Is the SFWA losing its relevance?

“This is the song that doesn’t end…it just goes on and on my friend…”

To mix musical metaphors, I’m getting that whole “second verse, same as the first” feeling as I look at the latest vitriol to come out of the whole Science Fiction & Fantasy Writers of America (SFWA) sexism affair (which we’ve covered in more detail here, here, and here). A few days ago, an article appeared on The Daily Dot blog citing posts from the public discussion forums on SFF.net pertaining to the latest round of ugliness.

SFF.net is the discussion forum website of the SFWA, but has always maintained two sets of forums: public ones, sff.*, that anyone could read and to which anyone who registered with an email address could post, and private ones, sff.private.*, that were only open to SFWA members. (I’ve long read a number of public SFF groups via an NNTP reader.) The posts in question were from sff.sfwa, one of the public groups.

The posts had to do with certain figures on the opposite (which is to say, non-sexist) side of the debate from those taking part in the discussion, most notably Mary Robinette Kowal. One particular member of the discussion, Sean Fodera, who works in the contracts department at Kowal’s publisher, Macmillan, compared his reactions to Kowal to his phobia of dogs. John Scalzi has blogged about his and Kowal’s reactions to the whole affair.

Fodera subsequently threatened to sue for defamation not only the author of the article but anyone who blogged about it and the 1,200 people who had shared it on Facebook. This drew responses by Scalzi and lawyer Ken White of Popehat indicating that, legally speaking, Mr. Fodera did not know whereof he spoke. (Fodera may have taken this to heart; he posted this morning that he would not be saying anything more on the matter until he had the chance to consult with his attorney.)

I don’t really have anything more to say about the affair directly; there are plenty of excellent responses and commentary in the above links (and, for that matter, on The Passive Voice where I first found the Daily Dot article). But Scalzi has still been following the discussion (as can anyone; it’s still taking place on a public forum after all) and derived great amusement from a post complaining that “[t]he newer members who Scalzi et al brought in [during his recent tenure as SFWA President] are an embarrassment to the genre” and referring to them as “insects who…don’t scramble for the shadows when outside lights shines (sic) on them—they bare their pincers and go for the jugular.”

Immediately co-opting the term, complete with an insectoid take on the famous “Rosie the Riveter” propaganda poster, Scalzi declared:

Mary and I are no longer officers of SFWA, but I think our commissions at the head of the Insect Army are still in effect: After all, not every “insect” is in SFWA (yet). And so I say to you: Join John and Mary’s Insect Army! You must write! You must be fearless! You must stand your ground in the face of deeply silly insults, clacking your pincers derisively at them! And, if you believe that every person — writer, “insect” and otherwise — should be treated with the same dignity and honor that you would accord yourself, so much the better. Together we can swarm to make science fiction and fantasy awesome!

Join our ranks!

The thing that puzzles me is why I’d want to. Or, no, that’s the wrong question. The true question is, is the SFWA even relevant to me? And will it ever be relevant to me? I posted this question in the discussion thread on Scalzi’s post, and Scalzi deleted it for being “off topic,” which is fine—his blog, his rules. But I think my question is valid, and indeed important in this brave new world of self-publishing.

Let’s look at the SFWA’s membership requirements. Essentially, they are three prose fiction sales at magazine rates to “Qualifying Professional Markets,” one prose fiction sale of at least $2,000 to a “Qualifying Professional Market,” or a professionally-produced dramatic script that has big enough names for the Membership Committee to okay it. Those seem to be valid requirements for an organization that is all about professional (which is to say, “traditional”) publishing. (Even if the recent antics of some of its members seem to be anything but “professional.”) Looking at their document on “Why Join SFWA,” they list a number of benefits that mainly apply to people in deals with traditional publishers. A Grievance Committee to negotiate contractual disputes, for example. Updated to add: There are some benefits that could be helpful to all writers, such as group health insurance and workshop events and such, but those benefits are fairly academic given that you have to meet their “professional” publishing requirements to join.

What does the SFWA have to offer people who only self-publish?

(Updated to add: By this, I mean people who have never met the “professional” requirements for SFWA membership. People who have trad-published only one qualifying book or three qualifying stories in their lives, even if it was 50 years ago, are still eligible for membership.)

When the SFWA was founded, self-publishing was basically tantamount to vanity publishing, and this shows in the organization’s web site. The only piece of direct advice to writers about self-publishing on either the SFWA’s official site or SFF.net is an essay by Teresa Neilsen Hayden written in 1999.

But now, self-publishing makes up a significant chunk of revenue from genre titles sold via Amazon. As I pointed out yesterday, even if the exact size of that revenue chunk is up for debate, it’s pretty clear that chunk exists and does represent a non-trivial piece of the overall market—and that it has publishers running scared. What is the SFWA doing to reach out to these people, or to assist these people? At the moment, it seems determined to pretend they don’t exist. An author could make $100,000 from his self-published works but still be completely ineligible for SFWA membership if he didn’t feel the need to make a traditional sale also.

This made sense when most people self-publishing were hawking their books on street corners, but self-publishing has developed into a professional industry all its own, with some writers outselling (and definitely out-earning) traditional published works. And it doesn’t seem likely to shrivel up and blow away…unlike traditional publishers if very many of their writers suddenly decide the grass is greener on the self-publishing side.

