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January 7, 2020

Why Does the RWA Implosion Matter to All Writers?

Imploding fireball with text: The RWA Implosion Matters to All Writers

Where do I start with the issues surrounding the Romance Writers of America? *sigh*

No, seriously. Where do I start?

For those who got to actually relax and enjoy the holidays and are just now paying attention, I wanted to provide a primer on the situation. But trying to “sum up” the depth and breadth of the chaos and problems and “you’ve got to be kidding me” reactions had me staring at a blank monitor screen for hours yesterday.

So let me instead first start with why this matters. Why should any writer who doesn’t write romance care about a situation that could be dismissively considered “in-fighting”?

The Romance Genre Leads the Industry

The romance genre and those who write or read it are often laughed off as being the realm of sexually frustrated housewives. It doesn’t matter how much the evidence states otherwise—some will make jokes regardless, just because it is a female-dominated genre.

The romance genre dominates the publishing industry, so RWA's implosion matters to all writers. Click To TweetHowever, the romance genre is also the powerhouse of the fiction world, a multi-billion dollar industry. For some publishers throughout the decades, the profits from their romance lines were what kept the company afloat, allowing all that “serious” literature to even exist.

That power and size has also created countless situations where the romance industry led the way. The innovations sprung from the romance genre carry through to the entire publishing industry.

Ebooks and ereaders/Kindles? Romance authors, publishers, and readers embraced them first, making them popular enough to change the whole industry.

Self-publishing? Romance authors were there first, showing everyone else the way. Even today, many of the best marketing insights and examples come from those in the romance genre.

The successes of the romance industry help every other writer, no matter their genre. Without a strong romance industry, the entire publishing industry would suffer.

RWA: Voice of the Romance Industry

With a membership of almost 10,000 romance writers and industry associates, the Romance Writers of America has been the voice of those working in the industry for almost 40 years and one of the biggest (if not the biggest) writing organizations in the world.

Unlike most other professional writing organizations, RWA welcomes not just published authors, but also unpublished writers—in addition to agents, editors, librarians, and other associates. Their focus on educating and connections has been essential to many now-successful authors, and that education also trickles down to writers of every genre through workshops and writing blogs and whatnot.

That large membership has also given RWA clout to address issues like #cockygate, where an author tried to prevent any book from using a word she’d somehow managed to trademark. Without RWA’s authoritative smackdown discouraging the practice, authors in every other genre would have soon suffered from the same problem as well.

In other words, the support that RWA has given to the romance industry has helped writers all over, whether member or not, whatever the genre. So with the threat of RWA collapsing under its own stupid, destructive decisions, the whole publishing world might lose an advocate.

However, that brings us to the start of RWA’s problems…

But They’re Not Supportive of All Romance Writers

Even though one of RWA’s founders was a Black woman, editor Vivian Stephens, the trade organization has historically failed to welcome, support, or advocate for writers from often-marginalized groups.

Hundreds (if not thousands) of examples of that failure exist, including:

  • Last year was the first time a Black author won RWA’s prestigious RITA award, and finalists (much less winners) of any color have been disturbingly rare.
  • In 2005, RWA asked the membership to define romance as between one man and one woman, and although this push was rejected, some RITA judges still refuse to accept LGBT+ romances, labeling them “not a romance” and causing their disqualification.
  • The entire “inspirational” romance subgenre is assumed to be Christian only, and throughout even the umbrella of the whole romance genre, stories centering other religions are sometimes challenged.
  • Writers with disabilities are often dismissed when questioning whether chapter meetings or conferences are “disability friendly,” and many writers think disabled characters need to be “fixed” before their story’s ending can truly be happy (implying that people with disabilities can’t ever be happy).

At the same time, many members wanted—and tried to make—the organization to do better. Over the past few years, the membership has been electing Board members with more diversity and wider experiences and perspectives. This past summer, members elected the most diverse and inclusive board yet, giving many hope that the organization was headed in the right direction.

Now with that context, let’s try to “sum up” for those who haven’t been following the scandal on Twitter…

The Many Layers of the RWA Implosion

On December 23rd, news broke that RWA had suspended and banned Courtney Milan, bestselling author and former board member, as the result of two related ethics complaints. The complaints focused on Courtney’s Twitter threads pointing out racist writing in a writer-turned-editor’s book (even though she was far from the only one pointing out the issues). An outcry against the punishment erupted, especially on Twitter, where the hashtag #IStandWithCourtney trended.

