Wednesday, November 28, 2007

Let's Melt That MWA Publisher Blacklist Snowball

Here in Colorado we are familiar with the way an object rolling down a snowy hill increases its size and speed as is gathers more snow, eventually engulfing everything in its path. Now as news of the spread of the MWA publisher blacklist builds, I'm picturing a huge snowball headed right at small and self-publishers. And I'm thinking it's time to get out our blowtorches before it scoops us up in its wake.

Evidence of this snowball effect comes from the minutes of the 2007 Bouchercon, the oldest and largest annual convention of mystery fans, mystery authors, mystery publishers, mystery book dealers, mystery book stores and mystery publishing agents. According to the minutes from this fall's Boucercon held in Anchorage, Alaska, a member of the standing committee pointed out that "the top writers were no longer attending Bouchercons and this was primarily due to the proliferation of self-published authors."

The minutes go on to say that the time has come for the committee to "develop quality control, criteria to determine who is a legitimate author and who is not." They then say, "This would be the only way to regain lost fans and authors. There must be an accepted list of publishers, not necessarily the same list MWA uses but one that ensures that self-published and vanity press authors would not be placed on panels and these criteria should be made public." The committee went on to appoint a subcommittee to develop criteria to present at the 2008 Bouchercon.

Maybe they won't decide to use the MWA list, but it's a pretty safe bet that they'll use some similar criteria to determine "who is a legitimate author and who is not." In other words, they will assign legitimate author status based on the author's publisher rather than on the author's writing.

That's how the snowball grows. But what hope do we have of stopping the proliferation of the approved-publisher list? Aren't those of us who aren't on the list just a tiny minority railing against the establishment? Aren't the majority of mystery authors' books published by publishers who are on the MWA list?

Get ready for a big surprise. In fact only about one-third of mysteries and thrillers listed in the Amazon 2006 database, which is the most comprehensive publicly available source of data, have publishers who are on the MWA list. How do I know this? A mystery-writer colleague, Linda-Tuck Jenkins (who also writes as Mary Clay) is an unhappy MWA member who has been vigorously protesting the approved publisher list. She took the time to search the entire Amazon mystery and thriller list, doing a company by company search for all 93 companies on the MWA Publisher list as well as the major print-on-demand firms that the old guard complain about.Here's what she found:

  • 8,383 mysteries & thrillers were published in 2006. Only 2,575— or 31% of the total—were published by one of the 93 companies on the MWA list.

  • Another 18% were published by one of the four large print-on-demand publishers most often criticized by the old guard—iUniverse, Publish America, Lulu, and Authorhouse. While the old guard complain that these subsidy publishers have flooded the market with inferior work these statistics show it’s hardly a flood.

  • The remaining 51% of the books were published by small or self-publishers who do not qualify (or did not apply) for the MWA List. Their sins could be as simple as not paying authors an advance, yet paying larger royalties; not being in business for at least two years; having family members work in the business; or using print-on-demand technology to produce their books.


Wow! So we non-list-published authors are the majority! Clearly we don't have to sit meekly back while the old guard declares us to be non-legitimate authors based on who published our books. I think it's time for everyone to slow down, take another look at the criteria, and develop some author standards that don't exclude two-thirds of the mystery books published in a year.

Thursday, November 22, 2007

A Self-Publisher Gives Thanks

Today is Thanksgiving so it seems only fitting to take a rest from reciting wrongs and make a list of what I am thankful for as a writer and publisher. The book business has come a long way since my first book was published in 1984, and I appreciate so much that is out there now to make our job easier.

  • Digital printing. What a great use of technology! No more storing 10,000 books in our attic like we did in the 1980s. And it allows us to save paper by printing only the number of books we need.

  • Lightning Source (LSI). I upload my pdf files and my books are available on Amazon and other online stores right away. Readers can order them easily and I don't have to mess with packing and shipping books. No more sticky tape, bubble wrap or trips to the post office!

