Standard Bears: Should writing organizations have standards for membership?

by Pari Noskin Taichert

A few months ago, Mystery Writers of America revised its approved publishers list for active membership. The change went up without fanfare and there it would have stayed -- in my opinion -- if not for the fact that Left Coast Crime's standing committee adopted the list as a primary guideline for defining "authors" for signing slots. (Note: Writers with other publishers are not excluded from being on panels. There are two separate things going on here.)

Here's the exact wording -- taken directly from the bylaws:

"To be considered an author at Left Coast Crime you must either meet the requirements for active membership in the Mystery Writers of America (you don't actually have to be a member) or have been shortlisted for a major mystery award (the Edgar, the Anthony, the Agatha, the Dilys, the Barry, the Hammett, the Macavity, the Lefty, the Nero Wolfe, the CWA Dagger, the Shamus, the Arthur Ellis, and the Bruce Alexander Awards). Non-American writers without U.S. publishers who meet the requirements for active membership in their national mystery writer associations also qualify."

You can see that LCC's definition is more inclusive. Authors who were once published by any of the "approved" houses also fall under the rubric; there's no timeline specified on that.

During the last couple of weeks, I've noticed that the writers with publishers that were dropped, or have not been "approved," have been quite vocal about these new decisions. Their distress and anger are evident. I do, honestly, understand where they're coming from -- especially in the case of legit publishers who've only been around for a year or two.

Here's the but . . .

I don't pretend to know why MWA made the changes, but I'm glad they did -- however imperfect the list may be.

To me, a professional/trade organization must stand for something difficult to attain. It's main purpose is to define and support professionalism in its particular niche -- not as a social group or outlet for marketing. Without exams or tough requirements, active status (as opposed to affiliate) means little to those who do qualify.

As soon as I signed my first contract, I joined MWA. I knew from the start that the normal networking that might take place in a larger urban area wouldn't be available to me. Denver is the Rocky Mountain MWA base and that's a healthy eight-hour drive from Albuquerque. My networking happens mainly via email and that certainly has huge limits.

Even though MWA doesn't meet a lot of my needs, I'll remain a member. I believe its a professional's responsibility to support the trade organization. (I'll be honest though . . . If my publisher weren't on the list -- if MWA didn't consider me a professional -- I wouldn't stay a member. That's my bias.)

Strict standards for active membership remind me of exams for entrance/certification into a profession and I'm not going to tell the examiner what to test me on.

Other writing organizations have similar requirements:

Romance Writers of America draws sharp distinctions between its PRO and PAN and other members. International Thriller Writers does, too. And, look at Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America as well.

I'd like to know what Murderati readers think about all of this. Do you, as fans, care if publishers have been vetted by a professional organization? Will the new definition that LCC has adopted affect your willingness to attend the Denver convention next year? (Disclosure: I'm helping with publicity on this con and expect it to be a wonderful event. Don't worry: The website will be updated soon.)

What about you, the authors who qualify, who've complained about the mix of writers at conventions, will you step up and support the changes or will you sit on the sidelines to watch the fallout?

And, I want to hear from writers who feel they've been snubbed. I want to know what they think about professional standards and how they think MWA could have done a better job of defining them . . .

My only request is that everyone BE NICE. I want a true dialog and thoughtful discussion.

I'm not looking for a flame war here and won't tolerate it.

Here goes . . .

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