Dear Mystery Writers of America,

I am in receipt of your kind offer to renew my “affiliate” membership to your organization for the sum of ninety-five dollars. In consideration of this invitation, I took a moment to reflect on my status as a sort-of member of your organization who does not qualify for full membership under your standards (but apparently qualifies to pay full price — there being four levels of membership but only one level of dues). This brought back a few memories.

First, when I was in college, a long time ago, I took some classes with a very bright fellow named Jay Cantor. (N.B.: He is the author, among other things, of a novel entitled The Death of Che Guevara. Despite having “death” in that title, he is not a member of MWA.) I don’t know what Jay’s classes are like today, but back then they were very popular and included both literature and writing classes.

The professor was a young guy when I knew him, not long out of grad school. Perhaps for that reason, someone asked him the first day what he’d like to be called. He paused dramatically and said, “‘Colonel.’ I’ve always wanted to be called, ‘Colonel.’” We ended up calling him “Jay.” Jay, it was, who suggested I become an author. It took me awhile to get around to it, but here I am, with a book that will hit stores this fall, but that doesn’t qualify me for “active” membership under your definition, though apparently it does qualify me to write a check.

Anyway, in one of Jay’s literature classes we read “Tonio Kroger” by Thomas Mann. Honestly, it’s been so long that I don’t remember the plot of that short story, but I do remember well a scene that we discussed at length, in which Kroger looks through a fogged window at the woman he loves as she dances with another man. This was the climactic metaphor of the story, Mann’s message, if I recall it correctly, being that the artist doesn’t fully participate in life, and that which he does see he perceives imperfectly, as if through fogged glass.

I mention this because, like Kroger, I feel like I spend a lot of my life peering through the glass at other people’s fun. I have never been a big “joiner,” which may be a feature of the artistic temperament but certainly does not in itself make me an artist. Then again, while you do list a few “active” — that is, full — writer-members whom I’d consider artists, you also have many more hack writers who, despite their limitations, have managed to pierce the hymen of “approved” publication. So both artists and hacks can have the “joiner” gene, I guess. Not everyone has to be like Tonio Kroger (or Groucho Marx) when it comes to such things.

Nevertheless, don’t you find it a little ironic that writers — who by definition really are sort of apart from society — should gather themselves together in supposedly common purpose and as the first order of business establish a hierarchy that disadvantages other writers who aspire to be members of the organization?

You know what I’m talking about. I’m talking about your guidelines that distinguish between writers who have been “professionally published” and those who have self-published, cooperatively published or been published by companies not on your “approved” list because they accept payment from authors.

Apparently, you are looking out for the benefit of authors with these distinctions — these poor authors, in your enlightened view, being too stupid to make their own business judgments.

This reminds me of a story about Pat Conroy that used to make the rounds of publishing circles. In it, supposedly, when Julian Bach, Conroy’s first agent, called to tell him he had found a publisher for The Great Santini and specified the advance that the publisher wanted, he was said to have been met with silence. “This is great news, Pat. Aren’t you happy?” Bach asked. “Yes,” Conroy said. “It’s just that I’m not sure I can afford that.” You see, he had self-published his first book, which, though it wasn’t a mystery anyway, would have disqualified him from membership in your organization. The poor man thought the advance — which Bach hadn’t bothered explaining — would come out of his own pocket.

More to the point, this story (which may be apocryphal; you’d have to ask Conroy — I’m certainly not going to), sounds so believable to the ears of mainstream publishing types because it supports their view that most authors are naifs who require the guidance of seasoned professionals who work for the “approved” list of publishers. Never mind the fact that half these professionals couldn’t tell if they were holding a P&L statement upside down.

