A Beginner’s Guide to #RWAChange

By Neal Comment


Last week, the Electronic and Small Press Authors’ Network, a special interest group formed within the ranks of the Romance Writers of America, published an essay by author and literary agent Deidre Knight criticizing RWA’s institutional attitudes towards digital publishing—including a definition of what constitutes a legitimate publishing operation, based on a $1,000 minimum advance against royalties, that leaves e-book companies out in the cold, along with the lack of any educational programming on digital publishing at this year’s annual national convention. “If RWA truly wants to protect authors,” Knight wrote, “then it’s time to join the 21st century where the rules of the digital market are changing daily.”

RWA president Diane Pershing responded to Knight’s criticisms with her own guest essay at the ESPAN website, which began by noting they did offer a workshop on digital publishing last year and hardly anybody came; she remarked that it was “impossible to justify the expense of providing qualified speakers if members aren’t interested in attending the sessions.” Pershing then went on to argue that catering to “e-published authors” would be of no benefit to the majority of the organization’s membership, and insinuated that Knight was making waves because her electronic-only novel, Butterfly Tattoo, wasn’t up for one of their annual literary prizes and its publisher, Samhain, doesn’t meet the RWA standard of legitimacy. “Just because something is currently popular with those who have chosen to embrace it doesn’t make it necessarily right,” Pershing said of the pro-e-book argument, clarifying that, from her perspective, “RWA has adapted to the rise of digital publishing in a steady and, yes, careful manner.” And if e-book publishers weren’t going to offer their authors at least $1,000 advances, they would continue to be viewed as non-legitimate, no matter how much their authors eventually collect.

Both Knight’s argument and Pershing’s rebuttal provoked intense reactions within the romance publishing community. You can find a lot of conversation on Twitter if you search for the hashtag “#RWAChange,” but you should also take a look at responses to Pershing by two of the most prominent romance community blogs. At Dear Author, Jane Litte asks, “Why care what RWA thinks? Why advocate for RWA to change? Why not simply withdraw from the organization?” But Sarah Wendell of Smart Bitches, Trashy Books offers a qualified defense of the organization, noting its significance as the foundation of a strongly bonded literary community. “The smaller connections between individuals are priceless,” she reflects, “even if the larger community is troublesome and fractious sometimes.” Even though she profoundly disagrees with RWA leadership about digital publishing, Wendell explains, she has too much invested in that network of relationships to simply walk away: “RWA is too valuable to be without strong digital publishing education and advocacy within it. ”