Wednesday, November 28, 2007

MWA, Self-Publishing, and the YouTube Debate

Over at Sarah's website, you can check out a very interesting debate revolving around Hard Case Crime founder Charles Ardai, a previous winner of the Edgar Award, who because of new rules adopted by MWA finds his latest novel ineligible for consideration.

I'm not the right person to make any sort of judgment on the issue itself. I've been an MWA member for a little over a year, have never been a judge and don't really know what goes into the process. What does interest me is the self-publishing debate, and how the wheat is separated from the chaff.

In a nutshell, Ardai's novel SONGS OF INNOCENCE is ineligible under the new MWA rules, as it falls under the category of being a self-published book. (please go to Sarah's site for a far more comprehensive analysis) Naturally an issue was raised since Ardai has won an Edgar previously, and is widely considered one of the most respected and influential members of the writing and publishing community. Not to mention the consensus is that SOI, self-published or not, is a terrific book, and even if not nominated for an award would at least warrant serious consideration.

Some commentors, Ardai included, seem to be in favor of MWA accepting submissions from self-published authors, assuming the cream will simply rise to the top. Accepting these books does not cheapen the award or make the process more difficult, as Ardai, himself an Edgar judge in 1998 when they did accept self-pubbed submissions, notes that, " took precious little time to determine that a bad self-published book was nowhere near award caliber and set it aside."

Having been on the other side of the publishing desk, I equate MWA's banning of self-published books to the rule most larger houses have of not accepting unagented submissions. The rule is not there, of course, out of snobbery, but to act as quality control for editors and publishers whose time is already taxed to begin with. The feeling among editors and publishers is that with so many agents out there, the bottom line is that good books will find representation. After all, agents want to represents books that will sell (books people will read, not only books that are commercial). Many agents do end up representing self-published works whose quality rises above the stigma. So if an author can't hook up with one of the literally hundreds of agents out there, the book has not passed through quality control. Yes there are diamonds in the rough, which I'll go into later, but one has to dig through a tremendous amount of coal to find it, and since an editor's primary concern is the books he/she currently has under contract, the risk is very seldom worth the reward. 

Of course Ardai's situation is much, much more complicated than "author who couldn't find a mainstream publisher and went to iUniverse," but I tend to agree with those who are reluctant to allow any books bound between cloth to be eligible. Since anyone can self-publish a book with ease, what is the real difference between a self-published book and a stack of loose manuscript pages? Or somebody with a Word file saved on their hard drive? There must be some sort of quality control.

Again I have never been an MWA judge and do not know how the process works, but I can imagine it consumes an incredible amount of time, and that's only judging books that are accepted under the current, tighter conditions. As Ardai states, the self-publishing issue was a minor inconvenience in 1998. Others have mentioned writers like Tolstoy, who were considered self-published and would not be eligible under the current laws. To that I say, this ain't 1998 any more.

Getting self-published today is easier than ever. It does not take any editorial or authorial skill to be self-published, only a pile of paper and enough money to cover the costs. And for many, the cost is worth seeing your manuscript bound between two covers. I can be relatively certain that if all self-published books were permitted, the time consumed would go from "minor inconvenience" to "near insurmountable" almost overnight. Not to mention, in my opinion, it would encourage even more self-publishing, as aspiring authors would soon realize that for $199 they could be judged on the same field as Lawrence Block. And if this leads to authors paying a few bucks to get their books bound for award consideration instead of honing their craft, I think it'd be a real shame and could actually do the opposite of what's intended. Like a team calling up a prospect who hasn't had proper seasoning, you might squander some tremendous potential. Surely there must be a process that prohibits the millions of home videos uploaded to YouTube from being judged for Oscar consideration, right? 

Yes, there are many cases of authors who initially self-published their books, and either sold hundreds of thousands on their own (James Redfield) or eventually landed with a mainstream publisher where they became massive bestsellers (Vince Flynn). No process, especially one which judges such subjective matter as books, is infallible. Just as in this case the new rules, though they make sense to many, sadly leave a talented author like Ardai out in the cold.

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