Authors Group Declares Bankruptcy

The Romance Writers of America had seen its membership drop precipitously since the pandemic.

A leading writers’ organization has filed for bankruptcy following plummeting membership and struggles to bounce back from a high-profile organizational crisis.

On May 29, the Romance Writers of America filed for chapter 11 bankruptcy protection. According to  reports on the filing published in the Guardian and Publishers Weekly, RWA owed more than $3 million to hotels relating to its conferences (two of which were canceled due to the COVID-19 pandemic), and nearly $75,000 to other creditors.

RWA’s rising debts have been exacerbated by cratering membership numbers. According to reports on the filing, RWA membership has fallen from 10,000 to 2,000 since 2019. Those canceled pandemic-era meetings contributed to the erosion in member numbers, but president Mary Ann Jock said in the filing that most of the lost members were due to “disputes concerning diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) issues between some members of a prior RWA board and others in the larger romance writing community.”

Jock’s statement refers to some longstanding accusations of racism in the community, but more specifically to a 2019 incident in which author Courtney Milan, then chair of the RWA’s ethics committee, was suspended from the organization for a year in response to statements she made regarding racism in the romance-publishing world. RWA’s move was widely perceived as alienating and needlessly punitive among its membership, and in short order the entire board and two staff members had resigned.

Underrepresented members and their allies will vote with their feet when diversity efforts fail.

RWA commissioned a report on the incident that identified various flaws in the association’s structure when it came to handling ethics complaints. The association then retooled its awards in 2020 to highlight its commitment to diversity in the romance-writing world. “We are working on building a new RWA, an RWA 2.0, one that has at its core: diversity, inclusion, equity, and access,” then-president Alyssa Day told Associations Now when the changes were announced.

It didn’t take. Financial challenges hobbled the organization, as did a declining need for an organization connected to mainstream publishers at a time when more authors in the genre were self-publishing. One observer suggests that RWA also served an extremely cohesive group—one that was primed to exit en masse when it felt the association wasn’t serving its needs. Christine Larson, a scholar of the romance writing community, told Literary Hub that “a super important thing to take away here is that romance writers have the strongest writing community that I have ever seen.”

Expanding on that point in the Conversation, Larson wrote that RWA’s inability to respond clearly to diversity challenges accelerated its struggles. “Underrepresented members and their allies will vote with their feet when diversity efforts fail,” she wrote. “It might not happen as abruptly or dramatically as what the Romance Writers of America experienced; it’s certainly easier to quit a professional organization than a job. But the rise and fall of the group shows that if organizations struggling with full inclusion don’t rewrite their story, their members will do it for them.”

Milan echoed the sentiment to the Guardian, saying “It was a retreat from a commitment to equality that caused membership to leave RWA.”

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