I haven’t written a publishable book yet, but one of these days I think I just might, just to see what the self-publishing experience is like. I don’t plan to bother submitting it to traditional publishers—I don’t need to wait months or years to get rejected before submitting it somewhere else and waiting months or years again, so that in the end a publisher can take most of the money from selling my book and still expect me to publicize it myself.

So even if I made a small fortune off said hypothetical self-published book (and to be honest, I don’t expect I’d make more than the cost of a good steak dinner, if that, but I can hope to win the lottery), I wouldn’t be eligible. So, as far as I’m concerned right now, and as far as I might be concerned after self-publishing, the SFWA might just as well not exist. And I’m pretty sure there are a lot more people in those same shoes right now.

(Whether it would be worth joining even if I were eligible, given all the vitriol that seems to come out of the organization lately, is another question…but since I don’t expect ever to be eligible, I don’t think I really have a valid opinion there.)

So that’s my question: how is the SFWA going to stay relevant as more people self-publish and fewer trad-publish? There can only be so many of Scalzi’s “new insects” eligible to join the hive before all the rest just buzz on by.

Update: This article has been discussed on The Passive Voice, and SFWA member M.C.A. Hogarth (who self-publishes, herself) pointed out (as did Cat Rambo below) that the SFWA is currently considering membership qualifications for self-publishing writers. The proposed qualifications are roughly equivalent to the terms for professional publications and on the whole sound fairly reasonable; I will cover them if and when they are approved.

5 Comments on Is the SFWA losing its relevance?

  1. The true question is, is the SFWA even relevant to me? And will it ever be relevant to me? I posted this question in the discussion thread on Scalzi’s post, and Scalzi deleted it for being “off topic,”

    But of course! Because the implication is that Scalzi isn’t relevant to you either (which is true). And traditionally published authors are as afraid of losing relevance as their publishers.

    Yes, it’s important that we call out sexism and privilege in sci-fi. But here’s the trick: there’s so much diversity in indie and self-publishing, and there are so many of us, that we don’t really need a few big voices to speak for us anymore. We can do it ourselves, and we’re a damn numerous chorus.

    So I guess my answer to your question is: they aren’t. They’re all fading already, while we write and (self-)publish, blog and chat and promote each other while not giving a damn about politics except implicitly through the way we behave towards our fellow human beings.

    It’s just fun to follow the unfolding events though…

  2. SFWA is looking at how to handle admitting self-published writers right now, and it’s something I hope gets worked out this year (although the wheels of SFWA grind exceedingly slow, past history shows.)

    A lot of the current incident? flamewar? sfwagate? is reaction to SFWA working to be relevant — things like looking at self-publishing as a membership criteria, recent creation of accessibility guidelines for SFWA events, and the move to moderated boards (where there’s a lot of great (imo) discussion about stuff useful to professional writers).

    That’s why you’re seeing it take place on sff.net in a public space that does not belong to SFWA, with many of the people posting there not current members.

  3. Having read several hundred emails over at the sff.net public forum, my personal take is that the Daily Dot and other bloggers are incorrectly characterizing Fodera’s messages as outrage on the SFWA sexism affair. He doesn’t go into details but from his comments, I believe that him when he says in one of the SFF.net messages that he harbors great anger towards Korwal based on dealings he had with her over SFWA matters several years ago (he didn’t go into specifics but alluded to things he thought SFWA should be doing presumably in his area of expertise in copyright matters) where he felt that she prevented it from happening. I think his comments are more a result of his extreme anger towards Korwal, and that his perception that Korwal is behind the SFWA actions in the sexism affair. Kind of like my father-in-law and anything done by Obama and/or the Democrats (where I think he would be fine with the exact same thing if it had been done by a Republican). And the conversations on the public sff.net were less about the sexism kerfuffle and more about why they are lapsed members over their disagreement about what should be the SFWA focus (like more on teaching newer authors and would-be authors about stuff about writing and the publishing business), and their indignation on them and others being labeled as bigots or anti-feminist etc by people who have only read a couple messages or message excerpts that are out of context.

  4. Cat, I think it’s fantastic that SFWA is looking into admitting self-published writers, and I know it’s an ongoing process that has already been talked of for a couple years.

    I would say, however, that there is a big difference between choosing to include the self-published, and attracting the self-published. The webpage SFWA currently maintains on self-publishing–with its extensive emphasis on POD–will not attract self-publishers who are both knowledgeable about the industry and seeking a professional organization for a give/take relationship. The other advantages SFWA offers don’t include much for the self-published.

    Conversely, were I looking for a professional organization that supports my publishing choices, I could spend $20 more a year for something like ALLi, which has extensive advantages for the self-published.

    Please know I’m not knocking SFWA for what it is and has been. I’ve too many friends/acquaintances who are, or aspire to be, members. But I am pointing out that there is precious little to draw in the solely self-published. I don’t know enough about the internal workings of the organization to know if that’s a feature or a bug. :)

  5. As a independent author who does make a living at it, and whose yearly income exceeds the 50K-ish “average” number I have seen bandied about, it amuses me that a year ago I was denied membership in SFWA. I would have loved to join. But, the SFWA policy of denial and silence when it comes to independent authors who choose not to bother with the tedious game of hunting up a tradpub deal means they have missed the boat. Had Scalzi or whoever makes the decisions there embraced indie authors early, even if the bar was set higher, SFWA would have gained new blood, new insights, and most importantly a beachhead inside the independent authors’ camp. Now, indies are too big to ignore, and SFWA is fighting to stay relevant. Ironic, especially as sci-fi is supposed to be about embracing the future and the changes it brings.

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