Michael Capobianco’s SFWA Presidential Platform

Yesterday I announced I was a write-in candidate for SFWA president and presented my platform here; the fellow who is actually on the ballot, Michael Capobianco, dropped his platform into the comment thread for folks to see as well. I thought it might get lost there so I’ve bumped it up to its own entry. You’ll find it behind the cut. If you’re planning to vote in the SFWA election, please read both so you know what you’re getting.

If you have comments or questions about the platform, feel free to leave them in the comment thread; I’m sure Mr. Capobianco will be happy to answer them. Remember that in his time here he is my guest and I would be, well, disappointed if you took his participation here as an invitation to snark.

Michael Capobianco’s SFWA Presidential Platform

Yes, I’m running for President again. For the newcomers among us, I’ve been the Authors Coalition liaison for going on thirteen years and have served on a number of other committees for a decade or more. I have been Vice President, Treasurer, and President of SFWA. In short, I have quite a bit of experience with this organization, and I believe that I understand how best to move it forward. I’ve been kibitzing for a long, long time now, and anyone who reads on sff.net probably has a pretty good idea of how I feel about SFWA.

When I was President from 1996-1998, I accomplished quite a bit. I created the position of Executive Director and hired SFWA’s first full time employee, my Board and I re-wrote the By-laws, and I revamped the Officers’ Guidelines and Grand Calendar. Under my leadership, we got Star Trek authors compensation for books that were being exported, fought against the Star Wars flat fee contract, and put Uwe Luserke, the notorious German “agent,” out of business. Times have changed and there are many new threats to members. Here’s what I plan to do if I’m elected:

I’ll concentrate on authors’ rights and getting authors a place at the table as publishers and the Internet giants discuss the future of our digital rights. We’ve been systematically excluded while Google and Amazon plunge merrily ahead, scanning and displaying large portions of our works whether they have the right to do so or not. I understand that members have divergent views on copyright, but the bottom line is that the individual author should have the ultimate say over how his or her work is used. This is a matter that concerns me both generally and individually, and I will be pursuing it vigorously. As a beginning, I would like to set up a conference at which authors on both sides of the issue try to work out points of agreement.

I’ll work to make SFWA functions more automated. This includes making it easier for officers and selected volunteers to update parts of the website without having to bother the webstaff. I hope that we can do this with the Forum, Online Directory, and NAR, as well as updating the Officers’ Guidelines and the like. I’d like to do both a private and public SFWA blog, to increase real-time communication with the members and readers, in addition to maintaining an ongoing presence on sff.net.

I’ll advocate for an ongoing program in which SFWA dedicates 2% of the General Fund per year for infrastructure improvements, and 3% per year to special projects. The Fund is large, and we can afford to tap it in small amounts. Other than this, we should live within our budget. The Authors Coalition money we receive every year is not going to dry up, but it should be used for author advocacy, not day-to-day expenses. I see several areas where we might be able to save some money, especially with the Forum, but I’ll tread carefully and reach a consensus before doing anything drastic.

One of our biggest problems is that the Board exists in an information vacuum. Attempts to collect information such as contracts or royalty statements from members have largely been unsuccessful. I propose that, as an experiment, SFWA pay a small bounty to any member who sends a copy of a current contract for analysis by the Contract Committee, somewhat less if the contract has been redacted. Maybe then we can return to the kind of contract analysis that was favored by Damon Knight as one of the main goals of the organization.

I believe that SFWA should follow up on its Orphan Copyright work and continue efforts to make it easy for potential publishers to find members in order to buy rights. We began this effort ten years ago with the Authors Registry, but, the Registry, which is run by Authors Guild, has stalled. If it can’t be brought into the present via online registration and information updating, SFWA may have to create and maintain its own registry.

In order to bring SFWA up to speed, I don’t believe we need to make any immediate changes to the By-laws or Award Rules. I will reconstitute the By-laws Committee with an eye towards a future restructuring of the organization in which the employee(s) are more firmly integrated, but I don’t see that happening any time soon. I do believe that we need a written Policies and Procedures Manual for the Executive Director position, and a long overdue rewrite of the Officers’ Guidelines, and I will do my best to get that done during the next year. I will also fully implement the Worker Relation Guidelines (http://sfwa.org/private/offguide/EmployerRelations.html) that create a procedure for the President and Board to handle disputes that may arise with employees.

If you elect me, I promise I will again give the organization my best efforts.

