Chaos, coup, conspiracy: How does the RWA appear?

The chaos within and beyond the RWA has only continued and coverage of the fallout has become more mainstream. I’ve tried to add more links to my original post but events kept piling up between Christmas and New Year. File 770 has a more recent round-up here http://file770.com/as-criticism-snowballs-rwa-keeps-trying-to-justify-treatment-of-courtney-milan/

As with my prior post, I will note that I’m not affiliated with the RWA (or any writers association) nor familiar with the dynamics of Romancelandia, nor am I a lawyer or an expert on the fiduciary duty of officers of organisations. What follows is speculation based on the many but limited facts that have been revealed and my attempts to understand them. It isn’t meant to be authoritative and like much of what I write should be read as me thinking out loud mainly to get my own thoughts in order. Corrections and speculation are, as always, welcome.

What I want to do is list some issues and themes that have arisen. Running through is the issue of apparent conflict of interest. I’ve discussed the distinction between different concepts in this topic and here is Columbia University’s definition:

“A conflict of interest involves the abuse — actual, apparent, or potential — of the trust that people have in professionals. The simplest working definition states: A conflict of interest is a situation in which financial or other personal considerations have the potential to compromise or bias professional judgment and objectivity. An apparent conflict of interest is one in which a reasonable person would think that the professionals judgment is likely to be compromised. A potential conflict of interest involves a situation that may develop into an actual conflict of interest. It is important to note that a conflict of interest exists whether or not decisions are affected by a personal interest; a conflict of interest implies only the potential for bias, not a likelihood.”

http://ccnmtl.columbia.edu/projects/rcr/rcr_conflicts/foundation/index.html#1_1

Other institutions and businesses have different definitions but conceptually we are interested in APPARENT conflicts i.e. were there may be a perception (regardless of actual motive or behaviour) of a conflict.

Some themes after the fold. It had ended up being something of a marathon.

Whose free speech?

Back in 2013 the SFWA bit the bullet and expelled Theodore Beale aka Vox Day. At the time he vowed an extended legal fight and the disintegration of the organisation was predicted. Neither of those things eventuated and as of 2019, Vox Day isn’t even particularly interested in science fiction. None of the attempts to establish a rival SFWA have amounted to anything. At the time we were told in some quarters that this an egregious suppression of free speech. Further we were told by his defenders that the one thing Theodore Beale was not was a racist.

“Nope. Beale is not even slightly racist. He’s honest about observed facts and doesn’t care what culture or skin color is attached to the fact. I’d rather be in a room with Beale, because I can guarantee that he would not make nicey-nice then stab me in the back. If he had a reason to dislike me, he’d be upfront about it. Her, not so much.”

Kate Paulk 2013, https://madgeniusclub.com/2013/08/15/the-organization-formerly-known-as-sfwa/#comment-28545

“Her” in this example was N.K.Jemisin who was one of the most outspoken of Vox Day’s critics at the time. The argument advanced was that Jemisin was somehow the ‘real’ racist for criticising systemic (and in Day’s case overt) racism within SFWA and the wider SFF community.

Jemisin’s case and Courtney Milan’s situation are not direct parallels but there are so many points of similarity not least of which is that two notable authors within their respective genres having to stake a lot on a personal battle where they are speaking out about systemic racism within a leading writers organisation and facing direct racism as a consequence and to add further insult being told that somehow they are the “real” racist. Here’s Sarah Hoyt in the comments of the same post in 2013:

“What in hell is a stretch about it?
Oh, wait, you’re right, because Beale is NOT a racist and only claims certain opinions to wind you up — and it works. Since he’s mostly Hispanic, he can’t actually believe what he claims to believe. BUT Jemisin is on her high horse about her victimhood and the evils of the white race, and she MEANS it.
So, she’s more of a racist than Beale. When are ya’ll casting her out. Interested minds want to know. While at it, cast out the androphobes in your middle.
Oh, I know, you can’t cast out your dead, because you’re ALL dead men walking in a landscape you don’t understand while following the lockstep dictates of Marxism, which is a theory of dead men and doesn’t apply to anything living. Sorry.”

Sarah Hoyt 2013, https://madgeniusclub.com/2013/08/15/the-organization-formerly-known-as-sfwa/#comment-28505

Notably, not even Sarah Hoyt would contend that Day is not a racist any more but it required Day to overtly attack Hoyt’s status as an American on the grounds that she was born Portuguese for her to accept that.

Neatly the Mad Genius Club alumni have helped illustrate the one-way and highly selective nature of the ‘free speech’ defence of racism. It is applied to racist speech and then cited as a reason for actively suppressing the speech of others. Which ‘others’, specifically women of colour speaking out against racism. In Jemisin’s case it was groups like those who coalesced into the Sad Puppies. In Milan’s case it was an ethics complaint and a finding that in some way (not explained) her speech was “invidious discrimination”.

I am not going to label anybody a white supremacist in this post because it is needlessly provocative but highly selective advocacy of ‘free speech’ is not advocacy of free speech at all. When empirically ‘free speech’ is applied to defend racism and used to silence those who speak out against racism and specifically used to demand silence from victims of racism then there is zero connection between the actual idea of free speech and the term is simply being used as a fig-leaf to cover the idea that black women (in the case of N.K.Jemisin) should be silent in the face of man advancing a theory of race-based ultra-nationalism.

Mobs, criticism and damaging careers

No, no, we are told, it isn’t about speech at all but about the manner of speech and the terrible dangers of Twitter mobs and people damaging the careers of authors. I was told on more than one occasion that I have attempted to damage people’s careers — on asking for examples I was told there are too many and when asked for a single example the claim evaporated. I’ve got zero interest in attacking anybody’s livelihood and never have done so but what is being illustrated is a free-floating idea that is used to target the left. It is part of the same strategy of anti-speech as the ‘who is the real racist’ attack above. The difference is that the first is used primarily as an attack on people of colour (particularly women with an added ‘who is the real sexist) whereas the second is used in attempt to silence people on the left or those perceived to be on the left.

Clearly there is a lot that could be much better about online discourse but there is nothing uniquely toxic about how it works on the left than in the political centre or neutrally. There are examples of poor behaviour and there are examples of premature outrage. Such examples though are not the same as systemic campaigns of organised harassment. Having lots of people angry with you or even people being emotionally neutral and criticising you online is not nice. However, it is still qualitatively different from an organised hate campaign (see my recent post on Goodreads trolls – still ongoing BTW) or an event like Gamergate.

