This post, by JA Konrath, originally appeared on his A Newbie’s Guide to Publishing blog on 6/10/11.
When I was offered a contract for my first novel back in 2002, one of the first things I did was join the Mystery Writers of America.
As a lifelong mystery fan, I was thrilled to be part of an organization that counted many of my heroes (living and dead) among its members. I wanted to mingle with my fellow crime writers. I wanted to attend the banquets. I wanted to sit at the MWA table at Bouchercon and sign alongside major bestsellers. I wanted to go to the Edgar Awards. I wanted to be included in their many high-profile anthologies.
In short, I wanted to be validated.
The need for validation is often rooted in insecurity–something writers have truckloads of. Insecurity is a wicked thing, and can foster an "us vs. them" mentality. More on that in a moment.
During my first year as a member, I attended a banquet, and had to pay through the nose for it. Sitting at the MWA table at a conference was a job, not an honor. While Whiskey Sour was nominated for just about every mystery award out there, the Edgar wasn’t among them. I tried to submit to several MWA anthologies, only to discover the slots had already been filled before I had a chance. As for mingling with my peers, I did that just fine at conferences without needing the MWA.
The only time the MWA got in touch with me was when they needed something–I lost count of the times I was called upon to volunteer for some task or another–or when they wanted me to pay my dues. The dues notices (both email and in person) became so frequent, not only for me but for many of my peers, that it is now a long-running joke in the mystery community. (A friend of mine was even approached during his signing slot at Bouchercon to pay dues, in front of several fans.)
The MWA, an organization that was supposed to exist to help writers, seemed to exist only to sustain itself.
After a few years of getting nothing back (and yes, I aired my many grievances often to board members) I simply stopped renewing. While MWA no doubt does some good things (they rightly fought the Harlequin Horizon vanity imprint, and do various workshops and community events), I felt like I was giving more than I was getting. I was helping MWA, but they weren’t helping me.
The annoyance at MWA wasn’t only felt by me. The International Thriller Writers came into being at around the same time I quit MWA, and while I would never go on the record to say it was created because MWA was ignoring a large percentage of its members, I can say that ITW quickly figured out how to do things correctly.
While the MWA didn’t seem to care I existed (except when they wanted something from me), the ITW actually helped my career. Their first few conferences were terrific. I was involved in two anthologies. I made connections that have served me well over the years. And best of all, the ITW does not have dues. They run such a smart organization, it actually earns money.
Both the MWA and ITW have membership requirements, and these are based around signing contracts with traditional publishers. I understood why this was necessary years ago. By allowing publishers to vet members, the organization would be populated by professionals.
The fact remains that most self-pubbed work isn’t very good, and would never have been traditionally published.
But the times have changed. Now it is possible for authors to circumvent the legacy gatekeepers by choice (rather than because they had no choice.) Self-pubbed authors can sell a lot of books and make some real money. Full time salary money.
In my mind, that equates with being a professional.
The ITW maintains a progressive approach to accepting members. They review applications on a case-by-case basis. So even if you don’t have a legacy publishing contract, you aren’t automatically dismissed. This is because they understand that an organization for writers isn’t an "us vs. them" venture. Exclusion doesn’t make an organization better. It makes an organization self-important.
So when MWA recently changed its submission guidelines and issued a press release, I was intrigued. Had they finally gotten the hint? Were they looking at this untapped resource of self-published writers and realizing the potential to make their organization relevant again?