DECOHERENCE

Robert J. Sawyer is the Hugo, Nebula, Campbell Memorial, Heinlein, Hal Clement, Skylark, Galaxy, and Seiun Award–winning author of twenty-three science-fiction novels, including the trilogy of Hominids, Humans, and Hybrids, which won Canada’s Aurora Award for the Best of the Decade, and the No. 1 Locus bestsellers Calculating God, Triggers, and Quantum Night. Rob holds two honorary doctorates and is a Member of the Order of Canada, the highest civilian honor bestowed by the Canadian government. Find him online at sfwriter.com.

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WHAT SFWA WAS SUPPOSED TO BE

My friend Lawrence Schoen has just announced his resignation from the Board of Directors of the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America. This is nothing remarkable. In the last twenty years, at least fifteen SFWA board members have resigned. Starting with the most recent and working backward, they are: Lawrence, Maggie Hogarth, Justina Ireland, Catherynne M. Valente, Elizabeth Moon, Sheila Finch, Paul Melko, Catherine Mintz, Diane Turnshek, Sam Lundwall, Cory Doctorow, Derryl Murphy, Allen Steele, Edo van Belkom, and myself.

In his resignation letter, Lawrence wrote obliquely of the SFWA crisis de jour that led him to step down (about which more later) and ends by affirming his support of the mission statement for SFWA drafted and adopted in 2018 by the nine men and women who compose the organization’s board:

We are genre writers fostering a diverse professional community committed to inclusion, empowerment, and outreach.

To which I say, Whiskey Tango Foxtrot?

Now, before anyone gets upset, I one hundred percent support diverse voices (and have the track record going back over twenty years as an editor to prove it). But the above is parsecs removed from what SFWA’s function was supposed to be. Here’s the description Damon Knight, SFWA’s founder, gave on February 28, 1965, to the seventy-two charter members:

The purposes of this organization shall be to inform science fiction writers on matters of professional interest, to promote their professional welfare, and to help them deal effectively with publishers, agents, editors and anthologists.

See the difference? It was specifically and only an organization devoted to improving the economic conditions of working writers. A professional organization is, by nature, exclusive not inclusive. I cannot be a member of the American Dental Association, and this is right and proper. When I ceased decades ago making my living principally from writing magazine articles, I dropped out of the Periodical Writers Association of Canada as I no longer had skin in the game and therefore didn’t deserve a voice in setting that organization’s policies anymore.

SFWA is the only professional organization that has damn near one hundred percent of the rank beginners—people love to join for the bragging rights just as soon as they qualify—and maybe fifty percent of the working pros. It also has a metric ton of voting members who haven’t made a dime off SF&F writing in over a decade.

When Damon Knight drafted SFWA’s bylaws, he outlined his vision, which made active membership available only to currently publishing professional writers, and he demanded periodic requalification:

Any person is eligible to become or remain an active member of the Science Fiction Writers of America who has done any of the following:

  • Had a science fiction story published, for the first time, in an American magazine of general circulation, or in a collection or anthology published by an American trade publisher, within the previous two calendar years;
  • Had a science fiction novel published, for the first time, by an American trade publisher within the last five calendar years;
  • Written an original science fiction radio play or teleplay broadcast, for the first time, in America during the previous calendar year; or
  • Written a screenplay for a science fiction motion picture released, for the first time, in America during the last two calendar years.

Any person who has done any of the things listed in Section 1, but not within the time restrictions set forth in Section 1, is eligible to become or remain an inactive member of the Science Fiction Writers of America.

If only. The crisis that led Lawrence to resign was precipitated by an unprecedented loosening of SFWA’s membership credentials, undertaken by fiat by the board, allowing huge numbers of self-published authors to join. Hustlers by nature, some of them immediately organized a successful block-nominating slate to get self-published authors onto the Nebula ballot, hijacking the Academy Award of the science-fiction and fantasy fields.

Meanwhile, as I write this, my other professional organization, the Writers Guild of America, has just gone to war. It, too, believes in diverse voices, but that is not its raison d’être. It exists solely to make its members more money and to guard them against perfidy by engagers and agents. Damon Knight, who died in 2002, is surely smiling at WGA from on high.

On April 12, 2019, the WGA told virtually all of its members that they had to fire their agents because of blatant conflicts of interest perpetrated by those representatives. On April 17, WGA went further, launching lawsuits against the four largest Hollywood agencies.

Now, yes, WGA is a union and SFWA isn’t. But SFWA was never intended to be just a club. Rather than a virtue-signaling oh-so-2018 mission statement, what’s wrong with the one Damon Knight came up with fifty-four years ago?

Of course, times change; of course, publishing is different now than it was then. But in the thirty-six years I’ve been a member of SFWA, I’ve seen—and, indeed, foreseen—all the changes that people are talking about now and more (I was writing in 1998 as SFWA president about “the post-publisher economy”).

For instance, it used to be that giant print runs were required to get economical per-copy pricing; that’s no longer true. It used to be there were many thousands of bookstore accounts for publishers to service in North America; sadly, that’s no longer true. It used to be that audiobooks were only made in eviscerated abridgments and only of the biggest print sellers; wonderfully, that’s no longer true. And it used to be that the only effective way to publish a book was on paper. That’s no longer true, either (and I’ve got a bunch of my own older titles out in self-published e-book editions).

Whatever you might think of these changes, every single one of them came with enormous cost savings for publishers, but no portion of that was ever passed on to the authors. I remember at one convention this decade hearing the late David G. Hartwell brag that Tor, the publisher he worked for, had just had its best year ever, while one of his authors—with Hugos galore—confided to me that he didn’t know how he was going to heat his house that coming winter.

Among the most egregious things that have happened during my career: literary agents going from ten-percent commissions to a fifteen percent; publishers locking in a 3:1 split of e-book royalties—three dollars for them to every one for the writer; and publishers using print-on-demand and the mere notional existence of an e-book edition to keep from reverting rights to authors for titles the publisher is no longer promoting or selling in any meaningful quantity. SFWA rolled over on every one of these.

But never let it be said that SFWA is without achievements. They recently—and I’m not making this up—produced an official SFWA secret decoder ring. I didn’t pony up to get one; I doubt Damon Knight would have wanted such a thing, either.

Copyright © 2019 by Robert J. Sawyer