However, despite a very limited set of examples, the notorious SJW Twitter mob descending to ruin people’s careers is cited as if the were masses of broken careers in their wake. The concept, rather than limited examples, is cited to imply that any criticism of a work as homophobic, racist, sexist, ableist or transphobic is inherently irresponsible as simply stating the criticism will summon a horde of furies to wreck vengeance on an individual’s financial viability.

In the Milan ethics complaint, the existence of some people on social media criticising the publisher and the books of one of her editors has been used to suggest that Milan was endangering the financial viability of the publisher and/or the authors concerned. The issue isn’t one of intent i.e. the nature of this idea that we must all tread carefully lest we summon the Twitter-Mob does not depend on whether we ever intended to. No, the concept cuts directly to nature of criticism and discourse about books and again serves to silence.

I should be clear: manifestly honest, well intentioned reviews can be financially damaging. A bad film review can impact its box office. A write up of a lacklustre meal might undermine a restaurant’s financial viability. As others have pointed out, discussing the racist tropes in a book has an implication of racism within the author (although the two things are not synonymous). However, there is no way that there is a lively and healthy discourse about literature without criticism and that includes critiques of prejudices, negative stereotypes and the use of tropes that help enable prejudice.

More generally, activism is not harassment even if feelings are hurt. There are things we should do to act more ethically, even towards shitty people but silence is not a good option.

Authors versus readers versus powerlessness

Writers are not in general terrible people but the opposite impression is easy to get. We’ve seen no end of examples of authors behaving badly but simple arithmetic suggests it must only be a few. However, the script of entitled author (often with only very limited success) exploding at other authors or at readers in general necessarily generates more coverage than author just getting along writing books.

Publishing and self-publishing is a tenuous business, I have discussed before how self-publishing has elements in common with problem gambling, particularly the lack of control but with an appearance of control and the potential (rarely realised) of very high returns.

It’s no surprising then to find people not always coping well with what is a hostile commercial environment and lashing out. However, there is nobody to lash out to. Even when authors have genuine complaints (again see the Goodreads issue) they are met with faceless, unresponsive corporate walls of obstruction. For all authors, Amazon is an institution is very much not famed for its responsiveness and warm connection with writers.

This an environment in which poor behaviour faces limited consequences slowly delivered. It is also an environment in which a small number of technology companies hold a lot of power with very little responsibility. Consequently, it is also an environment in which people attempt to exercise power in other directions e.g. at readers, other authors and critics. Criticism in general is often seen as an inherently hostile act.

The distinction between a bad review given in good faith and any kind of review given in bad faith is not something that can be automated. That feeds into an environment where reviews in general are seen as hostile because, after all, in some cases they really are (and once again, see the Goodreads troll problem).

I don’t think this is a primary cause of the complaint against Milan but it is part of the circumstances in which professional writers organisations now have to exist. Even flawed organisations have much higher standards of accountability than Amazon, Twitter or Facebook. Therefore when somebody wants to metaphorically speak to the manager they are more likely to get traction from a professional body than a faceless tech-corporation.

Cultural change and fashion

Success is hard and working out a winning formula is hard. For writers finding ways to win authors and sales can feel like unlocking secrets. Again this is a feature that the world of writing can be similar to problem gambling where belief in secrets and systems can also abound.

In such circumstances, shifting cultural norms and changing fashions among readers will be highly stressful. Looked at through the lens of workplace change, any shift in rules, policies, procedures or general ways of working can be highly stressful. Books, as cultural products, are particularly susceptible to changes in cultural norms, expectations and shifting taste. As such the political-cultural shifts around attitudes to racism, sexism and other systemic prejudices are not just cultural changes but also professional changes.

The people who will be best equipped to cope with such changes professionally are also the people who are best equipped to cope with the change culturally and politically. The opposite also follows, so we get a double-dipping amplification of reaction from those unhappy with social change in general who are also work in creating cultural products.

Again, the place were this reactionism-squared will most likely play out is in professional organisations. It also means there is no escaping it for a writers association. There isn’t a way for them to be apolitical or side-step the issue. The only option is to help members manage change because the change will happen anyway.

Professional staff and established officers versus change

Noting that point above about both cultural change and workplace change, consider staff and long-term elected officials of professional writer’s organisations. The same tendency of workplaces to resist change because change is destabilising, stressful and usually leads to immediate (if short term) increases of work for overworked* people, applies to people who work or have invested a lot of personal time in professional bodies.

Confronting internal systemic biases is hard. Coping with cultural change is hard. People pushing such change will be met with negative reactions both because of systemic prejudice and direct prejudice but also because of the same reason a corporate IT department is faced with anger when they upgrade productivity software and the menus move. Cultural change is hard, workplace change is hard, combining both is hard and combining both with the responsibility of helping others cope with both is even harder.

It’s not just a left-right issue but a psychological issue with how well people are open/resilient to change versus how much people react against. Reacting against change is not inherently bad — obviously in the case of harmful change, resisting it is good. Even so, change is harder psychologically for some people than others. So for some, there will be cases of even more compounded issues with change. I’m not pointing that to elicit sympathy for unknown personages but just to identify causes of what can seem like inexplicable behaviour.


Phew, already written way more than I intend but each section implies another. I wanted to get to more specific issues sooner.


Dreamspinner

A left-field issue to the original conflict around the ethics complaint on Courtney Milan was an on-going issue with romance publisher Dreamspinner. There are numerous accounts but I’ll start with a story at the Writers Beware blog from September.

“Writer Beware has been receiving similar complaints about late royalty and advance payments and confusing/conflicting explanations for the delays, with some authors saying they are owed four- and even five-figure amounts. According to a number of authors who contacted me, these problems have become more acute in the past few months, but they aren’t new: periodic payment delays, with attendant excuses, began as much as two years ago.”

https://accrispin.blogspot.com/2019/09/authors-concern-grows-over-late-royalty.html

A longer timeline of events is available here https://sorcereroftea.com/dreamspinner-press-not-paying-its-authors-the-tea/ [I should add, not being part of this world I can’t speak of the track record of some of the blogs I’m linking to – one reason I started with Writers Beware which I’m familiar with.]

