SFWA and Independent Writers, Part Two: Bringing in the Indies

In part one of this series, I talked about the Science Fiction & Fantasy Writes of America (SFWA) prior to the move to bring in the independent writers. This section will discuss the decision and the process, as well as some of the reactions. My sources in putting all of this together are my own faulty memory, my personal notes, and the Internet. The discussion of the indie admission took place in a number of venues, including e-mails, blog articles and comments, social media, and the SFWA discussion forums. In drawing on the latter, I have tried to ensure that I did not violate their confidentiality rules, quoting only with permission.

Nomenclature has varied, but when I refer to independently published writers, that is the same group that others have used self-published, self-pubbed, indie, and other terms to describe. Self-publishing has been conflated with vanity publishing in the past; I believe them two distinct things.

Beginning to Recognize Independently Published Works

As far as I can tell, the question of whether people should be able to qualify for membership with independently published sales was first brought to the board by Vice President Mary Robinette Kowal in 2009. Discussion focused on a couple of points: how to translate the SFWA requirements for professional writers into ones using self-published material and whether or not the gatekeeping done by traditional publishing represented a quality bar. I’m framing that last badly, primarily because I don’t agree with it, but I can understand why, depending on their relationship with traditional publishing, someone might be invested in that view. That discussion moved on, but the question of indies had been raised and would continue to be something discussed at board and business meetings, with increasing support for allowing indies in on the part of some Board members.

In 2011, the reincorporation passed. In 2012, a question was raised to the board about self-published work being including in SFWA promotional resources (and decided in favor of yes). The board continued to discuss the question. In the summer of 2013, the Self-Publishing Committee was formed under the leadership of SFWA Board member Matthew Johnson. Its two mandates were to figure out the ways criteria for self-publishing might be implemented as well as how the organization might better serve existing members who were self-publishing.

It should be noted that the committee’s mission was not to decide whether or not indies should be admitted; the decision had been made by May of 2014 to take the question to the membership and let them decide and the conversation was already carrying on hot and heavy on the internal discussion forums.

A few members were firmly against it. Relatively early on in the discussion, our webmaster Jeremy Tolbert said to me, “Have you noticed that people talk about the indies as though they were the Sackville-Bagginses?” And it was true. One Board member had publicly called people putting stuff up online for free “scabs” a few years earlier, a remark that would repeatedly get mentioned to me and which had really damaged some of SFWA’s goodwill with some of the people people exploring new publishing models. A small number of members persisted in calling such writers hobbyists and fan writers. (The relationship of SFWA to the word “fan” is worthy of an entire essay in itself; I’ll save it for that book on SFWA’s history.)

At the same time, many of the writers already in the organization were seeing more income from independently published work than traditional publishing. An internal poll gave us this data: of those responding, 43% of Active members and 38% of Associate members were trying one form or another of self-publishing, sometimes multiple kinds. More and more of us (including myself) were becoming hybrid writers, trying the new models. One of those people was M.C.A. Hogarth, who had graciously let me talk her into running for Vice President. Hogarth was smart, savvy, and very in tune with the independents; I knew she’d serve them well, and she proved me right in multiple ways.

She helped drive the endless discussions. And they were endless. SFWA gave its members three months to weigh in, in order to make sure that they had ample time for all communications, including if they wanted to write a letter to be published in SFWA bi-monthly members only print publication, the Forum. (One of the changes under the Rambo administration has been to implement a monthly electronic members newsletter, the Singularity, and make the Forum a twice-yearly, formal account of SFWA business, while renaming it the Binary. The only person still getting print versions of either is Harlan Ellison, because I print them out and mail them to him.)

The Discussion Around Admitting Independently Published Writers

In writing this, I went back and looked at the scads and scads of posts, and I don’t want to recap them too closely. I will, however, mention some highlights and significant issues.

Some people suggested that the self published rate be higher than the traditionally published one, with their rationale usually being that this was an adjustment for the quality value that a traditional publication automatically had. Others suggested that it be higher because independent publishers were making more per book sold than their traditionally published counterparts.

Some of the more common and rational questions that emerged:

  • The tradition qualification had been based on an advance for a novel. How much time should an independently-published work be allotted in which to earn the qualifying amount or not?
  • Should there be an equivalent to the Associate membership for independently published writers wishing to use short stories for admission?
  • Independently publishing people were making more — but they were also spending more, in the form of hiring editors, cover artists, book designers, publicists, and other roles sometimes provided by traditional publishing. Did that need to be factored in?

What Could SFWA Offer Independently Published Writers?

To my mind, the most important question that Hogarth sought the answer to was what SFWA had to offer to independent writers in the first place. Some programs were a clear match: the Featured Author and Featured Book sections on the SFWA homepage, for example. The website gets monthly hits in the 50-60 thousand range, so that’s not insignificant exposure. Another was the SFWA presence at places like Worldcon, the Baltimore Book Festival, and the ALA Book Festival. The Speakers Bureau project, already in the works, required little adjustment.

