Tuesday, March 18, 2008

RWA and Tsaba House At Odds

Last Thursday, Publishers Weekly (PW) had an article that reported:

Tsaba House Press, a Christian publisher of fiction and nonfiction titles, is considering taking legal action against the Romance Writers of America for refusing to consider one of the small California press's authors for a Rita Award, which honors inspirational romances.

Apparently Pam Schwagerl, the Tsaba House publisher, had contacted Publishers Weekly to let them know that one of her authors, Molly Noble Bull, had been prevented from submitting her novel Sanctuary for the Rita because Tsaba House was not "RWA approved."

Unfortunately, there was a lot of erroneous information in that article. Publishers Weekly came out on Monday and reversed itself on a number of points:

1) The Rita is an annual award bestowed at the national RWA level for published romance novels. Molly Noble Bull was trying to enter contests on the chapter level, not the national level. According to the new PW article, she was specifically interested in Fort Worth's Yellow Rose contest and in Birmingham's Southern Magic contest.

2) RWA National has nothing to do with the rules associated with its chapters' contests. Almost every RWA chapter has an annual contest (or two), which are fund-raising events. The types of contests are widely varied--first twenty pages, first meeting between hero and heroine, most exciting moment, most sensual scene--every contest is a little different. The rules for entrants also vary. Some chapters will only accept entries from RWA members, other chapters typically charge a premium for non-chapter or non-RWA entrants.

3) Finally, according to RWA's website, the organization "does not maintain a list of 'approved publishers,' but it does maintain a list of non-vanity/non-subsidy publishers." When Bull attempted to enter the two contests in question, she was told that only authors from non-vanity/non-subsidy publishing houses could enter. When Schwagerl sent Tsaba House's contract to RWA National for confirmation that her operation was not a subsidy press, RWA responded "it considers Tsaba to be a subsidy publisher because its standard contract contains clauses concerning author chargebacks." (PW)

I've been a member of RWA for four years. I am second to none in my admiration of both the organization and its members. Every time I do a workshop, I encourage newbie writers seeking publication to join RWA. The generosity of its published members and the discipline and determination of its rank and file members are simply awesome. Both groups have taught me a lot.

I applaud RWA for its tireless efforts to protect its members and writers everywhere. They take their responsibility seriously and try very, very hard.

Being a cynic, I also find it interesting that Schwagerl apparently took her complaints to Publishers Weekly. I guess even Christian publishing houses appreciate the value of publicity.

The first PW article indicated that Schwagerl uses a model contract she purchased from Dan Poynter's website (see here) instead of one drawn up by an attorney. I'm reminded of one of my mom's quotes: "Penny wise and pound foolish."

Internet rumors speculate as to whether, contrary to their claims of "Our contract was modeled after the largest publishing house in NewYork designed by a team of laywers (sic)", NCP also got their boilerplate from Poynter's website. Those rumors point to the fact that both contracts neglect the all-important word "exclusive" when describing the grant of rights.

But, see, it's only been eight months since RWA was defending a definition of a vanity or subsidy press that included: "publishers whose primary means of offering books for sale is through a publisher-generated Web site." It took a little more than two weeks before they backed down from a definition that excluded all e-publishers (see my post here).

Over the last few years, I've had generous friends who've shared their contracts with me. For this reason, the following paragraph from the second PW article struck a chord with me:

David Koehser, a Minneapolis attorney who’s specialized in publishing law for the past 20 years and represents most of the Twin Cities-area publishers, as well as authors throughout the country, concurs with Schwagerl’s claims. “Those clauses are fairly common,” he said, “They’re in most of my contracts. The author has to submit a manuscript suitable to the publisher, and is obligated to provide supplementary material. This is not considered to be a subsidy arrangement."

First of all, this guy is no slouch. Read his bio here. He's taught publishing law seminars at the University of Minnesota Law School (from which he graduated cum laude) and the John Marshall School of Law in Chicago.

Second, there ARE clauses in major publishing house contracts which include author chargebacks. Let me give a few examples:

  • I explained the warranty and indemnity clause of a publishing contract on Saturday. In the event that legal action is instituted against the publisher under this clause, the publisher can withhold monies due the author until the matter is settled since the author is on the hook for any judgments by virtue of indemnifying the publisher.
  • If the author fails to deliver a satisfactory manuscript, some contracts include language that the publisher can hire a writer to fulfill the contract and charge the author for this cost.
  • If the author makes excessive corrections to proofs, s/he can be held liable for the cost.

Also, I remember reading a contract that covered both fiction and non-fiction, which said the author was responsible to provide supplementary material (such as charts and illustrations) related to the book. It makes sense that if you need a chart to support a non-fiction book's thesis, you'd produce the chart. It isn't some sneaky way of charging expenses to the writer. If your book requires supporting documentation, you need to provide it together with your manuscript.

I have to admit I'm harboring a memory of RWA's reflex reaction last year: "We're right, and it's too bad if you don't like it."

I suspect, after they check with the major publishers, they're going to have to retrace their steps on this matter. I just wish next time they'd do their fact-checking BEFORE the hoopla instead of after. There's nothing wrong with saying, "An issue has come up, and we're investigating it," instead of a simple kneejerk reaction of, "No."


Sherrill Quinn said...

There seems to be a whole lotta knee-jerkin' going on lately. I blogged on this, too, today--though not nearly as eloquently as you. :)

Deb said...

There's nothing charged-back in any of my small press contracts, but I'm told my books are considered vanity/subsidy published because they haven't sold a certain set number of books yet.

This is part of the reason I dropped out of RWA. But not all of it.