In October the RWA put Dreamspinner Press on an indefinite suspension:

Update (October 2019): Dreamspinner Press has been placed on indefinite probation, which means it has been removed from RWA’s list of Qualifying Markets and will not be able to participate in RWA events and publications until the issues resulting in the probation have been resolved.  Dreamspinner Press was notified on October 1, 2019.

https://www.rwa.org/Online/News/2019/Advocacy_Update_Dreamspinner_Press.aspx

President-elect (at the time) of the RWA Damon Suede, was published by Dreamspinner. Now, I’ve zero idea about the underlying issues with Dreamspinner. As noted above, publishing is a precarious business and stuff goes wrong.

However, clearly there would be a potential conflict of interest if the president/president-elect of the RWA was involved in a dispute with his own publisher. Consequently Suede has recused himself from issues surrounding the complaint against the RWA.

However, apparent conflicts of interest are a broad and sometimes difficult category to deal with. For the moment I’ll leave this here.

Unactionable rules

Between my first post on the issue and this one, the Board of the RWA have rescinded the sanctions against Courtney Milan that they had previously voted for. As I said at the time, the ruling against Milan was broad and vague. Where there were more specific breaches of the Code of Conduct alleged, the ethics committee report found for Milan (although worded in a way that sounded very grudging).

The Board back-tracking on their decision has not resolved matters. Specifically the Board has not clarified their reasoning for either decision. The policy of the RWA on action similar to Milan’s is unclear. Was it the substance of Milan’s claim that a book was a “fucking racist mess”? Was it the profanity? Was it the dreaded fear of the ‘Twitter Mob’? All of these, none of these and was the ethics committee right in principle but wrong on procedure or wrong on both? Nobody knows.

Simply, is it acceptable to the RWA for a member to describe another member’s book as a “fucking racist mess” or not? If so, by what standard and what level of criticism would be acceptable? Without guidance, the RWA ends up with an unenforceable set of rules or rather ends up with rules that can be enforced selectively. The complaint against Milan itself compares her to a neo-Nazi, which would on the face of it be an unwarranted insult. Is ‘neo-Nazi’ a step to far or fair comment (even if misapplied)? The ruling and the rescinding of the ruling raised more issues than the RWA could hope to deal with.

Which takes us back to social change. The cultural discourse about racism isn’t going away, so if the RWA ends up having a de-facto rule against describing racism in books then the discourse happens outside the organisation. It makes an important role of the organisation (helping authors cope with a shifting market) very difficult to do by creating a taboo topic.

There can be advantages to delaying change but overall, if changes are occurring that will happen anyway then starting the process of change early can reduce the stress of change. Conversely, delays in adjusting to changing circumstance can result in higher organisational costs, which exacerbate the organisational resistance to change. Which takes us back to the impact of workplace change for people with organisational roles within a group and where resistance to change can originate.

Organisational inertia and systemic problems are inadequate explanations

Among the many posts and tweets about the RWA in the aftermath of the Courtney Milan suspension, have been numerous accounts of systemic problems with the RWA and affiliated chapters. For all of the reasons above, that clearly is part of any explanation of the meltdown of the organisation during this Christmas period.

However, in detail it is inadequate to explain the direct sequence events. Notably, some significant changes were made to complaint procedures and rules about the ethic committee between the complaint being made and the new committee hearing the complaint. The RWA board itself, in announcing the reversal of its decision about Milan pointed mysteriously to a ‘gap’ in the process while also affirming that all actions had been done legally.

Above all Courtney Milan is an ambitious target to aim such a process at. At a minimum there appears to have been a massive under-estimate of the reaction that the censure would produce. This is additional hard to explain given the implied power that Milan had within social media within the complaint itself. The complain alleges that Milan’s activism cost a publisher a significant deal — a charge that implies that Milan has substantial clout and a charge that apparently the board believed and yet also underestimated?

Additional discussion has centred on President-Elect (now President) Damon Suede’s honesty. I’m not going to judge those claims but the volume of them is significant and carry much credibility. It may be pertinent in the extent to which other decision makers may have been misled. Who knows. Weird decisions regardless.

Which takes us to another area people have speculated on.

A coup

Milan was chair of the ethics committee, was active in the RWA and was powerful in the sense of influential, as well as being clever and resourceful. Her efforts (among others) to improve diversity and conduct within the organisation had made strides forward but will have created friction and counter reactions of various kinds.

The action against Milan have removed her from the ethics committee (initially temporarily), helped establish a separate ethics committee with (apparently) none of the same members who had worked with Milan, the resignation of multiple board members and increased power for the President Damon Suede and he Executive Director. If we discount the idea that this mess was caused by people massively underestimating Milan’s reaction and instead assume people only partly underestimated the reaction then the resulting resignations both at the board level and at the membership level would need to be reclassified as a feature rather than as a bug. In short, a high profile move against Milan to alienate her supporters and get them to leave the RWA.

Is that what happened? I’ve no idea! How could I! I can observe what the outcome was though. I doubt that the extended international press coverage was part of anybody’s plan but I can see somebody imagining a mass walkout of supposed “SJWs” as a positive outcome.

But if we don’t know and can’t ever possibly know that the whole thing was a coup, what does it matter? Because, when it comes to formal organisational ethics appearances matter even if motives and intent are utterly different. An effective coup caused by clumsiness or incompetence still creates an issue for the beneficiary of the accidental coup.

The RWA has a situation where the President-Elect/President was part of rule changes to the ethics committee that occurred along side a significant issue between RWA members and the President-Elect/President publisher, which resulted in the chair of the committee temporarily stepping down, a new committee being established to which the President-Elect was the liaison to the board which eventually resolved to ban the former ethics committee chair from holding any office in the RWA. This then led to resignations from the board leaving the President-Elect/President with the power to appoint replacements.

That’s a pretty big apparent conflict of interest right there. Assume it’s a giant mess of chaotic accidents rather than a coup or conspiracy and the apparent beneficiary of all these accidents (barring the much greater scale of the blow back) sits with Damon Suede. Which makes him either extraordinarily lucky or unlucky or both, I can’t tell.

A lack of conclusion

There is a giant iceberg of background here, partly why I’ve gone on for so very long. We don’t and can’t know all the details and manifestly even the very best run and well intentioned professional association of writers is walking a tightrope of cultural change and fragile commercial viability of its members currently. However, there is also a very specific and odd set of direct events in the final quarter of 2019 that can’t be explained by systemic problems alone.

