Reader, Writer, Merciless Reviewer and Incurable Romantic
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Most of yesterday the pain in my elbow was so bad I could neither read nor write. I couldn't hold a book or my Kindle or the laptop. I couldn't sit at the table even to write longhand. Mostly I watched television -- not good, since I only watch news -- and made occasional posts here and on Twitter. Even those occasional posts brought renewed pain, sometimes severe.
I tried to read through some of the posts regarding the latest shake-ups in romance publishing, but that, too, proved more than I could physically handle. I posted a couple more or less generic tweets about it, and that was it.
Regardless what the shake-ups are, however, it's nothing new, and the writers will get the short end of the stick. They always do. (The readers will, too, but they will be blissfully ignorant of the majority of what goes on behind the pages.)
As I wrote in one tweet, this shit has been going on for more than 40 years. It may be different shit and it may be affecting different authors, but it's still nothing new. An account of the ways in which publishers and their evil minions the editors have tormented authors would be a book in itself: minuscule royalty rates, delayed royalty statements, incompetent editing, crappy covers, cancelled contracts, and the list goes on.
Does this behavior on the part of publishers affect only the romance genre? I don't know for sure, but there is a lot of circumstantial evidence to suggest that it does. From personal experience, I remember the late George Alec Effinger exclaiming at a science fiction convention in 1987 that he had never received any royalties, even though he had sold ten or twelve or fifteen novels. He was amazed that romance writers -- I was one of a couple in the room at the time -- actually earned out their advances and got royalty checks. Of course it often took a romance novelist two or three or more years after publication to see those royalties. And of course it also meant that an established science fiction novelist was being paid up front for anticipated earnings rather than having to, you know, actually earn them.
As I wrote in another post here, fantasy author Terry Goodkind came under fire a few weeks ago for publicly shaming the artist who did his cover, which he ended up not liking. I'm not sure why Goodkind didn't like the cover, but at least he had input on it. Many romance writers have little to no say in what goes on the cover of their books; sometimes we're horrified or embarrassed, but there's not much we can do about it.
During the fifteen or so years I was a member of Romance Writers of America, I saw agents rip off their romance novelist clients and never a word was officially whispered against them. Oh, you say, that's just rumors and gripes from disgruntled authors. Um, no. I was one of the clients of an unscrupulous agent that RWA refused to take any action against. She lied to me about contract terms that she herself had negotiated, which was bad enough. Delaying payment was worse still. Sending me not one but TWO rubber checks was beyond professional. Even so, the professional organization to which I paid dues flatly refused to take any action, and one of the many reasons put forth was that the unpublished writers needed agents, too, and one of the benefits they received from RWA was access to agents.
"Even if they're bad agents?" I asked.
Yes, I was told, even if they're bad agents.
RWA was in the business of keeping the dream alive for the unpublished, even if it meant the published members got screwed. RWA depended on the dues and other financial contributions of the unpublished and wasn't going to do anything that would discourage the unpublished. At that time, they outnumbered the published membership by about eight to one.
RWA stood up for the editors and agents and publishers, until the published authors started to fight back. Even then we ran into resistance. First we formed PAN, the Published Authors Network, but that didn't solve many of the problems. A few years later I established PASIC, the Published Authors' Special Interest Chapter, specifically to protect the writers from the depredations of publishers, editors, agents, and even of RWA.
Yes, you read that right. I did it.
On the evening of 13 October 1993, in a discussion on the GEnie Romex online discussion board, I proposed the formation of a "special interest" chapter of RWA that, like other similar chapters, could limit its membership to those who met certain requirements. The main desire at the time was to hold a conference where published authors could get the workshops they needed, addressing their professional needs, without the interference of the unpublished, the never-gonna-be-published, the I-wanna-write-a-book-someday fans who made up the majority of RWA.
I did the work. I filed the paperwork. I organized everything. I was tired of the writers getting screwed over. I was tired of the shitty royalties, the bad editing, the long delays, the . . . everything.
So of course I was the one who got screwed the most. I was excoriated by former friends in RWA, including members of the board. I was stabbed in the back by friends even within PASIC. When my editor demanded the impossible of me, I was warned that part of the reason was because I had set up PASIC to challenge the publishers and she didn't like it. No one stood up for me when that editor ruined the book of my dreams.
No one stood up for me when my career crashed.
Those writers who went along with it, who sacrificed their creative integrity on the altar of Traditional Publishing, they came out all right. They got on the New York Times best-seller list. They kept getting contract after contract, even though they were shitty contracts. Harlequin's royalty rates became an effective one percent or less, based on the wholesale price rather than retail. Mail order book club sales were even worse.
Over the years, we watched publishers come and go. The early 1980s saw the proliferation of contemporary romance lines but by the end of the decade, most were gone. Anyone besides me old enough to remember Candlelight, Candlelight Ecstasy, Rapture, Second Chance at Love, Loveswept? Playboy Press and Pinnacle put out some great historicals, but when they folded what happened to the authors? I knew several Pinnacle authors who had to fight to get their rights back to books that were under contract.
I left all that in 1998 when my last year of RWA membership lapsed. I'd been personally stabbed in the back by too many so-called friends -- yeah, I'm lookin' at you Maureen, and Stephanie, and Laraine, and Dixie, and Betina, and Robin, and Janis, and Alison, among others -- to whom I had given help whenever asked but never got anything in return. I watched my own career go down the drain because I dared to have faith in myself and my book. So I walked away. Or limped. And I cried -- a lot -- privately. Because I knew no one cared. They told me they didn't and I believed them.
