What Should the MWA Be?

There’s been some talk here, specifically in the comments to my "Hot Button Comments" post a few days ago, about what the MWA should be.  It’s a discussion that’s certainly on the minds of many mystery writers I know…and seems timely, given that the Edgar Awards are occuring tonight.

Here are some excerpts from several of Michael Bracken’s comments:

My concern throughout the discussion is to ensure that work that
doesn’t clearly fit either end of the spectrum (bestselling novel
published by major NY house at one end, perhaps, and never-appeared in
print in any form at the other end) is given fair and appropriate
consideration and that the line between "professional" and
"unprofessional" isn’t drawn arbitrarily because someone or some group
is unwilling to carefully examine that gray area between the extremes.

More importantly though, why does one need to have a book published to
be a mystery writer? Why is it that mystery novelists (and I’m
generalizing here, not picking on David specificially) who want to
reform the MWA seem to constantly ignore those writers who write short
mystery fiction?

What we can hope to happen, David, is a reasonably level playing field
where short fiction writers are treated in a manner similar to
novelists and that they have an equal voice in any organization of
professional writers.

One of David Montgomery’s replies was:

Letting everyone in makes about as much sense as the WGA
opening up their rolls to people who like to watch movies. It’s a
professional writers group, and should remain such.

With all due respect to Michael, I agree with David.  The MWA began as an organization for professional
mystery writers and should remain so. I remember how I felt when I got
my WGA card… I knew then that I’d become a professional TV writer and
I was thrilled. I felt the same way when I qualified to join the MWA. I
think the more flexible MWA becomes in their admission requirements the
less meaning membership will actually have. Is that elitist? Yes, it
is…and it should be. What is the point of having a professional
organization if you let in anybody who can pay the dues?

Thriller writers felt under-served by the MWA… so what did they
do? They created their own organization, the International Thriller
Writers for professional writers of thriller novels and
screenplays. The ITW also has rigid membership requirements…as well
they should. The requirments of membership go a long way towards
defining an organizations goal’s and identity.

Where does this leave short story mystery writers? Screwed,
probably. The market for mystery short stories is all but evaporating.
My suggestion? If there’s a viable number of disenfranchised writers,
they can start their own organization… the Mystery and Suspense Short Story
Writers of America….or the P.O.D. Writers of America… or the Self-Published Mystery Authors Coalition. Whatever.

I’m doing something like that right now. I’m involved in the early
stages of
creating, along with a bunch of other writers, an organization for
people
who toil in the world of tie-ins, novelizations and other licensed
writing. We’re talking about forming the International Association of
Media Tie-In
Writers (IAMTW, which is also an acronym for "I AM a TIE-IN WRITER").
We’ve had a Yahoo Discussion Group going for some months now, made up
of the leading writers in the field, and have hashed out some of the
issues, goals, and pit-falls of creating such an organization. Will it
happen? I don’t know, but at least we aren’t wasting time complaining
about how MWA or SFWA or other writers groups don’t serve or reflect
the unique needs, talents, and goals of tie-in writers. 

Anyway, this  is my long winded way of  saying I’m all for
the MWA becoming more exclusive and less inclusive, even if that leaves
some short story writers or POD authors or tie-in writers out in the cold.

26 thoughts on “What Should the MWA Be?”

  1. As someone who hasn’t the qualifications and I’m fairly sure also the desire to write for this particular genre, but for others, I highly agree with you. There has to be standards otherwise it’s just a vapid free-for-all. There is a bar that needs to be vaulted and cleared and for whatever reason if one can’t then it’s no dice.
    Hear hear!

