Justine: The Writer’s Right to Vote

rwa, voting, general membership, justine covington, eight ladies writingIf you’re a member of RWA (Romance Writers of America), you’ve probably heard lots of discussion lately about General membership status and the right to vote (and thus direct RWA’s future). Because RWA is designed (both by intention and for tax purposes) to promote the common interests of published writers and those seeking a career in publication (rather than writing as a hobby), RWA recently implemented new guidelines that determine your membership status. You can qualify as a General (voting) member if:

  • You qualify for PRO or PAN designation within RWA. PRO designation is for those who can show proof that they’ve submitted a completed manuscript to an agent or editor for consideration. PAN designation is for published authors.
  • You can provide a verifiable ISBN/ASIN number for a work/works of fiction 20,000 words or greater.
  • You submit a new, completed draft of a work of fiction 20,000 words or greater every three years.

I got into a discussion about this status with the president of my local chapter regarding the right to vote. I told her that at my stage of the game, early on in my career, I didn’t see that voting was all that important. She pointed out to me that in my chapter, Desert Rose, that may indeed be the case, but our chapter is large, with over 150 members. There are many other chapters that are smaller, and any writers who lack the right to vote also lack the ability to serve on the Board of Directors for their chapter, which puts their chapters at a distinct disadvantage, because there are other rules about how long one can serve on the Board, how long one must be a member before they can serve on the Board, etc.

As I got to think about it more, though, I realized that the right to vote in an organization that is designed to protect your interests is actually quite important, particularly because RWA is such a generous professional organization. We do not limit membership to published authors, as many other writing organizations do. We offer classes all the time (often free!) for published and unpublished authors, and there are really only a few things “off limits” for unpublished authors (mostly related to PAN and PRO).

Because RWA is so generous to unpublished authors, I need to be able to vote in order to protect that. If the only people who can vote are those who are published, how can I be sure they’re going to remember what it was like when they were just driveling, wannabe writers like me? Will they remember what they hadn’t yet learned? What they didn’t know? What RWA gave them and taught them so they were savvy about the business when lightening finally did strike?

If nothing else, RWA’s new guidelines strike a fire under my butt. I want to protect my ability to vote. 20,000 words every three years? I can do that. If you’re an unpublished member of RWA as I am, I hope you can, too.

9 thoughts on “Justine: The Writer’s Right to Vote

  1. Every organization has its own rules, but personally, I think if you are paying to be a member, you should get to vote. I think there are ways that a vote can mean more or less (ie: paying, non-PAN/PRO people could be a sort of “house of representatives” to the PAN/PRO “senate”, for example), but paying member should have a say.

    I used to belong to a group of ex-pat wives on the Hokkaido level. They welcomed members who weren’t members of the national group, and I think I even got to write a couple of articles for the newsletter. Then, national changed the rules, and people had to pay the big bucks to belong to national, rather than just the little local fee. Money isn’t everything, but combined with the distance I had to travel (three and a half hours to “local” meetings each way), I decided it was too much.

    I believe SFWA (for science fiction and fantasy writers) is a pro-only group — you have to meet their requirements before you are a member. I suppose the feeling is that the active amateurs can put together their own groups if they desire. One of their semi-annual business meetings is only a part of a larger fan convention (World Con or NASFiC); I’m not sure but I think the other business meetings are part of more public events. Some of their benefits, such as Writer Beware (R) are also accessible to non-members. Others, such as the emergency medical fund, would obviously be members-only. The conventions seem to be much more open to fans than RWA’s events, and there’s a lot of fan/writer interaction, as well as writer/writer interaction — and a huge fuzzy space where there are active fans writing fanzines and fanfic.

    By separating the published and the unpublished, RWA might actually make a bigger space for amateur writers (and by getting more practice, amateur writers could become pro writers sooner).

    I don’t know all that much about the convention side of Romance. Are there fanzines that distribute romance news? Do people write romance fanfic? (I am pretty sure there is Pride and Prejudice Fanfic, and I know that 50 Shades was originally a bizarre (to me) type of fanfic set in an alternate universe. But I don’t hear much about fanfic otherwise.) Are there conventions, or events at conventions, where fans can interact with many different romance writers? Do amateur writers “publish” in their chapter’s newletters for practice, exposure and helpful advice?

    There’s so much I don’t know about this. But, it is true that the amateur writer can be a huge support system for the professional part of the writing association. And it doesn’t do to make future pros too angry at an organization . . . .

    I don’t really have an opinion here, but I hope this sparks some educational remarks . . . I’m here to learn.

    • Like Kay said, this had more to do with maintaining tax-exempt status than anything else. You’ll see in my comments to Kay that the terms are actually quite generous.

      As far as fan events, at RWA National each year, they host a book signing event where readers can come and meet their favorite authors. It’s wildly popular, with tons of people lined up around the edges of the conference room to meet the Big Players (Nora Roberts, SEP, etc.), not to mention the rows and rows of tables for other authors. The proceeds from that event support literacy programs, typically in the city where the conference is being held.

      Sometimes, local chapters do the same thing. We did back in April during the Desert Dreams conference. All the money we raised went to Maricopa County literacy programs, plus locals got to meet some of their favorite authors.

      As far as separating published and unpublished authors, that’s what I actually like the most about RWA — that they’re NOT separated. There’s no “you’re better than me” or “someday I’ll be one of them.” We’re ALL there to learn, to share, and to support one another. As one writer said to me at the conference this summer, it’s the most friendly and inclusive writing group she’s ever been a part of (and she doesn’t write romance, but she joined RWA because of that).