My first reaction last week reading that report was just how very odd it was. Things have only intensified that impression. I can’t tell Damon Suede what to do and in the end it is a matter for RWA members not me.


60 thoughts on “Chaos, coup, conspiracy: How does the RWA appear?

  1. “Since he’s mostly Hispanic, he can’t actually believe what he claims to believe.”

    I can’t believe how naive they all were even at the time. He told you idiots who he was, and you didn’t listen.

    On another note, my mother wrote a handful of romance novels in the late seventies and did pretty well. She tried to branch out into other genres with limited success. I’m simultaneously frightened to read her novels (for a wife variety of reasons!) while I wonder what the hell she would have thought about all this bullshit.

    Also, Courtney Milan does seem like the worst possible person to attack here. “Sure, let’s pick on the woman with the legal background!” Who the hell *does* that? I can see why it’s going so well for them.

    Anyway, happy new year. I hear fireworks in the distance.

    Liked by 3 people

  2. There’s also the small side matter of the petition to have Suede removed, and the RWA cancelling memberships in an attempt to preempt the petition by making it invalid.

    Everything they’ve done has just dug the hole deeper and deeper. Now Courtney’s posting screen captures of Suede using language every bit as harsh as hers, but it’s all about civility, right?

    Liked by 3 people

    1. Hmmm, cancelling memberships to undermine a petition, previous thread mentioned they had been deleting discussion threads about the subject in the forums…

      They really are going for further proof of the old maxim that the original crime is never as damaging as the cover-up attempts, aren’t they?

      Liked by 1 person

  3. Just as the puppies, they most likely expected the outrage on twitter and in news. But also as the puppies, I’m quite sure they were surprised over how little *support* they would get. No chapter is speaking up for them, writers are quiet, even those that made the ethics complaint are backtracking.

    And like the puppies, they are so convinced that they are right that they will set their house on fire to prove it. I mean, they could have made an apology when they backed away from their first judgement on Milan. That would have left them with nine new board members to elect themselves, people speaking up about the need for contemplation when an apology had been given, and the chance to add their own members to the ethics committee. But they couldn’t take even one small step backwards to strengthen their gains.

    This is a bungling crowd. I think they took a chance and are since then blindly reacting in angry defensiveness.

    Liked by 3 people

  4. I respect Cam’s effort in this item to see this RWA thing as a whole, and try to make sense of it, rather than getting bogged down in individual details, but I nonetheless wish to point out one of the latter, in case it’s been overlooked in the rush:

    Cam wrote: The Board back-tracking on their decision has not resolved matters. [snip Cam’s list of unresolved and very curious issues] Above and beyond that, the RWA Board having rescinded acceptance and implementation of the substitute Ethics Committee’s report leaves the two members’ complaints against Ms. Milan once again pending. It doesn’t decided the issue presented; it merely un-decides that issue, putting it right back onto the Board’s agenda for… when? To be re-evaluated at some arbitrary future date, by either the present or any future Board? To be held in reserve?

    Liked by 1 person

  5. A Coup?

    Well, possibly. I agreed with you earlier (last decade!) that it smelt like some variety of old-guard backlash coming out, and it still looks that way. It seems feasible that when this complaint came in, some people who weren’t fans of Milan saw an opportunity to use it as away to get leverage against her – bypass her and the ethics committee allegedly “tainted” by her leadership, and then bull the conclusions of the new committee through the main board, getting rid of Milan and her new-fangled influence. With new-president Suede having been the liaison to the new committee it seems likely that he was a main mover, and certainly the pro-Milan faction have spotted that quite easily and are looking to force him out in retaliation. To what extent old and new board members were actively complicit or just went along with internal pressure is impossible to know right now, but it’s clear the ones that resigned saw something to resign about.

    I think the main conclusion is that there’s more to come – the story is coming out in dribs and drabs and I would bet on further revelations about exactly how the complaint was handled. I suspect the recall petition against Suede is going to provide the flashpoint – he seems to be taking up position as representative of the old guard, albeit with some mealy-mouthed attempts at conciliation, and a fresh election with him vs a New Guard candidate will end up as a referendum on the whole mess.

    (If I was Milan I’d either be looking around for a new guard candidate to endorse asap, or preparing for doing the job herself – as Scalzi found with the SFWA, being a big voice criticising something inevitably leads to the job being chucked at you in the end!)

    Liked by 2 people

    1. //I think the main conclusion is that there’s more to come – the story is coming out in dribs and drabs and I would bet on further revelations about exactly how the complaint was handled//

      Yes, and part of what fuels the on-going fuss is that feeling that it is currently all inexplicable

      Like

    2. Mark wrote:

      I think the main conclusion is that there’s more to come – the story is coming out in dribs and drabs and I would bet on further revelations about exactly how the complaint was handled.

      Probably, but it should also be said that, for a large number of RWA members (and, again, I’m totally an outsider and speak for exactly nobody, in this matter), the existing revelations are more than enough to reach a number of conclusions, including that recent Board actions have been grossly in violation of the members’ fiduciary duty in violating required procedure, and that the people involved including the new President and the Executive Director, need to resign or be recalled. If nothing else, consider recent RWA claims (in responses to disaffected members) that the Ethics Committee deliberations and Board sanctioning of Milan were based in significant part on (alleged) evidence critical of Milan that was neither mentioned in the Tisdale and Davis complaints nor the Committee report, and then never conveyed to Milan for her response — yet another major violation of procedure.

      I suspect the recall petition against Suede is going to provide the flashpoint

      Alternatively, it might be the current call among an increasing number of members (including Ms. Milan) for RWA to initiate a forensic financial audit. As a one-time accounting and finance guy (passed the CPA exam, used to work as a staff accountant), I concur: The external signs of the organisation going off the rails with apparent ethics violations seem to justify such a step, and, were I an RWA member, I would very much want that to happen immediately.

      It should be stressed that a forensic audit checks for irregularities and fraud from insiders, in contrast to an internal audit, which does not.

      Like

      1. //Alternatively, it might be the current call among an increasing number of members (including Ms. Milan) for RWA to initiate a forensic financial audit. //

        Yes, dodgy doings are never restricted to just one area.

        Liked by 1 person

      2. Yes, since I wrote that Milan seems to have upgraded to calling for a forensic audit, and seems to be getting support.

