It’s been a long time since I’ve written about the Horror Writers Association, or HWA, on my blog. I left the organization years ago, disillusioned with how inward-looking and self-congratulatory it had become, especially when it came to the Bram Stoker Awards, which were increasingly starting to look like an award specifically for the honoring of HWA members. (Even after becoming a partially juried award, some of the results have made me wonder if this isn’t still the case.) I also left disillusioned from all the bad advice the HWA’s members were being given, despite myself and a small handful others frequently trying to counteract it.
Members were often told they didn’t need agents. There was a provincial resistance to the idea of opening our doors to writers of urban fantasy and paranormal romance, the two cousins of horror that are actually publishing robustly. Announcements of publishing deals with big, mainstream houses were few and far between, but when they occasionally happened they were all but ignored in favor of the announcement of yet another deal with the micropress du jour. Message board threads offering tips on how to actually make it in publishing were quickly subsumed by much longer threads about the latest horror movies. Any publisher, no matter how terrible or scummy or lacking in business sense, was celebrated so long as they published HWA members. No one wanted to criticize terrible publishers for their bad practices because they were worried it would affect their own chances of being published, which is itself a tortured bit of logic. I mean, why would you want to be published by a bad publisher in the first place? It became apparent to me that the HWA was not an organization for writers who were serious about their careers. It was, instead, a place where its members could stand in a circle and pat each other on the back.
I’ll admit, I’m sounding a bit harsh. I may still have a few raw feelings about the HWA, mostly because I wanted — and needed — it to be more than it was. Although, like many ex-members, my career only took off once I actually left the HWA, which I suppose speaks to the level of writing and publishing advice the HWA doles out. I also walked away from the HWA with the distinct and unshakeable feeling that its members don’t read much except books by other members.
Which brings me to this. A friend pointed me toward this announcement from yesterday:
I’m very pleased to say that the HWA Referendum that I help write with fellow members A.J. Klein and Michaelbrent Collings on including self-published work for membership qualification for both Active and Associate members has passed with a 78% to 28% margin in favor, with 2% abstaining from the vote.
Self-publishers who have generated $2000 in earnings within two years of initial publication date can qualify for Active (voting) status. Those who have earned $200 within two years of initial publication date can qualify for Associate status. More details can be found at http://horror.org/joining-the-hwa/ (please note the criteria have not yet been updated).
As you might imagine, I have mixed feelings about this. On the one hand, self-publishing isn’t necessarily the terrible business decision it used to be. The problem with the old self-publishing model was twofold. First, if you went with one of the publish-on-demand companies, they charged fees so high that authors were unlikely to ever recoup it from book sales. Second, the books received no distribution, which further hobbled their sales potential and the ability to bring a wider audience to the author. More often than not, these self-publishing companies were nothing more than a scam to separate the gullible and the starry-eyed from their money. Snake oil for the literary set.
With e-book self-publishing, both those problems are fixed. For the most part, you can now self-publish for little or no money, and distribution is no problem because all the major online retailers carry e-books. Some self-published e-book authors have even been quite successful, and at a rate that appears to be higher than the number of successful self-publishers from the print days.
On the other hand, there has been very little change in quality of self-published books. Anyone can shit out a book with incomprehensible prose and tortured plots, upload it to Amazon and B&N, and call themselves a published author. And in the current paradigm, they would not be wrong to call themselves that. This is something of a slap in the face to those of us who actually put effort into our craft, those of us who work hard and pay our dues in the trenches of rejection and the classrooms of trial-and-error to earn the title of published author.
And that’s my problem with this new rule. Essentially, it changes the threshold for becoming an Active member — which also means a voting member — to nothing more than the ability to reach the end of a project and figure out how to upload it properly. Granted, they’ve added a sales requirement, which is at least a threshold of some kind, but even that is fraught with problems. The old requirement was about ensuring members were learning how to write well enough to ostensibly launch a writing career. This new requirement eliminates the writing element altogether in favor of how well they can sell a book online. Many self-publishers are already shameless and annoying self-promoters, clogging our social media and email with entreaties to read their latest work. This will only make it worse. Also in question is the fact that there’s no way of knowing if that money is coming from actual readers or, say, the authors themselves. The potential exists for people to buy their way into Active membership.
So yeah, mixed feelings. There’s no doubt that self-published e-books are here to stay. In fact, I think we’re going to see more and more established authors turn to self-publishing e-books. It may even wind up being the publishing paradigm of the future. I don’t know. Right now, though, it’s not. Right now, for many new writers, it’s a shortcut. Learning to deal with rejection is such a huge part of being a writer, and just uploading anything you write to the Kindle store eliminates that important lesson. Because these authors aren’t learning to handle rejection properly, we’re seeing more and more of them writing angry responses to bad reviews online and generally acting like jackasses in public. Learning to handle rejection eliminates that sense of entitlement. Avoiding rejection breeds it.
Combining authors who have an unchecked sense of entitlement with authors who can essentially buy their way into Active membership, and thus vote into existence more bylaws that favor them, could very well result in a membership base that is completely uninterested in learning how to write or how to deal with agents and publishers. This will likely drive away any remaining members who want to learn how to write well enough to be traditionally published and have lasting careers. The HWA runs the risk of becoming an organization concerned almost exclusively with how to better sell your self-published e-books.
I’ve long said one of the major problems with the HWA is that it focuses way too much on the H and not nearly enough on the W. This new qualification rule won’t change that. My concern is that it will make it even worse.