  • Adobe Creative Suite. (I have CS2) Gives me the tools to do professional layout, covers, bookmarks, postcards—whatever. I've gotten many compliments on the cover of my novel—even though the experts say, "never do your own cover."

  • Amazon and other online stores. Puts self-publishers on an almost level playing field with the big guys. (Disclosure: I'm a stockholder.)

  • The Yahoo Self-Publishing Group. (Sponsored by SPAN. List moderators: John Culleton, Marion Gropen, and JC Simonds) I've gotten tips on everything from margins to marketing on this well-run, fact-filled group.

  • On-line reviewers. These unpaid readers write and post reviews because they love books and want to let other readers know about books they might enjoy. My special thanks to Reader Views, TCM Reviews, Armchair Interviews, BookPleasures, and Mainly Mysteries for reviewing Too Near The Edge.












Okay, it's time to go cook a turkey now and spend some good time with family. Best wishes to you all for a relaxing Thanksgiving break. And next week we'll get back to putting the pressure on the old guard to give all authors equal opportunity in the writing and publishing community.

Wednesday, November 14, 2007

Which Publishers Have Stars?

The approved-publisher list that Mystery Writers of America (MWA) puts out reminds me of the Dr. Seuss story about the Star-Belly Sneetches. If you recall, down in Sneetchland—or wherever they lived—some Sneetches had stars on their bellies and some didn't. The Star-Belly Sneetches thought they were so much better than the Plain-Belly ones that they ignored them, didn't invite them to their events and generally would have nothing to do with them.

Hmmm…sort of reminds you of some traditionally-published authors not inviting us self-published or independently-published authors to have author status at their conferences, doesn't it? Or of how some of those traditionally-published authors call our work rubbish that's not worth the time to consider.

But back to the Sneetches. One day a guy named McBean showed up in Sneetchland with a machine that, for a small fee, would add stars to the bellies of the Plain-Bellies. Thrilled, they lined up, went though and popped out with stars. With great excitement they proclaimed that they were exactly like the Star-Bellies and no one could tell them apart. No surprise that the Star-Bellies were very upset. They knew they were still the best and the others were the worst, but they didn't know how to tell who was who anymore.

Hmmm…maybe that's what some traditionally-published authors are worried about. Self-publishers and small independent presses have gotten so good that it's hard to tell our books from theirs. Good grief! Someone might mistake one of our books for one of theirs, start reading it and actually like it before realizing that it should be considered inferior because its publisher isn't on the approved-publisher list.

But the Sneetches' story goes on. Once more, the clever McBean had a solution for them. For a slightly higher fee each, he put the original Star-Bellies through the machine and removed their stars so they once again looked different from the others and could proclaim that they were the best. Well, then the Sneetches with stars had to go through the machine again and get theirs removed. And then the others got their stars put back on—and on and on until no one could tell at all who was a Star-Belly and who was a Plain-Belly.Wow! What if there was no MWA list of approved publishers? How would conferences like Left Coast Crime and Mayhem in the Midlands figure out which authors should be granted author status? Would they have to open their panels to applications from all authors? Would they have to accept all mystery books into their dealer rooms?That's what the Sneetches did. They finally decided that stars didn't matter at all and that no kind of Sneetch is inherently better than the others. Will the Mystery Writers of America and conference organizers wise up the way the Sneetches did? We can only hope.

Thursday, November 8, 2007

If We Publish Great Books, Will They Buy Them?

Publishing and marketing consultant Shel Horowitz made an interesting comment on my October 25 blog post—the one where I talked about conferences discriminating against self publishing. He said:
"The very best way to overcome the stigma about self-publishing is to blow people out of the water with the quality of your book. That means a great story (fiction)/useful and practical information (nonfiction), professional editing and proofreading, professional interior and cover design...and a track record in the marketplace. Produce books that win awards and testimonials and great reviews!" 

This message is one I've heard over and over from the old guard. They essentially say, "Quite whining about discrimination. Just focus on making your books the very best they can be and you'll do fine." If only that were true! It's such a lovely, idealistic way of looking at publishing. But it's not the way it actually works.

