A Gut Check Moment for SFWA
(Note: this is a long rant about SFWA. If you don’t care about SFWA, you can skip it. If you do care, get a snack.)
A question from the peanut gallery:
Since you’re not running for SFWA president, do you mind sharing your thoughts about that race this year?
Not at all. Basically, this is the year SFWA decides whether it has a future or not.
(For those of you who don’t know, SFWA is the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America; I’m a member and last year I ran a write-in campaign for the president’s seat. I lost.)
There are two people running for SFWA President this year: Russell Davis, SFWA’s current Western Regional Director, and Andrew Burt, who is the current vice-president. Davis has posted his qualifications and platform here, and I think both are more than satisfactory; Davis has worked at nearly every level of SF/F publishing as a writer and editor, which gives him needed insight into the industry, and his platform is eminently sensible and says a number of the things I think are right about SFWA, particularly the part about it needing to get its own house in order on a nuts-and-bolts level. He’ll be getting my vote this year.
As for Andrew Burt, I think he would be a fine president too, as long as what SFWA members want to do is publicly and enthusiastically cut the organization’s throat.
Some of this estimation, you can be assured, is personal, and it does me no good to pretend it’s not, so take that for what it is. I’ve had the misfortune of dealing with Burt in one form or another for a few years now in his capacity as a SFWA official or functionary; in my opinion it might be possible to find a better example of the Dunning-Kruger effect, but if there is one you’d better hope they don’t work with anything critical to the public, like nuclear power or immunizations. The best I can say about Burt is that he falls into the “means well” category of unintentional menace, although in my experience the petulance and pettiness he indulges in after people are inexplicably unappreciative of his latest well-intentioned disaster don’t recommend him to sympathy; he’s the sort of person who is under the impression that passive-aggressive lashing out can be hidden or mitigated with a smiley-face emoticon at the end of a sentence.
However, independent of my personal feelings about the man, SFWAns electing Burt as president would still be a bloodletting event for the organization. Why? Because of what Burt brings to the table, and how it all combines for disaster. To wit:
1. Burt’s publishing record, or lack thereof. By his own admission, in Burt’s writing career, which goes back into the last century, he’s produced five short stories that would be SFWA qualifying. His one novel was self-published (publisher: Techsoft. CEO of Techsoft: Andrew Burt) and has more Amazon reviews (seven) than sales registered by BookScan (five). In contrast, Russell Davis has published close to twenty novels and was editor of two book lines at Five Star Publishing, including their SF/F line; his book sales figures dwarf Burt’s by a few orders of magnitude. Davis wrote science fiction for a living; Burt writes science fiction, it seems, largely as an affectation.
Burt would make a virtue of necessity by suggesting he’s not running on his publishing record, because, after all, why would one’s career as a writer be at all relevant to someone who’s running to be president of a major writer’s organization? But of course it does matter, and it should matter. Active professional experience matters to other creative organizations: The president of the Screen Actor’s Guild is not a guy who qualified on a commercial a decade ago and has then spent the intervening time in community theater; the president of the Writers Guild of America (West) isn’t a guy who squeaked into the Guild on a technicality and has since mostly just given workshops at the Learning Annex. And it’s certainly mattered to SFWA in the past: unless my research is wildly off, all of the past presidents of SFWA save one had published novels prior to their presidential tenure; the one exception had his published while he was president and was a multiple Nebula nominee for his short stories before that.
And it matters (or damn well should) to other SFWAns, the ones who have sold books and more than a bare handful of qualifying short stories, to have someone heading their organization who understands the concerns of actual, working writers because they themselves are (or have been) a working writer. Why would you, as a writer, trust someone who has never signed a book contract with a science fiction publisher to engage in fruitful discussion with science fiction publishers about your professional concerns as a writer? Why would you, as a writer, trust someone who has barely any experience as a writer to move the organization in a direction that is relevant to your professional career? Equally importantly, if you were a brand-spanking-new science fiction writer, with your very first book contract in hand, why on earth would you join a professional writer’s organization whose president has less personal experience with book contracts than you do?
Without an actual writing career to recommend him, Burt needs to let his previous experience as an officer of SFWA recommend him for advancement. And this is where we run into an interesting snag:
2. Andrew Burt’s Disastrous Tenure as SFWA Vice President. Consider, if you will, that the major policy achievement of the current Capobianco administration has been the adoption of a series of recommendations on SFWA’s role on copyright, as provided by an exploratory committee (disclosure: I chaired this committee). The proximate cause of the creation of this committee? Andrew Burt, acting for SFWA, munging a DMCA takedown notice and as a result carelessly violating the copyright of a SFWA member, who, as it happened, had one of the most popular blogs on the Internet and a willingness to use it. Both of these caused a major embarrassment for SFWA, the dissolution of the ePiracy committee of which Burt was the head, and a top-to-bottom review of how SFWA handles helping its members police their copyrights.
When the exploratory committee recommended the creation of a new committee to handle copyright complaints, did Burt wisely avoid seeking a seat on this committee and, because he was the central player in the fracas, recuse himself from any board votes on the exploratory recommendations? Indeed not: Burt lobbied to have himself installed as chair of the new copyright committee, and as a board member (and in my opinion, in a clear and obvious conflict of interest) voted for himself as that chair, and regrettably succeeded at both. This naturally resulted in white-hot anger from a number of prominent SFWAns, yet another major public embarrassment for the organization, and such a backlash from inside SFWA that Burt was obliged to step down from his position as chair of the copyright committee.
