Sunday, 22 February 2015

The SFWA Broadens its Horizons

At the start of February, some significant news broke - it seemed to me - rather quietly: after a referendum of its membership, the Science Fiction Writers of America overwhelmingly decided to amend their guidelines so that self-publication and small press credits would be recognised as qualifying criteria.  How precisely that works is still up in the air until next month, but the gist is this: if your self-published or small press novel earned the qualifying sum of $3000 within a year of publication then it will count for joining the SFWA just as any traditionally published novel would.

Many will consider this good news.  Others, perhaps, will consider it overdue.  Certainly it's been on the cards for a long time; as long, I suspect, as I've been a member.  At any rate, my own feeling is that a good thing has happened, both for the SFWA and the writing world in general.  To me the SFWA is a basically necessary organisation.  At its worst, publishing can be one of the more cutthroat industries on earth, and it's crucial for creatives - a group of people traditionally not so great at looking out for their rights - to build communities and bulwarks to protect themselves.  The SFWA is one of the oldest of those, and one of the few that wields meaningful power.  It makes sense that it should set its borders wide enough that everyone who should be inside them is.

On a similar note, any trade organisation is bound to benefit from a multiplicity of viewpoints.  As an SFWA member, I absolutely want to hear the experiences of writers who've made successful careers within self-publishing and the small press, every bit as I much as I do those who've done the same through more traditional means*; despite what people sometimes appear to think, none of these paths are mutually exclusive, or even mutually incompatible, or really any damn thing but mutually beneficial, and I'd like to know that I'm getting the broadest range of expert advice I can.  There are many routes up this particular mountain, and I'd hate to get caught in an avalanche because I'd missed a path that someone could have told me about in the mountaineers club house and argh, this is a terrible metaphor, I know nothing at all about mountaineering.  I shouldn't even start these things, they never end well.

Look, if it's not obvious by now, I'm happy to admit that I voted for the amendment.  With books due from both a traditional and a small press publisher, not to mention plans to self-publish at some point, I have no horse in this race - or maybe too many horses, but let's not go there! - and I'd have found it hard to justify any other decision.  The small press / professional press distinction is not a particularly helpful one in my experience, and it would be foolish in the extreme to suggest at this late stage that self-published novels are any less valid that those put out by the Big Five.  Accepting that there have to be clear criteria for a professional organisation to be a professional organisation, surely setting a sensible bar is more productive than fussing about whether people are clearing it in the correct time-honoured fashion. 

In that regard, there's perhaps more work to be done - as I'll likely discuss one of these days, I still consider the SFWA's definition of professional rates to be shockingly low - but this feels like a huge move in the right direction, and here's hoping it's a sign of more positive change to come.

* Although, let's face it, though the forms may change, the small press and self-publishing are both as old as publishing itself.

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