My SFWA Dilemma

100_2471I’ve a decision to make—multiple decisions, in truth—about where and when I want to devote my non-writing energies as a professional writer. It might seem easy, choosing to join or not join SFWA. It would indeed be so if I’d opted against self-publishing, if I didn’t tend to plow into organizational upheavals, if I didn’t have strong opinions, and if I didn’t think it questionable to join an organization that presently excludes self-published writers who are far more successful and prolific than I am.

So. Matter the first.

I qualify for active membership in SFWA. My three qualifying sales—Speculon, Writers of the Future, and Cicada—all happened before 2007. I didn’t join at the time for reasons I can’t even clearly remember, but that quickly became irrelevant when life fell into a pot of reeking muck and shattered glass for four years. The contracts got lost along the way, but it’ll be fairly simple to get copies from WotF and Cicada. But the Speculon contract? From a dozen years ago? From a market currently closed?

Thinking the whole “Should I join?” thing would be moot if I didn’t have that third contract, I sent an email to Speculon’s editor, Tim Cooper, Monday night. In less than two hours, that kind man sent me a jpeg of the contract. The fucking twelve-year-old contract. UNBELIEVABLE.

With no external reason standing in my way, it’s now all on me.

Let’s begin with the last weekend’s Wiscon panel, SFWA: Is It Still Relevant?

The panel opened with reasons the panelists had opted to join SFWA—everything from “It was a huge professional milestone” to “My family has a tradition of union membership.” Then panelists spoke of the benefits of membership—GriefCom, the emergency medical fund, and the like—and SFWA services that benefit members and non-members—Writer Beware, work against Hydra, and so forth. They also spoke to the recent controversies centered on diversity and professional behavior. And somewhere near the end of all that, I asked if they’d like to hear the perspective of someone who is eligible to join but has chosen not to.

This is, to my best recollection, what I shared. If others want to chime in with something I’ve forgotten, please do!

When I looked at returning to publishing in 2011, even before I attended Viable Paradise, I discovered the industry had undergone huge changes. After looking at and researching options, I chose self-publishing as the right path for me. But when I turned to SFWA for information, I found nothing on the topic that wasn’t sorely outdated and inaccurate, focused almost exclusively on POD and brick-and-mortar distribution. (SFWA’s self-publishing page is better now, though I still find it exceedingly odd it begins with the same POD information and sales numbers from vanity publishers.) When I looked at SFWA’s other offerings, I didn’t see anything that would support my career path. I didn’t need a list of reputable agents. I wouldn’t need help enforcing a contract with a publisher. Participating in online forum discussions didn’t sound all that enjoyable, let alone beneficial.

And there was no way for self-publishers who’d never trade-published to even apply for membership—even though they were incredibly successful and held a great readership.

That still holds true today.

Readers are having conversations about creative works that “don’t count” under SFWA’s professional standards. And though I know many SFWA members who self-publish, the public face of the organization remains one that dismisses self-publishing completely, and is therefore ignorant to its methods, procedures, and standards.

I think the panelists’ reception was more positive overall, with some urging me to join SFWA to work toward the changes I’d like to see. On the other hand, another panelist said it was a good topic because self-publishing was “becoming less scammy.”

That comment tells me vanity publishing and self-publishing are still seen as the same thing by some writers, and those writers honestly have no idea what the scope of self-publishing truly is. Sigh.

On the third hand, a different panelist spoke with me later about self-publishing options.

I figure that small representation is fairly indicative of SFWA membership as a whole. Yes, many members are hybrids. Yes, many members still look askance at solely self-published writers, considering hybrids “professional” because they were pre-approved to self-publish by virtue of their trade-publishing credentials. And yes, many members wish the whole false controversy over whether self-publishing is a viable career option would at last accept to the evidence.

(Aside: Oddly enough and broadly speaking, I’ve seen a greater degree of self-publishing-has-cooties from newer trade-published writers than from established ones. My guess is this has much to do with what Judith Tarr discussed in Escaping Stockholm.)

