Thursday, December 1, 2011

On Being or Not Being a Pal

Since my last posting, I have been busy with producing print-on-demand books (PODs). I have had several proofs done and have learned a great deal—mostly about paper and binding and other technical aspects of the physical book itself. I’ll share all of that in my next post.

What I’d like to talk about this time is another aspect of POD books and their cousins, e-books. That aspect is acceptance. No, not acceptance by the public but by organizations.  Since POD books are really self-published books, they don’t have the cachet of some big publisher to give them rank and glory. They are often considered to be nothing more than vanity books—you know—the kind of book that an Aunt Naomi would want to pay for to be published about her girlhood or some crazy self-styled historian would want to get out on his theory of the true meaning of the Egyptian pyramids.

These—let’s call them—fringe books are still being published, perhaps more than ever with the ease of POD books and e-books. But serious books, quality books, are also being self-published which rival the books published by the big guys in New York and Boston. And, what is more, these self-published books are selling. 

This fact has changed the connotation of the phrase “self-published book.” They are not all written by crackpots. They are not all poorly illustrated or poorly designed. So, with this in mind, I decided to write to the Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators ( and question them on their policy of differentiating between members who have PAL (Published And Listed) status and those who do not. Here is the e-mail I wrote the other day:

Steve Mooser, president
Lin Oliver, Executive Director


In 1450, Johannes Gutenberg brought about a profound revolution that affected the medieval publishing world. Within a few years, copyists and illuminators were thrown out of work. The publishing industry, as we know it: businessmen taking on the expense of printing an author’s work, began to take shape. To the mid-fifteenth-century person, such change must have been bewildering. The whole notion of guilds and who had access to knowledge was transformed the minute Gutenberg first turned the screw of his wooden press.

Today we are faced with a similar transformation. It is as profound as the one that Gutenberg began. It is as bewildering. Now Gutenberg belongs to the past. What lies ahead are electronic books and print-on-demand services that can make a published author out of anyone—or, as is happening more and more, allow published authors to publish work that was rejected by traditional houses.

Some say that we are witnessing the end of quality books, the end of the editor’s role in producing those books, the end of reading. I couldn’t disagree more. Who said that publishers in the past (now called legacy publishers) always turned out quality books? Who said that every editor did a good job or that authors didn’t need someone to edit their work? Who said that only excellent authors were published? More often than not, in the past 500 years, only what was salable was published. Publishing was and is a business.

E-books and print-on-demand books are changing all of this: if you have something to say, research to share, a picture book that is dear to your heart, you can publish it. Will it be good? Will it be read? Will it be purchased? Who knows? But with as little as ten dollars, a person can publish.

So, what does “published author” mean these days? Is an e-book author who sells a million copies a published author? Is a POD author, who sells through Ingrams to libraries and schools a published author?  According to the Pen Women of America, that person—or any person who publishes—is. Yet, according to SCBWI, that person is not, as far as I can tell. 

As a legacy-published-author friend of mine put it in a recent letter to me:

Pen Women, the world’s most staid and conservative group at the national level, had to consider changes to their membership criteria a few years ago, and self-published and POD works are now acceptable as “Letters” credentials in many cases.  Credentials in “Arts” and “Music” also were liberalized in keeping with new media opportunities.  Surprisingly, there have not been the number of outcries everyone expected against “liberalizing” or “weakening” the criteria.  NLAPW-Honolulu, I’m proud to say, played a part in that, especially one of our music members, Claire Rivero, who petitioned for the changes.  I personally think that the caliber of our members is even better than before, and we see more young and energetic members doing cutting-edge creations on our roster.  “We’re not your mother’s, or great-grandmother’s, Pen Women anymore!”
Believe me, if Pen Women can look to the future after 114 years or so of status-quo, any national organization can consider the basics.

From my friend’s letter, it is clear that times are changing. Has SCBWI begun to change? If so, I’d like to know what these changes are before I renew my membership. Why support an organization that is not in step with the changing times?


James Rumford,

legacy-published author and illustrator
and SCBWI member since 1997.

