Should You Join a Professional Writing Organization
I belong to two, the Horror Writers Association and the International Thriller Writers Association, and for me, they’ve been worth the investment.
But are they right for you? After all, most of the organizations out there, such as SFWA, MWA, RWA and others, charge yearly dues. The dues aren’t prohibitive, of course. It’s not like you have to skip meals to cover the tab. But money doesn’t grow on trees, and with the economy being what it is, it’s only right to question whether or not joining a professional organization is a good bang for your buck.
A few professional writers of note have come out against joining particular organizations. Brian Keene’s comments about the HWA come to mind. Also, several successful writers have attacked the RWA’s alleged prejudice against self-published writers.
It’s not my intention to join in those arguments here. Nor is it my intention to write an advertisement or a defense of a particular organization. My aim is a little more general than that. If you’re a writer, and you’re considering whether or not to join a professional writers organization, this article is speaking to you.
Yes, It’s Worth It
Plain and simple, it’s worth it.
Writing professionally is a complicated business. There’s a lot more to it than writing good stuff. A whole lot more.
Gone are the days of the full-service literary agency that would not only find a market for your novels and your short stories, but handle everything else on top of that. Publishers no longer put much muscle into publicity. You’ll have to do your own book signing tour schedules, your own marketing, your own social networking. And if you’re looking to self-publish, well, all I can say is there’s a lot to learn.
Going it alone can be rather daunting. Sure, certain authors seem to have it all figured out. Dean Koontz, for example, is famous for his prodigious knowledge of the publishing world, especially when it comes to the legal jungle surrounding contracts and all the different kinds of rights. Brian Keene is another writer who has learned the business top to bottom. But we can’t all be Koontz and Keene. And for the rest of us, a little help goes a long ways.
That’s what a professional organization will do for you. You’ll meet others who have learned publishing’s lessons the hard way, and who are eager to share their experiences with you. A good professional organization should be able to help you with everything from developing your writing skills to promoting your brand.
That’s great, you say. But how do I find a reputable organization? And once I’ve found one, how do I know if it’ll give me what I need?
That’s where I can help.
Hopefully, what follows will provide you with a sort of shopping list for choosing an organization. Find an organization that does most, if not all these things, and chances are you’ll find the right place make your mark.
For me, this was the biggest lesson to be learned.
Luckily, I had an agent to guide me through my first novel contract with a big New York publisher. I took one look at that massive 16 page document, crammed as it was with all that legalese and unfamiliar phrasing, and my eyes glazed over. I called my agent, and he went over it, line by line, clause by clause. I probably learned more about publishing from that one phone call than I would have at dozens of conferences and panel discussions.
Thinking back on that discussion, I can only imagine how scary professional publishing must be for the first time writer going at it without an agent. I mean, it should be a happy moment, signing that first big contract. But for many writers, that moment is tainted by the anxiety of not completely understanding what they’re signing.
A good organization will help here. The membership should be willing to talk candidly about what makes a good contract, what sorts of pay a professional should receive, and what traps the writer should avoid. But more than that, the organization should have model contract templates for its members. There should be a free and open discussion among the membership about which publishers are doing it right, and who’s bending writers over the barrel. And, when necessary, the organization should have the means to help writers who have grievances with publishers and editors.
Mentoring goes hand in hand with learning the business of writing.
For novice writers, a mentor should be a veteran willing and able to help with manuscript coaching and career guidance.
For the veteran, mentoring should be a way of paying back the help they themselves received early in their career, as well as staying current with the younger generation of talent.
A good organization should foster a culture of mentoring from both directions. So when shopping around, make sure mentoring is one of the core values of the membership. Not only does it indicate that the organization has its eyes on the future of its genre, but it also shows a healthy community.
Opportunity to Stay Current on the Trends in One’s Field
This one should be obvious, right? After all, if you write a particular genre, chances are you read in that genre. And read voraciously, too. The mark of a good writer is how much he or she reads, right?
Yet it’s surprisingly easy to fall behind on one’s reading. It’s even easier to fall into ruts, reading works by one’s friends, the works one has promised to read for blurbs, etc. The next thing you know, reading broadly and voraciously simply falls by the wayside.
A good organization can help with this through a variety of means. Mentoring, as previously mentioned, is one way. So too is an active message board, a regularly published newsletter, a Facebook page, a Twitter feed, a website, recommended reading lists, etc.
Staying current in the genre is one of those invisible benefits of a good organization, but an invaluable one that would be next to impossible to do on one’s own.
Ask anybody who works hard to keep their brand out there in front of the public and they will tell you that networking is a full time job in its own right. With the way the publishing industry is these days, you not only have to write this stuff, you have to sell it too.
And selling your work to the public is just one small part of the equation, because you also have to develop contacts with other writers and publishers and editors if you want to keep the door of opportunity standing open. Try doing this on your own. It can be done, certainly, as long as you don’t mind missing out on sleep and family life and everything else that keeps you grounded in life.
An organization needs a healthy sense of community. It isn’t necessary that everyone always agree. In fact, it’s preferable that they don’t. Every family needs a little friction to keep the juices flowing. But that sense of community has to be there. Look for organizations with active message boards, social networking groups, and local chapters.
Ways to Get Involved
This, ultimately, is the most important component of a good organization. No organization is perfect. There are no magic bullets. You can’t just sign up and watch the benefits come rolling in. It doesn’t work that way. You have to put work into an organization in order to get anything out of it.
When shopping for an organization, remember that it doesn’t define you. Rather, you define it. An organization, if it hopes to grow and become a major presence in its genre, needs open avenues for promotion from within. There should be amply opportunity for new members to serve on committees, volunteer at conferences and in local chapters and on the newsletter, and, perhaps, once they’ve put some time into the organization, even run for office. If you’re not willing to do these things, chances are you’ll be disappointed with your membership in an organization. But if you go into it with the desire to serve, to put something of yourself in in order to get something back, then I’m willing to bet you’re time in the organization will pay benefits.
But whatever choice you make, here’s wishing you good writing and a long, rewarding career!
San Antonio, Texas
June 13, 2012