Standard Bears

by Pari Noskin Taichert

A few months ago, Mystery Writers of America revised its approved publishers list for active membership. The change went up without fanfare and there it would have stayed — in my opinion — if not for the fact that Left Coast Crime’s standing committee adopted the list as a primary guideline for defining "authors" for signing slots.  (Note: Writers with other publishers are not excluded from being on panels. There are two separate things going on here.)

Here’s the exact wording — taken directly from the bylaws:

"To be considered an author at Left Coast Crime you must either meet the requirements for active membership in the Mystery Writers of America (you don’t actually have to be a member) or have been shortlisted for a major mystery award (the Edgar, the Anthony, the Agatha, the Dilys, the Barry, the Hammett, the Macavity, the Lefty, the Nero Wolfe, the CWA Dagger, the Shamus, the Arthur Ellis, and the Bruce Alexander Awards). Non-American writers without U.S. publishers who meet the requirements for active membership in their national mystery writer associations also qualify."

You can see that LCC’s definition is more inclusive. Authors who were once published by any of the "approved" houses also fall under the rubric; there’s no timeline specified on that.

During the last couple of weeks, I’ve noticed that the writers with publishers that were dropped, or have not been "approved," have been quite vocal about these new decisions. Their distress and anger are evident. I do, honestly, understand where they’re coming from — especially in the case of legit publishers who’ve only been around for a year or two.

Here’s the but . . .

I don’t pretend to know why MWA made the changes, but I’m glad they did — however imperfect the list may be. 

To me, a professional/trade organization must stand for something difficult to attain. It’s main purpose is to define and support professionalism in its particular niche — not as a social group or outlet for marketing. Without exams or tough requirements, active status (as opposed to affiliate) means little to those who do qualify.

As soon as I signed my first contract, I joined MWA. I knew from the start that the normal networking that might take place in a larger urban area wouldn’t be available to me. Denver is the Rocky Mountain MWA base and that’s a healthy eight-hour drive from Albuquerque. My networking happens mainly via email and that certainly has huge limits.

Even though MWA doesn’t meet a lot of my needs, I’ll remain a member. I believe its a professional’s responsibility to support the trade organization. (I’ll be honest though . . . If my publisher weren’t on the list — if MWA didn’t consider me a professional — I wouldn’t stay a member. That’s my bias.)

Strict standards for active membership remind me of exams for entrance/certification into a profession and I’m not going to tell the examiner what to test me on.

Other writing organizations have similar requirements:

Romance Writers of America draws sharp distinctions between its PRO and PAN and other members.
International Thriller Writers does, too. And, look at Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America as well.

I’d like to know what Murderati readers think about all of this. Do you, as fans, care if publishers have been vetted by a professional organization? Will the new definition that LCC has adopted affect your willingness to attend the Denver convention next year? (Disclosure: I’m helping with publicity on this con and expect it to be a wonderful event. Don’t worry: The website will be updated soon.)

What about you, the authors who qualify, who’ve complained about the mix of writers at conventions, will you step up and support the changes or will you sit on the sidelines to watch the fallout?

And, I want to hear from writers who feel they’ve been snubbed. I want to know what they think about professional standards and how they think MWA could have done a better job of defining them . . .

My only request is that everyone BE NICE. I want a true dialog and thoughtful discussion.

I’m not looking for a flame war here and won’t tolerate it.

Here goes . . . 

37 thoughts on “Standard Bears

  1. Dana King

    I was about to get myself worked up to decry the exclusiveness inherent in MWA’s policy, until I established a precedent for myself and thought about it. MWA is a professional organization. No matter how well-intentioned, those who self-publish don’t meet the standard of those who are working with established publishers. I think it’s a slippery slope, ripe with the possibility for abuse, but there has to be some basic standard for any professional organization; MWA is no different.

  2. Guyot

    Excellent, Pari, excellent.

    There are a myriad of organizations for the aspiring writer to join. There are almost none for the professional writer. I am for organizations having even tougher standards. I want it to mean something when I “qualify” for membership somewhere.

    And it’s a weird time right now in the world of crime fiction – you have folks like Troy Cook, lying about being self-published (yeah, it’s lying), while you have authors who busted their butts to get a legit pub deal, but have since been dropped, and those authors don’t have the same rights someone like Cook does.

