RWA leaders are aware that many members believe that membership requirements were changed at the board’s most recent meeting in July. That is not the case. From RWA’s inception (as stated in the Articles of Incorporation, dated March 17, 1981), membership has been open to “all persons seriously pursuing a publishing career in the romance genre.” Nothing has changed other than the fact that many people have apparently joined Romance Writers of America without understanding that RWA’s mission and tax-exempt purpose are limited to advancing the professional interests of romance writers.
So, why do some members now feel that it is not necessary to pursue a career as a romance writer in order to maintain voting rights? We would say that RWA’s greatest strength—that of being open to individuals without requiring proof of publication—may have unintentionally given rise to misunderstandings. RWA membership requirements, unlike those for other national writers’ organizations, recognize the fact that the pursuit of the career begins long before the first sale, and therefore RWA has never limited membership to published authors. Additionally, published writers of all genres may choose to join (as Associate members) in order to have access to a local or online chapter or in order to enhance the romantic elements in their works. Because of this, RWA enjoys a large and vibrant membership. However, if the organization does not maintain focus on its mission, then being overly inclusive can have the effect of diluting services to the organization’s core members.
It has recently come to our attention that many chapters, according to information posted on chapter websites and in online posting by members, actively market membership to individuals who are not pursuing careers as romance writers. This practice has apparently been going on for some time, but national leadership was not aware how pervasive the practice had become. Affiliated chapters are tax-exempt based solely on RWA’s group exemption. “To qualify for a group exemption, the central organization and its subordinates must have a defined relationship. Subordinates must be affiliated with a central organization; subject to the central organization’s general supervision or control; and exempt under the same paragraph if IRC 501(c), though not necessarily the paragraph under which the central organization is exempt. (IRS publication 4573).”
Chapter members are expected to adhere to RWA’s bylaws as well as the chapter’s, which includes membership requirements. Special interest chapters are allowed to limit their mission to a specific subgenre of romance, but all chapters have asserted to RWA in applications for affiliation and in their bylaws that the chapter exists to advance the professional interests of romance writers. New members are of course welcomed, but if these new members are not pursuing a career in romance fiction, then they should come in as Associate members.
RWA has always been an inclusive organization, and no one expects that to change. RWA is one of the few writers’ associations open to both the published and unpublished. However, individuals who support the organization and its purposes but who do not meet the requirements for General membership by seriously pursuing a romance fiction writing career are properly classified as non-voting Associate members. The rationale for varying membership types is not to limit access to programs and services but to ensure that only those individuals pursuing careers as romance writers are making the decisions on behalf of Romance Writers of America and any of the affiliated chapters to which they belong.
Members may wonder how a new or renewing member should determine which type of membership is appropriate. Assessment of a writing career cannot be based on one book or the activities of one year. Instead, members should view their pursuits on the basis of their own unique career continuum. RWA membership requirements recognize that the pursuit of a career precedes the first sale and that a career can be impacted by changes in the publishing industry and/or personal issues related to jobs, family, and illness. Members are required to assert that they are seriously pursuing a career in romance writing when they join and when they renew their membership each year in order to qualify for General membership with voting rights. We are all guilty of checking boxes to agree to terms of service without reading those terms, but this is different: it’s a short statement, and you are asked to read the question and respond honestly.
- If you are new to RWA and know nothing about writing romance fiction, do you meet the qualifications for General membership? No.
- If you have been a member for one or ten years and are actively pursuing a career in romance fiction by writing and/or submitting your work, do you meet the qualifications for General membership? Yes.
- If your writing has been, and continues to be, completely set aside for an extended period of time due to upheavals at home or at work, do you meet the qualifications for General membership? No.
- If your writing has suffered a temporary setback due to upheavals at home or at work, do you meet the qualifications for General membership? Yes.
- If you are previously published and have not sold a book in several years but continue to write and submit romance, do you meet the qualifications for General membership? Yes.
- If you write both romance and other fiction genres or nonfiction, do you meet the qualifications for General membership? Yes.
- If you write only nonfiction or fiction that is clearly not romance, do you meet the qualifications for General membership? No.
- If you write only fiction with strong romantic elements but not specifically romance, do you meet the qualifications for General membership? This question is the hardest to answer. It depends on how you view your work and how you describe yourself as an author to potential readers and whether or not your books would be classified as romance or shelved in the romance section of a physical or online bookstore.
These examples are guidelines, not hard-and-fast rules. Each individual member must declare, on joining and again on renewal, whether or not they are pursuing a career in romance fiction. When you invite others to join RWA, please make it clear that if they’re not writing romance, then they need to request an Associate membership. If your career path changes and you are no longer writing romance but wish to remain a member, then you are welcome to do so as an Associate member.
We are a large and vibrant organization, and our membership is diverse. That diversity is a part of what makes RWA work. But in order for the organization to comply with its tax-exempt purpose and to ensure that our focus remains on romance as required in the Bylaws, this issue must be addressed. We thank you all for your understanding and cooperation.
The Board of Directors
Romance Writers of America