Why SFWA Should (IMO) Admit Self-Published Writers, and Some Thoughts about the Process

Photo of Cat Rambo with Dark Vader and stormtrooper

Preparing to take on the challenges ahead.

SFWA, at its usual slow lumbering pace, is heading towards answering the question of whether or not the organization should allow self-publishing as a way to qualify for membership. For those unfamiliar with the current requirements, it involves sales to traditional publishing markets: three stories or a single novel advance at a specified rate (current 6 cents per word for stories and a $2000 advance for a novel, from a market listed as a SFWA qualifying market).

Do I believe results with self-publishing should qualify someone for SFWA? Yes, absolutely. To me the only question is how to define those results in a way that makes them comparable with the existing criteria.

The Economics of Being an Author

I believe that increasingly a 100% traditional publishing model is not as economically rewarding for most authors as one which combines it with (or may even be restricted to) self-publishing. Some authors will be able to make that approach pay, but the jury’s still out as to which way that trend will go in the future. However, I believe that SFWA members who follow a path restricted to traditional means will at some point be the minority — if they’re not already. Certainly the results of the poll we took show a lot of SFWA members (43% of responding Active members, 38% of Associates) are pursuing one form or another of self-publishing.

Sometimes people mention the self-publishing “bubble,” with the implication that all this newfangled stuff like e-readers is just a fad. I don’t agree. The experience of reading is undergoing a sea change. While physical books aren’t going away anytime soon, e-books are here to stay.

Are the Traditional Gatekeepers That Crucial?

Some of the arguments I’ve seen focus on the importance of the traditional gatekeepers (editors, publishers, and (to a lesser degree) agents) to the qualifying process. The argument falls along the lines that those gatekeepers are necessary because their economic investment in the text is the most acceptable way to certify quality. This argument also tends to be made primarily by editors and publishers.

While it’s true that self-publishing makes the author the sole and obviously biased person to answer the question whether something’s worthy of publication, luckily there are other ways to determine whether or not something is “professional-level” or not: an economic-based criteria that is already in the qualification rules.

To rely entirely on economic criteria is a more than adequate answer. SFWA already has them in place with the definition of minimum advance and per-word dollar amounts. Beyond that, what a publisher deems “good enough to be published” boils down to economic concerns as well: it means that the publisher believes it will make them enough money that an initial financial investment is worthwhile.

I should point out that, beyond the initial investment of time and creative energy, the self-published writer often — usually, in fact — invests financially in their books, in the form of hiring editing and proofing services, cover art, book design, audio production, advertising, etc. This should not be overlooked when considering the “average” self-published writer, who is very much a professional.

But in any case, it’s really the sales that matter. Whether or not readers want to spend money on the words. Asking self-published writers to prove sales comparable to the existing figures is reasonable as well as a simple and intuitive algorithm: the amount of money a traditional sale must make in order to qualify should equal the amount a self-published piece must make.

How we get people to prove sales is an important question. That and the actual criteria are the two most important decisions SFWA will be making.

Answering Objections:

In answer to some of the various objections I’ve seen.

SFWA shouldn’t do this because it will result in public feuds between traditionalists and the self-published.

Well, yes and no. A few diehards and zealots on either side will lock horns. As happens, and has happened on a regular basis since SFWA’s earliest days, there will come Heated Discussions. I believe this is par for this particular course, which is a lumpy, untended one full of straw men trying to play through.

But that group will be fairly small although loudly vocal. Most of us (and I say us because this is the camp I fall into) realize a number of things:

  • As professional writers who want to make a living at writing, we need to know what options we have with self-publishing.
  • There is a growing interest in self-publishing among us, as well as a rising number already trying it.
  • It is an economically viable way of generating income.

I have a stake in this race — right now I’ve been finding my experiment in what is a essentially a form of self-publishing, a Patreon campaign, a reasonable way to self-publish short stories.

SFWA knows it can’t — and shouldn’t try to — please everyone. This step will be controversial no matter what. The best thing SFWA can do is make sure that reasoning behind the decision is sound, that the membership feels it’s gotten enough chance to weigh in, and that the Board is willing to listen to and acknowledge feedback on an ongoing basis.

A mass of unworthy bozos and hobbyist writers will descend on SFWA, tainting its ranks.

SFWA has plenty already. A few more aren’t going to destroy us. Beyond which, this is why there are qualification criteria.

Bozos and hobbyists both seem boogeymen for the most part to me. No matter what the group, there will always be the brash, the socially-inept, the deficient in empathy or manners, the chip-shouldered, the self-appointed prophets and others lacking in basic social graces. They are an unfortunate fact of life in any population, no matter how refined or well-educated. I have no reason to believe the self-published have them in any greater (or lesser) degree than the current membership, or even the general populace of professional speculative fiction writers.

To worry about the somehow unworthy and unprofessional is to ignore the fact that there’s already a few people in the ranks who are there on scant sales or the kindness of a friend who happens to be an editor. Again, I have no reason to believe that for some reason the ranks of self-published have a disproportionate amount of these. There are some very talented and hardworking writers out there depending on self-publishing.

In Conclusion:

I’ve been re-reading Dale Spender’s excellent nonfiction work, Mothers of the Novel, and working on a lengthy essay drawing parallels between it and some of the recent treatment of women in F&SF: BS like “pink” versus “blue” SF (poor women don’t even get a primary color!), reviews scoffing at Ancillary Justice’s gender “gimmick”, and the Truesdale review of Women Destroying Science Fiction (so many of his essays, really) all come readily to mind.

And there’s some overlap there with self-publishing as well, and the way it dismantles one of the structures that’s often worked to reinforce the status quo, which is traditional publishing. Arguments against the horde of unwashed yahoos that will descend upon SFWA often seem to say as much about the speaker’s attitudes towards class as anything else.

So yes. SFWA already has plenty of members working with self-publishing. Allowing professional writers to qualify via self-published sales is a step that’s both overdue and not dangerous to SFWA. The only real danger would lie in a decision to ignore the importance of self-publishing and its impact on professional writers of today.

Addendum on 9/17/2014 – Because I seem to have created some confusion, let me clarify something. I talked about self-publishing because that’s the thing on my mind the most at the moment, and did not mean to imply that small press stuff is unimportant or not under consideration. The effort to revamp the overall criteria includes looking at how qualifying through small press publications — including crowdfundingstuff like Kickstarter, which is another can of worms — should work as well as whether existing criteria should be revised.

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About Cat

Cat Rambo lives, writes, and teaches by the shores of an eagle-haunted lake in the Pacific Northwest. Her 200+ fiction publications include stories in Asimov's, Clarkesworld Magazine, and the magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction. Her story, "Five Ways to Fall in Love on Planet Porcelain," from her collection Near + Far (Hydra House Books), was a 2012 Nebula nominee. Her editorship of Fantasy Magazine earned her a World Fantasy Award nomination in 2012. She is the current President of the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America (SFWA). She is currently working on Exiles of Tabat, the third book of the Tabat Quartet. A new story collection, Neither Here Nor There, appears from Hydra House this fall.
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