Is the SFWA losing its relevance?
February 18, 2014 | 3:25 pm
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.