Monday, May 5, 2014

SFWA and Self-Published Writers

The Science-Fiction & Fantasy Writers of America (SFWA) is a professional organization for professional authors of science fiction, fantasy, and related genres. They offer professional services and courtesies to members of the organization including contract guidance, emergency medical assistance, and a community of peers with whom to touch base. It is also an organization where writers can meet peers and discuss issues they face among people who understand.
There is something wonderful about being able to sit down and talk shop with another writer. Writing is a loner’s profession. We mostly work alone when writing our stories, only bringing in others when we are done with our work. I think every writer tends to think they are alone in what they are doing. So it’s always a joy to chat with someone who understands the issues and problems we all face as writers. To share or receive advice on a given aspect of our craft.
At major conventions, they have a private suite where members can hobnob and relax among their peers. And what a list of peers! Heinlein, Asimov, Le Guin, McCaffrey, Norton, Bradbury, Clarke… That’s a helluva reading list right there! Put me in that room and I’d be a drooling fanboy running in circles, too excited to be coherent.
The SFWA administers the prestigious Nebula Award for science fiction writing—a peer-nominated award for the best writers of science fiction and fantasy. Just to be nominated is an award in itself: the best and brightest of the craft felt that your work was up to grade to be considered for that lofty position of being the top work of the genre.
There is also a promotional edge to being a member of the SFWA: the major science fiction conventions frequently choose guest authors from the SFWA membership roles. Appear at the top of the roster of guests at any convention, and people will go out and buy your book to find out who you are and what you do.
To say being a member of the SFWA makes you part of an exclusive club would be correct. You can not just write the words “SCIENCE FICTION” and then claim you are a writer of science fiction and thereby become a member. An author must have a proven track record that the author is, in fact, a professional author. Specifically, “…having at least one paid sale of a prose fiction book to a qualifying professional market for more than $2,000….
It’s those three words that are sticking point. By ‘qualifying professional market’ they mean a publisher. Another way of putting it, “If your writing was good enough that someone whose career depends on your book selling was willing to take a gamble and pay for your work, then that means you’re good enough to be a member of SFWA.”
That’s actually a pretty good meter by which to separate the wheat from the chaff.
It also says, “Self-published authors need not apply.”
That pretty much leaves me out in the cold.
Self-published authors have never sold to a “qualifying market.” Rather, they sell their work directly to the readers.
Don’t the readers count as a qualifying market? In the end, they are the ones who buy the books and pump money into the industry.
The self-publishing movement has been turning the publishing industry on its ear over the past few years. It’s grown so much, that independent authors now outnumber traditionally published authors in the top bestselling lists.
That’s a hard statistic to ignore.
Even the New York Times, which was famous/infamous for their disregard for self-published authors, finally had to relent and begin including self-published authors on their famous bestsellers list just a couple years ago.
There are self-published authors who have reached and passed the one million books sold threshold. That’s beyond being a bestseller, that’s a mega-hit. That’s the kind of writer most publishing houses are desperate to find, the next J.K. Rowling.
Isn’t that good enough to qualify for membership to the SFWA?
That’s the very question the leadership of the SFWA is asking.
Self-publishing today is not what it was twenty years ago. Heck, even as recently as five years ago, it wasn’t considered respectable. Turning to self-publishing was traditionally considered a failure; you’re writing was so bad, you had to pay someone to print it.
But in these past few years as the concept of the ebook finally caught on with the general public, the attitude about self-publishing has swung wildly from being a thing of shame to being a thing of pride.
It isn’t just the new writers coming to market that have driven this. Many new writers have proven they absolutely have the talent and the moxie to pull it off. What I believe is a critical shift in thinking is the increasing number of traditional authors who have walked away from traditional publishing deals and gone to self-publishing.
This is effecting the market.
So the SFWA is reviewing their rules on the criteria for a writer to gain full membership.
I think the current rule they have works as it is. I think it is reasonable to demand that a writer have earned a given about of income from a selected manuscript as a measure that they have indeed created a successful book that has been received well by the general public.
What I believe needs to change is their definition of a qualifying market. I think it should be expanded to include direct sales to the consumer (i.e. readers). Readers are the market of any book.
As far as setting the earnings as a criteria for gaining membership, I agree with that point. As I stated above, to be considered a professional as a writer—heck, in any industry—you have to prove that you truly are making an income as a writer. Otherwise, you are actually a hobbyist rather than a professional.
This is all part of the paradigm shift that the publishing industry is facing due to self-publishing suddenly gaining a hold in the market. Prior to all this, it was very rare for a new author to successfully break into the market by self-publishing. In just a few short years, this has now become more common. Professional writing groups need to address this issue for the same reason publishing companies could not ignore it.
So the SFWA is making this effort to address this new group of authors appearing on the scenes. I’m hoping they make correct and equitable changes to their rules to allow self-published writers such as myself the opportunity to be included among their ranks.