        It’s an interesting gambit. IMO in these situations a clever route to victory is through applying the organisations existing rules in a process that can’t be denied – e.g. the recall petition – and it’s not clear to me if this audit falls into that category. Possibly there’s a rule that allows a sufficient number of members to call for one?

        It strikes me as risky though, while smoke -> fire is often true in these situations, what if it doesn’t find anything?

        (On the other other hand, as a smart ex-lawyer Milan will know the rule of never asking a question you don’t know the answer to, so maybe someone unable to go public has pointed her towards the location of some dirty laundry….)

        Liked by 2 people

  6. Leaving aside the specifics of this kerfluffle, there’s some interesting stuff you’ve pulled out about reviews-as-criticism/ reviews-as-speech/reviews-as-attacks. As you say, we saw during the puppyfluffle that for some authors free speech stops at their wallets, as negative comments that could cost them sales got characterised as unacceptable “damaging” attacks.
    On that logic though, anything less than a fully effusive review is damaging. There may be some people foolish enough to take my recommendation on a book and therefore put money in the author’s pocket, but if I go “eh, it was ok, 3 stars” then that probably doesn’t get them a sale. This is why I try to make some distinction between “not to my taste” and “X element is objectively bad” in reviews – and indeed that was part of what Milan was doing when she criticised someone else’s books for racism, because racism is objectively bad – because in a review I want to help people decide whether to buy something, and “not to my taste” ought not to put everyone off, but “objectively bad” should.
    I’m tempted to tie the increasing level of author anxiety about reader reviews to the rise of the self-pub ebook ecosystem where starred scores can make the algorithmic difference between success and failure, but frankly authors have always given examples of a minority acting badly about critic reviews that affect their sales, it’s just that now reader reviews can make a genuine difference so they raise the same anxiety.
    Anyway, I’m not really sure where this disconnect between thinking reviews and criticism are illegitimate speech because they might have consequences, but hateful speech is to be defended, comes from but I think it lies somewhere in a venn diagram of privilege, anxiety, and prejudice.

    Liked by 3 people

    1. It isn’t just the store algorithms that are influenced by review averages. A lot of promotion sites for self-publishers also won’t accept a book unless it has X reviews with a 4 or 4.5 star average.

      Though the general review inflation, where everything under five stars is seen as bad, is also a wider problem. How often have you responded to some “please answer this short survey of our services” e-mail and answered honestly, only to be badgered why you only gave four rather than five stars? Ironically, the one time I answered one of those surveys and gave very low scores (for the hotel where I stayed during EuroCon 2019, which was just awful), no one ever got back to me or asked for further details. But give four instead of five stars and they badger you,.

      Liked by 2 people

      1. Eric and I had a bad experience at a hotel one time, and when we got an e-mail asking for us to evaluate them, I zeroed out every category and wrote three paragraphs of criticism.

        To my astonishment, they telephoned within about 30 minutes. I decided not to talk to them–I wasn’t in the right frame of mind to have a civil chat about it–so about 30 minutes after that, they refunded the cost of one night. (My complaint centered on the events of one night.)

        So sometimes it does work out.

        The weirdest was when I had a root canal and, even before the novocaine wore off, I got a request to give a score. I gave it four stars, and the next day when the endodontist called to see how I was doing, he wanted to know what they’d need to do to earn 5 stars.

        I mean, what’s a 5-star root canal even mean?!

        Liked by 4 people

      2. In this particular case, the pain was so bad that I looked forward to that Novocaine shot. I don’t think I’ve ever been so excited about getting a shot in my life. When they worried they might not have space in their schedule that day, I told them “I’m not leaving this chair without at least a Novocaine shot and maybe a prescription for morphine.” They laughed and then did the work over their lunch break.

        So, I guess I should feel bad about only giving them four stars . . .

        Liked by 3 people

      3. I’m part of the review backlash. I won’t say I never do it, but what’s the point? I risk getting harassed for any review under 5 stars and it’s not worth my time. They’ve also lost most or all of their value to me when purchasing products.

        On another note, someone or multiple someones at my local library give out one star reviews on 3M Cloud Library like candy at Halloween. I think a good majority of books I look at have one star out of five.

        Liked by 2 people

      4. If any service badgers you that you didn’t give them five stars in a review, you go back and change the review to 1 star and talk about their awful PR and customer service reps and how they lost your business. There is nothing that I can’t buy in products or service that I can’t get from many, many other vendors. If you annoy me, I’m gone.

        Unfortunately, we have a lot of self-pub authors who 1) have no clue what they are doing; 2) have been sold a lot of misinformation from service providers including well-established companies like Amazon and Smashwords; 3) are desperate in dealing with Amazon’s shifting funhouse of policy; and 4) don’t seem to understand that fiction readers hate being marketed to and don’t particularly like authors even when they like their work — they like stories. If you badger a reader for not giving you an effusive enough review and that person is not your mother, not only will they never read you again (unless they want to hate read you,) but they will spread negative word of mouth to as many people as possible and warn people that you are a threatening person to be avoided.

        Again, negative reviews/word of mouth have a limited effect on keeping people from reading your work as fiction readers are again skeptical of marketing, including negative marketing. They’ll check out something that peaks their interest even if and sometimes especially if many others are trashing it. But still, negative word of mouth is not something you would usually want to encourage by trying to badger and bully those who opinionated on your work. Positive word of mouth and to a lesser extent reviews, even if it’s lukewarm, have a way stronger boost to getting out name awareness and sales/audience growth. And you’re not getting it if you hassle readers. There are professional procedures for dealing with readers/opinionators from trolls to people very upset about how you handled bigotry issues to people who are lukewarm about your work in different circumstances. And most of them involve saying thank you for taking the time and if the opinion is negative and lukewarm, saying that maybe you’ll do something they’ll like better in the future.

        But the main response in most cases is no response because reviews and opinions are not for you, just because you can sometimes utilize them for marketing. You’re out of the process of reader reactions once the work is out in the market. That there are promotional sites that are now trying to play ratings inflation with people is simple exploitation and a useless rubric. People can arrange to get 5 star reviews, people are still buying reviews. If these promo sites are trying to get authors to pay, those authors aren’t getting enough promo out of it for the cost. Better to find other marketing venues — or invent them and boost other authors along with yourself. Unfortunately, self-pub authors have become another cash cow. They need non-exploitative author organizations and efforts to help them out because the amount of scamming seems to be increasing.

