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.