Was Jane Austen a professional author? Not according to the Mystery Writers of America!

Jane Austen

This past Wednesday, December 2nd, both literally and figuratively, I suffered through my crappiest visit ever to New York City. I’d been looking forward to a day in Manhattan, culminating in the gala holiday party held by the Mystery Writers of America at the National Arts Club. I caught Amtrak’s 8:05 Empire Express from the Rensselaer station, but as I exited Penn Station, I experienced an acute attack of what might politely be called gastrointestinal distress.

I barely made it to the women’s restroom on Macy’s second floor – having lived in Manhattan for 18 years, I still knew my way around, even managed to find the secret old-fashioned escalator with the wide wooden treads – and found blessed relief in the nick of time. Next, I found a Duane-Reade drugstore, popped some Immodium, and headed for the Morgan Library to see the exhibit of William Blake watercolors and engravings. Happily, I also stumbled upon an exhibition titled “A Woman’s Wit: Jane Austen’s Life and Legacy.”

I’m shamefully ill-acquainted with Austen’s work, but the exhibit was fascinating. I was especially intrigued by the display featuring the first edition of Sense and Sensibility, written between 1795 and 1797. The description read in part:

It was published on commission by Thomas Egerton in 1811, an arrangement in which Austen paid all the publication expenses but retained the copyright and increased her potential profit.

Wow! That sounds exactly like my arrangement with my publisher, Virtualbookworm. So Jane Austen started out as a self-published author. Would she have been eligible for active membership in Mystery Writers of America? Absolutely not.

Today I received an e-mail from MWA, which begins as follows:

Dear MWA Member:

The Board of Mystery Writers of America voted unanimously on Wednesday to remove Harlequin and all of its imprints from our list of Approved Publishers, effective immediately. We did not take this action lightly. We did it because Harlequin remains in violation of our rules regarding the relationship between a traditional publisher and its various for-pay services.

What does this mean for current and future MWA members?

Any author who signs with Harlequin or any of its imprints from this date onward may not use their Harlequin books as the basis for active status membership nor will such books be eligible for Edgar® Award consideration. However books published by Harlequin under contracts signed before December 2, 2009 may still be the basis for Active Status membership and will still be eligible for Edgar® Award consideration.

When they address me as “Dear MWA Member,” they don’t mean I’m a full-fledged Active Status member. Rather, I’m an Affiliate Member, meaning I’m not a legitimate author, and I don’t get any of the major perks, but they’re willing to take my money. In fact, reading the criteria on their website, I may not even qualify for this level of membership. They mention agents, attorneys, editors and other professionals, but nowhere do they mention authors who are self-published, pre-published, or published with a press that doesn’t meet their lofty criteria. In their eyes, apparently we don’t exist.

National Arts Club

Perhaps it’s no coincidence that I was too sick to attend that fancy MWA party. I’m a firm believer in gut reactions and synchronicity. Normally, though I go through a fair number of Tums, my own gut is pretty sturdy, so I didn’t know what was happening to me. The Morgan Library is equipped with a beautiful new ladies’ room with lovely tiling and a large handicapped stall with which I became intimately acquainted over the course of several hours. During my fourth stay in that stall, fearing I might be coming down with the flu, I realized I was never going to make it to the Kandinsky show at the Guggenheim, much less the MWA party, so I trudged back to Penn Station and caught the 4:40 train back home.

The party would have been great; I had a wonderful time last year. But in addition to the lavish hors d’oeuvres, there was an open bar, and I might have said things I’d regret in the cold light of morning. Instead I spent the evening in bed – no food, no booze. I was fine in the morning, so fortunately, it wasn’t the flu  – just something I couldn’t stomach.

6 thoughts on “Was Jane Austen a professional author? Not according to the Mystery Writers of America!

  1. Sorry to hear of your ailments both physically debilitating on your trip and those associated with MWA. I understand in an age of Kindle and SonyReaders and such, as well as Lulu.com and other self-publishing options available to just about everyone who writes, traditional publishers and affiliated organizations are concerned about their future and these kinds of entrenchments are all part of the struggle to maintain viability and a sense of control (as in being the arbitors of literature.) But these kinds of designators (or loss of them) can be painful to those of us who ‘lose’ in the reclassifications.

    Just one note re your Jane Austen comment. Although she did pay the publication costs on her first published novel, Sense and Sensibility, its success made Thomas Edgerton more willing for her second effort. Sadly for Miss Austen (who would have made more from it otherwise) he purchased the copyright to the “lop’t and crop’t” Pride and Prejudice outright for £110; and each of her remaining four novels were published traditionally, though from different publishers than Edgerton.

  2. Thanks for visiting and for your thoughtful comments, TG. I agree that the changes in the publishing world are unnerving and confusing, for those of us just starting out as well as for those trying to hang onto what they’ve already got.

    The comments about Austen’s publishing history are interesting as well. I gather that Edgerton’s purchase of her copyright meant she never saw any income from Pride and Prejudice? Sadly, such rip-offs are still all too common in the publishing world.

    Many years ago, I sold the rights to use one of my paintings as a poster for $100. Now it’s for sale on e-Bay with me described as a well-known artist, and I'[ve never seen another dime from it! I ordered one of the posters, and it’s printed in China by a company I never heard of.

  3. Julie – you’ve got to repair your education and read Jane Austin! EMMA is my favorite, although I often re-read P&P. I got my start with POD; my first book, MURDER, MATHER AND MAYHEM. POD is a way for a new author to get their book in print. I always defend it on those grounds at the many talks and panels I’m on. Because it was in print a small press publisher found it and asked to see the next ms. — my next two books were printed with them. My new book, DEATH OF A DANCING MASTER, will come out in the fall of ’10 with another, larger publisher. But it’s nice to know that I’m in such good company as Jane Austin. Marilyn aka: M.E. Kemp

  4. It’s sad that many writers have been ripped off so badly in publishing. Hopefully with eBooks, in the future, it would be a little easier for writers to get their works published without going through a third party.

    Most publishers don’t do their writers’ work any justice. Like any industry, it pays to do your own personal research.

  5. If Jane Austen wouldn’t qualify as a published author by the limited criteria of the Mystery Writers of America, neither would Emerson, Henry David Thoreau, Virginia Woolf, Lewis Carroll, Walt Whitman, James Joyce, Benjamin Franklin, Robinson Jeffers, Mark Twain, and Beatrix Potter, to name just a few. While I agree basically with TG’s comment above (Dec. 5, ’09), I suspect there’s also an element of snobbishness (if not mutual establishment back-scratching) at play also. When I attended the American Writers Congress at the Roosevelt Hotel in New York in Oct., 1981, I observed a similar mindset and posture in the establishment media, which refused to admit the importance of the convention, downplayed the potentially threatening discussion of forming a national Writers’ Union, and ridiculed the 4,000 participants (from all over the country) with such put-downs as “Look! The huddled masses yearning to be published.” and “My God, it’s the slush pile come to life!” The participants included James Baldwin, Toni Morrison, Studs Terkel, Tillie Olsen, E. L. Doctorow, Grace Paley, Kurt Vonnegut, Gloria Steinem, Arthur Miller, Meridel Le Sueur, Sonia Sanchez, Martin Duberman, Marilyn Hacker, Jules Feiffer, Mary Lee Settle, Ishmael Reed, Nat Hentoff, Denise Levertov, Herbert Kohl, and Imamu Amiri Baraka. (My detailed report and critique of the Congress, for any of your friends and followers who might be interested, can be found on my website http://www.robertdsutherland.com.

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