Why is the RWA implosion more than just “in-fighting”? Click To TweetAt this point, some defended the complaints (even though critique—even from fellow authors—is just part of being a writer). After all, many have expressed a dislike for Courtney’s outspokenness or aggressiveness over the years, so they saw the punishment as justified. Plus, the complaints claimed serious damages, such as loss of contracts, and threatened lawsuits.

So this was just a case of she-said/she-said, right? Or just another example of Social Justice Warriors Gone Mad or the “cancel culture,” right?

Not quite. This is a story of racism, yes, but also of entitlement, ego, power, lies, cover-ups, and more…

Failed Policies and Procedures

Those of us who dug into the legalese, the many pages of complaints, Courtney’s formal responses, and the report of findings by RWA’s Ethics Committee saw discrepancies that revealed issues going far deeper. Even though one of the complaints contained the chilling phrase about Courtney, “She cannot be allowed to…use her voice to urge others to follow her lead,” those protesting the situation weren’t focusing only on defending her personally.

At every step of the process, RWA failed to follow their own policies and procedures, as they:

  • allowed a publisher to file a complaint against an author
  • didn’t require proof of damages
  • processed the complaint despite RWA’s Ethics Code specifically making exceptions for criticism of a book and for messages on social media
  • forced Courtney to resign rather than recuse herself as chair of the Ethics Committee
  • set up a secret second Ethics Committee (with who knows what qualifications for judging ethical issues)

In other words, the complaint should never have been allowed to be filed at all, much less passed on to this secret shadow committee. And that was just what was known in the first 24 hours.

History of Issues

In addition, the outcry freed others to share their stories of valid ethics complaints that were ignored by the RWA staff. The RWA staff (which are long-term paid positions, unlike the volunteer Board and Committees) were also at the center of many newly shared stories of discrimination over the years.

(A daily update of the quickly changing situation and links to many stories can be found here. For additional news, Romance Sparks Joy has compiled a Twitter Moment with all the most import Twitter threads here. A new article from Vox also includes much of the backstory other media coverage is missing.)

More Failed Policies

By the 48 hour mark, 9 board members had resigned in protest (and in a shocking lack of transparency, apparently the President did too, which was announced only as an aside with no details or a resignation letter). By that time, the Board had been able to see the actual complaints and Courtney’s responses on Twitter like everyone else and perhaps for the first time fully understood what it was they’d been forced to vote on (rather than relying on only the President-Elect’s word for the details behind the Ethics Committee 2.0’s recommended punishment).

As RWA chapters and members pointed out the discrepancies, RWA’s answers just created more policy holes. They defended their decisions by saying there was more to the judgment than anyone—including Courtney—ever saw, which of course, violated her right to respond to every claim.

Conspiracies and Cover Ups?

In the 2 weeks since, the problems have compounded. RWA’s messaging has ranged from “sorry, we’ll do better” to “shut up if you know what’s good for you.”

Add in an utter lack of transparency, silence from the President-Elect (now President) Damon Suede and most of the remaining Board, and outright falsehoods and threats when they do speak (implying RWA would fold and go into receivership if members force recalls or resignations), and we have the current situation where much of the membership has lost confidence in the President, Board, and RWA staff.

Topping it off, this past weekend, Kathryn Lynn Davis (one of the complaint filers) backtracked, admitting she hadn’t lost a 3-book contract after all and claiming RWA staff had “encouraged” her to file her complaint. (Oh, and her book at the center of the Courtney’s Twitter critique that she was so defensive about? Surprise! She’s now edited it for its racist writing. *sigh*)

Ignoring…and then Maybe Progress???

A recall petition against the President has been submitted (twice), 19 former Presidents and board members have requested answers to policy discrepancies (and been ignored), huge numbers of chapters and members have demanded an investigative audit (and been ignored), agents have cut off their partnership with RWA (with no response), and so on.

My letter to the RWA Board can be found here, and as I mentioned on Twitter, given my epic-length blog posts, my letter is not surprisingly of manifesto-length. *smile*

Last night, RWA canceled their annual RITA contest, but not before over 300 authors had pulled their stories (many from underrepresented authors) and many judges withdrew from their commitment.

My email withdrawing from RITA judging can be found here. (Obviously, I sent my letter this past weekend, before the RITA contest was, indeed, canceled.)

RWA Could Be Great for the Industry, But…

My point with all this is that romance authors are used to innovating, breaking barriers, and getting things done. It would be nice if RWA can be salvaged so whatever remaining clout they have could be put to work for everyone.

