Thursday, November 29, 2007

The MWA and Self-Publishing

I've been following a debate on Sarah Weinman's blog over whether the book Songs of Innocence should have been eligible for the Mystery Writers of America's Edgar Award.

Songs of Innocence was written by Hard Case Crime co-founder and editor Charles Ardai under the known pseudonym "Richard Aleas". The MWA has a rule prohibiting self-published books from Edgar consideration, as outlined by MWA board member Lee Goldberg:

"Among (but not all of) the situations defined as "self-published or cooperatively published" are [...] those published by privately held publishing companies with whom the writer has a familial or personal relationship beyond simply author and publisher; those published by companies or imprints that do not publish other authors; those published by publishing companies in which the writer has a financial interest"

As I'm not an MWA member, I won't go into whether the self-published rule is good or bad, but no one can deny that rules are necessary and that any rule excludes some cases.

As an outsider, it seems to me one of the issues the organization is tackling is the appearance of impropriety. Reading the self-published rule as outlined by Goldberg, it does appear to apply to Ardai as owner of Winterfall, LLC (See this scan of the copyright page of Songs of Innocence).

Ardai commented, in part:

It would be foolish, of course, for me to argue that I am not, in the public's eye, the "publisher" of Hard Case Crime (and the editor of the line and the face and voice of the line -- I'm proud to play these roles). But I think there is a clear and meaningful difference between the facts of this case and the case of someone who goes to iUniverse and pays $1000 to print up 100 copies of his book, which then sit in his closet unless he takes it on himself to peddle them to bookstores or give them to friends and family. Lee talks about being accused of favoritism if MWA were to allow this book to be the only "self-published" book to be eligible -- but what of the opposite complaint, given that it is (I believe) the only book to be published by a publisher on MWA's approved list, in the conventional advance-and-royalties fashion, with the author paying no part of printing or distribution or sales/marketing costs, to be deemed *ineligible*?

Goldberg later clarified that stories authored by anthology guest editors that appeared in said anthologies are Edgar-eligible

because the writers did not work for the company in any capacity. They were invited to create the edition. It’s the same as the MWA anthologies, where the publications committee and the board choose the guest editors and they in turn, pick 10 people and the rest are by blind submission. The editors are hired with the expectation that they will also provide a story. They are hired as writer and editor. They don't have any connection to the publishing company unlike, say, Charles Ardai, who is editor, publisher and co-owner of the imprint that published his book.

Ardai later responded that Hard Case Crime books:

are "Published by Dorchester Publishing in collaboration with Winterfall LLC." Those sentences may sound interchangeable, but they're not. Dorchester is a book publisher, by the customary definition anyone might use; if you look into the actual facts of what Winterfall does and doesn't do, Winterfall is not. (Useful test: If Dorchester did everything it does and nothing else, would books ever get published? Answer: yes. If Winterfall did everything it does and nothing else, would books ever get published? Answer: no.) In the case of Hard Case Crime, all the functions normally performed by a publishing company are handled solely by Dorchester, except for two (editorial and art) and even those are 100% paid for by Dorchester and operate under Dorchester's review and approval.

Based on this more thorough description of the relationship, I commented that Songs of Innocence should have been considered for the Edgars if Ardai functions the way an anthology guest editor does, just as a guest editor's story would be eligible.

In response to my comment, Ardai further explained:

It's not quite the same way a guest editor functions -- that would be the case if Dorchester had come to me and said "We have this idea for a new line of books, would you select and edit them for us?"

It's more akin to the way a writer with an idea for an anthology functions if he's pitching the project to a publisher (as, for instance, I imagine Jason Starr and Maggie Estep did when they pitched BLOODLINES to Vintage, or as Reed Coleman did when he pitched HARDBOILED BROOKLYN to Bleak House). I came up with the idea for Hard Case Crime; I could have put up the money and published the books myself, set up a distribution arrangement, and so on, but I chose not to; instead, I pitched the project to a dozen or so publishers, got an offer (exactly as an anthologist or author might: advance, royalties, Dorchester pays for everything, Dorchester produces and distributes the books, I pay for nothing, I split the money I get from Dorchester with the other authors contributing to the really is almost exactly like an anthology, only an anthology of novels rather than an anthology of short stories), accepted the offer, and proceeded with my anthologist-like role of choosing material, editing it, etc. I also wrote a "story of my own" for the anthology that is Hard Case Crime. The eligibility of that "story" for Edgar consideration is what's being discussed here.

I guess the question is whether Jason's and Maggie's stories in BLOODLINES would or would not be eligible for the Edgar if that book were published today. If so, my contribution to Hard Case Crime would presumably be eligible by the same reasoning. (It's all an academic discussion at this point, since MWA has made its decision and I have accepted it -- but it is a worthwhile academic discussion, since it may have an impact on other authors in future years.)

I then agreed that Ardai's book should have been eligible if Starr's, Estep's, and Coleman's stories would have been; however, Goldberg blogs:

[E]ven if one were to accept [Ardai's] new characterization of himself as a book packager and not, as he has claimed before, a publisher and editor -- and if you were to accept his arguments regarding his relationship with Dorchester -- his book would still not be eligible for Edgar consideration under our rules that define "self publication."

Like many others, I enjoyed Songs of Innocence. Whatever its rules, there will always be questions as to whether an organization is recognizing the true best of a field. At least in Ardai's case I'm gratified the MWA recognized his writing talent with his previous Edgar win for "The Home Front".

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