15 Comments on “Michael Capobianco’s SFWA Presidential Platform”

  1. Okay, I’ll start. I’m a member of SFWA and have “Active” status.

    (1) Capo, it seems to me that many of the planks in John’s platform would require a lot work on the By-laws; technical, “additive” amendments at the very least. You’re on record as believing that even tinkering with the By-laws is generally a bad idea, and your platform reflects that. Can you talk a little more about that? Do you think John’s proposing to break some eggs to make an omelette this morning while you, with your new By-laws Committee, would be saving up eggs ’til there’s enough to make a soufflé next week? (I haven’t had breakfast yet.)

    (2) Some of the items on your platform seem to actually dovetail nicely with John’s, with the differences being matters of degree more than of kind. I’m thinking here specifically of your proposed implementation of a content management system that would allow officers to update SFWA’s website. Why stop there? You’re willing to spend money from SFWA’s “large” General Fund for special projects. How about bidding out a wholesale redesign of the website that addresses content management, aesthetics, usability, communications, security, etc?

  2. Honestly, at this point, you boys need to take this inside. As fascinating as it is for me to watch and provide pointless distractions, this is now an internal issue.

    John, I don’t know that you question or oppose his platform. It seems your objection was more toward having no choice and what his current qualifications in terms of being a writer in the game.

    C’mon everyone, group hug.

  3. It’s not that. I’m actually fascinated by them, as evidenced by my participation in the announcement thread. BUT, I do recognize this is a SFWA internal issue. The announcement was appropriate since you can see how many people had tossed their ballots and it got the word out. The discussion and debate should happen internally without nobs like me making uninformed comments while not currently having a stake in the game.

    By all means, if Michael wants to debate and discuss here, GREAT. But I would completely understand if he didn’t and wouldn’t see that as a mark against his candidacy.

  4. I’m copying my answers to Christopher’s question here from sff.net, with a few minor changes.

    First of all, a By-laws vote is not as onerous as everyone remembers, since the last By-laws vote made it easier to get the required number of yes votes. That said, my feeling is that By-laws votes rile up the membership to no good purpose, and we’ve seen that a few of them in a row can be problematic, burning members out.

    We’ve spent much too much time tinkering with the structure of the organization and awards to the detriment of the real work. There’s a sense that the organization has to be fixed before it can go out into the real world to effect change. I was guilty of this, perhaps more than most, and I still think that shoring up the infrastructure and institutional memory are vitally important. But I’ve got enough perspective to see that By-laws amendments and other attempted fixes haven’t had the desired effects; more often than not they only prompt another round of attempts to fix the unintended consequences of the earlier fixes, meanwhile distracting everyone from the real business at hand.

    Okay, going through John’s platform, I see no By-laws problems in items 1-3. In 4, he says he’ll hire “a full-time and salaried Director of Speculative Fiction Evangelism,” and, although this is within his By-laws prerogative, I do wonder where he intends to get the money. Most likely this is just a political flourish, but it does suggest that he’s not thinking things through. 6 would need many changes to the Awards Rules, but this wouldn’t require a By-laws vote. Changing the time of the Nebula Awards Banquet, however, might, and some of what he proposes in 7 could also require some By-laws tinkering, but might be accomplished within the current By-laws.

    Ironically, his points 8 and 9 are things we did aggressively in the past, but the efforts ran out of steam over the years.

    In his blog somewhere it was indicated that he wanted to grant Affiliate members some of the privileges of Active membership, and this would indeed require a By-laws amendment.

    Question (2):

    The website now is run by many volunteers, and it has grown from the roots that Melisa Michaels planted back in the nineties, largely staying within the format she devised. I think some of the reason the website looks as it does now is because of loyalty to Melisa’s vision, and the ideas that it should be viewable from even the most primitive computers and that content is more important than appearance. The webstaff is understandably touchy about a wholesale revamp. I don’t know enough about web design to know if adding a snazzy redesign can be done and still maintain the essential volunteer nature of the website, but if it can, I would be all for it.

    I think a good compromise is to spend some money setting up a spiffy public face for the Nebula Awards and Andre Norton Awards, which is where we would focus our attempts to promote the genre. This would promote the anthologies, the authors, the weekend, etc, as a beginning, but could branch out in all sorts of ways. I would be very much in favor of spending some special project money for the design and initial development of the website. Obviously, it would also be the place where we link to members’ webpages, writing excerpts, etc.


  5. I’m fascinated by all this, as a huge SF fan. I’ve even tried to write a few times, but haven’t gotten off the ground, so I have no meaningful contributions to the actual topic. Where I can contribute, though, is here:

    “The webstaff is understandably touchy about a wholesale revamp. I don’t know enough about web design to know if adding a snazzy redesign can be done and still maintain the essential volunteer nature of the website, but if it can, I would be all for it.”

