Sometime on the 26th of June the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America board posted a call asking for opinions about changing their long standing policy regarding independent publishers.
The SFWA Board of Directors is asking members to share their opinions of self-publishing over the summer. The Board has asked the members to consider not just whether or not to make it possible for writers to join on the basis of self-published works but also the issues that would have to be addressed, such as confirming income, sales, and other publishing information from self-published writers. The issue should be submitted to the full membership prior to November’s business meeting at the 2014 World Fantasy Convention.
Members are invited to share their opinions with the Board through emails, via letters to the Forum, on the discussion boards, or at SFWA business meetings.
I’m not currently a member, and given that its been a while since I submitted any SFF to anyone that would constitute a “Qualified Venue” it’s unlikely I’ll ever tie up at that pier. But, as I have previously mentioned, I’d love to find some more company and, regardless of my publishing choices, this is my tribe. I love you SFF people, I truly do. And thus, I offer up some opinions on the topic more as an exercise allowing me an opportunity for self examination, than, in the highly unreasonable expectation, that this might sway the opinions of the SFWA board one way or another.
What Have You Got To Lose?
This is a question I think the SFWA board needs to ask itself. This question might actually constitute justification for one of those legal pad exercises where you draw a line down the middle and write down all the pros and cons. SFWA, as an organization, is a collective effort that has come together to “inform, support, promote, defend and advocate for its member writers.” Despite this, there remains a long standing conflict of interest within the organization.
Membership does not necessarily result in these benefits for its member writers. Rather, it acts as a funnel pushing authors into potentially unfavorable situations with publishers that will certainly take a huge chunk of any sales for works they accept. Is this what advocacy for member writers looks like?
I understand that traditional publishers constitute a significant and meaningful segment of the SFF publishing pie. I am not suggesting that they lose their hard won position within this market, nor am I promoting the idea that we simply do away with traditional publishers and replace them with zombie hoards of independents. In fact, I think publishers serve a meaningful and respectable portion of the market and they accomplish this capitalistic goal remarkably well considering their competition.
It is difficult to publish anything, having ready made teams of people intent on pushing at least some of the creative works that get generated within this space HELPS not only those who get picked up, but everyone who contributes to the market. But should these companies, which receive so many submissions their back logs collectively make the VA’s problems look like child’s play, function as the sole test of quality for the entire genre? The answer is undoubtably “no.” The market itself provides this conclusion. Anyone, who has the time and dedication can write something and get it to readers. Self publishing avenues exists because they meet market requirements.
This is utopian thinking, I realize. Why would publishers advocate for indie access in a space they already control? It’s extremely unlikely they ever would, I see SFWA taking comments more as a reaction to the reality of the market than anything else. Publishers have made it clear they don’t see the value in collective behavior and they don’t seem to understand or appreciate the challenges offered by competing medias. But SFWA should see that their policies do not serve their member writers. It locks anyone who desires membership and publication, at the same time, into accepting whatever is offered by whomever deigns to offer it. “What have you got to lose SFWA?” Plenty of ballast that should have been dumped long ago in my opinion.
Even the call for comment issued from SFWA board seems to worry overly much about the question of “how can we keep the rabble out?” SFWA has for a long time now been really worried about the remote possibility of endorsing the undeserved. If you read the comments popping up beneath the call for opinions as well as in blogs all over the internets you’ll find a regular theme, “maybe if they sell enough copies” or “how will we measure indie reach” or “maybe we can make a secondary (somewhat lower class) sort of membership for indies.”
These compromise suggestions, including SFWA’s request for discussion beside the caveat asking members to consider “not just whether or not to make it possible for writers to join on the basis of self-published works but also the issues that would have to be addressed, such as confirming income, sales, and other publishing information from self-published writers,” seem little more than Chicken Little trying to negotiate with the falling sky. Here is why.
Primarily, no where in SFWA’s mission statement can we find the words “assure quality,” “guarantee public acceptance,” or “warranty sales quotas.” And, even given the current exclusionary policies in place, none of this happens as-is. Yeah, you read me right. Providing editorial review, artistic critique, copy-editing, cover art, and even blurb writing are not jobs SFWA has signed up to do. They tell members, in good standing and prospective alike, that this is not their job right there in their mission statement. Traditionally published authors and indies must both take this yoke on and ensure that these issues are resolved before publication, or suffer the consequences.