Of course, it’s possible that Conroy was truly that innocent back then. Who knows? And it could also be that David Morrel, John Grisham and Dan Brown — who have collectively sold tens of millions of books in the past decade — are not members of MWA because they just don’t appreciate all that you do for authors. Take that official newsletter you send out, “The 3rd Degree,” with those indispensable columns about how to defragment your hard drive or use your word processing program — information we can only find on a thousand websites for free. Or those cute little seminars, for an additional fee but including the rubber chicken, in which we can learn the secrets of forensics, which begs the question: if you need this information for your novel, why are you relying on someone else’s seminar schedule?

Come to think of it, at this point, if I were to send you ninety-five dollars for my renewal — even if you deigned to make me an “active” member — I’d only do so on the stipulation that you stop sending me that damned newsletter, at the very least. But it would also be good if you could say something about the benefits of membership on the web page of yours that’s entitled “Join MWA: Member Benefits” and proceeds to list not one benefit of membership but lots of explanations for why people who pay a nickel toward the publication of their own works, even if they’re available through the trade, do not qualify for first-class citizenship in MWA World.

Here’s an idea for something that would benefit writers, by the way. If I did send you ninety-five dollars I’d like you to spend all of it, plus other member money, doing the one most useful thing any writers’ organization could do in today’s climate: promoting the idea that the monetary value of a story of any kind resides neither in the pixels that form the words nor in the paper it’s printed on but in its ability to entertain or educate us, regardless of whether it was published by an “approved” publisher or anyone else. That way, maybe e-book pricing could stop being a race to the bottom and more people could go back to making a living writing great stories.

Speaking of great stories, I guess I’d permit you to set one dollar of my money aside for the only useful thing that you already do: promoting the genre through your awards. The Edgar truly is a great brand that can help an author get her name out there — unless, of course, the book was self-published first, in which case it’s ineligible for an Edgar, even if it’s subsequently been published by an “approved” publisher.

And one more point about those Edgars. This guy you named them after — Poe? You knew that his first two books were self-published, right?

Sincerely,

J.E. Fishman

Verbitrageur

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J.E. Fishman, a former Big Six book editor and former literary agent, is author of the thriller Primacy, which Publishers Weekly called "appealing" and Kirkus called "good, boisterous fun." His mystery novel, Cadaver Blues, was serialized in 2010 on TNB and you can still find it here if you dig deep enough. It's now available in ebook and paperback. His financial thriller, The Dark Pool, was published this year, and his new series of police thrillers, Bomb Squad NYC, will be published in February 2014. He blogs here and at the Huffington Post. Please visit and follow him at his very fancy and expensive official author website.

5 responses to “Publishing Primacy — Folio 16: Dear MWA: WTF?”

  1. Just as well. The reason I had to defragment my drive is because of all the porn that I checked out and clicked on instead of working on my novel like I was supposed to. But they sure as heck didn’t mention that in the M.W.A. newsletter!

    It’s like Groucho Marx said, ‘I wouldn’t join any club that would accept me as a member.’

    But I agree with M.W.A. (assumed) attitudes that it is really a dumb thing to do to self publish and lose out on working with people who believe in you and care about your novel instead of how much you are willing to pay them.

    • J.E. Fishman says:

      With all due respect, the distinction you (and MWA) are making seems naive at best. Yesterday, at a conference, I heard a bestselling author with a 39-year career say he wouldn’t sign a contract with a conventional publisher today because of the terms they offer on e-books. He has begun self-publishing.

      Caring “about your novel instead of how much you are willing to pay them” is a false correlative. Does the plumber not care about fixing your leak because you pay him? Does your attorney not care about getting you out of jail because you pay him? Does your college professor not care about your education because you pay him?

      Did the work of Edgar Allen Poe deserve to be lost to history because he self-published?

  2. Irene Zion says:

    Knock ’em dead, Fishman!

  3. Yeah, with the onslaught of better publishing like Smashmouth and Lulu presses you may be right. I guess things change after my first diasterous undertaking with a self publishing company that I regret using.

    But I still think that small press is the best way to go, and I could use some experiences working with an editor. I guess I should have chosen my words carefully instead of being bitter and thinking self publishing was a dumb thing to do.

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