None of us are perfect, and we all make mistakes. I’m sure I’ve said or written some insensitive (and maybe even harmful) words over the course of my 950+ blog posts, multiple workshops, and various books. For that, I am sincerely sorry, and I ask for the chance to learn and do better.

As with many newsworthy scandals, it’s not the mistakes, it’s the cover-up or the doubling-down. Too many times, we get defensive when confronted with our mistakes. But remember, we are allowed to make mistakes as long as we’re sincere in listening, learning, apologizing, and changing to do better.

RWA has yet to take those necessary steps. If—and obviously, that’s a big if—RWA can recover, they could become leaders in how to tackle these big issues. They could confront problems and make progress.

But given how deeply into the structures, membership, and permanent staff of RWA these issues seem to go, many have understandably lost all hope. And for a genre built on the hope for a happy ending, that fall from grace is a tragedy.

P.S. My follow-up post details the steps I see for how to fix RWA.

Had you heard of the RWA issues before this? What pieces had you heard about? Were there any here you hadn’t yet heard? Have you been following the situation, and if so, what do you think about it? Do you have any questions about the issues or events?

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Hero Trusler
Hero Trusler

I think this is a reflection of a more widespread phenomenon happening in this country. Comedians are struggling with “cancel culture” and “PC.” Unfortunately, it seems normal now for an institution or person gets completely shut down over these issues. And simply encouraging the RWA to be intersectional and to condemn authors that don’t fall in line with PC isn’t going to work. This is complex. They have to find a way to honor two different sets of values: more conservative leaning and more progressive. So far, no institution has been able to bridge this gap.

Personally, I find RWA to be haughty and arrogant. It wouldn’t be the worst thing for them to break up into parts and find a kind of humility that will get that back to who they used to be years ago.

Not Enough Popcorn
Not Enough Popcorn

A tiny correction: the 2005 board of RWA, led by then President Tara Taylor Quinn, sent out a survey to the membership asking them to approve the definition of romance as “one man, one woman.”

The aghast membership pushed back and the definition of romance was not changed. RWA never adopted the one man, one woman language.

It’s horrible enough a survey was sent to the membership by the board, of course. And this was the same board that was responsible for the RITA ceremony in Reno that has become a byword for cringeworthy disaster in RWA lore.

The 2015 RWA board apologized for the survey.

https://booktrib.com/2016/04/romance-writers-of-america-takes-a-stand-for-diversity/

Jen Crane

Uh, what happened in Reno? It wasn’t Vegas, so I feel confident it doesn’t have to stay there.

Shannon
Shannon

Is there any hope that RWA can recover from this? What steps would actually have to take place to regain the member’s trust?

Shannon Donnellyl
Shannon Donnellyl

Very good post. And I agree…the lack of a good response from RWA to these situations is not encouraging.

Kassandra Lamb

“As with many newsworthy scandals, it’s not the mistakes, it’s the cover-up or the doubling-down.”

I think you have nailed the core problem at this point. I let my RWA membership lapse before all this happened, but I still wished the organization well and saw them as an industry leader and innovator.

It is so sad that they have “circled the wagons” and are refusing to look at what went wrong and what needs to change.

Nicole W

I’ve been following this pretty much since it broke on Christmas Eve morning (I follow Courtney and several other romance writers on Twitter), and watched in shock as it got worse and worse over the next several days. It even made the New York Times Friday news quiz last week. (I got that question right, at least.)

I knew RWA had a diversity problem but didn’t grasp just how bad things really were until so many writers from marginalized backgrounds stepped up to tell stories about being excluded. Even though I’m a horror/dark fantasy writer, romance writers were some of my first friends and supporters when I started joining online writing communities, and I’m really hoping for a better, stronger organization for you all.

Jolene Jackson
Jolene Jackson

Thank you for pulling all this into one place! A friend mentioned something was going on on twitter but by the time I got around to looking there were SOOOOOO many tweets and it was hard to dig through it all!
It’s shameful the way it was all handled and it will be interesting what happens in the coming weeks.

Marlene

Thank you, Jami, for your clear and insightful views. I have heard bits and pieces, helpful to have it encapsulated.

Marilynn Byerly

I joined RWA in the early EIghties, and I left twenty years later because, over and over again, the leadership at the top proved itself to be a Mean Girls Club, straight out of high school. Almost always behind the scenes. The final straw was the absolute abuse and hatred spewed at those of us who dared to enter the world of epublishing and the independant publishers who were the at the forefront of this revolution. Every time they pull another stupid stunt like what they are doing now I can only shake my head. Some things never change.

