Who Is an Author?

The big discussion at Dorothly L this week is about the author rule for conventions, particularly Bouchercon, which had lax rules. Left Coast Crime in Denver this year apparently had a stricter rule, and as a result, some authors were offended and did not attend.

Boiled down, The Rule (as it is known) is that if an author participates financially in the production or editing of his/her own work, then that person is excluded as an author. It seems that the purpose of the rule is to keep self-published authors from wearing a badge that says “author” and from participating on panels. Exceptions are made for authors who have been short-listed for awards or won awards.

Which brings up the first interesting point. If self-published authors are sometimes nominated for (and occasionally win) awards, then clearly there are great books that are sometimes rejected by major publishers. Because most self-published books aren’t even allowed to compete for awards, we don’t really know how many great self-published books are out there. Supporters of the rule would say, “But we’re trying to keep the crap out.” And everyone knows there is a LOT of self-published crap. But what about traditionally published substandard novels? How do you keep them out? Shouldn’t novels be judged by their content, instead of their publisher?

One idea is to have two or three participants read each author’s latest work and decide if it is worthy, regardless of publication method. I started to write “but that’s not realistic” then thought “why not?” You could require every author who wants to attend the conference to read one or two selections from other authors and to provide an anonymous evaluation (or a simple yes/no)—and also to submit their own work to the process. What could be fairer? (This was the basis for Project Greenlight in the film industry.)

The second gray area is the concept of “financially participating in the production and editing” of the novel. Don’t most authors pay to have their work evaluated and/or edited before they even send it to an agent or publisher? (I certainly do!) And what about marketing? I think it’s safe to say that all publishers want their authors to participate financially in the marketing of their novels. Why is it okay for authors to spend thousands of dollars on travel, bookmarks, and mailing free copies to book clubs, but if they spend their own money to hire a graphic designer to produce a better cover than what their publisher has in mind, then suddenly they are not a real author?

I commend Bouchercon for keeping participation open, and I understand the concerns of those who think the rule is necessary. I also think there is room for a better way to determine who is labeled an author at conventions and who is not. What you do think?

  1. I totally see what you’re saying.

    Before any Project Greenlight approach is put into action, though, there would need to be a decision about smaller issues. Would the votes be kept strictly confidential? (So that authors could veto the books of friends without fear they’d be found out?) In most contest judging, the author’s name is purged before the manuscript goes to judges. This wouldn’t be possible for published books.

    If you’re going to enforce “The Rule” then it needs to be clarified. I’m with you — I hope every author is getting their work edited before it’s published and every author nowadays, unless they’re a huge name, has to participate financially in the marketing. If these two things are considered to be violations of The Rule, then I’m surprised many midlist authors can participate in Left Coast.

    Authors want to participate in the conventions and workshops where the fans and readers go. Bouchercon is one of the most popular for mystery. You’re correct to pose the question, is it right to judge a book by the publisher rather (or more) than the merits?

    The answer, I think, is no. But then, who decides and how? And are conference organizers who feel the publisher is the most important criteria wrong? Must they be forced to change their rules? Or are authors the ones who must accept that some conventions are not open to them and they must focus on those that are?

    I think, I hope, the rules are relaxing. Times are changing. The industry is adapting. Slowly.

    And I think I should shut up meandering along the winding trail of my musings.

  2. My boss is okay for some mystery conventions because of his active MWA status, but not okay for others because his publisher got dumped later from MWA’s approved list. It’s all a mystery to both of us.

  3. I’ve long held my tongue on this subject and I’ve damn near bitten it through. So here goes…

    Every publisher out there publishes what someone (or lots of someones) consider drek. That’s the nature of a subjective business.

    So when we get to these conferences and conventions, you have to wonder about these gatekeepers. More and more groups are instituting them, but are they keeping people out more than they’re letting people in? Does the conference high outweigh the bad taste from people who are excluded, sometimes when they were included the day before?

    Your idea may wind up not working out, LJ. But it’s a fabulous first attempt to bring parity, especially when so many readers I’ve met can’t tell the difference between Penguin and PublishAmerica.

    It seems to me that “who’s your publisher” is a bigger question for writers than for readers.

    And I thank you for standing up and beginning to put forth a solution to this.

  4. Helen, I realize none of this is simple, and the alternative I proposed is not very practical. But it is fair, which is the real issue.

    Austin, that is a great illustration of my point. Your publisher got dumped, so you got dumped from some conferences. But you’re not less of a writer now. I’m just looking for a way to make it more fair, more about the quality of the work.

  5. It would seem that publishing is in a state of flux these days. Self-publishing used to be all lumped in with “vanity press” – I got a Christmas present one year of my grandmother’s poems that had been “published.” I love her, so I love them as a remembrance, but they aren’t publishable beyond that. Now, more and more self-publishing authors are investing in professional editors, cover artists, etc to put out a quality product. And, if you read today’s ‘Straight from Hel’ blog, it would seem that a lot of famous, once wonderful authors are not putting out a quality product anymore. Yet the stigma of self-publishing remains.

    Perhaps we do leave it up to the individual convention to decide who’s in and who’s out. But I like the idea of Project Greenlight – if it can also be somehow anonymous. That way, we could get away from the “us vs. them” mentality of self and traditional publishing, and hold a convention based on good writing. What a concept!

  6. Maybe I’m out in left field with this, I like the view out there, but I’ve always wondered why there wasn’t more focus on total copies sold instead of who published the book. I think there should be a total amount of copies sold that a self=published authors book needs to reach to set itself apart from the other self=published work. If the author hasn’t reached that limit, then they don’t qualify.

    Many copies sold doesn’t mean quality, but it’s a better guideline then reading off who published the book and judging the talent from that.

  7. Lj,

    Very timely post. We’ve been noticing that more and more of the books we pick up and enjoy come from small and self publishers. They are proving to be fresher, edgier, more enjoyable.

    The conference world definitely needs to find a measure for quality of book content – perhaps two different sets of rules with a higher standard for those who want to serve on panels.

  8. I like Corie’s idea. If a book is SELLING, it must have SOME merit no matter how it got published. Good topic for discussion, LJ – becoming more and more of a hot topic all the time.

  9. I think you are an author when you have put it out there for the public. Sure, people want to think that self published means bad, but have they noticed that publishers want Steven King or the over the top memoir. And even then the difference between the advances would be staggering.

    Just another way to keep the people who have learned what publishers do and can do it themself from being at the table.

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