Posts Tagged ‘RITA’

booksOnce again, the Romance Writers of America finds itself in controversy. This is nothing new, of course. Given RWA’s widespread membership (and past hostilities), it’s inevitable that the organization hits rough spots. But this time they’re hitting a rough spot that most of the other writers’ organizations will also be hitting soon: What constitutes a professional writer?

The genesis of the problem is, of course, the self-pubbing phenomenon. For those who are just coming onto the scene, the advent of Smashwords and Amazon Publishing has made it possible for anyone to publish a manuscript electronically, without the intervention of a professional publisher. Several published authors have seized on this option as a way to publish out-of-print titles, as well as new titles that have yet to be contracted. The great attraction, of course, is that the author reaps all the book’s profits after publishing expenses, and for authors with an established reputation (and following) like J.A. Konrath the rewards have been immense.

But, of course, it isn’t just published authors who have taken advantage of the self-publishing business. Unpublished writers have also rushed to put up their manuscripts, frequently unedited and unread by anyone except the author. The result has been predictable. While a few authors have flourished, there have also been some very public disasters (e.g., the Jacqueline Howett trainwreck). And now the writers associations are faced with a dilemma: is self-publishing a book enough to qualify a writer for membership?

There are lots of ramifications for this decision, but let’s concentrate on one in particular where RWA is concerned—the RITA contest. The RITA is RWA’s award for published authors. The entries are dominated by large New York publishing houses and the contest depends on published authors to serve as judges. At the moment, all entries must be from established publishers, but if self-pubbing becomes more dominant among the RWA membership, there will undoubtedly be a push to open the RITA to self-pubbed authors as well.

So what, you might say? Well, as a past RITA judge, I’m here to tell you I’d think twice about volunteering again. I’ve also judged several contests for unpublished writers. Some of the entries I’ve seen are terrific and certain to be published. Some are decent but flawed—the authors will probably be able to publish with a little work. But some are dreck. The only saving grace with those is the fact that the entries are only twenty-five pages long. If I had to read several book-length entries that were that bad, I’d probably throw in the towel.

Would the self-pubbed books all be dreck? Of course not. But the chances of running into dreck will increase if the manuscript hasn’t been checked over by anyone but the author. And trying to limit self-pubbed entries to those that have been professionally edited is going to be, well, difficult.

So what to do? Do you limit the entries to those published by established publishing houses (which is what RWA does now)? Self-pubbed authors whose books have sold lots of copies will argue that’s hardly fair. But how do you clamp some kind of quality control on entries so that judges aren’t reading books that are semi-literate?

EPIC (the Electronic Publishing Internet Connection), which has longer experience with ebooks than RWA, has always refused to include self-pubbed books in its EPIC Awards. RWA can certainly do the same, but if it does, the debate is likely to be fierce since RWA is still reaping the results of the hostility created by its long-time anti-epub stance.

The publishing industry is in a state of flux, and the ultimate result is still unclear. But organizations like RWA can’t wait to see how everything falls out. They need to start thinking about this now.



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RITA and Me, Part 2

booksAs some may remember, I’ve already posted about judging for this year’s RWA RITA contest. It was an interesting experience—some of the books were first rate (I’ve discovered a couple of authors I really enjoyed whose other books I’m now reading), others were less so. I plan on volunteering again next year.

But one response I got to my judging was a little unexpected. A couple of ebook and erotica writers told me they refused to judge the RITAs, even though they were members in good standing of the RWA Professional Authors Network (which RITA judges must be). Their reason? They felt their work was unfairly excluded from the competition because of its format or its subject matter; therefore, they refused to join in the competition as judges when they couldn’t be contestants.

I understand this point of view quite well. Like a lot of other PAN members, I’d like to see RWA accept ebooks as RITA entrants and I also believe RITA badly needs a specific erotica category (since erotica authors shouldn’t be forced to compete in categories where they don’t fit and since some PAN members object strenuously to reading anything they consider erotic). But although I understand the logic here, I’d also urge these writers to reconsider their position.

For a while, RWA had a kind of “two-tiered” membership, divided between writers who were published by the big New York print houses and writers who were published by small houses that specialized in epubs and POD (print on demand). Not surprisingly perhaps, writers in the first group tended to look down upon writers in the second group. That attitude is changing I think, given the widespread popularity of ebooks and the rise of a new self-publishing industry that even some print authors have embraced. But that way of thinking still occasionally rears its head. I wonder sometimes if RITA entries from small independent presses receive the same attention from judges as those from the big print houses. They should, of course, but I’m not sure it always happens.

