Tuesday, December 9, 2014

SFWA and Self-published Writers, Revisited

The title is "Nobody" for a reason…
Well, the Science Fiction & Fantasy Writers of America (SFWA) has spoken and the answer is (for now):“Self-published writers need not apply.”
The relevant clause is at the very end of the membership requirements page, under the section on qualifying new venues, number four on the list:

“4. Is not self-publication…”

If you’re an independent writer with dreams of being nominated for a Nebula award, you can scratch that one off your list. It ain’t gonna happen. (For now…)
Before anyone cries “Boo! Hiss!” and wants to say nasty things about the SFWA, I suggest you take a deep breath—maybe two—and calm down before posting something stupid.
SFWA is a private organization and they brought the matter before their membership in accordance to their bylaws. It was brought to a vote, and the motion failed.
Am I disappointed?
Am I surprised?
No, not really.
Most organizations tend to be conservative in the way they are managed. As a result, radical changes usually take a while to make their way into these organizations. This isn’t the end of the matter. It simply means there wasn’t enough of a compelling reason to change their current bylaws to admit independent writers into their ranks.
It is highly possible they may not have been able to define the proper terms necessary for self-published writers to prove their qualifications for membership. One of the requirements for membership is for a writer to prove they have generated $XXXX in income from a Qualified Professional Market. What sort of documentation of proof should be required from an independent writer? There are so many retail outlets that independent writers use to sell their books, it makes documentation more difficult to compile. Yes, we get sales reports on a monthly basis from our vendors. It’s one thing to list these numbers in a spreadsheet, entirely another thing to independently verify those numbers. Such verification can be manpower intensive.
The bylaw changes were put into effect on 2014-05-15, two weeks after my earlier post on this matter. I’m a little behind updating on this matter, but I’ve been busy this year.
Respect the vote. That is fundamental in any democratic process. If you don’t respect the vote and want to dig in your heels and resist the will of the people, then you pretty much shut down and make a mockery of the democratic process.
Why even concern myself with the issue? If one is doing well as an independent writer, why be concerned about whether or not one can join a writers’ organization? If you have enough fans buying your book, will membership really make a difference in your life? Probably not. But it could help.
Membership in professional organizations can be important for writers. Many fan conventions line up their guests by perusing through the membership lists of professional writing organizations such as the SFWA. Unless they are generating a lot of buzz in the news, most independent writers won’t get this kind of public recognition.
Just being officially nominated for an award can make a huge difference in the career of a writer. It brings a boost in book sales (income!), buzz and attention, plus other business opportunities for that writer.
Certainly not least, it doesn’t hurt to be recognized as an equal among one’s writing colleagues.
So, while the SFWA decision may be disappointing, life moves on. They will at some point address the matter again and take a second vote. And a third, and so on. Once they can come up with a set of criteria for accepting self-published writers that is acceptable to their membership, the measure will pass.
Don’t get your undies in a bunch over it not happening this time around. Keep in mind, the fact that they are addressing this issue does show that there is a contingent recognizing that self-published writers should not be ignored.
The Hugo Awards do accept nominations for self-published writers. So instead of wasting energy whining at the SFWA about their decision, put your energy into nominating independent writers you enjoyed reading for the Hugo Awards.
For now, I say to independent writers such as myself, “Be patient and keep writing. Prove yourself with your work.”

Matthew Johnson's comment below did remind me about one important factor that I did not address last night: the SFWA is extremely strict about what publishers appear in the "Qualified Markets" list. The moment a publishing company begins to deal with writers in an unfair fashion, that company is suspended or banned from their qualified market list. Blacklisted, basically.

Consider carefully that every self-publishing author is an individual "market" unto themselves, where do you draw the line? Anyone who can type and having access to the internet can crank out just about anything and call it a "book." (Phronk, at some point I need to get a copy autographed!) What editorial standards do they set? Consider well James Joyce's Ulysses, which was self-published and to this day generates a great deal of controversy in regards to its structure and editing.

The right balance has to be struck so that qualified, independent writers can meet those criteria for membership. Set the bar too high, and many should-be-qualified writers become excluded, potentially building enmity against the organization among the new class of writers. Set the bar too low, and many people who just aren't qualified to be considered professional writers get in and dilute the brand quality of the SFWA. Personally, I'm of the opinion that the bar should be set more on the high side than the low. The independent writers I know and interact with work very hard at their craft and maintaining a high level of quality in the work the produce. To be invited to the SFWA should be a reward for that dedication and hard work. It should not be a matter of fluffing up the membership numbers.

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