When I came back around 2011, there had been massive changes to the industry, mainly due to the explosion of digital publishing and print-on-demand production. Both of those had been just peeking over the horizon in the late 1990s when I left the business. Both were approaching full flower when I returned, and I was delighted.
Had all the problems gone way? Of course not, and even I wasn't eager enough to think they had. Within months of my becoming an active writer and hopeful self-publisher, I got to witness the implosion of Dorchester/Leisure, who held the rights to one of my novels. Then it was the ugly demise of Ellora's Cave, which often left me gasping in horror as I read the online accounts of how the authors were treated.
And then there was the reliance on publicity and promotion . . . and reviews.
Back in the day (80s and 90s) romance writers had to depend on Romantic Times and a few other magazines for reviews. No matter how many copies were sold, romance novels rarely made the NYT or other lists; that started to change so that by the time I was reading the news online, the lists were often dominated by romances. But one thing hadn't changed: Publicity was still the responsibility of the author, and the more I've read and watched, the more discouraged I've become.
"Back then" it was bookmarks and other giveaway items that the authors spent most of their advance money on to boost visibility and (one hoped) sales. And conferences, where you gave a workshop and signed some autographs and maybe got some of your expenses comped by the group holding the conference. RWA might give you a free hotel room and waive the conference fee for you, but transportation and meals and all the other costs were just part of your publicity budget, if you had one.
A local author here in Arizona told me she spent $5,000 on promotion for a book she got a $500 advance on in 1992. Don't gasp and call her foolish until you compare that to all the freebies given away by hopeful self-publishing authors today, and all the time they spend on "blog tours" and the other activities required to keep a book in the public eye online. The cost of a decent website isn't cheap; the time writing your own blog (or reviews on BookLikes!) is time you aren't writing your next book.
I was struck last night reading a tweet from an author who expressed an emotional reaction to his editor's firing because of all the grief she had given him. No, not grief. Abuse. Abuse not dissimilar, apparently, to the abuse women suffer at the hands of more powerful men, whether it's discrimination and harassment at work or verbal/emotional/physical abuse in an intimate relationship. Thinking back to what I had experienced at the hands of an editor who held the fate of my career in her hands, I knew exactly what that author was going through.
But my experience was over 20 years ago. Had nothing changed?
No, nothing had changed. Nothing at all.
Those of us who have dreams are the ones who get hurt. If we have other resources, like $5,000 to promote a $500 book, maybe we can weather the storm. Or maybe not.
The reactions of the badly behaved authors who lashed out at their critics sometimes surprised me in ways I didn't always make known. Because I'd been in their shoes more often than most of my online friends suspected, I knew that they had dreams of being best-selling authors and were confident that This Book would do it for them. They had all their little friends, who knew nothing about writing, who assured them it was the greatest book since Gone with the Wind or The Godfather or Lonesome Dove. Great-aunt Maude loved it, and they had their high school English teacher proofread it. They simply could not believe that random readers on Amazon thought differently.
And they had to take the criticism in public. As aspiring authors thirty years or more ago, most of us romance writers took our criticism in small, private groups where no one knew we'd been ripped apart for our bad grammar and spelling, our insipid heroines and brutish heroes, our laughable lack of historical research, our nonsensical plots and contrived HEAs. It hurts to have your dream destroyed. It hurts even more to have it done in public.
Are you asking now why I wasn't more sympathetic to them, since I knew how they must feel?
I wasn't sympathetic because a.) I knew it wouldn't do them any good and b.) I knew it wouldn't do myself any good.
The problems in Romancelandia have changed, and yet they haven't. They certainly haven't gone away. Is it because, deep down at the very core, romance is still women's fiction and women don't get any respect?
We still have the bloggers who won't rate anything below four-stars, because they want to keep getting free books or at least keep getting readers. We still have BBAs. We still have shitty publishers and shitty agents and shitty editors -- and shitty books.
I seriously considered rejoining RWA a couple of years ago, but frankly the financial cost was more than I could justify. And for what? So I could belong to the same organization that had let down the writers time and time again, and that had stabbed me in the back when I tried to help . . . us?
I've paid the price for my honesty, and I've paid it more than once. I lost the writing career that was all I'd ever dreamed of practically since I first held a pencil in my hand. I lost friends. I suffered the threats from the authors whose books I didn't like. I spent more hours and effort than I really could afford on reading and reviewing books that gave me pretty much no pleasure at all. I lost my membership on Goodreads.
Whatever happened at Riptide Publishing over the past few days, whatever happened with this "SH" author(s), whatever happens tomorrow or next week in romance publishing, it's not going to surprise me. Few of the Big Name Authors will ever do anything to fix the problems, and most of the dreamers won't either. The problems are not going to disappear. I feel sorry for the victims, because most of them are good, sincere people who believe in their work and just want to get the best deal they can.
But there are a whole lot of enablers out there. There are a whole lot of enablers right here, too.
I'm not a good leader, which is why I've steered completely clear of anything resembling politics. I won't even run for a position on the board of my local artists' group. (They would never elect me, anyway.) So if you want to stop following me now, feel free. It won't hurt my feelings. But at my age, I'm just plain tired of the bullshit.
Romancelandia never stood up to the bad guys. Did some individual authors? Did some readers? Did some reviewers? Yes. But the industry has had plenty of warnings, and there are a lot of people still protecting their personal turf.
I love romance fiction. I will stand by it as an art form, as a shaper of thought via its influence in popular culture. I will even support its authors. But I will also call out those hyenas in kitteh disguise.
I've struggled through this writing, and the pain is getting pretty bad. I've weighed it all against the notion that I should be writing something that might actually become a book. Then I went back to Twitter to see what's going on in the world, and I got hit with the reminder over and over and over again that it's the silence of good folks that enables the worst behavior.