Others would need expanding or tweaking. Independents needed to be represented at the Nebula Conference each year, which meant programming aimed at their needs, particularly when they differed from those of traditionally published writers. The timing here was fortuitous; the events team was pushing to expand conference programming from a desultory single track to multiple tracks with high-level programming.

The discussion forums, one of the central contact points for the SFWA community overall, didn’t take much tweaking. We did make sure that there was a discussion forum section aimed specifically at independent publishing resources, information, and conversation. We looked at SFWA publications like the Bulletin to see what they were providing. One of the questions that arose was whether or not to do another edition of The SFWA Handbook. In the end, we felt that things were changing too fast to make that publication feasible. Instead, Hogarth took up a new project, the SFWA Guidebook, intended to be a handbook for new members introducing them to what the organization has to offer. While this is still underway, I hope to see it realized by the end of the year.

And there were definitely things we could add. Early on, Hogarth and I began pushing for a SFWA NetGalley membership, an idea taken from Broad Universe. NetGalley is a site that allows publishers to put up review copies in electronic form for access by reviewers. Broad Universe had bought a membership, which ran close to $600, and let its members use it for a small fee. This program, implemented in 2015, has proved reasonably successful, and has been pointed to by several members as something significantly increasing the value of their membership.

Part of the difficulty in all of this was that SFWA was still in the process of getting its volunteer structure unkinked; issues had led to potential volunteers not getting connected with projects, and we were still recovering from that situation. Ideas abounded; the energy to implement them all was the main hindrance, while SFWA’s financial situation, with the Board and financial team handling a setback that is its own story, was tight, with the Board already trimming existing programs and simply not having the budget to implement new items.

July 31, 2014 was the deadline for letters to the Forum. In early August, SFWA sent a simple survey to members. Then President Stephen Gould said, partway through the survey period:
“To date, I personally have seen two kind of responses in emails. ‘Yes, we should do self-pub qualification,’ and ‘What’s taking so long to do self-pub qualification.'”

The Vote to Admit Independently Published Writers

All through August the Board spent its time in the final debate. It was interesting, sometimes heated, and exhaustive. The board made its decision that the vote to be put to the membership, for a voting period to end November 30. Steven Gould put forward the motion: “That the board put before the membership a ballot on the addition of self-publishing qualification criteria for SFWA membership on or before 1 November 2014. Furthermore, the ballot will include the OPPM income and verification requirements and any modifications or additions to the by-laws required to implement the new criteria.” The motion passed unanimously.

I blogged that September about why I thought SFWA should admit independently published writers, and that post sums up a lot of controversy, including one I’d forgotten, that the decision would lead to ugly public feuds between trad and indie pubbers. Luckily that one has proved as unjustified as I predicted.

As the vote went out, the Board invited any further comments or discussion. By this time, a lot of people shared my impatience with the process. The first comment on the thread opened for last comments was from member Kyle Aisteach: “I’ll be the first to say it. What’s taking so long?”

The vote passed by a strong majority (over six to one in favor), and only a few people writing in to threaten to quit if the measure went through. In November the board also passed a vote to begin looking at allowing game writers to qualify. The qualification rates were changed to the following:

Moved that the Board set the levels for the new OPPM section, “Member Qualification Rates” at the following:
(1) Active Membership:
(a) novel: $3000 advance from a qualifying market or total income including advances, royalties, or earned over the course of a single, contiguous 12-month period for a work of minimum 40,000 words; or
(b) short fiction: minimum $0.06/word earned by each work for at least three different works, from qualifying markets or each earned over the course of a single, contiguous12-month period, totalling a minimum of 10,000 words; and

(2) Associate Membership: One work, minimum $0.06/word, minimum $60.00, from a qualifying market or earned over the course of a single, contiguous12-month period;
contingent on the passing of the upcoming amendment to Article IV of the Bylaws by the membership. Verification methods to be outlined in the OPPM.

One thing I haven’t touched upon is that this meant some additional changes. For one, people could now qualify with a combination of advance and royalties that made it possible for some small press published books to qualify. Another, somewhat inadvertent but gratifying, change was that we found SFWA was the first writer’s organization to accept crowdfunding as a model for qualifying.

Preparing to Admit Independently Published Writers

We sent out press announcements to let people know about the changes and waited to see what would happen as people began applying when the doors opened on March 1, 2015. One of the biggest questions had been how people would provide proof of sales, particularly when gathering together multiple outlets, such as Amazon, Smashwords, and Kobo. But what turned out was that many – I’d go so far as to say the majority – of them didn’t need to do that at all, but simply wanted to know which of the multiple outlets qualifying them they should present.

As they started entering, something very cool started happening, which I will discuss in part three.

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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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