    But here’s the thing – there’s always going to be people who are happy and those who are unhappy, regardless of what rules or standards are in place. The best you can do is support the organizations you wish to support, and ignore the others.

  3. JT Ellison

    Pari, this is an important post for many reasons. As a debut, I’m finding unbelievable bias in some bookstores. I have to prove that I’m published with a “real” house before they’ll give me the time of day.

    This nonchalance bordering on hostility toward authors is frightening, especially because without us, they go out of business. I’ve had bookstores be incredibly kind and gracious, and others who just take my card with resignation until I credential myself.

    Right or wrong, it’s been intimated that they have been deluged with self published authors with no real distribution network, which is a waste of their time.

    What does that mean? It means that it’s getting to the point in some places that if you don’t have a brand name or coop, it can be very difficult to get the attention of a bookstore.

    I support the organizations delineating a membership structure. When I was unpublished, I joined MWA as an associate member. I was perfectly happy to abide by their rules, and I will be now too. It makes sense to me that only qualified members are allowed to vote, that a line is drawn about publishing standards. The book business is no different from the rest of industry — MWA, ITW, etc. are privately held, not publicly traded.

  4. pari

    Dana,Thanks for your comment.

    I was waiting for someone to refer to “exclusivity” because I’ve read that in other posts lately. Any professional organization worth its dues is going to be labeled as such. But this isn’t based on something a person can’t control; it’s based on a particular kind of accomplishment (whether one agrees with it or not).

    Paul,Good to see you here.At this point in my career, I consider myself almost an “intermediate” author. I’m no longer bright-eyed in the same way I was with book #1, but still have so much to learn.

    Organizations like Novelists, Inc., ACWL and, I hope MWA, help me keep perspective and continue learning.

    I’m also a member of SinC because I want a different kind of collegiality. But I don’t consider SinC my trade organization.

  5. pari

    J.T.,I’ve noticed the same thing happening in libraries. You know, I don’t like whipping out the whole “Two-time Agatha nominee,” but I find myself doing it more and more in both of these venues because the quick shorthand reaches across that nonchalance or resignation.

    BTW: your wrist must be feeling better if you can post that response. Hooray!

  6. Elaine Flinn

    The MWA new rulings have been an interesting topic on DL lately, not to mention much chatter on the SINC chatboard. While I sympathize with those writers whose publishers have not made the approved list – and if I were one of them – then instead of trashing MWA, I’d go to my publisher and discuss the possibilites of meeting those guidelines. Bitching about it on the net is a waste of time – go to the source and solve the problem.

    Sounds logical, right? Yeah, only some of those ‘publishers’ ain’t genuine and can’t meet the new guidlines. Why? Because they’re shams – cardboard publishers created by and for a writer who could not find a legit publisher, or was just too damn lazy to go through the minefield most of us managed to live through. And now I’ll bet you’re wondering who those ‘writers’ are, huh? Well, Guyot mentioned one, but there are more – and you know them. Wanna know who they are? Just keep an eye on the Edgar submission list and see who is missing. But I’ll give you a clue – one of them even won an award…but it wasn’t an Edgar. So now you’re wondering, well-if one of them produced something worthy of an award, what’s the problem? The’problem’ is that writer is a liar. A smug liar who thinks he/she got away with the scam. And if there’s one thing I can’t abide – is a liar. Or a hypocrite. Not that I’m perfect – but I ain’t a liar or a hypocrite.

    So give MWA some slack for continuining to be a professional and ethical organization. And if you don’t like the way they do business – tough.

  7. Starley


    I’m squarely on the side of professional organizations setting high standards. Unlike science (where I come from), or law or medicine, authors can’t rely on fancy letters after their names to prove their bona fides. Ideally an author should be able say “MWA” or “ITW” and get a nod of acceptance from a publishing professional. And I’m looking forward to the day I move up from ITW associate to real membership.

    (Btw, I sent an update and more info on Texas critters to your website email. Let me know if you didn’t get it.)

  8. Fran

    I think professional organizations do need to have standards, and that they should be fairly high. Otherwise, why have them?

    JT, there are many good self-published authors out there, but a lot of them truly are self-published for a reason – they’re crap. From a business perspective, though, there’s solid financial reasons why we don’t do a lot of self-published stuff. Yes, we do need your work to stay in business, but brick-and-mortar stores (except the big box ones) are fighting what is, quite frankly, almost a losing battle to stay afloat.

