What the Romance Writers of America Situation Tells Us About Publishing

If you are a writer and are at all tuned in to the industry–or have a smart phone with a news feed–you can’t have missed that Romance Writers of America (RWA) and it’s dirty laundry have exploded in a dramatic and very public fashion.

In brief, the RWA board sanctioned a well known board member and author of color with a draconian verdict, in a fashion that may have violated the groups own bylaws, after she called out a problematic book on Twitter. On her personal Twitter account, one not associated with the organization. RWA dubbed it violating ethics rules. They sent out the notice right before Christmas, undoubtedly hoping members would be too busy with holiday obligations to really notice or care.

We’ll call that mistake number one.

Romancelandia promptly blew up, and is still on fire. And guess what? The ramifications are spilling over into publishing in general.

You can a comprehensive recap here.

Many people, and many news outlets, are trying to frame this as an overeaction to a Tweet unfairly calling out racism in a book that was published in the ’90s (but rereleased in the late teens). There’s been flailing, wailing, and teary diatribes about Political Correctness Ruining Writing, I Should Be Allowed To Write What I Want, and We’re All Going To Be Targeted Over Books We Wrote 20 Years ago.

Lots of complaining about how social media is The Devil and stirs up needless drama. Lots of dismissive Those Silly Romance Writers–How Cute Are They? articles.

In reality, the implications are serious and industry-wide. RWA is one of the largest writing organizations in the US. It has a healthy treasury. It has (had) major industry clout. Agents, publishers, and publishing innovators regularly attended the yearly Nationals.

Now? It’s existence is in jeopardy, after a mass exodus of board members, officers, and general members. Many special chapters within RWA, and local chapters, wrote to demand the resignation of the president-elect, among others. Agents came together and basically boycotted RWA events. Publishers followed suit–Big Five and smaller outlets. Let that sink in.

The Texas Attorney General is now involved.

The big takeaway here isn’t one groups implosion. The roots of this blowup, thriving deep underground, involve systemic biases, racism, homophobia/transphobia, organized gatekeeping, and targeted exclusion. The tweet was the drop that overfilled the bucket, and widespread incidents of suppressing marginalized voices–Black, Brown, Native, LGBTQ+, non-neurotypical, disabled, and differentally-abled–ignoring them, and actively campaigning against them, spilled out.

Guess where and when something similar happened, devoted SF/F readers? SFWA and the Mad Puppies/Sad Puppies debacle a few years ago. This problem is rampant in our industry.

And the complaints against social media, especially Twitter, needlessly fanning flames and creating mobs over nothing? Admitedly, there’s some truth to that allegation. However, there’s more truth that social media is incredibly influential and important in the modern landscape. It isn’t going away. It is a valid, powerful platform because it gives voices to those historically shut out of institutions and governing bodies like RWA and SFWA.

The takeaway here? RWA (and SFWA before them) is a bellwether.

Writers who had no voice now do.

They also have allies.

There are financial repercussions to bigotry.

And it’s only going to get more difficult to hide dirty little secrets.

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