While I was wandering around at RWA National in San Francisco this year, I ended up helping set up one of the lunches and placing books on chairs for the free giveaway. After the many, many mini piles of books were distributed, I found myself chatting with The Super Secret Behind The Scenes Staff of RWA National. You might have recognized them by their really spiffy teal blue cardigans, or by the tired and somewhat exhausted expressions some wore at the end (conferences are hard to manage, y’all. I’ve been there, done that, and have much empathy).
One of the most interesting conversations I had at RWA this year was with Carol Ritter, who kicks ass and takes names. Literally. That’s her job. So I begged for an interview.
All those who say that RWA doesn’t do enough for authors and those aspiring to be so, please take note of Carol Ritter. Srsly.
Can you tell me a bit about your job at RWA, the responsibilities involved, and the more challenging aspects?
Carol: I am the Professional Relations Manager at RWA. At the moment my job responsibilities include reviewing contracts submitted by Publishing companies and Literary Agents, gathering monthly market updates from same and maintaining updated information on RWA’s website and RWR magazine. Adding new Publishers and Agents to the RWA Recognized Agent list, RWA Eligible Publisher and RWA non-Subsidy, non-Vanity list. Prior to adding any new company or agent to the list I review contracts, company information, etc. I apply RWA’s definitions for recognized agent, eligible publisher and non-Subsidy, non-Vanity publishers to the company to determine if they should be on the list. I also check our files for any previous history that might preclude a company or agent from being on the list.
I process formal complaints submitted by RWA members. Formal complaints must be within RWA’s purview. For example we can handle a complaint filed against a publishing company that is not paying royalties correctly, but cannot handle complaints against a company that is allowing less than professional behavior to occur, like name calling, etc. We would hope that authors and industry professionals conduct their business in a professional manner, but it is not RWA’s role to police those relationships. We only process complaints that involve contract violations.
At the moment I report the complaints we have processed (in general terms) with interested members, but our plan is to add a column to our Market Update sections on the website that will indicate if a complaint has been filed against a company, with a clickable link that will then open a window that will explain the basic nature of the complaint and if the company resolved the complaint or not. We are not going to say “don’t do business with this company”, but we will give the member more information to consider before they engage in a relationship with a company.
I also review applications for the PAN (Published Author’s Network) membership. I manage the anti-piracy program at RWA. This involves reviewing websites, locating contact information and adding the site to the RWA list on our website. And finally, I am the 2009 RITA and Golden Heart Contest coordinator.
When we spoke in San Francisco and you were telling me some of your war stories, I was really impressed with your laid back but utterly pugnacious attitude when defending author rights in contracts. You told me then that you come from the Better Business Bureau – how has your experience there helped you in dealing with publishing houses?
Carol: I worked for the Better Business Bureau of Metropolitan Houston for 9 years. As the Vice-President of Operations and Bureau Standards I was responsible for the Dispute Resolution department. The Houston BBB handled about 25,000 complaints per year. The complaints had to be vetted against the BBB’s standards. The BBB could not handle complaints against private individuals, or labor issues, malpractice, etc.
This background in complaint resolution has been helpful at preparing for my job at RWA. It taught me to remain neutral and ask the next question, to gain all of the facts of a situation prior to processing a complaint. I learned at the BBB to remove all of the passion and anger from a complaint and to consider the facts.
Understanding the nuances of a contract is especially helpful. I learned early on that a contract is a roadmap for a relationship. It spells out the expectations and requirements. At RWA I review publishing contracts both for new publishing companies that want to be on our lists and contracts in complaints. At the BBB I also learned how to dig for information and this has been helpful in dealing with anti-piracy.
If you could give advice to authors and aspiring writers dealing with a publisher or contract from a publisher, what would it be?
Carol: First and foremost READ the contract. Every word of it! If there are parts of the contract you do not understand then ask for help. Find a literary attorney, invest in their services for a couple of hours and ask for a review of the contract and explanations for anything you don’t understand. Do not sign anything that you do not understand or makes you uncomfortable. Hopefully you will have an agent to help negotiate a contract. The agent should be looking out for you.
Be careful in how much you grant in rights to your work. Read the option clause and make sure it is specific and does not bind you or your future works forever. You should not be expected to pay for editing, production or promotion of your work.
I learned a long time ago to do my homework prior to any major purchase. Yes, I’m one of those people that read Consumer Reports before I buy a car (or washer and dryer). I check the BBB to see if a company has complaints. I go to the Internet and read as much as possible before buying or signing a contract. I think that aspiring writers and authors should do the same before submitting their work. Research the company. If it is a publishing company that you are not familiar purchase a book from them. Was the book delivered in a timely manger, how did the book look? Pay attention to the editing. If you are a member of an RWA chapter ask your fellow members what they know about a company. Research is a good thing.
What changes would you like to see in the publishing world?
Carol: I would like to see the publishing industry go after the file-sharing or pirate sites in a big way. When you go to the movies they play an anti-theft commercial for movies industry. It would be great if they included something about books. I honestly think that many of the people who are making books available on line for free (or the people downloading the books) do not realize they are breaking the law. I think that they see it as different from the illegal downloads of music, movies or games. So education should be a big part of whatever the publishing industry does.
Thank you very much to Carol for taking the time to answer my nosy questions, and for the kicking of ass and taking of names. Good on you.