Writing: The Trouble With SFWA

Creative Commons: gnuckx, Flickr

SFWA stands for Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America. They’ve been around for almost 50 years and protect the rights of speculative writers, which  includes legal and emergency medical aid, ironing out contract disputes, putting pressure on publishers (there is a bad boys list) and otherwise helping writers. They also maintain a list of professional markets, and to be a full Active member you must have sold three pieces, of at least $50 each, at the rate of .05/word or more. Or have sold a novel/novelette for at least $2000.

Further professional qualifications include that the publisher/magazine must have been in existence and publishing regularly for at least a year, pay the above professional rates or more, and have a distribution of at least 1000 copies. It used to be that this was 10,000 copies, if memory serves correctly, but I imagine it’s a sign of the times that not even mass market publishing houses print 10,000 copies of most books anymore. When the Canadian dollar was .50 to the US dollar there was never any consideration for the difference in rates, although it’s called SFWA and not SFWUSA. Five cents a word might have counted but when you can put the population of Canada into the state of California, it was pretty hard to hit those early distribution rates of 10,000 copies in Canada.

While SFWA does a lot of good, it’s also the old boys’ club and resistant to some change. The advent of small presses and POD (print on demand) has upset the apple cart in many areas. Costs of printing have gone up, readership of paper books is going down, and the economy is floundering. The dinosaurs need to evolve or they’ll be nothing but sludge. SFWA still cannot accept that flash fiction exists, or tweet markets. Instead of finding some in-between ground, they decided that a sale must be .05/word to be professional but if your story is 900 words or less, it won’t count. They could fix this and say at least four (or some number) sales of flash fiction or a combo of short and flash, etc. would be equivalent.

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Mary Beth Griffo Rigby, Flickr

Some change has happened, but last year, after nearly 20 years as an Associate member (having one professional sale based on the above criteria) I ended my membership and joined HWA (Horror Writers of America) instead. There are several reasons I did this. When I first joined SFWA they invited me, on the basis of selling a poem to Amazing Stories. At $36 that wasn’t bad money for a poem, even now, and I think that was around 1986. When I sent a copy of a contract for a story sale that met the requirements (and that after a year of my letters being completely ignored) I was told that my poem didn’t count and that I now had a 1/3 Associate membership, again. One step forward, one step back.

So not only did SFWA decide that poetry was no longer a valid art form nor worthy of notice, but they’d ungrandfathered me. I wonder if they would have booted me out if I didn’t have that second “pro” sale, except they probably wanted my money. Then I sold an erotic fairy tale to a Harlequin anthology. There was my third sale. (You can vote when you’re a full member.)  But guess what? Harlequin decided to do a vanity press line and SFWA disapproved (and rightly so), but instead of banning or disqualifying that particular imprint, SFWA disqualified Harlequin and all its imprints. Now Harlequin is one of the biggest publishers in the world. They’re rolling in the dough and not hurting, so why they thought they had to lure in hapless newbies with a vanity line, I’m not sure, and they should have their wrists slapped for that. But SFWA’s ban really only affected writers. Harlequin doesn’t care. I’d actually sold the story before the ban but was paid after.

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Will SFWA embrace the digital age? Creative Commons: Tony Hutchings/Getty Images

SFWA has helped me in the past with an iffy contract and they do at least have some standards but they need to evolve a bit more. I also joined HWA this year because I wanted to see what they’re like. While I haven’t even had time to look at the benefits yet I can tell you that I’m full-fledged voting member, and I did this on my credentials as a poet alone. I could have probably done it with fiction credits but the contracts I could find were for the poems. In HWA’s case their pro rate is the same for fiction but for poetry you must have had at least 10 poems published for at least $5/poem or .25/line. In fact, their definitions are more detailed but also more extensive than SFWA’s.

Arguments can be made that if I was a better writer I’d have been a full member long ago, and that of course holds water, but I’ve sold mostly to Canadian markets and even good writers sometimes can’t get their feet in the door of a tight market when a known name will sell more magazines. It will be interesting to see if HWA serves me better of if SFWA did. I could go back to SFWA at any time if I wish.

I’m a very strong advocate for poetry and anyone that’s worked on a poem can tell you it takes as long to write a poem as to write a story in many cases. Some poems take me years to perfect. I truly detest when someone pooh poohs a form of writing because it isn’t as long as a novel or a story. It’s a snobbery that not even the literary world aspires to. They have their own as many literary writers turn up their noses at “genre” writing. Half the time Margaret Atwood swears she does not write science fiction.

But any organization that recognizes poetry will probably get my vote over ones that ban it.

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3 Comments

Filed under Culture, erotica, fantasy, horror, poetry, Publishing, science fiction, Writing

3 responses to “Writing: The Trouble With SFWA

  1. I became a pro by SFWA standards a couple of years ago and to be honest, it’s really not useful for short story writers. If you’re a novelist with a decently sized publishing house, yes. Otherwise? Not really.

    I don’t find HWA of any use either, but that’s another kettle of fish.

    SF Canada is probably the most useful association and that’s probably due to the mailing list.

    And if you want to complain about short stories…even though I have sold a bunch of short stories to pro markets (and won a lit contest that paid me $3,000 for one of ‘em), the Writers Union of Canada wouldn’t let me join. You have to have sold novels or a collection.

    Regarding poetry: it’s low status probably derives from the fact that it doesn’t sell. I’ve basically given up on including poetry in the anthos I publish because invariably reviewers/readers complain about out or outright hate it. So if it’s going to make my readership cranky, I might as well not print it. Sad but true.

    • colleenanderson

      Hi Silvia,
      Yes, I wonder how much it actually does. SFWA helped me in the past andd I’ll see how HWA helps. Writers Union I wonder about since they couldn’t bother to respond when I sent them a letter about CBC infringing on moral rights. They chose silence. Many pros don’t bother with the associations and I might drop all of them in the future, even SFC. But then writing is a solitary pursuit and a list gives some camaraderie. I never could penetrate the maze of SFWA’s forums. It was like being lost in an alien forest, hearing sounds but never seeing anything.

  2. I’ve always maintained that a short piece of writing can be much harder to do than a long piece. I don’t know anything about the SFWA but when you mentioned it, I couldn’t help but think of the movie Gentlemen Broncos. If you haven’t seen it already, I recommend it. It’s a quirky, indie movie about some oddball home schooled kids who write fiction.

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