With the Hollywood writers' strike drawing to a close, I realize that I'm a little late in posting on this topic -- and its relation to the mystery publishing business -- once again making me realize that I am a "bad blogger," as good bloggers are supposed to be very of the moment. But I comfort myself in the belief that publishing is always several steps behind Hollywood, and society in general. So, perhaps, I am right on time....
The Net has been abuzz in recent weeks with quite a bit of discussion of MWA (Mystery Writers of America) and their rules for "active membership." For those interested in reviewing those rules, you may do so on the MWA Website at http://www.mysterywriters.org/pages/join/index.htm. These rules, in effect, leave out not only many small presses but also traditionally published writers. Part of the controversy, I think, is the membership tier structure, with a distinction drawn between "active members" and "affiliate members," which some feel equates to "first class" vs. "second class" citizens.
The whole topic is exceedingly incendiary, and there have been a lot of good posts in a lot of good forums on the pros and cons of the MWA policy. Before I offer a few additional thoughts, though, I will say that this is America, and -- no matter how noble your motives -- when you seek to create a group or society that actively excludes a subset of people, you are bound to get into some trouble.
An important point that's been missing among the emotional MWA Rules debate is a key fact regarding that organization. The "W" in MWA stands for WRITERS; and the group is very honestly, and admirably, devoted to protecting the interests of published writers. There is nothing wrong with such a mission statement, as writers do deserve to have their interests looked out for. MWA does not, it seems to me, seek to protect the interests of unpublished writers, or aspiring writers, or the various publishing personnel involved in the mystery publishing business. They want what's best for their writers; it's their raison d'etre.
But, as we all know, the interests of one group in a capitalistic society are very often in conflict with those of other groups. And writers' interests do not always align with those of publishers. The model supported by MWA is that of big publishing, with large advances and significant first print runs. And, of course, such a model is what is best for writers, who then get paid a good amount of money, even if their book does not sell. A larger first print run does help motivate the publisher to do more publicity and/or advertising for that title, as none of us really want boxes and boxes of books sitting in our warehouses unsold.
But this model does not work in the publisher's favor. I've blogged about this topic in the past, but the conventional wisdom is that 80% or more of writers do not earn out their advances. That means, in essence, that they are getting paid for books that they haven't sold. And certainly books that don't sell end up getting destroyed, pulped, or remaindered for pennies on the dollar -- which means that, at the end of the day, those 80% of writers are ending up quite a bit ahead of their publisher, who's most likely lost money in the process of bringing a writer into print and attempting to sell his or her book.
As you can imagine, this entire process stacks the deck against smaller and start-up presses (though, in the interests of fairness, if you look at the MWA approved list on the aforementioned URL, you will see a good number of smaller houses). From my perspective as an editor, the most detrimental part of the MWA policy is not the restrictive approach to writers (some of whom feel genuinely hurt and disenfranchised by the policy -- but who must learn to get over such feelings, since being a fiction writer is really the equivalent of rejection everywhere you go) but rather the model it sets for the reviewing engines. Some review publications have begun to accept only books published by the approved list for review; and to me, this is highly problematic, almost the equivalent of a Boss Tweed-type approach to publishing. I call it the "Wal-martization of publishing"--only the biggest publishers, with the most market power, have the ability to play; and this model is (knowingly or unknowingly) supported by reviewers who seem, for reasons I can't quite figure out, rabid to make sure they never, ever review a self-published book. I've seen self-published books, and the product is so instantly recognizable as different from a quality published book, I can't imagine that any savvy reviewer would be fooled for a second.
What does all of this have to do with the Hollywood writers strike? I read more than one posting from novelists, arguing passionately that the Hollywood writers deserve everything they are asking for, that such an outcome would guarantee writers being paid "what they deserve." But this is comparing apples to oranges, and I want to explain why.
If you think about the worst, most ill-written, ill-conceived piece of schlock television (and I can think of many, having just been forced to endure an episode of "Extreme Home Makeover" that was the most blatantly emotionally manipulative piece of garbage I've seen in many a moon) -- you can also be sure of one thing: That a minimum of 500,000 more people have seen that broadcast than have read the typical novel by a first-time novelist. Yes, indeed: Of the 1,000,000 people who watched that TV show, perhaps two of them read the same novel, and maybe only one of them purchased it.
Do you see my point? "Writing" should not be compensated qua writing. It should be thought of as a consumer product that is either consumed by the American public or not. The revenue on a television show comes from many areas: advertising, product placements, cooperative funding, and the like. Each time a TV show is aired, the airee must pay something to the producers/writers/etc. The amount of money generated is truly staggering, and writers have a right to be paid for the dissemination and consumption of their intellectual property by the mass population.
But books are different. There is one, and only one source of revenue to the publisher -- an American consumer purchasing a NEW book from a bookstore or an online Website (or, alternately, library sales). And that revenue is really peanuts compared to our production costs. To earn back an advance of, say, $10,000, a hardcover novelist has to sell about 5,000 copies of the book (speaking in the most basic of financial terms). And most novelists can tell you how difficult it is to reach this number, especially in an era where most people are watching TV or surfing the Net rather than looking for exciting new writers to try. So why exactly should publishers be in the business of paying large amounts of money to people whose products would be considered failures in any other type of business in the current U.S. capitalistic system?
As I've said before, if you really want to make a lot of money as a writer, novel writing isn't the way to do it. Yes, it is the way to do it for a small number of people. But what are the odds of any new writer getting to that place, especially a writer whose name is unknown? Quite small, as you can imagine.
I do not mean this to come across as dismissive or mean-spirited. But one of the reasons I created this blog was to help writers, and anyone else who's interested, to see another side of the equation -- the publisher's perspective, which, sadly, is highly constrained by the reality of dollars and cents.