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Adam Israel
SFWA, Accessiblity and Diversity 
19th-Feb-2014 12:48 pm

There’s have been many kerfluffles involving the Science Fiction & Fantasy Writers Association (SFWA). The latest one begin when a former member began a petition over recent changes to the staff and policy of the organization’s flagship publication, the Bulletin. As a result of the current back and forth between factions, one member — a vocal minority — made the suggestion that the bar for membership should be raised. There’s a lot I could say about the current debate(s) going on, but I want to specifically address the idea of accessibility and diversity.

Membership requirements, in general, are a good thing for an organization but should be recognized for what they are: exclusion. To what degree they exclude depends on the type of organization, its goals, philosophies, etc. Billing itself as a :”professional organization for authors of science fiction, fantasy, and related genres”, one would assume the requirements are imposed to limit membership to anyone who has a professional interest in writing science fiction, fantasy, and related genres. Seems simple, but there’s always fine print.

The argument made by Brad R. Torgersen is that to be a more professional organization, SFWA needs to be more exclusionary, with the goal of eliminating “non-professional” writers, thereby raising rates enough money through dues that the organization can then use to hire administration staff and increase benefits to its members.

…impose an annual fiction writing income floor, below which members cannot fall without being placed on the inactive list, and therefore losing the ability to vote and/or participate in the org.

Anyone capable and willing to contributing $500 or even $1,000 U.S. dollars (or more) per year, is unlikely to be an amateur, or a pro-am.

I will say, flat out, this is a bad idea. It’s too exclusionary, and would decrease diversity. In fact, I would argue that SFWA should lower its membership requirements.

For active writers, there are two membership tiers: Active and Associate, both of which require prose sales at a minimum rate of $0.05/word. I would like to see a third tier, for writers who have not yet made a sale to a market able to pay those rates but have demonstrated a commitment to their craft, such as 3 sales at a semi-pro rate, or a cumulative revenue total. Give this tier some limited benefits, such as access to the forum and the bulletin, but not all of the benefits of the higher tiers. Perhaps offer it at a lower yearly rate to adjust for the different benefits.

Or, as has been pointed out to me on Twitter (thanks John and Tim), use the Romance Writers Association (RWA) as a model or inspiration for how to include “non-professional” writers.

By being less exclusionary, the organization will become more accessible to a diverse group of people across income levels, gender, orientation, social classes, etc. The organization would gain new, interesting, and previously under-represented voices in building a future.

Many writers toiling in the semi-pro ranks treat their work with the same professionalism, if not more so, than those currently qualified by SFWA definitions to call themselves such. The previous SFWA administration, under John Scalzi, and the new helmed by Steven Gould, have made great strides in improving the organization as a whole. It should be recognized just how much work it is to retrofit a monolithic steam engine with maglev. I expect the diversification will continue, but I would love to see a bigger change to allow.

[Crossposted from Adam Israel. If you'd like to comment, you can do so either here or there.]

19th-Feb-2014 07:05 pm (UTC)
I agree with you. The bar is set too high, the requirements a little too demanding. The market has changed and simply doesn't support writers like it should. I've long railed against the fact that it's possible to sell dozens of stories and still never qualify as a member. It's ridiculous that you can have anthologies and magazines that pay professional rates, and yet they don't count towards contributers' qualifications for one reason or another.

It's like they don't want people to join SFWA.
19th-Feb-2014 07:31 pm (UTC)
I realize that one of the important duties of SFWA is to make sure writers are paid professional rates. While that's admirable, it leaves a lot on the table. As mentioned by someone on Twitter the other day, it doesn't try to set standard rates for editors, who often get paid very little for their work.

I've sold nine stories, attended Clarion (a privilege not everyone can afford), and have shown a clear interest in writing genre. I think raising the bar out of reach of anyone who has demonstrated a reasonable, serious effort at writing should have equal opportunity to be a SFWA member.

I think some people are caught up on the term "professional" as being something only attainable by sales records. I'd argue that it's about attitude and intent, and actions. I've seen writers with barely any credits to their name acting more professionally than some well-known names in the field.

I really do think that this is a combination of a vocal minority who wish to retain the "good old days" and an organization marching forward, just slowly. Not a criticism against the previous/current administration, who I think have been doing a good job with a difficult hand. I'd personally step up to do more, but as non-member, I can't.
21st-Feb-2014 01:54 pm (UTC)
I hadn't seen Brad's proposal, but it actually sucks mainly because a lot of the ProAms can easily afford $1000 for the fees while many of the real "pros" can't. And many of them would pay up because Membership has its privileges.
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