"Crime Doesn't Pay - Enough."
Mystery Writers of America, Inc. (MWA) was formed as a non-profit organization of, by, and for American mystery writers of all types and other professionals in the field. Their primary goal is "to promote and protect the interest and welfare of mystery writers." It is a national organization headquartered in New York City, with several chapters across the United States to make it posible for members in every region to participate directly. The MWA has established several annual literary awards for both crime fiction and non-fiction, as well as for dramatic work on stage, screen, and radio to promote the genre. The organization also keeps writers informed of legislation that may affect them, as well as other important information. Its meetings, on both the regional and national offer writers the opportunity to meet with many other professionals in the field, and strives above all to treat new and established writers equally.
The national Mystery Writers of America office can be contacted at:
17 E. 47th St., 6th floor
New York, NY 10017
Oddly enough for a group of professional writers, few written records were made about the origins of the MWA until years later, and those accounts, as is often the case with eyewitness accounts, can differ widely. According to various remembrances, writer Lawrence Treat, editor Marie Rodell, and writer-editor Clayton Rawson met for lunch. Rawson turned their conversation toward a British writers' group (the London Detection Club) that met occasionally and worked together for the "good of their craft." It seemed to him that America could do with such an organization, and the idea MWA was born. There are accounts of organizational meetings at the apartment of Bayard Kendricks, or at the Roosevelt Hotel, attended by a number of the top mystery writers and editors of the time. Finally, on February 28, 1945, the group filed articles of incorporation in Albany, New York, and the Mystery Writers of America, Inc. became an official non-profit corporation.
Weeks of debate had gone into the selection of the name. Clayton Rawson provided the group's slogan, "Crime Does Not Pay - Enough." and thanks to Howard Haycraft, the early letterhead included the Latin phrase "Qui Fecit?" -- doggerel meaning essentially "Whodunnit?" The group immediately began laying plans for a new literary award to honor the best mystery of the year. They decided to take as their patron saint Edgar Allan Poe, and named the award in his honor. There were originally plans to also create an award for the worst mystery of the year and name it after a man notorious at the time for his dislike of detective stories,Edmund Wilson, but the idea was dropped somewhere along the line. The Edgar award itself grew to cover several different categories of mystery literature.
True to their motto, the MWA also began working toward having mystery writers receive more money for their work. Paperback mysteries at the time were sold at a standard, set in stone, price of $2.00, and were sold primarily to rental libraries. Such a book could bring in more than $10.00 for the store, but the writer would never see more than twenty cents in royalty payments. The MWA pushed a revolutionary idea of raising the price of the books to $2.50, and splitting the fifty cent increase between the author and publisher. They even put together a model contract that would give the author a fairer share of the subsidiary rights. Ziff-Davis signed the model contract, and enjoyed flocks of mystery writers rallying around them until they discontinued their mystery line. No other publishers would touch the model contract or the MWA's ideas about sharing in the rental profits.
Nonetheless, the Mystery Writers of America continued to grow and prosper. More and more writers joined the organization, and regional offices sprang up across the country to serve authors who lived too far from New York to participate actively. The organization began an anthology series to increase their treasury (and keep the cost of membership down, which was essential for struggling writers). 1946 saw the publication of Murder Cavalcade, the first anthology, and many more followed. Authors and editors donated their time and effort to the cause, and the proceeds went to the MWA. The treasury was further agumented by profits from the Mystery Writers Handbooks.
Regional chapter meetings are and always have been designed with the needs of the membership in mind. They often include panel discussions with established authors on how to write mysteries, background information from a number of sources on the details of detective work, forensic science, and even how criminal cases are handled at trial. Speakers also come from the publishing field to share advice from editors, agents, and publishing companies, and discussions about the publishing market are always popular. The MWA also organizes mystery writing workshops across the country to help aspiring authors.
