Wednesday, January 15, 2014

No Taxation Without Representation

by Michael W. Sherer, thriller author
Possible logo for a new crime fiction writers guild?
Thanks to

We humans are social creatures. We’re stronger in community than we are alone because we’re able to share thoughts and ideas, to collaborate and cooperate on every aspect of life, from researching the causes of disease to building enormously tall buildings.

One of the ways in which we share our knowledge is through organizations of like-minded people. Craft guilds—part professional association, part trade union and sometimes cartel or secret society—have been around for centuries. Artisans formed these trade guilds to pass on the secrets of their craft, and so they’d have each other’s backs in business ventures and times of adversity.

Guilds persist today mostly in the form of professional trade groups and unions, but some retain the purpose of training “journeymen” in the art of a particular profession, like plumbers, enabling them to pass licensing tests.

When I was a fledgling author, I looked forward to the day when I could join a professional writers group. I joined other trade associations relevant to my career—International Foodservice Editorial Council, Public Relations Society of America and North American Foodservice Equipment Manufacturers, to name a few. But my heart was set on being a member of Mystery Writers of America.

When my first book was published in 1988, the first thing I did (besides cash the advance check) was sign up for MWA. My membership entitled me to attend regional chapter meetings. The Midwest region met in Chicago, at Binyon’s restaurant, and I attended regularly to see what professional writers did at these meetings. Not too much, it turned out, other than have a few drinks and a so-so meal while trading tall tales and listening to an invited speaker talk about his or her area of expertise.

The drinks, tall tales and camaraderie formed the basis for friendships among peers. The speakers served as a form of education. To my surprise and dismay, what I didn’t get out of the association was any sort of representation. Naively, I hoped that in addition to a modest discount on rental cars, the organization would offer me health insurance at group rates, or beyond dinner and drinks it would lobby on my behalf with publishers to offer better royalty schedules and more intelligible statements. After all, there is a professional writing guild—Writers Guild (West and East)—that provides benefits such as these to its members.

(To its credit, MWA now (finally) offers real education in writing to unpublished or newly published writers through its MWA University, but ITW has been offering continuing education practically out of the gate at ThrillerFest through CraftFest and AgentFest.)

They say if you don’t like something, change it. So I got involved and was elected vice president of MWA Midwest giving me a voice in the national organization. I made suggestions, proposed changes, participated in national board discussions and even went to national meetings in New York. “But we don’t do that sort of thing,” was the basic reply to most questions such as why don’t we lobby publishers for standardized, understandable royalty statements.

Instead what I saw was petty political infighting, the resignation of luminaries like Hilary Waugh from the board because of the negative environment and little progress. About the only thing that I helped accomplish in two years on the board was the creation of a skills bank, a repository of expertise among members that other member authors could call on (this in the days before the Internet and Google made research so easy).

My publisher at the time dropped me, and I quit MWA for a number of years. When I finally found another publisher nearly a decade later, I joined the Authors Guild. Surely, I thought, this august group would do more to lobby on my behalf for better treatment and terms from traditional publishers. At the very least, AG offered web-hosting at a reasonable cost.

But AG has gone astray, its leadership like that of the Teamsters more interested in preserving the status quo for itself. To wit, in mid-December, Joe Konrath and Barry Eisler took AG president Scott Turow and member Richard Russo to task on Joe’s blog (
for a membership recruitment letter Russo wrote at Turow’s behest. In it, Joe and Barry ask good questions and propose some interesting alternatives. Here are some excerpts:

Joe: My reading of Turow's words is that he cares about the Authors Guild, wants it to continue (self-renew), and needs authors to do so.

Isn't that backwards? Shouldn't Turow be concerned with what the Guild can do for authors, and not what authors can do for the Guild? Isn't the whole point of the Guild to help authors, and not simply to acquire as many authors as possible so the Guild can continue to exist?

Barry: Or--crazy idea, I know--writers could even make decisions for themselves. Or, if they want to act collectively, they could form a guild that’s worthy of the name (though I’d recommend calling it a union rather than a guild, unless the idea really is to use a medieval term to signify the organization is archaic). We would know if such a union exists by whether it’s able to get legacy publishers to change some of their more antediluvian and draconian practices (again, 25% lockstep digital royalties, etc, etc). Richard? Scott? Could you share some of those successes with the authors you’re attempting to bring in on your process of self-renewal? If not, then leaving aside for the moment the medievalism of the terminology, why are you calling yourself a guild?

It’s a serious question. Here, I’m a skeptical author. Can you demonstrate to me how the Authors Guild represents my interests in any way that’s meaningfully adverse to legacy publishing? Can you provide any case studies of circumstances where legacy publishers were treating authors poorly, and you were able to effect meaningful change beneficial to authors? I don’t know why you would have left such evidence out of your letter (after all, you’ve pointed out that you disdain evidence-free argument).

And if such evidence doesn’t exist, can you accept that you’re much less a guild--and certainly not a union--but rather something more akin to the legacy publishing industry’s best-known lobbyist?