        Like

  7. Jaysus, Cam, is this the way you celebrate New Year’s Eve? Cranking out 4000 words about the RWA? Take the day off, would you please?

    Liked by 1 person

  8. Again, it is useful to point out here that the RWA has officially and publicly to its membership asserted that Milan’s social media critiques, including the racist mess comment about Davis’ book, and the wild ethics complaints filed by Tisdale and Davis against her, were apparently NOT what led to the initial sanctions judgment against Milan. So the thing that some people are most going after, including making the incredibly racist comments on the RWA Facebook page, were not what got Milan in trouble with those who sentenced her.

    What she was in trouble for remains a mystery, including to Milan, who has been shown none of it, which is entirely against RWA procedures. Whatever it was, it was apparently not sufficient to keep the judgment from being reversed almost immediately. And that reversal happened because the Board members/Ethics Committee charged with voting on the case were not shown the actual complaints filed by Tisdale and Davis — and thus were not ruling on those complaints, as RWA has officially confirmed. This was also not procedure. When the Board members who had voted in judgment against Milan received the actual complaints, they realized that most of them had been misled about the case and thus reversed the decision against Milan. A number of the greater Board members resigned in protest when these facts came out.

    It seems clear that Suede had a strong hand in the misleading department as may have had the Executive Director in charge of staff. The mysterious second Ethics Committee to prepare a report on this one case, against procedure, is certainly one of the main issues. But it also appears less of an organized coup than a chaotic, opportunistic set of swiping going on. At least so far.

    While this means that Tisdale and Davis’ complaints against Milan are not resolved and the RWA is officially reserving the right to bring them up again (also against procedure,) it is unlikely that they will be reopened. First off, because Tisdale and Davis are trying to withdraw the complaints and get out of the quagmire. Second, because neither of the complaints are valid complaints to bring to the Ethics Committee under RWA rules and procedures. Tisdale brought her complaint as a publisher, not an author, which makes the complaint invalid. The Ethics Committee does not hear complaints by publishers. Tisdale’s claim that Milan’s critiques of her publishing house and hiring decisions cost her a deal with an author — something she’s offered no evidence for and isn’t wrong-doing in any case — is none of RWA’s business. That Tisdale is also an author member of RWA does not mean that she can weaponize the RWA — an authors’ advocacy group — against another author member for the benefit of her publishing house. The RWA does not represent publishers. Milan had a free speech right to criticize the publishing house for its editorial hiring choices and discriminatory attitudes, to offer her opinion publicly. It is, in fact, what RWA does itself. And if an author, on reading what Milan and others wrote about the publishing house and agreeing it was problematic, decided not to do a deal with the publisher, that’s the author’s right and not Milan’s responsibility. It’s not an ethical breach under any rubric and would in fact have been unethical for Milan not to bring up possible problems with a new romance publisher’s business practices.

    Davis filed her claim as both an editor of that publishing house and as an author — again problematic. Social media posts by author members are considered exempt under RWA regulations as free speech. So Milan’s writings critiquing how Davis handled racial material in her books, and thus might operate as an editor, could not, under RWA rules, be used for an ethics complaint, as Davis tried to do. Davis’ claim that Milan abused her position on the Ethics Committee to write the social media exemption in the rules — which was actually proposed by others — is an absurd claim with no evidence. Author members of the RWA are not banned from critiquing each others’ books, on racism or on any other issue. So both of these complaints should have been closed as non-viable in the summer, especially after Milan responded to the complaints with her defense. Instead, they were delayed and then the chaotic skullduggery that is still partially opaque as to its origins started up. It wouldn’t be very workable to try to take these complaints up again.

    What is concerning Milan and others much more than the complaints themselves being resolved or unresolved, is the part of the RWA’s official announcement to members that they, in vague terms, want to ban author members from being able to talk about racism issues of other author members’ works. And possibly ban other issues as well. To demand that no author member of RWA review books — when that’s a job a number of them hold as well as being authors or held in the past — is not going to work. But many people are concerned that a half-assed policy attempt may be made to try to squelch non-white authors and keep them out of positions in the organization, etc., on the dubious claim of author solidarity. By which they mean nice white ladies who don’t want young and POC authors bringing up racism to them need to be protected. Which ain’t going to work in the modern industry.

    So while there is still a lot of digging going on about what exactly happened with the case against Milan and about other ethics complaints that were side-tracked or deliberately dumped by the RWA staff, the main issue is what the future policy implications are going to be for RWA and who will be in charge. It’s about whether RWA can function and whether it will become mainly an organization where POC are not welcome and just exactly how much procedure bending and re-writing is going on in it. So it will get more complicated.

    Milan is not going to be president because she already has publicly regretted the time she’s expended working for the RWA at the expense of her own writing and may leave the organization altogether. New organizations may be formed. The current people running things are fighting off recall petitions and making sure POC continue to be marginalized in the organization’s boards and committees. But there are sub-groups that are working hard to try to make this a moment of better reform in the RWA. As we move out of the holidays, when they tried to sneak the decision against Milan in to spectacular disaster, we’ll probably see a lot of movement.

    As for the Sad Puppies, they conveniently ignored that Beale violated the SFWA official Twitter account, weaponizing it to make a racist attack against Jemisin for his own purposes without authorization. That was a valid ethics complaint under SFWA rules and a blatant abuse of the organization. If Beale hadn’t used the SFWA’s account, he wouldn’t have been kicked out. Milan did not use an RWA social media account, or invoke the organization in her critiques of others as officially backing her, or try to abuse her office or any office or regional chapter of the RWA in any way. There was no standing for the RWA to sanction or expel her. There was clear and public standing for the SFWA to expel Beale because of his actions abusing the SFWA’s account. The people at SFWA stuck to their rules; the people at RWA quite spectacularly and repeatedly did not stick to theirs.

    Liked by 3 people

      1. Yep. Who wrote the report? Why were they assigned the report? What was the vaguely referred to acts? How did these supposed actions supposedly violate RWA’s code of ethics? What were Board members who voted told and not told? Etc.

        The comparison that’s being made is less to the SFWA incidents and more to RaceFail.

        Liked by 2 people

  9. Hoyt: “Oh, wait, you’re right, because Beale is NOT a racist and only claims certain opinions to wind you up — and it works.”
    And owning the libs is accepted in certain quarters as a perfectly valid reason to say racist shit.