I received an answer right away and a follow-up letter, which I’ll quote in full:

Hi James—As I remarked earlier we are, of course, very aware of the changes taking place(or have already taken place) in publishing. Many books that are now self published or POD are very good and we have provisions set up to approve those individuals and publishers for PAL status, which I know you and your work enjoys.  We are introducing sessions in conferences and Bulletin articles that also guide self publishers, and warn them of the pitfalls as well. But as to giving Pal status to everyone who has a book we have moved cautiously, because there should be some distinction between a well produced and written book and one sloppily done—and we are expanding our criteria, but slowly and deliberately.

The SCBWI would benefit considerably by opening PAL membership to everyone—we have lost members over the last year due to the current policy, and no doubt could increase membership by changing our criteria, but that is something our Board would not approve, nor would we endorse.

So, we are adapting and will continue to do so, but only in a way that respects quality children’s books, no matter in what form they may take.

Thanks, again, for taking the time to let us know your thoughts. We are most appreciative of your opinion—all best wishes, Steve

I wasn’t surprised by Mr. Mooser’s response. It takes a while for an organization to make big changes. Even so, I immediately sat down and wrote:

Aloha, e Steve,

I was glad to see that SCBWI is changing, albeit slowly, but I would like to see more.

My argument runs like this:

1  SCBWI gives PAL status to e-authors and POD authors.

2  With this open-arms approach, membership grows, attracting not just new talent but even more editors and designers than it does now. Now SCBWI truly becomes a meeting place of like-minded people who can help each other improve.

3  SCBWI ramps up its workshops for self-published authors not just in areas of story and illustration but book design as well.

4  As more and more members turn to electronic and POD publishing, SCBWI puts pressure on the and Barnes & Noble to continue to make improvements especially in the area of electronic children’s picture books. This goes for the POD industry as well.

5 SCBWI puts pressure on legacy publishers to offer fair and reasonable royalties for the electronic editions they produce of a given author’s work. 

Although SCBWI offers many valuable services to its members, it exists, I believe to help people get published for the first time or, if published, stay published. SCBWI attracts new members by telling them that if they mention in their query letters that they are SCBWI members, their submission will carry more weight. Thus, the link that connects SCBWI to the publishing world is a strong one, and SCBWI has status among the guys that matter. It is no wonder that the board is reluctant to make changes to its policies. But what if people begin to bypass publishers? Then what? I know several well-established authors and illustrators who are doing just that.

It is nice to have standards. But who decides these standards? Right now it is the publishers. Do they always turn out good books? Not really. So why are they the arbiters of what makes a good children’s book—especially now that the publishers have largely been hijacked by corporate interests and bottom-liners who are more interested in signing up a movie star than they are some talented nobody? 

Fortunately, for the talented nobodys of this world, recent technology has made it possible for them to put their stuff out there. The question is, and obviously, your board has wrestled with finding an answer, is their stuff good enough? Without a publisher’s stamp of approval, it is hard to tell. Yet you write that SCBWI has set up provisions to pass judgment on the work of self-published authors. This sounds like a fine idea, but SCBWI should also apply these same provisions to legacy-published works; otherwise, SCBWI becomes an organization for publishers, more of a club than a meeting place of ideas. Let the Caldecott and Newberry awards of this world decide what’s good. Let SCBWI get on with what it does best: helping people turn out good books.

I spoke of guilds in my initial letter. They had Europe in a stranglehold. New ideas were stifled. The status quo was maintained until the guilds were swept away by a wave of change, one brought about by the invention of printing. Today the computer and the internet and all that goes with it are bringing about a similar change. Children’s books aren’t going to be just paper and ink but light and sound and movement. They are going to be unimaginable jewels of human ingenuity. Change is happening rapidly. The trend is irreversible. If SCBWI doesn’t embrace this change, they will become irrelevant. Someone will start a new organization, an SSCBWI: Society of Self-Published Book Writers and Illusrtators.



The ease of self-publishing, using the internet to self-promote, the attractiveness of retaining all of the profits—all of these things have really turned the publishing world and organizations like SCBWI upside down. They are faced with making uncomfortable changes to their business models, their policies, their notions of what is a book. The questions I have raised aren’t going away, and I am sure I’ll have more to say in a future post because, these days it isn’t just a matter of whether a non-paper-ink book is a book but whether self-published ones are equal to those put out by the big guys.