Joe: Could you [Richard Russo] assume, for a moment, that perhaps the Big 5 treat Pulitzer winners and bestselling authors a bit better than they treat all other authors?

Perhaps you and Scott [Turow] were able to play a part in the relationship between art and commerce because your publishers allowed it. Perhaps you got better ebook royalty rates than your peers (and then had to sign NDAs saying you can never admit it publicly). Perhaps you had a say so in the price of your books, your distribution, your titles, your cover art.

The rest of us--the mid-list majority that the Authors Guild purports to represent--were not treated like you and Scott were.

But now, for the first time, we can directly reach readers. We aren't simply part of the conversation about the relationship between art and commerce--we directly make decisions about that relationship.

Richard: To that end we’d do well to speak with one voice,

Barry: You mean… act like a union? Collective bargaining? Wring more favorable terms from the industry that in lockstep pays authors a mere 25% in digital royalties, and deigns to pay us only twice a year? After all, they need our content!

Joe: Can somebody, somewhere, please form a writing organization that actually benefits writers? That doesn't exist to help the rich get richer? That won't succumb to Pournelle's Iron Law of Bureaucracy or regulatory capture for a decade or two? That won't use the power of a large untitled group to further the agenda of an entitled few?

And in Joe’s December 28 blog (, he proposes an answer to his own question:

“We don't need writing organizations (MWA, Authors Guild) who don't look out for our interests.

“Here's what we need:

“a) An independent journal that reviews and recommends self-pubbed titles to readers and libraries. One that doesn't charge authors anything.

“b) A writing organization and annual conference where indie authors get together to share information and help one another. Something that gives us leveraging power in the industry. Something with imprimatur, that will let readers know they are guaranteed quality.”

Sign me up, Joe. That’s the kind of professional organization I want to be part of.

What do you think? Do you belong to a professional group? Does it serve your needs?

Michael W. Sherer is the author of Night Tide, the second novel in the Blake Sanders thriller series. The first in the Seattle-based series, Night Blind, was nominated for an ITW Thriller Award in 2013. His other books include the award-winning Emerson Ward mystery series, the stand-alone suspense novel, IslandLife, and the Tess Barrett YA thriller series.

He and his family now reside in the Seattle area. Please visit him at or you can follow him on Facebook at and on Twitter @MysteryNovelist.


  1. As a successful indie author, I wasn't welcome anywhere, except International Thriller Writers, and that was only because I'd once had a small press publish some of my novels. After Thomas & Mercer bought out my back list and offered me a front list advance, I joined Mystery Writers of American and the International Crime Writers Association. Because it felt good to know that I could, but mostly because it made me eligible for awards. Then I found out my new publisher doesn't submit books to award contests, so I haven't renewed my memberships. As you pointed out, they don't do much for their members.

    I still belong to Sisters in Crime, because that organization at least has a mission to ensure that female writers are equally represented in the press. They actively track print reviews and contact newspapers if the publication seems gender-biased in its coverage. I send in my dues to support that effort.

    I also still belong to ITW because they don't charge dues. I had written monthly features for The Big Thrill for four years as my way of contributing, but I recently gave that up because I have too more-pressing things to do. Also, the organization wouldn't treat my new release a regular book because it was indie, and they shoved it into the ebook, non-featured category, even thought it has print and audio versions.

    So I'm mostly done with writer organizations. I've always studied the craft on my own anyway, except for attending small workshops with highly-skilled, independent individuals.

    Do writers need an organization to lobby for better contracts? Maybe not. Maybe we just need good lawyers to review contracts for a flat fee and the good sense to not sign the crappy offers.

  2. This is timely!

    I sent in my SinC dues for the same reasons, L.J.

    I'm considering not renewing my membership with Rocky Mountain Fiction Writers because, although they established a group for indie author's, it's still secondary to the traditionally published authors. As far as serving my needs? Nope. They have, however, invited me to present an online class. That's making me second-guess my instinct to bail.

    I have submitted an application for membership to Colorado Authors' League because they seemed to really want me. (I know, silly.) And they seem to be interested in putting together some events for authors to get in front of readers. I appreciate the fact that they have a vetting process for membership, and that at least at this point, it doesn't seem that being an indie puts me into a second-class membership group. I will, of course, learn more about this group assuming I'm approved.

    Let us know if Joe puts something together.

  3. I currently belong to two writer groups with active monthly membership meetings. Arizona Mystery Writers and Sisters in Crime/Tucson both provide genre targeted presentations as a morning session, and usually a workshop venue for the afternoon. BOTH offer availability to sign at their booths at the enormous Tucson Festival of Books, and this is one HUGE benefit for me. My thoughts....

    Thought provoking post!

  4. The irony, in my opinion, is that I waited unit I was a published author to join professional authors organizations, but once I'd joined I found that they do more to help unpublished writers than published authors. And as any mid-list author can attest, we need as much help as we can get to attract eyeballs.


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