Wednesday, October 24, 2007

Omaha Mystery Conference Discriminates Against Family-Owned and Entrepreneurial Publishers

Family-owned businesses have long been the backbone of American society. Some 35% of Fortune 500 companies are family-run. Family businesses account for 50% of our gross domestic product, and generate 60% of the country's employment and 78% of new job creation. Similarly entrepreneurship has been a major contributor to the success of the U.S. economy. Many important innovations, such as the automobile and the personal computer were commercialized by entrepreneurs.

Universities, foundations and organizations throughout this country conduct research, run programs, and produce reports designed to assist family businesses and entrepreneurs in growing their businesses and passing them on to the next generation. It's the American way. Except in publishing, where a movement to stifle or eradicate entrepreneurial and family-owned publishing companies is quietly gathering steam.

The Mystery Writers of America (MWA), an organization that defines itself as " the premier organization for mystery writers, professionals allied to the crime writing field, aspiring crime writers, and those who are devoted to the genre," has developed a list of "approved publishers," and a set of criteria authors must meet to join as active members or enter the prestigious Edgar Award contest. The MWA criteria blatantly discriminate against authors whose books are published by companies that are not on an MWA-approved list. And in an alarming trend, conferences and contests are adopting this discriminatory, elitist list.

Take the Mayhem in the Midlands 9th Annual Conference May 22-25, 2008 in Omaha, Nebraska, sponsored by the Omaha Public Library. This is a conference for mystery lovers—where fans can meet their favorite authors and writers can meet their readers. But some authors are excluded from being on panels—most strikingly those whose books have been published by a company owned by themselves or a family member. According to the conference website, "The Mayhem committee uses the Mystery Writers of America list of approved publishers as their basis for determining author status for participating on panels."

This means that for me to have "author status" at this conference, my book must not have been published by a privately-held publishing company with whom I have a familial or personal relationship, and it must not have been published by a company in which I have a financial interest. And, the publisher of my book must be on the MWA list of approved publishers, which requires that a publisher meet a long list of criteria—including having been in business for at least two years since publication of its first book by a person with no financial or ownership interest in the company, and publishing at least five authors per year other than those with financial or ownership interest in the company.

How does this fit with the American dream that anyone with a skill or a product can start a business, enter the marketplace and compete on a level playing field? It doesn't! It looks like a blatant sop to large corporate publishers who already control most of the book buying and selling industry in this country.

What's next? Will the artwork of an artist who owns his/her own gallery be excluded from juried shows? Will a chef-owned restaurant not be considered for a rating by restaurant critics? Will an attorney who joins a family firm be excluded from professional legal conferences? Will produce and other crops grown on family farms be considered inferior to that grown on large corporate farms? Will a family-owned construction company or plumbing company be excluded from competitive bids for government contracts?

Of course not. We have laws to prevent this kind of discrimination—laws that people have fought long and hard to establish. And furthermore, we want to encourage creative enthusiastic go-getters to take risks and put their products out in the marketplace. Most people in this country don't want to promote the interest of large corporations over small business.Are attitudes different in Omaha? The Mayhem Conference is sponsored by the Omaha Public Library, which describes itself as "a nationally recognized public library known for its innovative programs, excellent staff and visionary community leadership." Strange way of showing visionary community leadership, I'd say.

Thursday, October 18, 2007

Can We Unclog Reviewers'Filters?

What if by some miracle, reviewers take notice of my October 4 posting on this blog and say to themselves, "She's right. We'll start accepting all the books that come in and judge each book on its own as to whether it is worth our review."? Will that eliminate all bias against self-published books? Not likely.

As long as reviewers are aware of a book's publisher, self-published books and those published by small independent publishers will be at a disadvantage. Even when quality is high, it's easy for bias to creep in.

Malcolm Gladwell gives an interesting example in his book Blink. A female professional trombone player, Abbi Conant, auditioned for the Munich Philharmonic Orchestra in 1980, in an unusual—for the time—"blind" audition with candidates unidentified to the committee and playing behind a screen. When the judges heard Conant play, they were so impressed that they immediately said, "That's the musician we want." But when Conant came out from behind the screen, showing herself to be a woman, the judges reverted to old beliefs that the trombone is a masculine instrument that can't be played well by a female and said they couldn't hire her. After several more auditions, she was hired but—despite outstanding performance—fought for many years to be allowed the solo performances and level of pay that would have been easily hers if she had been male.

Why do prejudices prevail even when contradicted by evidence? It's partly because our filters are clogged with old stuff.—ways of looking at things, beliefs about what is good or bad or about what people should or shouldn’t do. Clearing out that stuff, choosing to look at things differently is not easy.

So how can we keep preconceived ideas about an author or publisher from influencing reviews? Probably the best way is to keep the identifying information from the reviewers. Gladwell points out that over the past 30 years as it has become standard practice for musicians to audition behind screens, the number of women in U.S, orchestras has increased fivefold. Similarly, many academic journals today select papers to publish using blind peer review which means that experts (usually 2 or 3 for each article) review manuscripts for publication without knowing who wrote them.

Sometimes a self-published author is fortunate enough that a reviewer gets involved in her/his book before learning it is self-published. This happened to my daughter, Laurel Osterkamp, when she sent out press releases to local media in Minnesota announcing her novel, Following My Toes. Because our publishing company is located in Colorado, at least one reporter did not see her book as self-published and requested a copy to review. She liked the book, interviewed Laurel and wrote a full-page favorable article. But she did admit that had she known Following My Toes was self-published (which she didn't find out until the interview), she never would have requested a copy.Clearly the challenge is to find a way to have this sort of blind review of all books. Any ideas as to how we could operationalize this?

