I’m Unpublished, You’re Published, I Don’t Care How Many Books She Has Out, She’s a Twit: Labeling RWA

I couldn’t help but notice that a certain percentage of us seems to think “published” means “godlike” and “unpublished” means “unclean.” Even more odd: a fairly large percentage of that percentage belongs to the “unpublished” category. I haven’t seen this kind of self-loathing since the last time I got on my bathroom scale. The scale not withstanding, I’m against self-loathing, so I think it’s time we got a grip and looked at what publishing status really means.

We all start out as writers. We send books to editors. Some of them are wonderful books but they’re set in the 1940s or their heroines commit adultery or the editor just published a book about dogs and she doesn’t need another one, so they get rejected. Some of them are commonplace but they’re set in a time period that’s doing really well, or their heroines are exactly the kind of heroines that the line loves, or the editor really needs a book about dogs because dogs are hot and she’s never done one. So they get accepted. Some of them are sort of bad, but the editor just had an author go belly up and she needs a book for production now and this author sent in a full manuscript, or the author is a huge name (Waller springs to mind) and they’ll publish anything by him, or dog books are so hot that anything that has barking in it will sell. (No, I’m not exaggerating. I had an editor tell me the first example happened, Waller exists, and I clearly remember some of the dreck that was published at the height of the Gothic craze, don’t you? Anything with a big house and a teenager willing to go into an attic at midnight sold.)

So here’s the first thing to remember: Being called “published” doesn’t make a person a better writer than being labeled “unpublished.” Yes, published authors are often better writers than unpublished, but not always, not by definition, not as a constant. Here’s another thing: published writers do not always know more about the industry than unpublished writers. Six months before my first book came out, I joined RWA and met Val Taylor. She wasn’t going to be published for another three years, but she had the answer to every beginner question I had (like “what’s a proposal?”) and she’s been explaining the industry to me ever since. If I’d ignored her because she was unpublished, I’d never have gotten to where I am today (wherever that is). Clearly, “unpublished” is not a description of talent or brains.

Now this is not exactly a radical idea. I can’t imagine anyone in this industry saying with a straight face, “All published authors are great writers who really know the industry and all unpublished writers are clumsy writers who don’t know anything about publishing.” And yet we continually run into problems as an organization because too many of us accept the assumption that being unpublished is an inferior status, and by extension those who are unpublished are inferior, and that therefore calling people “unpublished” is some kind of insult. I repeat: being unpublished does not imply stupidity, lack of talent, laziness, or bad breath. After all, those things are common among the published, too (no, I’m not talking about you). Being unpublished means Not Published, period. And you know what? It can happen to any of us.

As any author who’s been writing for a while can tell you, becoming Published is no guarantee that you’ll never be Not Published again. It’s not like losing your virginity. It’s a transitive state. Therefore it does not define us as people, it only identifies where we are in our careers at this point in time. I was once without a publisher for six months. Several people, published and unpublished, held wakes for me, sympathizing because I’d had such a nice career and now it was over and there I was: Unpublished. (One even wrote to ask if she could have my spot at Harlequin. I said, “Sure.”) Now I have a publisher again. Aside from having my deadlines back, I’m not noticing a difference in me. Frankly, I’ve always been an incredible human being. All “published” or “unpublished” means is “has book being issued for sale” or “doesn’t have book being issued for sale.” (See Webster’s Dictionary.)

No, no, you say. Once you’re published, you’re always published. On what planet? Books go out of print. If all your books go out of print, you’re not published. You were published once, you probably will be again, but you are literally not published, not being issued for sale, at the moment. You’re unpublished, which is why someone who’s been unpublished for five years or more should be eligible for the Golden Heart, but that’s another argument. Don’t look at me like that; I’m unpublished myself right now. Every book I’ve ever written is out of print. Come March, I’ll be published again, but right now, nope. Margaret Mitchell is published. Will be forever. But me, nope. I’m unpublished.

