Some SFWA Inside Pool

For those Whatever readers who are also members of the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers’ Association of America (SFWA for short), SFWA member Derryl Murphy is doing an informal poll of members, asking: “What Should SFWA Do For Me?” (“Me” in this case being “you,” not me, John Scalzi (or me, Derryl Murphy)). If you’re a SFWA member and have a strong opinion, you should head over and give some constructive criticism.

I have to say quite honestly that I don’t really have any expectation that SFWA will ever do anything for me. I joined it pretty much exclusively because I liked the idea of joining the same club that Robert Heinlein and other favorite authors of mine were in. Three years in, I keep my membership for three reasons: One, the personal amusement of being in SFWA; two, to contribute to SFWA’s emergency legal and medical funds; three, to vote on the Nebulas. I don’t ever expect to benefit from SFWA’s legal or medical funds, and I find it deeply unlikely I’ll ever win a Nebula, much less be nominated for one, so I don’t see either of those working for me. But it still amuses me to be in SFWA.

Now, if I were King of SFWA, I would make a lot of changes, among them:

1. Put the Nebulas back on some sort of schedule that would help them approach relevance and usefulness for the careers of the authors nominated;

2. Institute a requirement that active membership status requires a book sale or publication in a pro-level magazine/online site at least once every three years; members who don’t meet this requirement are elevated to “emeritus” status which allows them to nominate and vote for Nebulas but not for officers or amendments/changes to SFWA bylaws (active status to be regained by once more meeting SFWA’s entrance requirements for membership);

3. Hire a full-time publicist whose job it is to promote the works of SFWA members and get them speaking gigs, store appearances and SFWA-related signings;

4. Hire another publist whose sole gig is to promote science fiction to young readers and work with publishers and authors to create free (or very low-cost) SF-related materials for schools and teachers;

5. Rebuild the Web site so it looks and acts like something designed this millennium, and works to promote both SFWA and its authors;

6. Align the philosophies and practices of SFWA to reflect the realities of writing professionally in the 21 century;

7. Build out the Nebula Weekend into an annual Worldcon-like event, to raise the status of the Nebulas and to build public awareness of SFWA (and also, to generate revenue to be placed into a general endowment)

8. Raise the cost of membership to cover new programs and to build an endowment for the emergency funds.

9. Require SFWA members to offer a certain amount of pro bono work to help the organization meet its educational and public outreach initiatives.

Basically, I’d make SFWA an actual professional organization rather than just a nice clubhouse for all us SF writers to belong to and play in.

However, back here in the real world, I don’t perceive much of an interest on the part of the SFWA membership to make the organization one that actually caters to the needs and interests of professional writers, and I’m not personally inclined to attempt to overcome the organization’s institutional inertia (not to mention actual resistance) against stuff mentioned above. Well fine; inasmuch as I’m a member primarily out of affectation, if people like the dysfunctional status quo, so be it.

I recognize that the standard response to complaining about organizations like SFWA is “if you want to change it, pitch in,” but the thing is, I don’t see why I always have to be the one to effect change. I’d like change to happen without me having to bust my ass; that’s what I pay my dues for, to have other people deal with this stuff. I realize this is terrribly selfish, of course. But there you have it. Unless SFWA really does want to make me king and I can institute all this unilaterally. In which case, Like Cincinnatus, I’ll be happy to leave my plow for a while. Let’s just say I don’t expect my ascension any time soon.

(SFWA members, a reminder — if you have anything to add about what you’d like SFWA to do for you, go to Derryl’s blog and put it there. If you’re just commenting about my megalomania and indolence, you can do it here. Thanks!)

22 Comments on “Some SFWA Inside Pool”

  1. Oh, and #5 – again, hell yes. In this day and age of ridiculously easy do-it-yourself blogs and website templates, the SFWA website is just excruciatingly painful to look at, and nearly impossible to navigate.

  2. *applauds*

    Honestly, speaking as both a fantasy and a romance writer, I’m much more likely to join RWA than SFWA. The impression I’ve gotten from several members is that it’s not much more than an Good Ole Boys club these days. What’s the benefit of joining, especially if you’re getting good insurance through your partner? I’m not sure I see much of one outside of voting in the Nebulas and being able to attend the members-only rooms at cons.

    I’d rather throw my $100(ish) towards RWA, which does support and benefit its members. It has its own issues for sure, but it seems to be much more open towards change and evolving than SFWA does.