  2. I believe the RWA voting requirements are under review because of the IRS’s tightening of the definitions of professional organizations, which came about because the Cleveland IRS office made it tough for the Tea Party in Ohio to get tax-deductible status. So RWA is clamping down on membership qualifications (and chapter bylaws) in the fear and expectation that the IRS would make us pay taxes. And who knows? They might. I’m a big fan of inclusion in the group and I’m a little worried about the new membership requirements. Let’s say someone has cancer and she doesn’t write for a few years. Does anyone think she’s really not trying to make a living from writing romance, or that her intent isn’t to be published? I would hate for RWA to become one of the moribund cliques of self-congratulation that every other professional writing association in America seems to be. RWA is vital because of the strength of the genre and the interesting new people drawn to it. I’d like to keep that going.

    Michaeline, you raise a lot of good points, but the only one I feel able to comment on is your question about fan/author interaction at conferences. I’ve never been to it, but Romantic Times magazine has a big conference every year that’s all about celebrating readers. Authors go, of course, but it’s all about nurturing the fan base, whereas at RWA, it’s more about making professional connections.

    • Kay, from the way I understand it, if you’re a published author and you can show a royalty statement (or something like that) for any time over the last 5 years, then you still qualify as a voting member.

      Our chapter president broke it down like this (for those of us who need it in real simple terms):

      1. Write 20,000 words for a work of romance every 3 years. [Note: this CAN be a first draft!]

      2. Provide a verifiable ASIN or ISBN for one work of romance 20,000 words or more, published in the last 5 years.

      3. Provide a verifiable ASIN or ISBN for one work of romance 20,000 words or more, re-issued in the last 5 years.

      4. Provide a signed publishing contract for one work of romance 20,000 words or more dated within the last 5 years.

      5. Provide a royalty statement in any amount for one work of romance 20,000 words or more, published in the last 5 years.

      The last criteria they added (but didn’t really advertise) is this: FOR LONG-TERM MEMBERS with 15 years or more in good standing, who have published 20 works of romance of any length, submit verifiable ASINs or ISBNs, and they will never need to β€œqualify” again.

      They really are generous terms, if you think about it. For #1, it can be a combined 20K words, too, so if you have two short stories that are 10K words, each, you qualify. (Not so for #2-5 — those must be a single work.)

      The new rules don’t go into effect until November 15, 2015, so current members have a year to complete their 20K word minimum first draft (if you don’t already qualify based on #2-5).

      I agree with you, though, that what I like the most about RWA is its inclusiveness. No one is too hoity-toity to give advice to a new writer. That is unique, indeed.

  3. I think that to keep its tax-exempt status, at National and Chapter level, RWA has to be able to demonstrate that its members write for business, not for fun. I believe this tax-related requirement is why a lot of writers’ groups are restricted to published authors, because that’s an easy way to short-cut the argument.

    RWA is a welcoming place for unpublished authors and as Kay says, is all the stronger for it. I really appreciate it. I don’t have any specialist knowledge (I’m not even American!) but the new regulations look to me like a good attempt to satisfy the IRS using a clear, objective test while keeping the net as wide as possible.

    PAN authors clearly meet the test. I’m a member of PRO, and while I’m enjoying the discussions, they’re not what I expected. PRO members must have submitted a manuscript to an agent or editor to qualify, but many of them seem to be published with small presses or are self-publishing. They’re definitely active and pursuing the business of writing, but many of the PRO threads are about how to find a great cover artist, where to get an ISBN, or how to get on BookBub, not how to write a great query letter. So I guess these writers are not yet selling enough to qualify for PAN, but they’re finding an alternate route instead of / as well as through traditional channels. I’ve seen a few discussion threads suggesting that PRO needs to be revisited, and I think that’s a good idea. I wonder if that will be one of the next steps once the top-level voting membership changes have been sorted out.

    For non-PRO or PAN members, I think 20k new words every three years is setting the bar as low as possible. It’s a short story or two per year. I don’t think it’s unreasonable, and I suspect that keeping track of it will be an administrative burden that RWA National would not have embraced if they could have found an easier way. I know that keeping voting membership numbers up is important for local chapters, especially small ones, and I hope these changes won’t drive people away. It might even make it a little bit easier for American unpublished writers to justify your tax deductions (I’m just jealous – we Brits don’t have that luxury πŸ™‚ ).

    • As I understand it, there’s software the national office will use (local chapters will NOT be responsible for determining eligibility) to compare past submissions and count words. Once you qualify, you have three years to produce something new, or if you sell something, that will cover you for five years.

      As for our personal tax deductions, that’s a whole ‘nother ball of wax. There are some excellent resources on myRWA (written by authors who are/were CPAs and/or tax attorneys) that break things down, but the main point is that you have to show a serious pursuit (in the form of soliciting agents/editors, pursuing publication, or furthering your education) and income. My accountant said the $25 I made by finaling in the Beau Monde’s Royal Ascot this year qualifies as income!

    • Coming in from a British point of view here: Jilly, if writing is your main business, can you not claim tax deductions, even if you aren’t published yet? I am no expert but can’t see why it wouldn’t be like any other business – when I became self employed, I kept all receipts and expenses right from the beginning and made sure they were off set against income when it started coming in. Why would writing be any different?

      • You’re right, Rachel, the key being that I can’t offset the expenses unless/until I have writing income. So the other 8L could (I think) claim a tax deduction now for the cost of attending RWA National. I have to keep all my exes in a drawer or shoebox or whatever until the glorious day I have enough income to claim them back. Fingers crossed πŸ™‚

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