Thursday, October 11, 2007

How You Gonna Keep Us Down On the Farm After We've Seen Paree?

A reader started a discussion on an mystery forum with a post about self-publishing saying he/she has written to Amazon asking them to stop carrying self-published novels. But—no surprise here—Amazon has not replied.

Amazon is in business to sell books, not to be a gatekeeper to weed out bad writing. Bricks-and-mortar bookstores do keep out most self-published books as well as many published by small independent publishers, but that's primarily an issue of using limited shelf-space for books that they think are most likely to sell. Amazon doesn't have this concern.

Being able to sell our self-published books on Amazon is a great example of how the internet has opened up opportunities for so many of us to share the products of our creative nature beyond our local community and/or immediate friends and family. The internet has democratized creativity by opening up the creative and/or problem-solving process to everyone.

And we are SO ready! Human beings are creative, imaginative and inventive by nature. We like to express our ideas through visual arts, music, and literature. We like to discover new solutions to old problems. We like to consider issues, formulate opinions and speak out. But for a long time we've had an elitist system that is biased in favor of credentials, expertise, experience, and connections.

The internet is changing all this by providing an opportunity for people to share or sell ideas, knowledge or creations without having to prove they have the credentials

  • We have Wikipedia, an online encyclopedia created by anyone and everyone working together, which is about as accurate in covering scientific topics as Encyclopedia Britannica, according to a 2005 study published in the journal Nature.

  • YouTube, a site where people can upload, view and share original videos complete with music, has in the two years it's been out there reached a volume of 20 million visitors per month, and gets about 65,000 videos uploaded every day.

  • A few years ago, the website asked people to create homemade political ads and posted about 1,500. Currently they are asking people to contribute to an ad campaign with pictures of themselves showing how they feel about the war, and a voice messages to Congress.

  • An online t-shirt company called Threadless gets all of its designs though an online contest that brings in hundreds of submissions each week. A few are posted to the website where anyone can rate them, and the ones with the highest ratings are made into tee shirts.

  • At the InnoCentive website anyone can register as a potential problem-solver to take a shot at coming up with a solution to technical or scientific problems posted by "seekers". Seekers and solvers are anonymous to each other. Companies evaluate proposed solutions on the basis of their merit rather than by evaluating the resume of the person proposing the solution. Solvers whose solutions are selected and used are paid for their ideas.

  • Blogs provide millions of writers the opportunity to share their thoughts, opinions and activities with readers all over the world.

The elitists among us continue to insist that the internet's level field promotes quantity over quality. They want gatekeepers to save them the time of wading through the muck in search of something worthwhile. They say that most people's views are not worth listening to, most people's writing is not worth reading, and most people's art is not worth looking at.

But I think they are fighting a losing battle. Thanks to the internet many of us have gotten a taste of freedom of expression and we like it. And we're not going back to the old elitist system.

Wednesday, October 3, 2007

Do Reviewers Need Gatekeepers To Save Them From Bad Self-Published Books?

Reviewers are deluged with books begging for review. Many of these books are dreadful. And reviewers are too busy to sort out the books that deserve their attention from those that deserve the trash heap. So they set up criteria to narrow the field by keeping out entire categories of books based on who published them.

Is this a reasonable and necessary approach? No. Reviewers should be able to tell in the first few seconds after they pick up a book whether or not it’s one they want to review. And they don’t need to do that by looking to see who published it.

In his bestselling book, Blink, Malcolm Gladwell makes the case for the ability of our unconscious minds to make quick instinctive decisions that are as good as decisions made more slowly and with more background information. For example, he describes an experiment in which students rated the effectiveness of a teacher after watching a five-second sound-free video of that teacher. The students’ snap decisions about the effectiveness of those teachers were essentially the same as ratings of the same teachers made by students who had been in their classes for entire semester.

How can this be? Gladwell argues that a person’s unconscious has the ability to find patterns very quickly using only small bits of information, and then form surprisingly accurate judgements by focusing on the essentials. It’s like when you meet someone new and instinctively know you’ve found a new friend. Most of us can’t explain how we know these things—we just know.

Are these quick judgements always right? No. Can stereotypes lead to false decisions? Yes. Are we more likely to have positive attitudes toward people and ideas that are familiar to us? Yes.

But we can train ourselves to look beyond our stereotypes—such as a belief that all self-published books are junk. One good way to do this is to change our experiences to include positive examples of a group about which we have a negative bias. Following that logic, reviewers need to see some good self-published books. To do that, they need to let self-published books into their stack of potentially reviewable books.

Of course this takes us back to the reviewers’ problem of sorting through all the books. Following the Blink model, they can do this quickly using their ability to make an instinctive decision after reading a page—or even a paragraph—of a book. In fact, editors do this all the time when reading through stacks of submissions.

And I make these quick decisions when I select a book from a library or bookstore. Don’t you? I never look to see who published a book when I’m deciding whether or not to read it. Do you?

Here is my challenge to reviewers. Don’t use an “approved publisher list” as a gatekeeper for what books to review. Accept all the books that come in and then make your own quick judgements about whether or not to review a book by reading a small bit of it. You may be surprised at what you find.