    /opinionated rant ;)

  3. Tobias Buckell and I have had this conversation a couple of times through the years, at cons and whatnot, and all I can say is: I agree. Especially about the website. It’s like the last time they redesigned it, they upgraded from 1995 to 1998.

    I’m still looking forward to being a member but, well, if anyone were to lead a crusade for the changes you suggested, I’d probably join in a heartbeat.

  4. “If you want something changed, go do it yourself.” Oh, yes, I’ve fallen into that pit any number of times. But you’ve found the flaw in that reasoning already: overcoming inertia in SFWA. I discovered, in my brief sojourn on SFWA’s Board, that there’s not only inertia, but also active efforts against any sort of wholesale change such as you mention. Little changes, fine; cosmetic changes, great; if you want to modify the bylaws for housekeeping reasons, by all means, form a committee, review it, and do it. But if you want to institute big, Earth-shaking changes, like turning the expense of the Nebulas into actual publicity for the organization and science fiction, well, sorry, no, you’ll be fighting an uphill battle. Two years on that front line was enough for me; best wishes for you if you’re willing to essay the battle.

  5. The problem with saying “my professional organization should do the work, not me” (and I don’t disagree that in many ways SFWA isn’t a professional organization, though I’d hang around just on account of Griefcom and Writer’s Beware forever) is that, well, someone has to do it. And all the other members of the organization (including me) have the exact same issues you do: they have careers to run, they have other things to do. So it’s fine to say “someone else should do it,” except that there is no someone else, unless you want to offer a couple of random members full-time salaries to not write and get SFWA into shape instead. (Something I suspect would have other unintended consequences.)

    The notion of everyone doing pro bono educational outreach is a tricky one, and would have to be handled carefully. This is a discussion I’ve had before: SFWA members are very eager to say “let’s speak in schools for free!” not understanding that children’s writers are usually paid for school visits, and that this is part of how many of them make their living. But there are other forms of outreach too, of course.

  6. The pro bono material shouldn’t conflict with paid stuff to be sure. I’m personally thinking more along the lines of writing/contributing short works for anthologies and such, or participating in an online “mentor” project similar to the one the Speculative Literature Foundation does.

  7. Scalzi for SFWA President. You have my vote. If you don’t run, you have my write-in vote. ;)

  8. As one of the main proponents of what is being called inertia in SFWA, I have to say that changing the organization’s rules accomplishes nothing without an ongoing infrastructure to keep those rules in place. SFWA mainly acts as a platform for individuals to do volunteer work, hopefully to advance the causes of sf/f writers. From the outside it may appear substantial and even imposing, but, once one has a chance to see how it operates from the inside, it becomes apparent that the organization operates on a shoestring, both in terms of money and volunteers, and it’s only the heroic efforts of very few that keep it operating at all. So, while there’s nothing wrong with suggesting changes, you also have to come up with a way to implement them given that SFWA has very little infrastructure and hardly any institutional memory. Science fiction writers tend to look at SFWA and imagine things that are not there. I suggest that the first changes have to be in the underlying infrastructure of the organization, but, short of that, get out of the way and let the volunteers who are doing the work get on with it.

  9. Kate,

    Knowing Scalzi, it’s not difficult to guess what he has in mind by #6. For instance, it will probably involve giving away books for free over the internet, and building a fanbase by blogging.

  10. Michael Capbianco:

    I don’t find your statement particularly persusaive, Michael, for two reasons;

    One, I’m not at all convinced SFWA, as constituted, is doing what you suggest it is doing in a manner that is either notably competent or useful for its members;

    Two, I think its current mission is not particularly useful for folks who are currently actively and professionally writing science fiction.

    Which is to say that that it’s not doing all the things it should be doing, and the things it is doing it’s not doing particularly well. It’s not a question of “getting out of the way” of the people puttering about in SFWA; at the very least it’s about getting the puttering volunteers of SFWA puttering in same direction, and that direction being of use for active pro SF writers and (to a rather lesser extent) those writer emeriti who have use of the legal and medical funds.

    I do think some of the current administration is trying to change this; it seems to me Robin Wayne Bailey is a sensible and competent enough fellow. But it also seems he’s doing a lot of swimming upstream.