  2. Lee, I also agree with David’s suggestion that “Letting everyone in makes about as much sense as the WGA opening up their rolls to people who like to watch movies. It’s a professional writers group, and should remain such.”
    I’ve not suggested otherwise.
    What I have suggested is that MWA carefully examine the current state of publishing before making arbitrary decisions about membership requirements, and that membership requirements for short story writers should be on par with those for novelists.
    If we, as an organization, are going to raise the bar for active membership, we have to determine what constitutes a “professional” mystery writer.
    I suspect there are at least two key categories of data we must consider: the work itself and the publisher of the work.
    For the work, must one have a published novel, or is a published short story collection sufficient? If a published short story collection is acceptable, is a single published short story sufficient? Or is there some equivalent where, say, X number of professionally published short stories is the equivalent of one professionally published novel?
    Then, what constitutues “professional” publication for membership purposes?
    Is it rate of pay, such as the 5-cents/word minimum for short fiction required by the HWA and SFWA? (Applying the same rate of pay to a novel results in a $3,500 minimum advance for a 70,000-word novel.)
    Is it some minimum level of sales or minimum print run? Could a periodical, anthology, or book be considered professional if it prints and distributes 5,000 copies? And if print-run is a consideration, would a publication from a small, literary, or university press be allowed across the bar if it went back to press two or three times? Could a publication printed using PoD technology be allowed across the bar if it went back to press 5,000 times?
    Then, how do we deal with electronic publication, which comes with an entirely new set of definitional problems?
    Again, I’m not opposed to tightening up requirements for active membership in MWA or any of the other professional writers’ organizations where I have already established my status as an active member. (Heck, the more elitist the organizations become, the more impressive my membership appears to be.)
    I am opposed to is “us” and “them” mentality.

  3. On a related note, Lee, you mention that “[t]he market for mystery short stories is all but evaporating.”
    For what it’s worth, I earn more money from the short crime fiction I sell to publications outside the genre than I do for the short crime fiction I sell (or give away) within the genre.

  4. All of those things aren’t good enough as I understand it. That’s why you’re pissed because you don’t have the one requirement: a novel published by a traditional mainstream publisher. Why don’t you?

  5. David the slack means to accept POD publications which always fail to meet traditional numbers. Who gets the slack? All of us? Just Mr. Bracken? Laurie Notaro? Hell, it only takes 2000 copies to be a raging success POD. Is that enough? I should point out that I happen to be one that has two POD books, that could be classified as specialized nonfiction, since this seems to be the “get out of POD hell” clause even experts cite.
    These are novels. POD novels are just flat-out frowned upon in the business. I can’t change that or want to. The bar is the bar. Long may it live.

  6. Maybe I’m oversimplifying, but it seems to me that the question ought to come down to which way does the money flow. If they pay you, you’re a pro. If you pay them, or if no money changes hands, you’re not. I don’t think a distinction should be made between novels and short stories, although setting some qualifying number, such as five short story sales equals a novel sale, is fine. I don’t know what MWA’s current qualifications are, I’m not a member and haven’t been for twenty years or more, but having a dollar amount of royalties earned factored into it, as David mentions above, seems fair, too.

  7. James, that’s essentially the criteria that ITW uses when determining who makes the cut. If a publisher makes a substantial investment in an author’s work, they go on the approved list. If they don’t, they don’t make it. If you sell a book to a publisher who’s on the list, you qualify.

  8. Question for those commenting (and Lee):
    Where do you put screenwriters? I got into MWA as active because I had written “produced” work.
    Now, what if someone writes their own mystery screenplay and makes the movie themselves? All private financing, etc. So the writer has a movie produced, it’s right there on DVD, might even be shown at some film festivals, but nobody paid the writer for it.
    Does he/she get in?

  9. Advocates with POD books usually want justification for their work. When they don’t get it we see long defending theses as to why the books are equal to regular ones. There’s no evidence that they are. It becomes rude when one has to point that out. Again, I have them and they’re not. I’m not insulting myself or anyone else. Denial is tough work.