    I could go on about this for a whole post myself. Suffice to say that we love small publishers bunches, self-publishers not much at all. There are always exceptions, but those folks have to prove themselves to us. With a reputable publishing house at your back, we can take you at face value.

    There are just so many authors out there, and there’s no way to read everything. By having standards, however seemingly arbitrary, we (booksellers and readers and judges) we can cull a lot of the chaff. We’ll miss some gems, true, but that’s going to be true no matter what standards you use.

  9. Rae

    What I was trying to say (sorry for the blank posts 😉 was that, as a reader, I don’t care whether the publisher is Random House or Nate n’ Joe’s Hot Dog Stand and Publishing Emporium. I just want a good book. And, it’s been my observation that the Big Houses occasionally publish dross, while the small ones sometimes come up with gold. Just as long as there are lots of new books coming my way, I’m happy.

  10. JT Ellison

    Hey, can I add one more thing to this?This is my personal experience, and I’m not saying it’s right or wrong either way. But…

    When I was getting ready for submission, I went to MWA and ITW to see their approved list of publishers and I printed out the names. These were the houses I was interested in doing business with because they were obviously vetted by the boards of these organizations. It gave me goals and standards to shoot for.

    Maybe we can look at this from that perspective.

  11. pari

    Hey everybody,This conversation is starting to get interesting.

    I think Fran draws a good distinction between self-pub and small-pub.

    Elaine is right about how many publishers are shams, too.

    And Rae, I agree it shouldn’t matter as long as the story is good.

    Starley,Yes! I got it. Thank you.

    This whole area — self-pub/small-pub and elistist/high standards — is so sticky.

    That’s why I thought it’d be interesting to discuss.

    When I wrote reviews for the Albuquerque Tribune (which is going out of business, another newspaper bites the dust . . . ), I got to see all kinds of books. Some of the self-published ones were superb, some were not. But, my bias was to read the books from publishers I recognized BECAUSE I knew they’d been vetted somewhere.

    J.T.,That speaks to your point about aiming for certain publishers rather than others. I think the list is an excellent guideline for building a career as well.

  12. Daniel J. Hale, Executive Vice

    I would like to thank those who made statements in support of Mystery Writers of America’s decision to strengthen its Active status membership and approved publishers criteria.

    The measures enacted by MWA’s diligent and dedicated Board of Directors were the result of a great deal of thought, time, and hard work. Our actions were not taken lightly. We did so in the interest of strengthening our organization for the present and future benefit of MWA and our members. Change is rarely easy, but we feel strongly that ours was the correct action to take.

    On a personal note, I want you all to know how proud I am to serve with the fair, honest, and hard-working members of MWA’s Board. They’re some of the best people I know.

  13. Joan Conwell

    As a novice writer who hasn’t yet had a novel published, I am in FAVOR of tough guidelines for membership in organizations like MWA and ITW. This gives me something to strive for, sort of like getting into a good college. And like J.T., when I consider “goal” publishers, I am only talking about the ones viewed as legitimate by professional organizations. Now, I may change my mind if and when I face years of rejection, but as of right now I welcome the challenge.

  14. Victoria Strauss

    As part of the revision, MWA contacted Writer Beware to find out if we’d gotten complaints about any of the publishers on its old approved list, and also its list of publishers to be considered on a case-by-case basis.

    Thirteen publishers were in our complaint files. Some were vanity publishers in disguise (for instance, requiring authors to buy 1,000 copies of their own books). Some had contracts with unacceptable terms (taking authors’ copyrights; paying royalties on the publisher’s net profit, rather than on retail price or the publisher’s net). One was the focus of many author complaints of nonpayment. One charged reading fees.

    So not all the removals had to do with smallpublisher vs. large publisher issues.

  15. pari

    Joan,Wonderful to hear from you.

    Victoria,Thank you so much for this insight.

    It provides much needed information about the decisions made.

    Writer Beware is an incredible service to the writing community. Again, thank you.

  16. Robin Burcell

    Pari, Kudos to you for bringing up such a firestorm subject. I’ve been dismayed to see the bickering on the various lists these days. And if you look at who is doing the bickering against MWA’s policy, as well as those of the various writers conventions that have decided to use the policy as guidelines, there seems to be a common thread amongst them. The most vocal parties against it all are a handful of self-published authors. That’s not to say there are some (approved by MWA standards) published authors who also don’t agree. But those same published authors don’t seem to take over lists and steer conversations intentionally into certain directions to sway public opinion (especially the opinion of the uninformed) to their way of thinking.