Unofficial statements indicate SFWA is establishing eligibility standards for self-published writers (since reincorporation has been achieved—yay!), but no official information has ever been put forth. Instead, individual SFWA members have done their honest best to show up in the comments section of various blog posts in order to explain what the organization is doing. That’s a hit-and-miss strategy, and backwards from how it should be. A simple statement on the organization’s homepage would have gone a long way toward reaching out to self-publishers.* If and when eligibility changes are made, SFWA will have self-perpetuated obstacles to overcome if it hopes to expand its working membership.

Realize, too, that my perspective is one of a relative outsider. My judgment of SFWA is based on what SFWA shows the general public, but is tempered with a couple decades of friendships with professional writers. Self-publishers who have established a readership without any experience in trade publishing will see and know much less. An organization seeking to remain relevant, hoping to attract new members, should be extremely concerned with how it’s perceived.

So why should SFWA care about self-published writers?

First and foremost, professional writing is about readership. Self-published writers sell to thousands upon thousands of readers, and those readers are having conversations about self-published work. By maintaining an organizational structure of little interest to self-published professionals, SFWA reduces its own role in the industry and makes itself an outsider to those growing conversations. It cannot be THE organization of the genre if its membership represents only part of genre. Certainly accepting self-published writers as members is a primary and necessary step. But it won’t matter if those writers—some of whom gave up joining some time ago—see no reason to become members.

Second and just as important, SFWA members would benefit from hearing from professional writers who have never trade-published. That readership I mentioned above? Self-published writers gained their readership without bookstore placements, publisher catalogs, prior platform, or any trappings of the vaunted trade-publisher marketing plans. They’ve learned how to reach their readers and maintain strong connections.  They understand the ins and outs of working directly with major and minor distribution channels.  They’ve successfully navigated the business side of publishing without paying commissions to third parties. An increasing number of them make their living solely from their writing. These writers should be welcomed as major assets to SFWA’s membership roster.

Assets.  Not folks made to feel as if they’ve been grudgingly let in the back door.

If I want to approach an editor at Tor or DAW, I should follow the advice of those who have done so successfully. Yet many trade-published writers seek information on self-publishing from people who know trade-publishing, without understanding just how different the businesses are. As a result, they get outdated and inaccurate information that boils down to repetition of myths and those “somewhat less scammy” comments. I know this is still happening because I—the smallest of fries in self-publishing, an unknown who just happened to talk about the subject—was approached twice in my last 24 hours as Wiscon by trade-published writers wondering where to get accurate information on self-publishing.

I’m more than happy to help! But I shouldn’t be the first line of information for members of a professional writing organization looking to best serve its members. That’s craziness.

It will be a tough transition, no doubt. If nothing else, comments made by existing SFWA members about the acceptability and professionalism of self-publishing, and parallel comments made by self-published writers about trade publishing, would produce some awkward moments. But awkwardness isn’t fatal. Members and the organization will survive.

So am I going to join SFWA?

I realized during the Wiscon panel that I wanted to be persuaded. But at the moment, it boils down to, “Join so you can do some of the work the organization hasn’t managed yet, for a subject the organization still appears to disregard!” I don’t mean that as a total slight, either. I’ve sat on non-profit boards for four different agencies in the last twenty-five years. I know how it works. It’s merely an acknowledgement that I, as someone who has chosen self-publishing, will not be joining the organization as a member seeking its benefits, but as a somewhat-outsider planning to advocate for completely different benefits that will, oddly enough, benefit the existing membership. (And I do have IDEAS on that front…)

Comments? Opinions? Observations or musings?

*What would such a statement look like? How about, “SFWA respects all writers in the genre striving to professionally publish quality work, including those writers who choose to self-publish. We are in the process of developing equitable eligibility requirements for self-publishers so we may welcome them into our organization based on their work, not their publishing platform. We will announce the new guidelines as soon as possible.”  But perhaps there’s a legal reason SFWA couldn’t post something like that.  Then it could instead read, “SFWA respects all writers in the genre striving to professionally publish quality work, including those writers who choose to self-publish.  For legal reasons, we cannot at this time discuss changing our eligibility requirements.  Be assured we will address the issue as soon as the current situation is resolved.”

Also posted at These Certain Musings at LiveJournal. Comment here or there.

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