Sunday, June 21, 2009

Digital-Only Publishers: In The Ghetto

There's a fascinating and potentially important debate going on within the membership of Romance Writers of America as their annual meeting approaches, and it's worth following for anyone interested in digital publishing, whether or not you give a hoot about romance novels or RWA.

Central to the debate is the status of authors whose works are published only in ebook format and of the acceptance of digital-only publishers, some of whom have been very successful, within RWA. Apparently, there's a lot of history (not to mention intramural and interpersonal politics) in play as the debate has unfolded, but the opening shot of the current round was fired by outgoing RWA president Diane Pershing's letter in the most recent edition of RWA's magazine. In that letter, she effectively dismissed the digital only business model and authors who choose to operate on those terms as unworthy of RWA's stamp of approval. She also reiterated RWA's decision not to provide any workshops or educational programs about digital rights generally and digital publishing specifically at their annual meeting, implying that the level of interest among the majority of members didn't support providing such programming.

In response, agent and author Deidre Knight (who has been successful wearing both hats in print and digital arenas) posted a thoughtful rejoinder on the website of RWA's special interest chapter (Electronic and Small Press) ESPAN. Ms Pershing responded a few days later with her own post her own post on ESPAN, and the battle was joined. The dozens of comments in response to each of these posts, the chatter on twitter (#RWA.Change) and the formation of a new Yahoo Group reflect the intensity of the debate and are worth reading, despite their length and some inevitable redundance (and stupidity).

So what, you ask? Old generation vs new generation in a fight over the future of a writers' organization is not the stuff of headlines. But there's something deeper going on here. The implication of Ms Pershings's statements is that digital publishing is not only different from traditional print's inferior. And inferior to the point that its name shall not be spoken. In so doing, she not only disses a growing market, she also does RWA's members a great disservice by not educating both established and aspiring writers about an alternative way of approaching (or supplementing) their careers with new tools.

Interesting stuff, but more interesting to me is an undercurrent throughout the discussion that digital-only publishers are implicitly shady characters whose business practices are suspect, who are in the business for a quick buck and who are ruthlessly exploiting authors for short term gain. Undoubtedly there have been and are some of those out there (and there are others who do authors a disservice with shoddy or non-existent editorial and marketing support), but there are players in print publishing whose contract, accounting and payment practices don't exactly meet the gold standard either. (If you're in doubt, check the news on Inkwell's collapse due to non-payment from major publishing companies or talk to an author who was unceremoniously dumped when her first novel's sales didn't live up to expectations.) .

While I understand that new business models deserve close scrutiny and the new-kid-on-the-block publisher (whether digital or print) must earn the trust of the author community, the wholesale ghetto-ization of a different model from that with which RWA has been traditionally aligned seems shortsighted at best and discriminatory against a significant and growing percentage of its membership at worst.

I'll be following this closely as it unfolds and hope RWA and other writers associations begin to let the scales fall from their eyes as new models and practices evolve in response to the failing traditional print publishing and distribution models. My money's on the insurgents here and I wish them well.


  1. Of equal importance is the question of whether writers' organizations--and RWA is not alone in their shunning of new publishing models--exceed their bounds when they seek to dictate how people must run a business. While no one faults them for wanting to protect the interests of those they serve, to do so by dictating there is one and only one way to achieve those interests seems high-handed and counterproductive.

    There seems to be an underlying sense from the way these organizations address the issue of digital publishing that they operate under the delusion that writers should, without exception, be able to support themselves with their craft. It's a worthy goal, but one that breaks very quickly when it strikes reality. The likelihood of ANY writer making enough on book sales alone to give up the day job is slim.

    The irony, then, is that by not just ignoring but actively opposing the new publishing business model, these groups prevent talented writers from even trying to achieve that goal. Instead of looking at the alternative path and determining new criteria based on what works, they demand the travelers on that alternative path adopt practices that are all but guaranteed to put them out of business--and leave the authors they've published hanging.

    In an era when technology changes on an all but daily basis, insisting "this is the only way because it's the way we've always done it" is the height of silliness.

  2. The big point, and you make it quite lucidly, is that RWA's position does RWA's membership a disservice. If the organization is no longer anticipating and subsequently representing the NEEDS of its membership, where is its value? I don't think this RWA stance can last much longer. I think of the classic film On the Waterfront; the parallels certainly are not as violent, but are as startling. It's time for evolution.

  3. Don, this seems to be a problem with many publishing related trade organizations. Once them move from serving their constituents to dictating to them, their usefulness is over.

  4. Thanks for putting this together so well, Don. I hope RWA's board is reading this, but then it is online and that's kind of new technology, so...