    Having an approved list of authors for major writing organizations is for the protection of all its members, published and unpublished alike.

  17. pari

    Robin,I thought a long time before writing this blog. I love this mystery community and hate to see anything drive it apart. On the lists, there have been angry comments but no real conversations. I was hoping, by writing this, that people would feel safe enough to express their opinions without worrying about being “off topic.”

  18. Elaine Flinn

    Pari-it’ll take a hell of a lot more than a few whiners to tear our community apart. And this situation ain’t one of them.

    Now, after having said all that, and my earlier comments – I neglected to compliment you on your post.

    Oh, one other thing – while I know and admire some writers whose publishers might not be included, I still don’t think they belong on panels alongside writers who have had to take the hard road. The heat in kitchen can be fierce, but if you can’t live through it, or handle it, then you don’t belong there. That might sound hardnosed to some of you out there who aren’t writers, but believe you me – if you were a writer – you might look at this situation a bit differently.

  19. Larry Chavis

    Well, I’m a complete tyro, having only broken into e-print for the first time this year. I don’t qualify for MWA [yet], and that’s a good thing. Those who have written that a professional organization must have some sort of professional standards are dead-on; membership would be meaningless if I, at this stage, qualified. I have no problem with such standards for professional organizations.

    It’s less clear to me that such standards should necessarily apply to conventions, especially if they are largely fan-run. But, again, I’m a newcomer with a lot to learn.

  20. pari

    You know what, Larry, I was hoping that someone might speak to that vis a vis conventions.

    Elaine has addressed it a bit in her last post.

    My suspicion is that some of the better known authors have begun to shy away from many conventions because they perceive a lack of “standards”.

    Now, don’t shoot me when I write that, because it may not be true.

    I’ve just noticed that there’s been a huge shift in the attendance mix during the last few years.

    Maybe it has nothing to do with this issue.

    If it does, I hope some of these writers will take action and support the changes.

    If I’m wrong, well I bet I’ll hear about that, too.

  21. Robin Burcell

    It’s interesting, but mystery cons seem to be the only ones that let anyone who registers by a certain date be on a panel (or is that my imagination?). The only vetting is by the overworked volunteers, who feel they must put everyone on, or face the wrath of those who believe they are entitled to be placed on a panel by the very payment of their con fee.

    Unfortunately, it seems the mystery community has brought this on themselves, and it will take a bit of growing pains to correct this. The mere fact that some of the cons are posting requirements for “author determination” for potential panelists is a step in the right direction. But perhaps what needs to be done is to require resumes of speaking engagements along with those published works to help in the vetting process.

  22. Alexandra Sokoloff

    Since you don’t have to have a degree in writing the way you have to have a degree to practice other equally important trades, like medicine and law (!) I think it’s critical to have screening agencies like – well, agents, and publishers and author organizations, to define standards, so readers don’t have to wade through the vast chaos of supposedly published books to find what they want to read.

    But I also think it would be interesting for the self-publishing superstars to create their own organization and set some standards of what successful self-publishing really is.

  23. Elaine Flinn

    And maybe, Pari – the shift has to do with the fact that when one considers the cost of cons, and how many there are throughout the year, some writers have become a bit more selective. Let’s face it – we all know cons are not cost effective. Hell, you’d have to sell everyone there to maybe break even. And when you’ve got just the big four facing you (Bcon, ThrillerFest,Malice & LCC), the outlay adds up pretty damn quick between registration, trave and food. Nevermind the bar tabs.

    So,Larry – to perhaps answer your question – and this is the view of a lot of writers, not just me – why go to the expense and then find yourself on a panel with someone who is self or vanity published? Unless, of course, you’re going just to schmooze & meet up with pals.

  24. David J. Montgomery

    I think the MWA has taken a great step. Professional organizations should have real standards, otherwise what’s the point of having the group in the first place? (And I say this as someone who doesn’t qualify for Active membership in MWA.)

    Vanity and scam publishers are the scourge of the business. They live to prey on people’s hopes and take advantage of the gullible or ignorant.

    They also make the reviewer’s job that much harder by flooding the market with mounds of manure masquerading as real books. And who ends up suffering? Authors published by legitimate small presses. Those books often go unread because it’s just too time-consuming to figure out who is legit and who isn’t.