    Liked by 4 people

    1. “Hoyt: “Oh, wait, you’re right, because Beale is NOT a racist and only claims certain opinions to wind you up — and it works.””

      Not to wind them up, but to show that the speaker is powerful, in control, superior and able to threaten and violate the victim’s civil rights in the society. It’s the same strategy as men catcalling women on the street — to humiliate, intimidate and above all scare the woman with threat. It’s a power display that the bigoted hierarchy still controls things. Hoyt was okay with it when Beale was trying to scare and normalize bigotry towards those she wants to scare. She wasn’t okay with Beale deciding to scare, threaten and assert control over her.

      Liked by 6 people

      1. Details, details, details. It’s really the big picture that matters.

        Of course, the big picture in THIS case is that apparently Hoyt and her buddy Freer are once again on the side of the (racist) angels and she’s apparently forgotten everything she might have learned about how white people weaponize this shit. Oy.

        Liked by 4 people

  10. Mark H. —

    I’m not sure Ms. Milan and other RWA members calling for a forensic financial audit are seeking a ‘path to victory’ so much as expressing appropriate concern about governance of a trade group to which they pay membership fees. RWA is a non-profit public benefit corporation based in Houston, TX, which means they have statutory obligations to the members and the public. Some searching, in fact, reveals that they are a Texas corporation (Romance Writers of America, Inc., Texas Taxpayer Number 17600335776) with Federal EIN #76-0033577, recognised as tax-exempt by IRS starting Jan. 1989 as a 501(c)(6) business league (more or less, a guild); originally registered with the state of Texas in March 1981, and listed as an ‘active’ corporation (i.e., not suspended).

    I found their IRS form 990 filing for the year ending Oct. 31, 2018 (They likewise have filed form 990-N ‘e-postcard’ information returns for fiscal years through that same date.) The detail sheets should have some interest, as they include a reasonably detailed income statement and balance sheet along with other other details like executive compensation.

    But, the point is, if a court, or a state regulator (such as, notably, the Texas Secretary of State) becomes concerned about irregularities in such an entity, that would be cause to order that a forensic audit be done. I lack the detailed interest in this specific case to look into what specifically would get the ball rolling with regulators, but I’ll bet some more-motivated people are doing so.

    Liked by 1 person

      1. I think Romance can’t have been aware of him for much longer though. His first book as Chuck was in 2014 and he was a topic of conversation at File 770 in 2015. Although, I assume the Romance world was still aware of him sooner and independently.

        Liked by 1 person

    1. @Mark

      Oh my goodness, the jacket copy for that! 😄😄😄

      After attending a local writer’s group, Gorblin makes a new friend, Amber, who points him towards Romance Wranglers Of America. It sounds like this community is exactly the helpful, loving, supportive group that Gorblin is looking for, but when him and Amber arrive at the Romance Wranglers Of America headquarters, they quickly realize something is wrong. This once loving group has been taken over by a dark and mysterious force; lead by a man named Demon and his chanting coven of board members in jet-black robes.

      I think Damon Suede is going to rue the day he mentioned Chuck’s name.

      Liked by 4 people

  11. Possibly further evidence towards “coup”, one of the original complainers is saying she was encouraged to submit a complaint by the full-time RWA staff. Mind you, she’s also admitting that she didn’t actually lose a contract, it’s just been delayed, so whether anything she says can be taken as trustworthy is doubtful.

    https://amp.theguardian.com/books/2020/jan/04/kathryn-lynn-romance-novelist-interview-racism-complaint?__twitter_impression=true

    Liked by 2 people

  12. So now Davis has admitted that she lied and someone in the RWA was “using” her.

    alongside the forensic audit, now it’s time for some police investigations. And pretty much time for Courtney to start preparing a Libel lawsuit.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. @Jessica:

      So now Davis has admitted that she lied and someone in the RWA was “using” her.

      Well, well, well. Funny how that worked out, isn’t it?

      Alongside the forensic audit, now it’s time for some police investigations. And pretty much time for Courtney to start preparing a libel lawsuit.

      Let’s talk about these things.

      (a) Forensic financial audit: Although I’ve not worked in this field (accounting & finance) in quite a few decades (as necessary disclaimer), my recollection is that such a major investigation can be forced on a firm only by a judge (during litigation) or by state regulators. My wife Deirdre informs me that one of the credible parties in this conflict (but she cannot remember details) has filed a formal complaint with the appropriate Texas regulator, which I infer to be the Corporate Section of the Texas Secretary of State. Of course, it’s totally within the regulators’ discretion as to what complaints they deem worthy of spending taxpayer money pursuing, and I’ve not seen said complaint. Offhand, I would imagine that a compelling complaint would lay out evidence for a pervasive pattern of management misconduct and make the point that, if staff and management are overriding proper procedure in those areas, then there is substantial risk that they are also doing so in business operations and finance.

      This matter would then be governed by regulatory law, a different kettle of fish from civil litigation or criminal law.

      (b) Police investigations: These happen only if officers can be convinced it’s likely that probable cause will emerge that would interest a district attorney in bringing a criminal charge. Offhand, I can’t see anything that obviously qualifies, e.g., if Mr. Davis indeed made false allegations in her complaint, that could easily be a tort, but I can’t see what crime it would be.

      (c) Ms. Milan of course could bring a civil-litigation action for libel and sundry business torts. But I’m sure she knows more than most people that a lawsuit tends to eat your life for a couple of years (or more), and it’s a slow, expensive gladiatorial combat that rational people start only for incredibly compelling reasons, and ISTR it’s an accepted truism among lawyers in that field that only crazy people sue for any reason other than over money, i.e., over objective loss or gain of serious dosh (with a realistic hope of being made whole by settlement or court award). Her going after a corporation with US $1,588k in net assets and US $2,683k in annual revenues[1] would be not a small thing, even if she has a strong case.

      FWIW, though the situation was entirely different, my mother’s lawsuit against a Fortune 50 corporation (Boeing Company), over the wrongful death of her husband Pan American World Airways Captain Arthur Moen, ate her life for six years, back when I was a pre-teen and teen. The personal cost to her was grievous.

      (Boeing was on the hook because of a defective automated safety system in the Boeing 707 jet Dad and his crew tried to fly, proximately causing it to lose altitude and crash shortly after takeoff. I’m sure Boeing learned its lesson, though, and would certainly never make a similar mistake with, say, its current 737 series.)

