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.


  1. Paying to have your writing printed does not make you a published author. It makes you printed. "Self-published" makes you an author in the same way that buying a stethoscope makes you a doctor. You don't fool anyone, not even yourself.

  2. I am one of the authors who is not considered legitimate despite the fact that I am an active member of Mystery Writers of America (and have been for about 20 years) and have over 20 published books. My mysteries are published by an independent e-publisher who does trade paperbacks too, but he doesn't pay advances or print 500 books at a time (two of the criteria for the approved publishers list--though he meets all the rest.)As more proof that this is an elitist tactic, now the thriller community has it's own convention and organization and guess who most of the members are? Yep, myster writers.The only Bouchercon I know of that didn't have as much attendance was the one in Alaska where the Bouchercon committee came up with this recommendation about "legitimate" authors. Frankly, the main reason people didn't go is that it cost nearly $1000 to fly there for most people. No one has mentioned that.One place mystery writers, no matter who they are published by, won't be discriminated against is the Public Safety Writers Association's conference which is being held in Las Vegas in April. Everyone will have the opportunity to give an elevator pitch about his or her book and have the book on sale. Check it out at: http://www.policewriter.comWe're also looking for publishers who might like to be on a panel.

  3. I am a mystery writer published through Infinity. There are only a handful of us with this company, so I don't think our statistics would change your findings much. It has heartened me to see independent authors standing up for themselves. Just a few months ago I was so sad to see so many roadblocks placed in our way, the MWA was just another entity to say I was unworthy without even reading what I had written.Why would I choose to attend a conference where I was not wanted?When you realize that the big publishing companies are really only 8 or 10 in the world, it makes the field too narrow, and as always their bottom line is the dollar, not the quality of the writing.So kudos to all of us who choose to stand together and keep the faith. I don't feel so alone anymore!

  4. The serious irony with the MWA standards for acceptance is that, by their own rules, an author needn't have sold a single copy of a book to be a member, while people who've sold the required minimum of $1,000 in actual sales are barred because their publisher didn't print 500 copies.I've been dealing with this situation for the last four years, and after speaking with authors who support these elitist criteria several things have become clear. First, many of them have no idea that there are publishers who choose not to do print runs (or accept returns) for reasons environmental. However, the one thing that comes out over and over--and I doubt they're even aware of it--is that these people seem to feel their accomplishment, having gone through the required hoops to publication, is diminished by anyone who didn't have to.In other words, it's an ego thing. "I worked hard submitting for X years before I finally got a break, so anyone who didn't do that didn't pay their dues." That's the operative phrase: paying one's dues. Instead of rejoicing that a talented writer DIDN'T have to pound on the unyielding doors to get published, they resent it. Instead of admitting that, however, they fall back on the myths that no book digitally printed or electronically published can possibly have the quality of one published by the mainstream--and no amount of contradictory facts will change their mind.I literally had one of those who vehemently opposes any kind of digital publishing tell one of my authors he should demand his rights back so he could go bang on the mainstream doors, because he was too good a writer to be wasted on a "vanity publisher."I don't anticipate this changing anytime soon, as these folks are as committed to that point of view as are those who are joined at the hip to particular political parties, c.f. Dean Weston's THE POLITICAL BRAIN. They're too emotionally committed to their position that only advance-paying, print-run producing publishers are legitimate.

  5. The funny thing is, that some of the publishers listed on the MWA list do NOT pay advances. Bella Books, a lesbian publisher, does not pay advances. If it states it does, they must only do it with select authors. I know first hand.I agree that for all the valiant effort many of us might put forth, this situation won't change soon or easily. Has anyone talked seriously of forming an organization for self published authors?

  6. Inanna, have you read the requirements for membership in SFWA. You know, the ones that state that in order to qualify for full membership you must be published by a company that pays a minimum of $2,000 or five cents per word and have a print run or circulation of at least 1,000? The only concession they've made is to allow 1,000 downloads of an ebook to be a qualifier for the requirement, and I suspect they only did that because of the Baen Library.The RWA requirements are similar.And MWA doesn't require the $1,000 the prospective member has to earn be an advance. It can be the equivalent in sales. It's the demand for a minimum print run that's the issue because it is clearly intended to keep anyone whose publisher uses inventory-free publishing from qualifying. In other words, it's discrimination, pure and simple, as are the SFWA requirements.The question isn't why much money he or she makes should define a professional but why a professional should be defined by the way he or she chooses to be published. If the goal of these organizations is, as they keep insisting, to maintain the professional caliber of their membership, then why don't they set up a membership committee to screen those who are not traditionally published based on the quality of their work instead of whether or not they had a print run?A professional is defined as someone who pursues a particular line of work and gets paid for it. I have no quarrel with setting minimum earning levels as a membership criterion. I have a problem with someone saying how that money is earned has any relevance. It's like saying a surgeon is qualified to be a member of the AMA but not a general practitioner.It has nothing to do with the qualifications of the prospective members and everything to do with keeping out the riff-raff.

  7. I have to add one more thing--there were lots of big name authors at Bouchercon in Anchorage what there weren't so many of was just ordinary folks and again I say that was because of the cost.I'm now looking for smaller conferences and conventions that don't have this elitist attitude.What the Bouchercon committee failed to grasp is that many of the attendees who are published by non-MWA approved publishers are fans and they buy books too. I know I sure do.Mayhem in the Midlands is another con that is using the MWA list. Since it's a smaller conference they may feel the pinch of the authors not attending who are published by the non-approved publisheers. I'm sad because it was my favorite mystery con and I loved going to Omaha. I will miss all the friends and fans I've made at that particular conference--but I'm sure not going where I'm not wanted.By the way, my latest Deputy Tempe Crabtree mystery, Judgment Fire, is a finalist for an Eppie and the cover won the Ariana award in the mystery category. No, I didn't design the cover, but I love it.

  8. The MWA list is a problem for all serious writers who elect to self-publish. In my humble opinion, any attempt to suppress the written word is unfortunate. The marketplace has always done an excellent job of culling.I understand and support a conference's desire to set standards for panel member participation. However discriminating against one method of publishing does not set a standard. It's an easy way out and the organizers can place the blame at MWA's doorstep.Conferences and conventions should use other standards for selecting panel members. I moderate panels and teach workshops at conferences routinely, including Dark and Stormy, Love is Murder and Bouchercon. The lone fact that I self-publish does not make me a bad panel member or teacher. For me, self-publishing was a deliberate choice, not a desparate move.We can all name books that were published traditionally that were dreadful and didn't sell out their first print run. Are those writers "better" because they were published out of New York? Will those writers draw more attendees to conferences?My goal as a writer is to improve with each effort. Conferences should have the same goal. Hopefully, they can examine their motives and find ways to ensure quality without discriminating against a form of publication.