  25. Larry Chavis

    Elaine, that does make sense. And, admittedly, I know very little about book-publishing, or conventions, either. Right now I’m doing the best I can to learn the craft of short-story writing. I suspect it will be quite a while before this question has a more direct effect on me.

  26. pari

    David,I cannot imagine what you have to wade through each week. The volume of books that made their way to the Alb. Trib was astonishing.

    Larry,Thank you so much for your comments today. May I wish you the best in your writing career? If so . . . I do.

  27. Elaine Flinn

    Well, when it does effect you – just remember you learned all the nitty-gritty here today from Pari & her guests. 🙂 Well,there IS more, but suffice it to say…

    And my best wishes to you as well…

  28. simon

    I’ll make two quicks points about this. I think the MWA is suffering from a little bit of a self inflicted gunshot wound here. The MWA has (or did have) the lowest criteria for professional membership among writers groups. If you look at the route writers have to go to be a full member of the SFWA, it’s tough and selective. Now that the MWA is toughening its rules, it’s suffering the backlash. One of my publishers has lost it’s approval stamp, which is a shame, as out of all the small presses I’ve worked with, it did things right. Personally, I’m glad the MWA are applying some standards. It gives me something to shoot for as a writer, but as someone burned by bad small presses, it will hopefully keep them off the lists. The downside is that some good small presses will be excluded.

  29. pari

    Simon,You’re absolutely right. I know there are some good presses that got dropped and it’s a shame.

    Again, I don’t know the total criteria MWA used. Even if they were perfect, there’d still be good houses that didn’t fit the bill.

  30. Allison Brennan

    RWA just went through this once again and as always, it stirred up a lot of hurt feelings. In romance, it’s more e-pubs than small press, but there are many of the same concerns and many of the successful e-pubs are also getting into print pub. I think this discussion re: MWA has been extremely professional, and the changes necessary, as virtually anyone can “publish” a book with little to no vetting by anyone.

    I was “suckered” into buying a self-pubbed book off Amazon. I wasn’t paying attention, the back cover copy indicated it was something I would find usual in research for my current book, so I bought it. It was total garbage. Poorly edited is only one fault–what ticked me off more was that it was a 120 page book that only had one paragraph per page of information that is readily available from many other sources–nothing like the back-cover copy.

    There are self-published success stories–but they are few and far between. And those self-published success stories generally end with a contract from a qualifying publisher.

  31. PJ Parrish


    Been reading this with great interest over the days. Thanks for bringing some needed perspective to what, in some other arenas, has degenerated into nonsense and flaming.Some excellent points made here — especially about how self-publishing is starting to affect conference attendance. I’ve sensed the same thing, and there is great pressure on the smaller regional conferences to accommodate local self-pubs on prime panels. But inevitably the feedback from attendees is “I paid good money to come here and learn. Don’t waste my time.”

    As for booksellers becoming increasingly gun-shy about booking legitimate authors because of the POD deluge — very true and very sad. Even being well-published with a backlist doesn’t always guarantee a welcome mat. Booksellers are so wary now.

    When we were booking our tour of Midwest indy stores this year, I called each store personally. The first thing out of my mouth was always “I am not self-published.” Only then would they listen. And I don’t blame them a bit. You wouldn’t believe the horror stories I heard on tour from booksellers about the misplaced sense of entitlement from self-pubbed writers. Maybe the first thing most of them need to learn is some old-fashioned good manners.

  32. pari

    Allison and P.J.,Thank you for your comments.

    I have two friends here in NM who opted for self-publishing, both for excellent reasons. Both of their books are marvelous and deserved to be in print. They, I believe, are among those exceptions to which you refer, Allison.

    I’ve also tried to read many self-pubbed/vanity press books and not gotten past the first few pages. I hate to see my friends’ books ignored, but understand the weariness that reviewers and sellers feel.

    P.J.,I find it distressing that you both have to deal with the same kind of wary reaction from sellers. You go for the “I am not . . .” I go for the bragging about the Agatha noms. Either way, it’s damn uncomfortable to have to defend oneself right off the bat.

    As to manners, it’s the same for everyone. Being rude might get you in the door, but it’ll be the only time. Then your name will be mud; it won’t matter if you’re traditionally OR self-published.


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