday.