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The Ardai Affair

There's been a recent brouhaha bubbling up over with the Mystery Writers of America, and I thought it would be instructive to bring it to a wider audience, because it also points out something that I think that the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America do right.

Also, at the center of the storm is one of my best friends from high school, Charles Ardai, and I unabashedly feel like giving him even more publicity for his fantastic novel Songs of Innocence. So there.

The facts are these:

A few years ago, Charles co-founded a publishing company, Hard Case Crime, which has done a successful job of bringing back old pulp mystery novels and publishing brand new ones with the old pulp sensibilities. If you peruse the mystery section of any bookstore, you've probably seen their books, with the distinctive yellow ribbon on the upper left corner of the covers. Hard Case Crime has also been featured in many news stories; CBS News Sunday Morning did a piece on the company and on one of the artists from whom they were commissioning new cover paintings.

Charles is not only a publisher, but also a published author in the field of mystery and science fiction, whose first story, "The Long Day," appeared in Ellery Queen's Mystery Magazine when Charles was only 18 years old. His first novel, Little Girl Lost, was published in hardcover by Five Star, and then brought out in paperback by Hard Case Crime. Charles published it under the anagram pen name Richard Aleas (read the surname aloud if you don't get the joke) but never hid the fact that he himself was Aleas.

This year, Charles published a sequel to Little Girl Lost, the aforementioned novel Songs of Innocence. This time, rather than find a publisher to bring out a hardcover edition, Charles chose to bring it out directly in paperback from Hard Case Crime. I've read both books and found them powerful, well-written, and entertaining, and I wasn't surprised when Publishers Weekly chose Songs of Innocence as one of the 100 best novels of the year.

But because Charles brought out the book under his own publishing company, the MWA has ruled it ineligible for consideration for the Edgar Award. According to Lee Goldberg, who is the arbiter for this particular decision, the book is self-published and therefore ineligible for the award. Sarah Weinman brought this ruling to the attention of many more people on her blog, and the discussion on both Goldberg's and Weinman's blogs have been fascinating to read.

The MWA lays out its rules for Edgar eligibility at Edgar Award Information page. The key sentence, I presume, is the one that reads "While the author does not need to be a member of MWA, the work itself must make the author eligible for active status."

As a former officer of SFWA and someone who has served as chair of a Nebula awards jury for many years, I find this fascinating. Because with this one rule, the MWA has decided that Charles's novel cannot be considered for the Edgar, despite the fact that Charles is already an Edgar Award-winning author and that no one questions the quality of Songs of Innocence. Not only has the book been published by an actual, legitimate publisher, but it's garnering kudos from many critics, including, as I noted above, Publishers Weekly.

So why won't the MWA consider the book for the Edgar? Is it fair for them to deem it self-published and then rule it ineligible?

Well, I think they're half-right. Since Charles himself does co-own Hard Case Crime, I would probably agree that the book could be considered self-published. Even though this is a special case of a legitimate publisher bringing out the book, as opposed to Charles just printing copies on his own in his attic.

But just because the book might be considered self-published, why in the world would that render it ineligible for the Edgar? Why should Edgar eligibility be tied into the rules for membership eligibility?

Before I go further, let me note that I completely agree with both MWA and SFWA that self-published works should not be eligible criteria for membership. Both organizations exist to help professional writers, and "professional' has to be defined somehow. Furthermore, by creating a definition of what constitutes a professional publication, both organizations manage to have some influence on things like payment rates, which is to the benefit of the membership.

But when it comes to award criteria, why should it matter? Let's leave aside the fact that Charles, being an editor and publisher as well as a writer, is not going to publish a book that he thinks is of low quality or that will lose him money simply because he wrote it. If he writes something that he thinks is crap, he's going to bury it and never let it see the light of day. (Private message to Charles: I presume this is why I'm the only other person in the world who owns a copy of "The Dreams and Designs of Bartholomew Fitch"?)

But if someone who can't get a novel published decides to self-publish, and by a sheer fluke the novel happens to be brilliant, why shouldn't it be eligible for awards?

SFWA acknowledges this. If you check the SFWA Awards Rules and compare them to the SFWA Membership Requirements, you'll see that a work can be eligible for a Nebula even if it's not eligible as a credential for SFWA membership. Now, as far as I know it's never happened that a self-published work has made it to the final ballot, but I do recall a self-published work or two that made it to the preliminary ballot. SFWA acknowledges the possibility that quality might exist where MWA apparently does not.

So, while I can be pleased with SFWA and puzzled by the MWA, there's not much more I can do except encourage folks to pick up Charles's novel and see for yourself what the controversy is all about. I guarantee you'll have a great reading experience, if nothing else.

(If you're interested in reading more, Sarah Weinman's post about the controversy can be found at Confessions of an Idiosyncratic Mind: Is the MWA Going Too Far With Its Self-Published Definitions. Lee Goldberg's own post on the situation can be found at A Writer's Life: Playing Favorites II. Mediabistro weighed in at Mediaistro: Edgar-Winning Charles Ardai Ineligible for Edgar?. And finally, the New York Post even picked up the story for Page Six, at Case of the Conflicted Imprint.)


So that's all very interesting! It seems to me the interpretation of the rules is correct, but the rule should be changed.

Charles Ardai is of course married to Naomi Novik, who has her own news to announce this morning re the Organization for Transformative Works, which I find fascinating.
I can see why they bounced it as ineligble -- it a little gray and iffy -- but the Edgars say that the person has to meet the MWA eligibility for active status... Clauses 7 & 8 of active eligibility say:

7. Your publisher, to be approved, must publish at least five authors per year, other than those with a financial or ownership interest in the company, such as an owner, business partner, employee, or close relative of such person.

8. Your work is professionally published or produced and is not self-published or cooperatively published.

As the publisher of Hard Boiled and the writer -- he would be ineligible in this instance as both "self-published" for owning the publishing house, and by being an author with ownership in the publishing house.

That they just said the self-pub part is the "iffy" part. If they also took on the ownership aspect, I don't think it would've been as much of an issue.
Actually, under point 7, Hard Case Crime is fully eligible. Any other book they publish counts towards MWA membership and can be nominated for the Edgar.
I misspoke a bit -- I was on my way to a lunch meeting -- of course, I don't argue that the publishing house isn't eligible, just HIS book because he's the owner or has partnership in the company.
See, now, my read of #7 is that they must publish at least five authors per year other than the owner/etc. to be approved.

It doesn't say that publishing the owner in addition to those five authors is a problem.

So the problem isn't the publishing house. The question falls on whether the book is self-published, and how one defines that. Is it self-published if someone else at the company edited it? Is it self-published if the contract and financial arrangements are between Author and Corporate Entitity?

I would hope that Mr. Ardai was paid an advance and royalty for the book, rather than simply dipping into the company's coffers at random, or accepting merely his salary (which, again, I hope he pays himself as an executive of the company). Self-employment is weird stuff, but an author isn't an employee of his publisher. A person can exist as both entities.
Picking up his novels aside (which are now on my list to nab posthaste), My view is that HCC is a professional corporation, and not a fly-by-night organization. As such, any novel from it should be given the same consideration.

Yes, it is a loophole, however, it should swing in his favour.

Or, see if there is another award it *can* be nominated for....
Sounds as if the dilemma comes in the intent behind "While the author does not need to be a member of MWA, the work itself must make the author eligible for active status."

My guess is that the drafters of the rule only wanted professional authors to be eligible. Unfortunately, their definition of "professional" has an a priori assumption that all professional authors are published only by strangers. (I mean, really. Suppose Hard Case published a book by Mr. Ardai's brother (if he has one). Is the assumed bias any less because the brother doesn't own the company?)

I assume the rule exists simply to avoid having every self-published semi-literate toss their book in the ring. But again, there's an assumption that self-publishing is necessarily (a) crap and (b) amateur, and therefore placing the line here is a reliable means to separate wheat from chaff.

It's a bad dillemma. Put perhaps the way out is to say that while Mr. Ardai co-owns the publishing company, it is a professional publishing company, one that publishes a significant list of people who are otherwise unconnected to it, and therefore his book is not self-published. Did Hard Case pay him an advance? Or is there a contract somewhere where he explicitly declines an advance? To make it not self-published, a contract between him as an individual and Hard Case as a corporate entitity might help.
I assume the rule exists simply to avoid having every self-published semi-literate toss their book in the ring. But again, there's an assumption that self-publishing is necessarily (a) crap and (b) amateur, and therefore placing the line here is a reliable means to separate wheat from chaff.

The consideration I will give to the MWA is that the Edgars are in fact a juried award, and the members of the jury get sent every work that someone wants to consider. Charles was once a juror, and I remember seeing 300 novels lined up on the floor of his apartment that he had to consider. I sympathize for a jury that doesn't want to be inundated by self-published crap. But my point is that the crap will never win the award anyway, and can usually be dismissed within the first few pages. Charles's book is a very different case.
Well, I can't understand the need to make an award tied to a standard of professionalism (how often do you need to be judged a professional?), especially as in this case, he's already proven to meet that standard. Some of the best art in any form (painting, dance, music, video games [portal was a school project], etc.) have come from non-professionals. Heck, it is with rare exception that a Professional athlete can even compete in the Olympics, if you want to look at the other extreme.

Besides the somewhat broken need for an eligible work to be published by a publishing house, there's also the somewhat murky depths of what constitutes self published. This work was published through a registered corporation, with several works by several authors to its credit, and the book retails through major distributors. I'm not saying any Joe should be able to fill out a few forms, make a 'company', and claim to not be self-published, but it is clear in this case that you do both the author and the publishing house disservice to put them in the same category as other self-publishing operations.

Now, if you'll pardon me, it's not too late (for me, I'm not a hannukan) to put his books on my holiday wishlist.

Edited at 2007-12-13 06:30 pm (UTC)
Interesting question... let us know how it turns out!
MWA changed its rules. Lee Goldberg, a member of the relevant committee, discusses here, with what looks like a long comment thread.

I think Ardai will still be ineligible under these rules, but I am not informed enough to have a firm opinion.
Fascinating. We'll have to see how that plays out.

December 2016

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