Ane Ryan Walker

I have been painfully aware of RWA’s lack of support for those authors they do not value as top tier, but this mess brings the organization to an all time low. The lack of appreciation for underrepresented aspiring authors and the attempted cover up and attitude that there is “nothing to see here. Just move it along” ensure I will not renew my membership.
How very sad as I truly value many of the relationships formed while a member of RWA.
I will be looking forward to the outcome of the Presidential recall of Damon Suede who in my humble opinion contributed to this fiasco.

Anne Kaelber
Anne Kaelber

I joined the RWA (finally!) a couple weeks before all of this broke. Days later, my husband heard about it and linked me to the initial kerfluffle. Being so new, I didn’t feel prepared to comment about the RWA and/or their handling of the situation. I am astounded by both letters you wrote. That you managed to keep abreast of this, with all that you have going on…. *bows in respect*

Since this was my first year submitting to the RITAs, I was initially disheartened by the cancellation of the 2020 RITAs. I noted in your withdrawal from judging letter that you felt a taint would be associated to this year’s awards, should it go forward. I hadn’t stopped to consider that possibility, but I’m glad you mentioned it. It soothes my own frustrations, on the other side of my first publication, at having to wait another year.

Anne

Nikki Prince

As an author of color, bi woman who writes interracial romances in all gender mixes, I find this whole thing disheartening. I’ve been a member of RWA since 2012 and have published 10 romance novels along with 20 short stories/novellas. My first instance of separation in RWA was when I joined and I was looked down on because not only did I write erotic but…there was the challenges I face below: ePub vs print sweet vs erotic Het vs LGBTQ Novel vs Novella or short stories I’ve also been at meetings and conferences where I heard the whispers and felt the microaggressions directed at me, at lgbtq, disabled, and age…there are more but you get the picture. However, I stuck in. I was programs director for two years of my local chapter and then president of that chapter for two more. I also served as president for an online chapter. I am bringing this up because I have served and I have seen on the local level those same microaggressions as well as hearing POC’s couldn’t possible write great books. Or my favorite (sarcasm) “I can’t imagine reading a love story by a poc cause I can’t relate.” Really but you can relate to a time period you’re not from, vampires, werewolves are relatable but another human being isn’t? I ascribe to “love is love.” However, there are those who see people like me as lesser. I’ve decided to wait this out and keep memberships because I want to help…  — Read More »

Evelyn Vaughn

Thank you for your service to your local chapter and to the genre, Nikki! As an increasingly old lady, as much as it is in my power to welcome you to a genre you are clearly ROCKING — welcome to the table!

Nikki Prince

Thank you, Evelyn. Romance writing has been in me since I read my first Mills in Boons that my grandmother had. She was a beautiful woman who loved reading and she had tons of books to show for it. I am thankful for her for that because if it had not been for romance books I would never have read and gotten over my learning disability that covered every subject.

I appreciate you.

Nikki Weston

Go Nikki!!! Nikki Prince for President!!!

Nikki Prince

LOL thank you Nikki!

Anne
Anne

Until recently, when its problems hit Facebook, I had never heard of the RWA. I am a member of the Romance Writers Organization of South Africa; but this is small beer in comparison with the might of RWA; and we are a little isolated down at the bottom end of the Dark Continent. I wonder whether the problems convulsing our big American sister will have any repercussions in other far-flung corners of the globe. What degree on influence does RWA have on the global romance writing scene? For example, I have had to learn the rules and conventions of modern fiction writing – terms like POV, show don’t tell, and character arcs have recently entered by vocabulary. I asked one author, when we were discussing POV’s, “Who decides on these rules? Are they legally enforceable?” and she was at a loss for an answer – other than that publishers would would not accept my story, and readers would criticize it, if I did not follow them. Does (or perhaps did) the RWA have any influence here? Who has banned any mention of sex unless it is consensual? I read one book last year which did include a rape scene, and although I have been a feminist longer than most editors have been alive, it did not offend me; as without it, the story would have lost its punch. I do not intend to offend anyone with my questions, or to criticize the RWA or anyone involved in romantic fiction: I…  — Read More »

Clare O'Beara

Thanks. I have been on committees and when they go sour, they go really sour. When they are working well they are fantastic for all concerned.

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