      [1] Figures taken from RWA, Inc.’s IRS form 990 for the year ending Oct. 31, 2018.

      Liked by 1 person

  13. I just can’t figure out how someone can file a fallacious complaint and then complain she was encouraged and “used”. Like, can’t you figure out what is accurate or inaccurate when you bitch about somebody?

    And to top it off, when her publisher suggested that she apologize about the racist book; ““I didn’t understand what I would be apologizing for unless it were for my 24-year-old book [which she re-pubbed a few years ago],” she said. “I did not agree with what [Milan] was saying and to apologize for something I did not agree with didn’t make sense to me.” So, in other words, I’m a white lady and a person of color tells me my book is racist, and I just decide they’re wrong. So I don’t do anything. Because who knows more about racism than a 64 year old white author? Oh, and then I change the book anyway after this all blows up, BECAUSE SOMEONE ELSE TOLD ME IT WAS RACIST.,

    Liked by 2 people

  14. There are also the reports that Suede is telling people that if he resigns from the presidency that RWA will collapse and staff will be fired. This is patently absurd.

    But it is kind of interesting in light of the clear indication of a deliberate coup by some of the staff, likely the executive heads of staff. Suede’s supposed claim that staff will be fired seems to back up the idea that staff, notably possibly Executive Director Ritter, did purposely go after Milan and jigger things to be able to get her sanctioned during the “slow” holidays. If Suede goes down, he seems to be indicating that he’ll take down staff with him because they were part of the bad behavior.

    If Suede resigns, he won’t face any real trouble as long as he did not deliberately misinform or other unethical, non-procedural behavior. A sub president will be appointed by the remaining Board members. If staff gets fired, it will be for their own behavior, not Suede’s. So Suede may be sitting on some dirt. Meanwhile other people are pointing out that Suede may have not been qualified to be president in the first place as he may not have enough books to fit the requirements of the office, according to the rules.

    Suede ran unopposed for president. Another possibility may have been discouraged by misinformation from running. Most people don’t really want to do the job because being president of RWA is not exactly an honor. It’s a lot of work, a lot of people complaining to you, it doesn’t boost your writing career and gives you less writing time, readers and publishers don’t much care, etc. It’s more of a duty some volunteers take up to help the organization continue its professional advocacy for authors and romance in general. That seems to be how RWA ended up with a homophobic white lady as president back in 2005 who tried to kick gay romance out of the club.

    So this is a matter of a big, well-funded organization that like so many of them don’t have enough people who have enough time to really run it well and keep an eye on everything. (Same thing with the problems with SFWA.) Which means somebody very motivated in the organization can pull some stuff and do some damage. But going after Milan was one of the dumbest things you can do. She isn’t powerful and she’s not vindictive, but she is a lawyer and an advocate and she was never going to stay quiet. And romance writers, as Brian Keene has said, will cut you if you are doing them wrong.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. It really looks like a coup and if that is the case then provoking resignations was probably intentional and Milan was targeted to provoke a backlash (and hence resignations). Regardless the coup-plotters massively under-estimated the scale of the backlash or that it would get mainstream international media coverage. A coup explains a lot of the doubling-down and attempts to push their way through the scandal.

      Like

      1. ” Regardless the coup-plotters massively under-estimated the scale of the backlash or that it would get mainstream international media coverage.”

        Which reminds me of a quote from a popular romance:

        “The revolution started prematurely because the idiot conspirator blew up his secret ammo dump and lit the sky with his intentions.”

        Liked by 2 people

      2. And now the Executive Director and supporters are trying to declare that the Board can’t fire her because all the staff will resign with her and the RWA will cease to operate. This has gone from soap opera to farce. Meanwhile, loads of authors are pulling their books from the RITAs and there may be no RITAs this year.

        For those still really confused as to what is going on, Milan did actually a neat summary of it in her Twitter thread today:

        Liked by 2 people

  15. They cancelled the RITAS. Too many POC and queer authors withdrawing material or withdrawing as judges. The latest edition of the RWA magazine, in shades of the SFWA Bulletin mess, has a racist cover graphic and some clueless bigoted material.

    Looks like the current leadership who created the situation is digging in, but the second attempt on the recall petition has gone through and there’s a big Board meeting on the 12th. It also looks like there will eventually be a new romance author organization formed.

    Liked by 2 people

      1. Will it be enough to satisfy the unhappy members? I suspect they’ll want a full explanation of what was actually happening on the inside to reassure them that the rot isn’t still there somewhere. E.g. were other permanent staff complicit in any way?
        The statement carefully treats the outgoing people fairly nicely, no doubt as part of an agreement on them leaving. I’m not sure that will stick if further pressure is applied.

        Like

      2. Yes, it will very much depend on who takes over amid the ruins and whether they just try to ‘move on’ without digging too deep into WTF-JUST-HAPPENED of it all.
        The RWA needs a full examination of everything, not just for their own sake but for every similar kind of organisation so people know what to not do in the future.

        Like

      3. The statement implies some sort of continuity admin while they work out what to do. Like you say, that could be a good-faith temporary arrangement, or an old-guard holdout, remains to be seen.
        If they’ve any sense they’ll co-opt some of the vocal opponents as a show of good faith.

        Liked by 1 person

      4. Yeah, all the big romance publishers pulled out of the RWA big national convention, which is going to cost the organization tons on top of the cancellation of the RITAs. Plus, dozens of chapters writing in angry letters and sub-groups that had formed within the RWA, etc. Faced with that, there was no way to dig in and try to weather it out. Once Avon/Harlequin pulled out, it was all over really.

        They’ve only got like 6 Board members left, including three appointed very recently by Suede, so the various groups that have been doing the recall petition and calls for a forensic audit are calling for elections rather than appointments, since there’s currently no president. There’s a lot of concern there was financial manipulation going on, not just a power coup to oust Milan and other authors of color from the organization, especially as the Executive Director who’s now resigned is “staying on” to supposedly help with the transition. But no one knows for sure and exactly what went into the judgment on Milan is still not clear because the Board members who resigned in protest over it cannot speak freely about it due to legal liability obligations on confidentiality. But if there was an outright coup, it has now been deposed due to public outcry.

        The naked racism of a lot of RWA members that was exposed in the RWA forums, however, that’s going to be a bigger issue with the organization for a long time to come. And there may still be other new groups forming.

        Liked by 1 person

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