Yet, there are many people who seem to default to the idea that membership qualifies them for some exclusive privilege reserved for the few who surpass a nebulous threshold of quality. Not the case, because if I sell a story to the right people and no one reads it because my story stinks I’ve just disproven this hypothesis. And in this thought experiment, I’m still a SFWA member who could be rubbing elbows with Scalzi and GRRM at some bar at any given convention. And even that doesn’t mean anything since finding drinking buddies at conventions has less to do with what you’ve written or how it was published than who is sitting next to you and what is in your cup.
Notably, other organizations have previously rooted these hazy requirements for membership and the sky has not fallen on them. In fact, they’ve grown significantly as a result. Start with Romance Writers of America if you need an example. Want to know what is required to gain access to their benefits?
General Membership ($95): open to all persons seriously pursuing a romance fiction writing career. Only General members shall have all rights of membership, and only General members shall have the right to vote and the right to hold office in RWA.
That is correct. You writes your story, you pays your dues, you abide by those codes of conduct, and you gets your ticket to the party. “Why then,” you might find yourself asking yourself, “has the same sky RWA shares with SFWA not exploded into a trillion tiny, hot pieces and buried the RWA board under a pyroclastic flow of ashen readers and crap manuscripts?” And the answer is that the board of RWA seems to be in the possession of a couple of critical motes of understanding.
RWA does not pretend to be an arbiter of taste. Rather they stick to their mission statement like an warty, co-dependent, love-sick, fat kid who has, as chance would have it, met the vampire of her dreams. Their writers are what make them better, more writers only means a better organization. Especially when you completely comprehend where the value of the organization resides. The dreamy vampire isn’t valued by the love-sick kid because he’s beautiful, but because he appreciates and defends that diva with all his unearthly, post-death power and bottled rage.
And this relationship will continue to work, despite all the bitchy, bourgeois classmates that will poke at them and criticize them, because ultimately those arbiters of taste don’t have any. They base their value judgements on preconceived and often irrational frameworks such as units sold, agents retained, publishers brown nosed. None of these things have anything to do with the value of the story or the capabilities of the writer. They are distractions, shifting attention away from a job our sexy vampire isn’t supposed to do anyway. RWA gets this, they understand and love their army of undead beefcake.
Becoming Attractive Once More
Love is not attraction. When my youngest son, a three year old with a fiery soul, tosses an amazingly loud, snot encrusted fit because he doesn’t get his way, I still love him although he is not attractive. In that moment, he cannot, nay will not, offer me anything. All economic and political treaties that had been formerly established are null and void, our borders are closed, and we usually end up glaring at one another across a mined DMZ. But, as I look across that no man’s land, I can still see and appreciate him in all his complexity. I love him, even in these moments, but I don’t like him.
It seems to me that SFWA has a similar problem. The organization hasn’t gotten its way. It has convulsed, pitched some serious fits, and even whined in recent memory. And it has lost qualified and capable members as a result (see March 2014).
Yeah sure, it’s not bleeding membership. The whole organization isn’t on the verge of collapse, but much like my three year old, it is continuing to make the same mistakes over and over again. Go figure. He has been told this a million-million times, “Follow my simple rules and you’ll likely get what you want. Most importantly, do the things you say you’re going to do.”
SFWA’s call for comment seems to me a bit of a whinge. The board of an organization for writers couldn’t write a request without caveats and conditional statements? They’re asking us to tell them what to do? Really? Are they testing the water hoping their members will approve a plan of action they haven’t yet authored? “We’re thinking about make a change, but wanted to know what you guys thought first.” Good grief.
Being a member of a board comes with some responsibilities. One of those is providing leadership, in your role, for the organization. It seems obvious that SFWA board members suspect a need for change. Why haven’t they seized this opportunity then?
Ten minutes with a project plan template, a well informed team of interested and articulate contributors, and a white board should have solved the question of what to do about independent authors. SFWA could have come to its membership holding a bone with some meat on it. They could have outlined the challenge, articulated their logic, and provided a plan of action. What they’ve done isn’t likely to metamorphos into an ugly backlash beast, prickling with indignation. No, not even a little, because that’s what it already is.
I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again. SFWA needs to act like a professional organization, and some of its members need to aspire towards professionalism. Wanting nothing more than to tell the world your story from a tender age does not make you a writer any more than selling a pile of books makes you a professional author. All professionals practice to a level of competence in their field. They don’t let outside concerns or petty squabbles get in the way of the expression of their competence. And that, right there, is attractive. Professionals win people for their side while getting shit done. Now go to your room and think about what I said.