  10. Michael Bracken passes the most common “professional writer” litmus test: he makes his living writing. Not all of his work is in the mystery field, and he does a good deal of editing as well, but he writes to put food on the table, hence he’s a professional. And incidentally, he has published a mystery novel, called ALL WHITE GIRLS, and it’s pretty good.
    Now, I support the MWA’s right to choose who they want to admit as members (by which I mean voting members). When they make that decision, they’re basically setting up a continuum running from, say, Robert B. Parker on one end (25 years as a professional writer, millions of copies sold, et.c) and me on the other (a half-dozen short stories), and then picking a spot where they say, “Eveyone above this point is a professional, and everyone below it is not.”
    But the margins are always fuzzy, and the rules don’t always allow for special cases. If I sold one novel ten years ago, do I qualify? What about someone who has never sold a novel, but has sold dozens of mystery short stories? I’m not arguing either side here, but I think there’s room for discussion.

  11. Mark,
    Michael is not argueing for POD authors. He is argueing for short story writers. There is a world of difference and you need to look at what is there and not what you want to be there so you can get on your little soap box yet again.

  12. Listen. He has POD books, which don’t count, and has short stories that also don’t count he’s conflating the two not the way you read it. It’s perfectly natural to do so. But it still doesn’t fly does it? It’s there. Don’t lecture me son, unless you have valid point. You don’t.

  13. Since the MWA requires award nominees to be professionally published, I’m guessing that Wildside makes the cut, since the story “The Horrible, Senseless Murders of Two Elderly Women” by Michael Collins, which appeared in Bracken’s FEDORA anthology, was shortlisted.
    The PWA has similar requirements, and Jack Bludis “Munchies” was nominated from Bracken’s HARDBROILED.
    And I’m sure Lee himself has some opinion about Wildside, since his story “Corpsicle” appeared in FEDORA III.
    Now I’m a friend of Michael’s, so clearly I’m biased, but he’s not some guy who’s sold a few stories to mostly online markets (that guy would be me). And after reading the MWA’s guidelines for active membership on their website, I can’t believe he wouldn’t qualify. Leaving aside his Wildside books, he has certainly made more than $100 from short stories published in other venues.

  14. I’m not getting the idea that short stories count. I don’t any objective source that says PODs count even if they’re from Wildside. So I’d say doesn’t look like it from here. People that are in the organization need to settle this. I can’t as I’m outside the paradigm. This is an insider argument. I’m going on general publishing knowledge and experience of having two POD books. They don’t count as a publishing credit and neither does Wildside.

  15. As it happens, the requirements for active membership are available on their web site:
    http://www.mysterywriters.org/pages/join/active.htm
    In the requirements, it generally talks about the “work”, with the exception of point #8, which begins (emphasis added): If your book or short story is available only in an electronic… format…
    On the other hand, some of the other points are clearly geared towards novels.
    I can’t comment on how they view Wildside, as I was not able to find their approved publisher list. It’s certainly not a vanity press – they pay you, provide artwork and layout, etc. – but I don’t know if it fulfills the “books on the shelf” requirement.

  16. Wildside and Point Blank (a subsidiary of theirs) are as legitimate as any publisher. If you look at their roster (James Sallis, Dennis Lynds, Ed Gorman, Gary Phillips, James Reasoner, Allan Guthrie, Duane Swierczynski, Ray Banks, etc.) you’ll see that it’s top-notch. In fact, I’d go so far as to say that the authors they publish would be the envy of many houses.
    They’re doing terrific work, getting good reviews, and breaking out some fine new voices, along with doing some older stuff from established talents. They’re the real deal.

  17. “works printed and bound by a company which does not place the work in physical (aka brick-and-mortar) bookstores”
    This clause seems appropriate. As does this one:”Among the attributes which may distinguish a professional publisher from others is that a professional publisher works with agents or other authors’ representatives.”
    I doubt one needs an agent to place a work with these companies.

  18. what if someone writes their own mystery screenplay and makes the movie themselves? All private financing, etc. So the writer has a movie produced, it’s right there on DVD, might even be shown at some film festivals, but nobody paid the writer for it.
    If it were my decision, I’d probably ask “what festivals?” Sundance? You’re in. Cannes? You’re in. East Slugbury Festival of Videos and Basketry? Get lost.
    But there’s a good argument to be made that festivals alone wouldn’t qualify as “professional,” even the top-tier festivals.

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