Discrimination From The Sneetches

by : Lynn Osterkamp, Ph.D.

The Mystery Writers of America (MWA), an organization that defines itself as " the premier organization for mystery writers, professionals allied to the crime writing field, aspiring crime writers, and those who are devoted to the genre," has developed a list of "approved publishers," and a set of criteria authors must meet to join as active members or enter the prestigious Edgar Award contest. The MWA criteria blatantly discriminate against authors whose books are published by companies that are not on an MWA-approved list. And in an alarming trend, conferences and contests are adopting this discriminatory, elitist list.

The MWA approved-publisher list reminds me of the Dr. Seuss story about the Star-Belly Sneetches. If you recall, down in Sneetchland—or wherever they lived—some Sneetches had stars on their bellies and some didn't. The Star-Belly Sneetches thought they were so much better than the Plain-Belly ones that they ignored them, didn't invite them to their events and generally would have nothing to do with them. This is a lot like the way some traditionally-published authors aren't inviting us self-published or independently-published authors to have author status at their conferences.

Under the MWA criteria, for me to have "author status" at these conferences, my book must not have been published by a privately-held publishing company with whom I have a familial or personal relationship, and it must not have been published by a company in which I have a financial interest. And, the publisher of my book must be on the MWA list of approved publishers, which requires that a publisher meet a long list of criteria—including having been in business for at least two years since publication of its first book by a person with no financial or ownership interest in the company, and publishing at least five authors per year other than those with financial or ownership interest in the company.

Some who defend the use of the list (let's call them the old guard) say the list's use by conferences is not discrimination because no author has a right to have author status at a conference. The old guard says that the authors and publishers whose books are rejected are only rejected because their books don't meet certain standards. They liken this to other requirements—say, for example, a job description that requires an applicant to have at least two years of experience in the field in order to be considered for employment. So—the old guard asks triumphantly—would you say that all the people who don't have two years of experience are being discriminated against by this job requirement?

Duh. Of course we wouldn't say that. We (let's call us the reformers) would agree that we can't claim it is our right to be on a panel at a conference or have our books for sale in a conference's dealer room. All we are saying is that if some authors are to be granted certain privileges and status, the criteria for who is or is not selected should be based on individual merit. Judge the books by their quality. Don't assume you can judge their quality on the basis of who published them. Don't assume that if they were any good they would have been published by a traditional publisher. That is discrimination because it's exclusion based on being in a certain category or group, rather than on the merit of the book.

But back to the Sneetches. One day a guy named McBean showed up in Sneetchland with a machine that, for a small fee, would add stars to the bellies of the Plain-Bellies. Thrilled, they lined up, went though and popped out with stars. With great excitement they proclaimed that they were exactly like the Star-Bellies and no one could tell them apart. No surprise that the Star-Bellies were very upset. They knew they were still the best and the others were the worst, but they didn't know how to tell who was who anymore.

Hmmm…maybe that's what some traditionally-published authors are worried about. Self-publishers and small independent presses have gotten so good that it's hard to tell our books from theirs. Good grief! Someone might mistake one of our books for one of theirs, start reading it and actually like it before realizing that it should be considered inferior because its publisher isn't on the approved-publisher list.

But the Sneetches' story goes on. Once more, the clever McBean had a solution for them. For a slightly higher fee each, he put the original Star-Bellies through the machine and removed their stars so they once again looked different from the others and could proclaim that they were the best. Well, then the Sneetches with stars had to go through the machine again and get theirs removed. And then the others got their stars put back on—and on and on until no one could tell at all who was a Star-Belly and who was a Plain-Belly.

Wow! What if there was no MWA list of approved publishers? How would conferences like Left Coast Crime and Mayhem in the Midlands figure out which authors should be granted author status? Would they have to open their panels to applications from all authors? Would they have to accept all mystery books into their dealer rooms?

That's what the Sneetches did. They finally decided that stars didn't matter at all and that no kind of Sneetch is inherently better than the others. Will the Mystery Writers of America and conference organizers wise up the way the Sneetches did? We can only hope.