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.

1 comment:

  1. Thanks for opening my eyes to this issue. I was unaware of the fact that writer's organizations and contests were discriminating against self- and small publishers. Like it's not hard enough out there already for us. Do you think there is anything self/small publishers can do to change the way books are evaluated for contests? I am happy to write letters. Are you aware of other groups who are adopting the same vetting system?