The Decline of the Western Writers of America

For some time now, legendary western writer Richard S. Wheeler has been charting the demise of the western and, sadly, the preventable decline of the Western Writers of American (which should stand as a cautionary tale of what could happen to the Mystery Writers of America if we aren’t careful). On Ed Gorman’s blog, he notes that prominent agent Nat Sobel has resigned from the WMA as both its agent and as a member.

… it is
not hard to fathom why a successful New York agent would abandon the western
writers. For decades, WWA conventions were marketplaces in which New York
publishers, editors and agents gathered with solidly professional authors to do
business. That is how I got launched, and how many other western novelists got

At the last convention, only one editor showed up, and he came
because one of his authors had won a Spur Award. When I first joined WWA in the
early eighties, there would be ten to twenty editors and publishers on hand, all
of them ready to do business, plus various agents, and often a few publishing
executives as well. Part of the reason they have vanished is that western lines
have shut down due to shifts of fashion. But there is more: A few years ago WWA
amateurized itself, at first covertly in defiance of its own membership bylaws
and then as a result of a bylaws amendment that permitted self-published authors
to join. That brought a flood of new members, so WWA is fat financially, but it also
meant that it was no longer a guild with clout in the publishing world or that
western literature was significant. Thus, Library Journal, diligent about
listing literary awards in other fields, no longer bothered to list Spur Awards.
What it also meant is the end of the western marketplace at WWA conventions.
Where once editors came to conventions to look for talent and good stories, now
they don’t come at all. It is pointless for them to show up.

I am a strong believer in limiting MWA membership to published mystery authors — and what’s happened to the WMA is a good example of the reasons why. Allowing self-published writers to become members diminishes the professional stature and legitimacy of the organization, not just among its members, but to the industry as a whole. This is going to make me very unpopular, but I also I believe associate memberships should be limited to people in the industry ( booksellers, editors, critics, publishers, etc).

6 thoughts on “The Decline of the Western Writers of America”

  1. MWA “associate” memberships are already limited to industry professionals, such as critics and booksellers. Non-published writers have “affiliate” membership. I’d hate to see that latter category done away with, as MWA meetings here in the SF Bay Area were tremendously helpful to me before I got a contract.

  2. I’m a strong believer that MWA (and International Thriller Writers, inc) should remain professional associations by having standards. It’s what makes them professional associations. If you’re looking for a group that allows anyone in who can write a check, then go to Sisters in Crime. Nothing against SinC–I’m a member, at least for a few more months–but they’re not a professional organization. They have no standards for membership, and although they provide a certain amount of clout to the field, it’s quite different clout than you’d see in a professional organization.
    Mark Terry

  3. Cornelia, I don’t think anybody wants to do away with the associate level of membership in MWA. I was an associate member for a long time before securing a publishing contract and achieving active status. I learned much during that period and made a a lot of contacts.
    What most people don’t want is a lowering of the standards necessary to be a full member in a professional organization. It’s a little like the American Medical Association saying “Well, you didn’t graduate from med school, but since you’ve always wanted to be a doctor, c’mon in.”

  4. Full agreement on keeping the “pro” standards for active MWA (and, hey, AMA) membership stringent, Harry, but ITW has no affiliate-type membership, and Lee seems to be arguing that MWA should curtail theirs.
    I should be PACKING for Bcon… yikes!

  5. Lee, as you know from the Canadian experience, allowing unpublished and self-published writers to join may also greatly diminish the quality of discourse on the ListServe and other media. The Crime Writers of Canada (albeit a much smaller organization) has seen its ListServe decline drastically in both quality and the number of people posting since a small crowd of self-pubs and unpubs began to dominate it with increasingly fatuous drivel.


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