Old attitudes die hard. If those of us who publish with smaller houses want to be taken seriously, we need to make our presence known. A judge who publishes with both majors and minors or a judge who publishes with an indie press is much less likely to dismiss a book from a smaller publisher when it shows up in her RITA bundle, even unconsciously.

It only makes sense for writers from all types of publishing formats to take their place in RWA. If changes are ever to be made in the way RITA entries are categorized and distributed, writers from smaller publishers need to make their voices heard. And one way to do that is to stand alongside other PAN members in judging the RITAs.

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RITA and Me

This is the second year I’ve entered books in the RITA contest, sponsored by the Romance Writers of American. The RITA is probably the most prestigious award for romance novelists, given that we’re not considered for things like the National Book Award. The number of entries is capped at 1,200, and every year some people don’t get in under the deadline.

This is the first year when I’ve also volunteered to judge the RITA. I had to think long and hard about doing it, since it meant reading and judging six to eight complete novels in a couple of months. However, I feel strongly that if you’re going to enter contests, you need to give back by agreeing to judge them too. So I entered my preferences and sat down to wait for my package.

While everyone was waiting for their books to show up, a spirited discussion started on the Professional Authors Network (PAN) list. Some of the authors wished that the RITA could become electronic. They lived in places that had had epic snowfalls, or they lived in countries other than the USA, and they knew it was going to take a while for their books to be delivered. They wanted them now.

The response from many PAN members was immediate and (sort of) predictable. Electronic files would never work. Not everybody had e-readers and even for the ones who did, what possible format could suffice for all the different readers out there? Lots of people didn’t like reading electronic files and preferred hard copy. Lots of people regarded the books themselves as a reward for judging the contest. It was already too complicated to get the printed volumes sent to the judges; electronic files would just make it worse. And wasn’t this just another of those ongoing arguments where the ebook authors bitched about being unappreciated?

Well, no, it wasn’t. I’ve been judging contests for a while now, like a lot of members of PAN. And what I’ve seen over the past three or four years has been the gradual transformation of most contests from printed pages to electronic files. Electronic files are easier to distribute and return, easier to comment upon, and in many ways easier to read, given the variable quality of photocopiers. Now granted, most contests are for unpublished authors and their entries run twenty to thirty pages rather than complete MSS. But what works for these contests should also work for contests like the RITA.

To take the objections in turn:

Not everybody has e-readers and even for the ones who do, what possible format could suffice for all the different readers out there? For a while many contests for unpubbed writers were both electronic and print. People who preferred electronic files could get them that way, while people who preferred print could get the entries in print. I’ve noticed that that option has pretty much disappeared as more and more judges have gotten used to electronic files. RITA could begin by offering the electronic option for those with ereaders and the hard copy option for those without. My guess is, the majority of judges would eventually go electronic. As for the format, Adobe has this cute little format called .pdf which can be read by virtually every ereader on the market, or failing that, on your computer. And there’s a free program called Calibre that will convert formats for ereaders. Format is sort of a red herring in this argument.

Lots of people don’t like reading electronic files. Lots of people regard the books themselves as a reward for judging the contest. Again, allowing people the option of choosing electronic files would take care of this, and the electronic files would serve as just as much a “reward” as the hard copy ones.

It’s already too complicated to get the printed volumes sent to the judges. This is actually another argument for electronic files. Transmitting printed books requires boxes, postage, correct addresses (and there’s no way to know whether the books were missent until someone complains) and a great deal of time and effort. Transmitting electronic files requires email addresses and a functioning computer. And if the files don’t go through, you find out immediately. It would also be an advantage for authors: sending five copies of a book to RWA for a RITA entry is an additional expense. The reduction in labor and cost for both the organization and the authors could be substantial.

There was one more objection that was made repeatedly to the idea of electronic files—allowing electronic entries might increase the number of authors who entered the RITA. Now some might see this as a plus, but RWA really doesn’t. They’re already having trouble getting enough judges for those 1,200 entries. But right now there’s a good chance that many electronic authors don’t bother to volunteer to judge the RITA because they’re not allowed to enter themselves. In fact, expecting authors to judge who can’t enter is sort of like expecting somebody to decorate for a party to which she’s not invited. If RWA would really like to increase the number of RITA judges, one way to do so would be to allow more people to qualify for the contest in the first place.

There’s some hope for the future here. Other contests for published authors, like the Holt Medallion and the Beanpot, have found ways to allow authors to submit ebooks. When RWA finally decides to take the plunge, there will be precedents for them to follow. I’m hoping eventually that will happen. Meanwhile, if y’all will excuse me now, I gotta go read.


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