I can hear the screams from here, but why? What difference does it make what we call ourselves? Well, actually, a lot of difference since labels describe us, which is why we need to get rid of the euphemisms people have been using before we’re laughed out of the industry. “Pre-published,” for example, implies that life hasn’t started for the writer yet and won’t until publication is achieved. Aside from the fact that’s it right up there with “We’re all winners” on the list of Lies We Tell To Pretend We’re All in the Same Place (you’re not pre-published unless your book is in pre-publication; i.e. in production), this term is much more demeaning to writers than “unpublished.” Look at it this way, do we think of unmarried women as “pre-married,” waiting around for their lives to begin? Do we think of students as pre-employed, not really existing as humans? Then why would we ever call smart, talented, hard-working women “pre” anything? We’re all writers, and we exist vigorously in the now of our industry whether we’re published or not. If our publishing status needs to be noticed for professional reasons, we’re either published or unpublished the same way writers are in every other field, and that’s fine because “unpublished” is not an insult.

But why do we have to call ourselves anything? Because we have different needs, Jane. Because beginning writers truly need somebody to explain point of view to them (God knows, I needed it desperately) and advanced writers truly need to be able to discuss the implications of point of view for subtext and reader identification, and if these two groups mix, one feels stupid and one gets exasperated. Does “beginner” mean “unpublished” and “advanced” mean “published”? Of course not. But sometimes the needs of unpublished and published create the same kind of problem. A group of people discussing how to jump start stalled careers is not going to be helped by a group of people who want to talk about how to get published in the first place to un-stall their careers. These are two completely different problems and two completely different interpretations of “stalled career,” so if one discussion is labeled “for those who have been published” and the other “for those who have never been published,” (or the abbreviated labels: “published” and “unpublished”) it’s for the good of both groups. As long as we reject the definition of “unpublished” as “unclean,” there’s nothing wrong with specifying which group a discussion is for. It’s not discriminatory, it’s descriptive of needs.

Which brings us to a problem: the needs of published (and previously published) RWA members were once addressed by programs designed for them, but those programs have been severely cut back in the past few years because some people objected to the labels. “I should be able to get into workshops that talk about the problems of being published even if I’m not published,” the reasoning went, “because I’m just as good as they are. And anyway, they already have too much, they have PAN.” A word here about PAN: when you join, you get to subscribe to PANlink. That’s it. You don’t even get a secret handshake, let alone The Secret. As PAN Liaison, I was going to start a campaign to get PAN members two desserts at all the banquets, but wiser heads prevailed, so it’s still just the link. The link’s a fun place to be, but it’s not two desserts. And it’s not enough to give PAN members what they need.

I’m glad RWA has recognized that we should all get our just desserts, but now we must also recognize that “equal” does not mean “the same.” The conference committee is working right now to design workshops that specify “advanced” and “beginning” participants, and they’re planning on enforcing those descriptions so that workshop time isn’t wasted this year. In the same way, Pat Potter, our intrepid PAN Chairperson, is also working on published author networking sessions that will provide a forum to discuss things that only affect the published. It’s tough meeting everybody’s needs, but it’ll be easier if we don’t get caught up in caring about labels and instead respect the needs of others and concentrate on what’s important in life.

And that’s the best reason to stop obsessing over labels: what’s important in our lives as RWA members is not our publishing status but our writing, putting the story on the page, breathing life into the characters, making sure what we write is so true that it reaches somebody’s heart. Perfecting our craft and our art should be our first obsession; the publication we sometimes earn when we’ve mastered writing should come second. I can hear some of you out there snorting now, but pay attention. I say, if all you care about is being published, go to a vanity publisher and have at it. No, no, you say, you want a real publisher, one that will get you a lot of readers who will love your work. Well, then, it’s about the writing, babe. You may have lost your focus there for a minute looking at the carrot at the end of the stick, but if you want readers to love your work, it’s about the writing first. In the end, it has to be about making the best books we possibly can because if we don’t concentrate on that, we’re hacks, and RWA is going to be an organization full of sound and fury, representing garbage.

And if it’s about the writing first, we’ve come full circle because that’s definitely a reason to stop caring about labels and perks. And start yelling at each other about point of view violations. No, no, I’m just kidding. What we need to do is go back to what RWA is about, bringing us all together to work for the betterment of the industry. And with good writing and a stronger industry as our goals, we can choose our associates on qualities that matter. Personally, I pick my friends on four criteria: a passion for writing, a good brain, a great heart, and a deep and lasting appreciation of me. Compared to those, “published” and “unpublished” are truly worthless labels. How smart of us to stop caring about them.

Written by Jennifer Crusie, this essay was originally published in Romance Writer’s Report. Vol. 18 Number 2, Feb. 1998: 8-9.