    As I said, my relationship with SFWA is one of affectation; if the membership is content to putter in a sort of brownian motion of organizational structure, let them putter. But my being content to let SFWA putter along in near-uselessness isn’t the same as saying I think SFWA is the organization it ought to be, if not for me than for other professional science fiction writers.

    Matt Arnold:

    I wouldn’t necessarily advocate giving away full books on the Internet. It been a useful tactic for some folks but probably wouldn’t be for everyone. I’d be more about long-term strategy for building out the brand of written science fiction.

  11. I’m in agreement with most of what you said, John, but I also like what Nonny had to add too. RWA does a helluva lot of stuff for its members, and it’s one of the premier associations for writers in the country. I’d love to see SFWA have things like RWA chapters, where already-published writers encourage and help new writers get their shit together.

  12. Non members can come and comment as well, although I’d prefer that they be working pros (including new pros).

    I’m linking to this in my own comments, so others can see what you’ve said.


  13. I recognize that the standard response to complaining about organizations like SFWA is “if you want to change it, pitch in,” but the thing is, I don’t see why I always have to be the one to effect change. I’d like change to happen without me having to bust my ass; that’s what I pay my dues for, to have other people deal with this stuff. I realize this is terrribly selfish, of course.

    No, it’s not selfish — this was once the proper expectation but is no longer the case. I just finished reading Lynne Truss’s excellent book Talk to the Hand: The Utter Bloody Rudeness of the World Today, or Six Good Reasons to Stay Home and Lock the Door. In the book, hermitage reason #2 is titled, “Why am I the one doing this?”

    To paraphrase it all, there was a time when paying dues for membership, or interacting in any other business-like transaction meant you were at the least met halfway in effort. Today, you’re expected to call automated switchboards, to wait for delivery windows (more convenient for the delivery person than you), or to stand in long lines when the entire process is still meant to be of mutual benefit to both sides. Today, the consumer (or in this case the member) who is paying for the service is pleasantly fed the illusion of “do it yourself” or in some cases “we give you choices” and “personal freedom!”

    No. It’s just the other party in the transaction not willing to meet you halfway. I don’t see your statement as selfish in any way. And I love your proposed changes. And I’m not in SFWA despite writing copious amounts of SF.

    Best regards,

  14. I think all of your ideas make enormous sense.

    Why not choose one of them as your own and volunteer to do something about it? I know, you’re very busy, but…

  15. The website… yes. Hire me, hire someone else, hire ANYONE who does websites for a living. Using the organization’s internal resources is fine up to a point. Designing the public face of a professional organization is, perhaps, that point.

    In fact, with the exception of #6 (which is too vague to get a pass), this is the most sensible list of improvements I’ve seen.

  16. Stephanie – as far as a website, well, frankly – with free online resources like Blogger and WordPress, they don’t even need to PAY for a decent website, just get any ten year old in the family to put something together. ANYTHING would look better and be more navigationally friendly than what exists presently, ya know?

  17. Oh, this all sounds so familiar (especially the “why should it have to be me.”) And being so familiar it sounds very much doomed to failure.

    On the other hand, SFWA does have a permanent structure and staff. That should mean that it finds it easier to actually get something done than in WSFS.

    There are also alternatives. If people really want SFWA to do more for them, and they really don’t want to do the work themselves, then they have the option of paying more in dues and getting someone to do the work for them.

    When it comes down to it though, any membership organization needs widespread support for what it does. I have a sneaking suspicion that those in charge, whoever they might be, will always be nervous of doing anything because action, any action, is always viewed with suspicion. And that’s way more so these days when a storm of online protest can be generated in hours.

    Fiona – have you read “Bowling Alone”?

  18. Does the SFWA have a full-time, paid, executive director and at least minimal staff? If not, it would seem to me that would be the place to start. Take a look at the structure of state level medical and bar associations for examples of how this sort of structure can work (or fail to work) for the overall benefit of the members as a class as well as members as individuals.

    Of course, change is painful and somebody has to be willing to inflict the pain, and take the reciprocal pain. After all, “It’s for your own good. . . .”

  19. 2. Institute a requirement that active membership status requires a book sale or publication in a pro-level magazine/online site at least once every three years;

    I had always understood that requalification rules were never implimented because they weren’t needed. With a very few exceptions, people who weren’t selling professionally tended to drop out on their own, partly for the pleasure of saying they quit the organization.

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