Friday, April 10, 2009

Ooooh, Controversy!

The Romance Writers of America's RITA Awards have the romance writing community all a'twitter again. The finalists were announced a couple weeks ago and apparently that was all the impetus needed to spark up the old debate.

I have to say, I'm pretty psyched about going to my first ever National RWA Conference this year. Partially cuz I get to see it all as a Golden Heart finalist (woop!), but also because I love a good controversy and I think the general meeting this year is gonna be a doosie.

Here's the sitch: Many erotic romance (FYI: not erotica, but romance with erotic elements) and ebook authors feel marginalized and discriminated against by this national organization that purports to advocate for and support career-oriented romance writers. Not just mainstream romance writers. Not just plain-vanilla, euphemistic, married-sex-behind-closed-doors romance writers. Not just Dame Nora, in her noble quest for the longest Lifetime movie marathon of all time. All of us.

Now, you may be wondering, why do these authors feel marginalized and discriminated against? It boils down to three RWA policies which, for various reasons, many erotic romance & ebook authors find discriminatory.

Thing Number One - The Tortoise & the Hare. PAN is RWA's Published Author Network. It's the Big Girl's Table. In order to get into PAN you have to receive $1000 or more from the sale of a single novel or novella either as an advance or in royalties. Frankly, I agree that there should be standards for PAN, a financial benchmark seems as logical as any other, and I don't think $1000 is an unreasonable amount. HOWEVER, let's look at a hypothetical. Suppose Jane Truelove sells her masterpiece to a NY pub for an advance of $5,000. She's insta-PAN. But then she gets sophomore-itis, or has triplets, or decides to join the peace corp, and doesn't sell another word for four years. Her masterpiece was not a rousing success and never earned out the advance (so she doesn't get another penny). At the same time, Sally Sexitup sells four novels, novellas or short stories every year to a bitty itty e-press, making royalties of $800 on each one, but never crossing that $1000 threshold. No PAN. In those four years, Sally has made over twelve grand to Jane's five, but Jane is the one who gets to go to the PAN retreat at the National conference. Is Sally any less published or "career-oriented" than Jane? What do you think? Fair? Unfair? I definitely think there should be standards, but the deck does seem to be stacked toward those who achieve a certain kind of success. It's a tricksy quesiton.

Thing Number Two - Categorically Unfair. The RITAs are RWA's version of the Oscars for Romance Novels. The controversy is this: There is no category for erotic romance. There are two different categories of historical (regency & regular). There are two different categories for series romances (adventure/suspense & regular). Also Paranormal, Single Title, Novel with Romantic Elements, Inspirational, Young Adult and Best First Book. And the categories are revised often in an attempt to maintain relevance to the current romance market. But no erotic. Erotic romances get tossed into whichever other category is the closest fit. Now, I read across several different genres and heat levels and I'm pretty hard to offend, but not everyone is comfortable with all levels of sexuality. RITA judges who are offended by the heat level may score well-written erotic romances poorly or even mark them as "Not Romance" - a classification which can disqualify an entry if used by three judges. Some erotic romance authors feel that their books are not given a fair shake in the RITAs. While that may be true (judging is subjective so how would you even determine whether or not judges were treating them fairly?), I feel they also need to acknowledge the luck of the draw involved in any contest of this kind. Even with a specialized erotic romance category, there will still be judges who react in unexpected ways to your books. Maybe you gave your hero her ex-husband's name. Or maybe your villain's name is the same as her cute little cuddly puppy. You can't predict what will resonate with a reader. Even if you are positive you won't offend her heat-level sensibilities. (For more on this debate, you can check out Dear Author's discussion on the topic: )

Thing Number Three: Mass-Produced Hysteria. This debate was more violent a few months ago when authors were submitting their RITA entries, but I have a feeling it's gonna be a hot topic at National this year. It's nice and incendiary. Very polarizing. Ahhhh, doncha just love controversy? Anyway, the issue is this: a new rule was added to the RITA qualifications this year, stating that all entries had to be "mass-produced." To the best of my knowledge, no definition of mass-produced was ever provided, but the implied exclusion of small presses & epresses incapable of running mass-market print runs set spark to an explosive debate. (For more check out this entry of the Beyond the Book Blog: ). RWA explained that they had to limit the number of entries somehow and in order to promote romance novels as a whole they were best served by focusing on the mass-produced books. In this, I must say I disagree. I think that quality whether it comes from a micropress or the biggest print publisher is what will best promote romance novels as a whole. You have to limit entries? First come, first served. Or a mix of first-come, first-served and a willingness to judge - which is exactly how they cut off entries for the unpubbed contest that runs alongside the RITA, the Golden Heart. The judges can see the imprint on the book, so small presses may still not get a completely unbiased read, but I would like to see them being allowed to enter the race. Quality not quantity of copies produced should determine who is honored, in my opinion.

I have my own biases on these issues, as you can see in what I've written above, but I want to be very clear that I am not attacking or blaming anyone. I like RWA and I think I have benefited a great deal from being a member. I think, like any large organization, that RWA is rather slow to adapt to change and things are changing mighty fast in epublishing right now. There will always be those who resist change, but attacking them or their beliefs is not generally a very effective way of changing their minds. I tend to think cooler heads will eventually prevail... provided all the ebook & erotic romance authors don't march off in a huff and leave RWA feeling justified in running the upstarts off. This year's explosive debates will lend themselves to next year's (or, perhaps more likely, the year after's) plodding changes. RWA is, in many ways, a political body. And, as we are all learning as we watch our country make the slow turn under the heading of a new administration, political bodies are notoriously slow to react to change.

But in the mean time, the controversy sure is fun to watch.

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