The MWA continues to be a tremendous resource for authors at all points in their career, from the struggling young writer putting together his first manuscript to the well-established and prolific successes who have achieved immortality through their work. As Robert Bloch said at the 1970 Edgar Awards Dinner:
I feel that the greatest benefit offered by the MWA comes in the form of personal contact, personal involvement, personal friendship with oines fellow-fictioneers. Writing is, as we all know, a lonely trade. The road from hard knocks to Fort Knox is a rugged one, and whether we go the route or not it's a comfort to share good company along the way.
The MWA presents the following awards annually at the EdgarSM awards banquet in late April or early May:
- The Edgar Allan Poe AwardSM
- Named for the author many credit as the father of modern detective fiction, the Edgar Allan Poe AwardsSM (also knows as the EdgarsSM were established to honor mystery writers who did not have a chance at winning the Pulizer Prize or National Book Award, but who still deserved recognition from their peers. It was one of the first major steps the MWA took toward their goal of raising public esteem for authors of mystery literature, and giving them an award to strive for and hopefully achieve. In 1946, the first recipients received a leather-bound edition of Poe specially made by Viking for the occasion. The following year, the award included a 12 copy limited edition of Howard Haycraft’s Art of the Mystery Story. The current bust of Poe, designed by Peter Williams, first appeared during the third award banquet. Of the statuette, Otto Penzler would later say upon receiving his, "I never thought fondling a bust so small would feel so great." The award categories have evolved over the years as the conditions and needs changed. Originally, the Best Novel award was set up for the Best First Novel, to avoid upsetting writers into resigning from the organization. It was not until 1953 that the MWA felt comfortable judging the Best Novel of the year. Changing times required a Best Crime-Mystery Television Show category, which was added in 1952.
- The Grand Master Award
- The Grand Master Award was established in 1955 to recognize writers who have contributed significantly to the mystery field with their bodies of work, and whose works are consistently of the highest quality. The first Grand Master award was given to Agatha Christie, and the list of subsequent recipients reads like a Who's Who of great mystery writers. It is the highest and most prestegious award given by the MWA.
- The Ellery Queen Award
- In 1983, the MWA established the Ellery Queen award to recognize writing teams and other outstanding people in the mystery publishing industry.
- The Robert L. Fish Memorial Award
- The Robert L. Fish Memorial Awards were establised in 1984 to honor the best first short story in the mystery genre by an American author. While administered by the MWA, the award is sponsored by the Robert L. Fish estate, and includes a plaque and monetary award.
- The Raven Award
- The Raven awards were established as a kind of miscellaneous category for achievements that do not directly fall within the realm of creative writing. They have been given for everything from E. T. Guymon Jr's impressive library of mystery literature to book jackets, to outstanding service to the MWA itself.
As the organization has grown, ten regional chapters have sprung up across the country to serve the needs of the writers living there. Some are small, covering single states or parts of a few states, while others can include up to thirteen states in their areas. Each has its own newsletter and monthly meetings and events, and elects its own officers. Joining any of the regional chapters automatically makes one a member of the national organization as well. The ten chapters are:
- Florida, serving the state of Florida
- Midwest, serving Iowa, Illinois, Indiana, Kansas, Michigan, Minnesota, Missouri, Nebraska, North Dakota, Ohio, South Dakota, and Wisconsin
- New England, serving Massachusetts, Maine, New Hampshire, Rhode Island, and Vermont
- New York, serving Connecticut, Maryland, New Jersey, New York, Pennsylvania, Delaware, Virginia, and West Virginia
- Northern California, serving parts of California and Nevada above the 36th parallel
- Northwest, serving Idaho, Oregon, Washington, and Alaska
- Rocky Mountain, serving Colorado, Montana, New Mexico, Utah, and Wyoming
- Southeast, serving Alabama, Arkansas, Georgia, Mississippi, North Carolina, South Carolina, and Tennessee
- Southern California, serving parts of California and Nevada below the 36th parallel as well as all of Arizona and Hawaii
- Southwest, serving the Louisiana, Oklahoma, and Texas
Mystery Writers of America. The Mystery Writers of America Web Site. <http://www.mysterywriters.org/> (December 17, 2002)