Is the MWA Going Too Far With Its Self-Published Definitions?

Back in 2006, Mystery Writers of America added an extra codicil for potential Edgar Award submissions. In order to be considered, “all works submitted for consideration must meet the requirements for active membership status as described in the membership guidelines.” Also, the new guidelines state that “all publishers submitting work must be on MWA’s approved publisher list or otherwise qualify to be added to that list.” At face value, the changes make sense – streamlining the submission requirements so that only those meeting the active membership requirement status qualify cuts down on judges’ workload, reduces a lot of the so-called chaff and concentrates MWA’s efforts on properly published books.

But for the 2008 Edgar Awards, it looks as if these rules will be enforced more rigidly than ever before – and in doing so, takes out of the running books and short stories that should, at least, have a chance to be considered.

The belt-tightening was first brought to my attention when I heard (and which the author confirmed by email) that SONGS OF INNOCENCE by Richard Aleas, the open pseudonym of Charles Ardai, did not qualify for consideration for the Best Paperback Original category. Ardai won the Best Short Story Edgar Award last year for “The Home Front,” published in the anthology TILL DEATH DO US PART. His previous novel, LITTLE GIRL LOST (whose first edition was published by Five Star in hardcover), was nominated in the Best First Novel category. And Ardai’s co-owned imprint (with Max Phillips) and the books’ publisher, Hard Case Crime, has had other titles nominated for various Edgar Awards, and is deemed by MWA to be an approved publisher whose 2007 original titles may be considered for various awards categories.

But SONGS OF INNOCENCE is ineligible because it runs afoul of current interpretations as set forth by MWA:

Among (but not all of) the situations defined as “self-published or
cooperatively published” are works by those who have paid all or part of the
cost of publication or distribution of the work; works printed and bound by
a company that does not place the work in physical (aka brick-and-mortar)
bookstores; those works for which the authors were required by the publisher
to pay any monies whatsoever before or during publication; those published
by “cooperative” publishing or others which require authors to pay for
marketing; those published by privately held publishing companies with whom
the writer has a familial or personal relationship beyond simply author and
publisher; those published by companies or imprints that do not publish
other authors; those published by publishing companies in which the writer
has a financial interest.

Since Hard Case Crime clearly states that “the line is published as a collaboration between Winterfall LLC and Dorchester Publishing” – the latter which is Ardai’s company – then any books it publishes by its owners, which includes SONGS OF INNOCENCE, can’t qualify. “This decision is no reflection whatsoever on the quality of the book, which many of us on the committee have read and enjoyed,” said MWA Awards Chair Lee Goldberg when I contacted him about Ardai’s qualification status by email. “In fact, the point of our guidelines is to assure that decisions about Edgar eligibility are made regardless of a work’s
perceived quality (or lack thereof) or the popularity (or lack thereof) of the author.”

Had this interpretation been in place a few years ago, then K.J.A. Wishnia’s debut novel 23 SHADES OF BLACK, which was self-published before being picked up by St. Martin’s Press, would never have been nominated for an Edgar Award. Other self-published books picked up by major houses would never have a chance for the Edgar because their first (self) publication makes them ineligible, and second (“legitimate”) publication makes them ineligible on the grounds that this is a reprint.

Of course, one might argue, so few self-published novels have any literary merit that refusing them entry into award consideration doesn’t matter much, and disqualifications such as Ardai’s are lamentable exceptions. Except that there’s another, potentially more troubling extension of MWA’s qualification policy: anthologies containing stories by those who edit them.

If Ardai is disqualified because his novel, which garnered him an advance against royalties, was published by an imprint he co-owns (in cooperation with an approved publisher paying out advances against royalties to several authors other than Ardai) then so too are any anthology editors who made the decision to include one of their stories in said anthology. In other words, every “City Noir” anthology published by Akashic in 2007 cannot submit stories written by said anthologies’ editors for consideration in the Short Story category. Which knocks out the following stories:

Olsen, E.J., “SNOW ANGEL” – DETROIT NOIR (edited by Olsen and John Hacking)

Obejas, Achy, “ZENZIZENZIC” – HAVANA NOIR (edited by Obejas)

Rozan, S.J., “HOTHOUSE” – BRONX NOIR (edited by Rozan)

Hamilton, Denise, “MIDNIGHT IN SILICON VALLEY” – LA NOIR (edited by Hamilton)

Spiegelman, Peter, “FIVE DAYS AT THE SUNSET” – WALL STREET NOIR (edited by Spiegelman)

Smith, Julie, “LOOT” – NEW ORLEANS NOIR (edited by Smith)

Not to mention that these other stories are now disqualified from consideration:

Hellmann, Libby Fischer, “YOUR SWEET MAN” – CHICAGO BLUES (edited by Hellmann)

Paretsky, Sara, “A FAMILY SUNDAY IN THE PARK” – SISTERS ON THE CASE (edited by Paretsky)

Even though each and every story I’ve listed currently appears on the submission list for the Short Story category, though they may not by the time the November 30 deadline hits. Now, Edgar Award consideration is likely not high on the list of priorities for anthology editors, but it might make them, and potential publishers, take pause – especially if having said editors write a story was one of the selling points.

Ultimately, the qualification rules and reinterpretations is a way for MWA to stem the ever-increasing flow of submissions. But I can’t help but wonder if there’s an alternate solution out there, a way for the peer-reviewing judges to assert some means of control over the categories they judge. Why not, like the Booker Prize, have books that can qualify under a “judges’ choice” category where the books are called in or specifically requested? Why not have a quota that allows books of “exceptional literary merit” – whatever that is deemed to be – to qualify? Or why not try an idea I haven’t thought of yet? Because in the end, the Edgar Awards are about the best books of a given year, and there should be a way to make sure every book that merits inclusion is, in fact, included for consideration.

UPDATE: With regards to the extended comparison I made between Ardai’s situation and anthologies of editors published by MWA-approved houses such as Akashic, a clarification is in order: these are considered to be “guest-edited,” and so are, in fact, eligible for Edgar consideration.