|Me with some of the 2012 class of Golden Heart Finalists--the Firebirds|
The membership of the Romance Writers of America® was thrown into an uproar last week by the announcement of changes in the schedule for its annual conference in July. Several major revisions in the time-honored sequence of events were made by the elected Board of Directors, including moving the popular Literacy Signing (a charity event featuring dozens of writers, from big-names to debut authors) from Wednesday night to Saturday afternoon, a timing more like the RT Booklovers convention. The new schedule also places the big RITA® awards gala (for published authors) on Thursday night rather than at the end of the conference.
But the change that has drawn the most controversy was the decision to split the Golden Heart® awards ceremony (for unpublished authors) off from the RITA® event and schedule it at a luncheon on Thursday. I was not the only past Golden Heart® Finalist who considered this to be a clear demotion of Golden Heart®. Facebook and GH alumni loops were alight with animated discussion of the move, and most past GH honorees refused to buy the official RWA line that the separation of the ceremonies was an attempt to give Golden Heart® Finalists their own special spotlight.
How? By shoehorning the Finalists into a dark corner of the schedule in the middle of the day in the middle of the week, when many conference attendees would be busy with agent or publisher meetings? By depriving the new crop of Finalists of the experience we all had of dressing in our fancy ball gowns and attending the ceremony with The Nora and all the rest—and having them hear our names called out? And, most importantly, by announcing the winners of the Golden Heart® contest before the pitch sessions with agents and publishers that take place on Thursday afternoon and Friday?
As Board members were called upon to defend the decision, it soon became clear that the premier contest for unpublished romance writers in the world had slipped in importance within the organization. Entries were down for Golden Heart® in this era of indie publishing, Board members said, just like entries are down for chapter contests, so . . .
So instead of doing something to encourage entries in the contest—like requiring judges to provide feedback, or rethinking categories (why not split up the huge paranormal category to allow a separate SFR category, for instance)—the Board decided that GH® could no longer justify its position of importance in the organization. Other things, most notably the professional RITA® awards, took precedence, so the Board re-ordered the schedule to give GH® less time and significance.
The problem here is much larger than a seemingly small change in the conference schedule. It has to do with the definition and direction of RWA itself, which the organization has been struggling with for the last few years. What is, and what should be, RWA’s core membership? And how does RWA best serve that core membership? Are we an organization of romance writers? Or only of professional (ie. income-earning) romance writers?
Since its inception, the organization has sponsored continuing education and professional support for established authors (PAN). But it has also encouraged new and aspiring writers with networking, educational programs, mentoring, and paths to publishing (PRO). For years, members could say with pride that RWA was the only professional writers’ organization in the world that admitted unpublished authors, and provided a means for those authors to improve their craft.
The Golden Heart® contest, as the pinnacle of the regional or chapter contest circuit for unpublished authors, was a major part of this improvement effort. In sending manuscripts out to contests, writers got specific feedback and encouragement they could get in no other way. By finaling in the Golden Heart® contest, they got recognition that they were “the best of the best.” And the publishing establishment saw it, too.
I had unsuccessfully queried nearly every legitimate agent in the U.S. who had not specifically ruled out science fiction or romance with my first book, Unchained Memory, before the manuscript finaled in the Golden Heart® contest in 2012. After I became a Finalist, I re-queried several of the same agents. All of a sudden, those agents wanted to see the full manuscript. And one, the wonderful Michelle Johnson, finally called with an offer. Many of my fellow Firebirds (the cadre of Finalists from that year) had the same experience. Even those who didn’t win the actual award saw a real boost in their careers from finaling.
But, the RWA Board is arguing, indie writers just aren’t interested in competing in contests. Why should they when they can self-publish without the help of an agent or traditional publisher? I would counter that getting the attention of agents and publishers is only one reason to compete. In fact, it’s the last reason.
By the time Unchained Memory reached Golden Heart®, the manuscript had been through at least ten chapter/regional contests and had been polished according to the feedback I’d received. Sometimes I wish even now I could send my manuscripts through that crucible again. No critique partner will ever be as brutally honest as some of those chapter judges! And no editor will tell you to go back and start over on a project because it’s fundamentally flawed; he or she will only take what you give them and do their best to work with it. Self-published authors are at a distinct disadvantage because they have no one to tell them if they have gone horribly wrong—no agent, no publisher, no filter.
And if you don’t believe that is a problem, just glance through the hundreds of terrible titles your good book is competing with out there.
As a long-term member of RWA, I strongly believe it is the organization’s role to stand up for quality in the romance industry, and to help its newest members attain the highest level of that quality. Now is not the time to give up that role, or to diminish the importance of its biggest symbol, the Golden Heart®.