    I write web applications for a living as a consultant. If you design the site to modern XHTML spec with coherent CSS style sheets, you get the best of both worlds – something that looks nice in modern browsers that also degrades gracefully all the way back to lynx (a terminal based text-only browser). Other tip: only use Javascript for candy: if it is mandatory for functionality, you’re excluding someone and not getting indexed by search engines. And for dog’s sake, don’t do a splash screen.

    OK, web-purist off-topic rant over.

  6. As fishbane indicated, it is entirely possible to proceed with a wholesale upgrade to the website while maintaining the volunteer nature. In fact, the use of a decent content management system would make it possible for virtually any authorized person to update the content, not just those with HTML skills. When you get right down to it, that’s the whole point of a CMS: providing (relatively) untrained staff with a framework onto which they can write stuff.

    Web designers who care about standards, accessibility, and a philosophy known as progressive enhancement will agree with you that sites should be viewable from even the most primitive computers and that content is more important than appearance — but they’ll make a site that looks good on a normal computer while degrading gracefully in Lynx, on mobile phones, or when read aloud by a screen reader for the blind. In a nutshell, that’s the essence of modern web design.

  7. Thanks for the comments about the website design. It sounds as if it’s something that SFWA can, and should do. How difficult would it be to bring over the old content?

  8. 1. Were 8 & 9 successful during your previous term?

    2. Initiatives take money. Would there be any value in structuring membership fees based on writing income? Would the membership allow that?

    3. How else might there be ways to generate money to allow for these initiatives?

    4. What are your current writing projects?

  9. How difficult would it be to bring over the old content?

    The more consistent it is, the more it can be automated. I’m not seeing much consistency in the stuff I’m looking at, though — everything from XHTML 1.0 on the home page (with tables and fonts, argh) to HTML 2.0 in deeper levels. A lot depends on the CMS chosen, but I’m guessing there would be a lot of manual cleanup involved.

  10. “How difficult would it be to bring over the old content?”

    I think you’re going to have to take an incremental approach. As Stephanie indicated, it isn’t very consistent, and given that I don’t think you have the budget for a “surge” that would result in a flip-the-switch redeployment, it is probably better to think of it as a transition.

    Another reason to think of it that way is that often, when moving from a hand-managed site to a CMS is that questions raised by the CMS mode of operation interrogate business processes, and the process of simply asking those questions often leads to changes in the processes themselves. This is why I consider myself not just a software engineer, but also a business analyst – I’ve had to become one, and not because I like it.

    Another tip – keep it simple. One fashionable trend currently is to use a Wiki – the upside is that it is simple and easy; the syntax is a little silly, but simple, and incremental change is trivial as you port over content. Wikis don’t have to be wide-open, like Wikipedia – you can limit it to authorized users. The downside (?) is that it doesn’t impose a lot of structure, like more traditional CMSes, so top-down control is a human, rather than technical, issue.

  11. John and I have agreed to conduct a Q&A session on a neutral website that is being set up as we speak. He’ll post the URL and rules soon. So I’ll just briefly answer your questions here.

    1. Were 8 & 9 successful during your previous term?

    Yes. The Legal and Emergency Medical Fund more than quadrupled in size. My board also voted to contribute all proceeds from our anthologies to the EMF and 25% on our Authors Coalition income to the LF. We still do EMF auctions at Worldcons and some other cons, so the effort is still ongoing. In general, the two funds are doing pretty well, and that’s one of the reasons the fund-raising efforts have slacked a bit.

    2. Initiatives take money. Would there be any value in structuring membership fees based on writing income? Would the membership allow that?

    Some the most famous sf writers are cheapskates, and I strongly doubt they’d stay if we demanded more money. Also, many members have purchased a Lifetime Membership that prevents us from charging them additional dues.

    3. How else might there be ways to generate money to allow for these initiatives?

    Realistically, I think SFWA has to live within its budget. I don’t see any quick-fix ways to generate more money. The challenge is to manage the income that we currently have.

    4. What are your current writing projects?

    After more than five years toiling in the salt mines of the USPS, I’m retired and working on an over-the-top YA novel.

    5. Why do you want to be SFWA president?

    Because I can and will do the job and I believe that SFWA is a very worthy cause.

  12. Oh, yeah. Also, to answer question one part two, we had an active campaign in which editors at several sf magazines sent us the names and addresses of new writers so we could invite them to join. Getting that information about new writers is now considerably easier to obtain through the Internet, and I want to restart that effort.

  13. You probably already know this, but one good place to look for info about new writers is the Campbell-eligible authors site. (And its predecessor, which is now an archive site for the years 1997 through 2004.)

    There are certainly neopro authors who don’t know about the Campbell site yet, but it might be a good place to start.

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