Which is to say that to a very large extent, SFWA’s entire last year has been spent dealing with the problems that Andrew Burt, during his tenure as SFWA vice president, has personally created. To be sure, he had help for at least part of it (he couldn’t have been elected onto the newly-formed copyright committee on his board vote alone), but at the end of the day, his bad actions were the ones that damaged public perception of SFWA, tore at the unity of the organization, and caused it to invest significant time and resources repairing the wounds Burt inflicted with his initial lack of care, and his subsequent, entirely self-serving drive to install himself into a chairmanship he had no business seeking.
The fact Burt wants to be president of SFWA after jamming the organization into a wall twice in the last year suggests to my mind either an Aspergian lack of cluefulness, or a grim, committed drive to prove that the Peter Principle is wrong, and that, indeed, one can rise beyond one’s level of incompetence, perchance to explore heretofore unknown, virgin realms of incompetence none have ever seen before. Alas toward the latter, SFWA would be chained to him and dragged along as he frisked about these new lands.
Burt’s lack of writing career and penchant for publicly immolating himself and SFWA have not gone unnoticed, which presents a third issue:
3. Andrew Burt’s Reputation in the Professional SF/F Community. Simply put: It’s bad.
So bad that some of the most successful current science fiction writers have his e-mail address in a killfile.
So bad that a publisher whose company brought out dozens of books last year, including ones from Hugo, Nebula and Campbell Award-winning authors, said this of him to me, and I quote: “if approached by him for anything, my response would be that he not email me for any reason and that I’d consider any further emails to be harassment.”
So bad that one of the first e-mails to me after Burt declared he was running for SFWA president was from someone who wondered how many SFWAns would resign from the organization if he were elected. Not if SFWAns would resign, mind you, but how many. That some number would resign was taken as a given.
Now, let’s think about this for a minute. If Burt’s reputation is so bad that there are key SF/F professionals who go out of their way to avoid contact with him, what is that going to mean for SFWA if he becomes president? SFWA’s president is SFWA’s public face, and this case, SFWA’s public face will find doors being slammed in it. Repeatedly. With gusto. If SFWAns think this is something that can be gotten around, they need to think again: Ultimately, everything SFWA does goes through its president; it rots from the head. If people in the professional SF/F community can’t or won’t work with SFWA’s president, they can’t or won’t work with SFWA. If SFWA can’t help its members because key people in the SF/F professional community can’t or won’t work with it, what purpose does SFWA serve?
In an era of multinational corporations running the major SF/F imprints, SFWA can’t hope to slug it out with publishers toe-to-toe; some of these companies probably have more lawyers than SFWA has members. Personal contact and relationships need to be there if SFWA wants to be heard and to be effective for its members. Personal contact and relationships are precisely what Burt doesn’t have — and what, thanks to his public reputation, particularly in the last year, it seems unlikely he will develop at this point. If Burt is elected, it will be the year Science Fiction Doesn’t Return SFWA’s Calls. Not exactly the path for organizational effectiveness, or for rehabilitating the organization’s image after an especially bad year.
And that, my friends, is a real problem. Whether SFWA wants to admit it to itself or not, thanks to the massive public debacles of the last year, its reputation is in the dirt, and not just with people already active in the field. I go to a fair number of science fiction conventions, you know; I’ve met a lot of the neo-pros and the under-30 writers who are (or should be) SWFA’s natural new membership. They see SFWA as either useless, or actively hostile to them. The events of the last year didn’t help, because among other things, who do you think these neo-pros look up to? People like Cory Doctorow, Charles Stross or Tobias Buckell (who SFWA has already lost, in no small part because of the events of the last year)? Or Andrew Burt?
Look: SFWA is in the hole, people. Not just in a general sense, but to the people who SFWA needs if it wants to survive: New writers. How do we get out of the hole? Here’s a hint: it’s not by rewarding through election as our president the guy who dug the hole and then walked SFWA over to the edge and pushed it in. Think about what that would say about the organization. Think about what it says to the people thinking of joining.
Now, I can’t blame Andrew Burt for running for SFWA president, since in my opinion he’s pretty clearly shown he’s absolutely and utterly incapable of recognizing his own incompetence, or the damage he’s done to the organization; really, what would have surprised me is if he hadn’t run. However, I can and will blame my fellow SFWAns if the man is actually elected president. Because I assume, hope and pray they are not as incompetent as he.
But if they do elect him president, then what the majority of SFWAns will have said (or, in any event, what the majority of the chunk of SFWAns who could be roused to vote will have said) is that SFWA really isn’t an organization that’s focused on the needs of active and working writers. Rather, it’s a nice little club where fringe types can marinate and pretend they matter to science fiction, and that they are actually useful to active science fiction writers, even if they don’t and aren’t. And you know what, that’s fine, but I don’t actually need to be in that club. I could find me some hangers-on on my own, without paying the $70 annual fee, and without making one of them president of the club. I’m pretty sure I’m not alone in this opinion.
And that’s what will spell the end of SFWA: the organization reaching a point where active, working writers look around, see who’s running the place and decide that it’s just not worth the time or money, and then they just go. SFWA doesn’t just lose those writers, you know. They also lose the writers they influence. Have that happen long enough, the clubhouse will empty right out.
Not to worry, though. Andrew Burt or someone like him will be there to turn off the lights. That much, he can handle.
Update, 8pm, 2/20/08: For those of you interested, Andrew Burt’s SFWA presidential platform. You’ll note his estimation of his competence and personal skills are at a substantial variance to my own estimation of the same.