Selling books is much more complicated than just building a better mousetrap and waiting for people to beat a path to your door. And Shel Horowitz knows this. He even says on his website: " …an author or publisher releasing a book today has to work four times as hard to get noticed as authors and publishers did just sixteen years ago." He also says, "The book industry is rigged against ordinary folks, and 90 percent of books never sell more than 1000 copies." He knows self publishers and small publishers need help. That's why he writes how-to books about marketing and offers consulting to help book publishers market their books—which, by the way, I hear he's very good at.

In reality, when it comes to self publishing, the type of book probably affects sales more than the editing, layout and cover design. Nonfiction books fare much better than fiction. If you are an expert in an area and you write a useful how-to book passing on your knowledge, readers don't care all that much how the book looks. I can testify to that from personal experience selling our stress-management book, Stress? Find Your Balance, which looks great in its current 4th edition incarnation, but started out looking embarrassingly amateurish. Nevertheless we sold over 50,000 copies of that book before its current edition. Why? Because it contains useful information and we could sell it in bulk at a large discount to wellness centers and such.

But if you write a novel, it's a very different game. It can be a well-written, professionally designed, award-winning book, but few people will know about it if you can't get it reviewed by newspapers, displayed at conferences, and discussed by other media outlets. Again I draw on personal experience. My novel, Too Near The Edge, has gotten good reviews from online reviewers and on Amazon and it won an IPPY award. But my local paper won't consider it for review because it's self published. And, also because it's self published I can't have it in the book dealers' room at the Left Coast Crime conference, which is being held here this spring.

So we reformers don't agree with the old guard. We say, "Yes, our books need to be good, but it doesn't matter how good they are if prejudice against self publishing keeps us from getting the word out."

Thursday, November 1, 2007

Is Conference Use of the MWA List Really Discrimination?

Discussion of the MWA approved publisher list has been heated this week on writing/publishing blogs and groups. Some who defend the use of the list (let's call them the old guard) say the list's use by conferences is not discrimination because no author has a right to have author status at a conference. The old guard says that the authors and publishers whose books are rejected are only rejected because their books don't meet certain standards. They liken this to other requirements—say, for example, a job description that requires an applicant to have at least two years of experience in the field in order to be considered for employment. So—the old guard asks triumphantly—would you say that all the people who don't have two years of experience are being discriminated against by this job requirement?

Duh. Of course we wouldn't say that. We (let's call us the reformers) know that the definition of discrimination (according to the 1992 American Heritage Dictionary), is "Treatment or consideration based on class or category rather than individual merit; A situation in which a group or individual is treated differently based on something other than individual reason, usually their membership in a distinct group or category."

We would agree that requiring someone to have a certain level of experience to be hired is reasonable and pertains to the applicant's individual merit. That requirement is very different than saying for example that no applicants from Colorado will be considered. Such a requirement could exclude very experienced and qualified candidates by ruling them out as a group based on where they live.

We reformers would also agree that we can't claim it is our right to be on a panel at a conference or have our books for sale in a conference's dealer room. All we are saying is that if some authors are to be granted certain privileges and status, the criteria for who is or is not selected should be based on individual merit. Judge the books by their quality. Don't assume you can judge their quality on the basis of who published them. Don't assume that if they were any good they would have been published by a traditional publisher.

While it's easier to just rule out an entire category of books, doing so will eliminate some good along with some bad. And, in fact, accepting all authors whose books are published by "accepted" publishers will let in some bad along with some good. If conference organizers really want to judge quality, they should do that. If that's too time consuming, why not let any author apply to be on a panel and select the ones whose panel proposals they like? As long as they let all authors apply and as long as they have some specific merit-based criteria for judging the proposals, we reformers would accept their decisions.

I would not object to being denied author status at a conference if someone had actually looked at my book and decided it didn't qualify. I might not agree with their judgement, but I would accept the process. I do, however, object to being denied author status because my family owns the company that published my book or because I have a financial interest in that company. That is discrimination because it's exclusion based on my being in a certain category or group of publishers, rather than on the merit of my book.