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Writing Excuses 6.3: Professional Organizations

Writing Excuses 6.3: Professional Organizations


Key Points: You can say it SeFWA, you can say it SiFWA, anyway you say it, it's SFWA! Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers -- of America, but you don't have to be American. Make a sale, buy a membership. SFWA is a service organization. Or there's the professional guild for self-employed people, which offers access to insurance. Why join? First, for individual benefits, such as helping you with contract disputes, or access to other writers. Second, for group clout. You don't have to join, but it's fairly cheap. It's also "I made it" recognition -- I am a card-carrying professional science fiction and fantasy writer. And... it's community. And you get a decoder ring!

[Brandon] This is Writing Excuses, Season Six, Episode Three, Professional Organizations.
[Howard] 15 minutes long.
[Mary] Because you're in a hurry.
[Dan] And we're not that smart.
[Brandon] I'm Brandon.
[Dan] I'm Dan.
[Mary] I'm Mary.
[Howard] And I'm not stepping on anybody else's lines this time.
[Brandon] Oh, good.
[Dan] Yay.
[Brandon] You didn't have to hear us flub that. We sound perfect every time.
[Mary] Because we are.
[Brandon] That's right. That's right, we just have to pretend to have flaws because...
[Dan] We're not that smart, but we're perfect in every other way.
[Howard] So, I need to ask. I need to ask. Brandon and Dan, are you members of SFWA?
[Brandon] Yes, I am.
[Dan] Yes. I... Certainly. I hope so. I hope I didn't miss the re-up.
[Mary] No, you're active.
[Dan] That's good.

[Brandon] Disclosure. Mary is vice president of SFWA, which is... We say SFWA...
[Howard] What's it stand for?
[Mary] It's Science fiction and Fantasy Writers of America. S-F-W-A... Science...
[Dan] That F carries a lot of weight.
[Brandon] That can be either one. Apparently there were long discussions about whether to make it SFFWA, but...
[Mary] Oh, it was briefly. But... The F stands for fantasy. Science fiction and... Fantasy... Writers... Of America.
[Dan] Very nice.
[Brandon] Oh, hey. That works.

[Mary] But the other controversy... And this is not going to convince anyone to join the organization... Is how to pronounce it? Whether it's SiFWA or SeFWA? People will debate this.
[Brandon] Really?
[Dan] Nice.
[Howard] SeFWA?
[Mary] SeFWA. The argument, and I think it's a valid one, is that it's S - F - SeFWA. That if you're actually doing the sounds of the letters, SeFWA would be correct. SiFWA is a [inaudible].
[Dan] If you're doing the sounds of the words, science fiction would be SighFWA.
[Brandon] Okay. We're going to...
[Howard] Let's talk about...
[Mary] I told you.

[Brandon] SiFWA. What is SiFWA or SeFWA, however you want to say it? Mary, what is it?
[Mary] It is the professional organization of science fiction and fantasy writers. Although we are based in North America, you do not have to be a citizen of the US to join. Basically it is... In order to be a member, you have to have had a professional sale.
[Brandon] Is it two short stories, still?
[Mary] Well, there's more than one level. To join as an associate, you just need one short story. To join as an active member, which is the voting class, then you need three short story sales, a novel, or a screenplay. I should add that we are about to pass new bylaws, and the qualifications will change slightly.
[Brandon] Okay. When I made my first sale, the first thing I did was join SFWA. I'll be honest, with me it was more of a... Solidarity thing. SFWA as a professional organization does not have the huge power and clout that something like The Writers Guild has over in Hollywood. It does have some clout, it does have a long reputation, but what you're joining is not a guild in the same way.
[Mary] Right. Writers Guild has much more of the aspect of the union. Which SFWA is much more of a service organization. Within the science fiction and fantasy writers... The genre, there is a certain amount of stuff that we can do, but most of the really effective stuff we do are things we can't tell you about, because it involves negotiations with publishers where part of the agreement is that we won't talk about it.
[Brandon] Right. I don't know any of these sensitive things, so I can talk about this a little bit. Often times, there are disputes or there are... For instance, a bad contract will get going around, and a lot of writers will raise a red flag or something like this. In that case, SFWA will actually go and talk to the publisher and find out if there's actually something shady going on. If there is, you can find a record of these... Where sometimes they will actually remove that publisher from the allowed list, meaning publishing with them doesn't allow you to get into SFWA. It's basically one of the biggest condemnations that SFWA can make, as I understand.
[Howard] Well, there's also the SFWA Black Ops Team.
[Mary] Well, that's the... Actually...
[Brandon] Yeah, well, we can't talk about them.
[Dan] That's the other thing we're not supposed to talk about. Thank you Howard.
[Mary] Well, no, that's actually kind of serious. We have something called the Grievance Committee which is one of our most effective tools. I can talk about this one, because Cory Doctorow blogged about it. But he had a contract dispute with a publisher, and couldn't get it resolved. He came to Grief Comm. Grief Comm negotiated a satisfactory resolution. So it's...
[Howard] Were there like ski masks and guns and boots?
[Mary] I can't tell you that.
[Howard] Okay. That's awesome.
[Dan] The grievance committee does rappel into every building they enter.
[Howard] Sweet.
[Mary] They're ninjas, they don't need to rappel. They just appear.

[Brandon] Howard, you actually belong to a different professional organization, do you not?
[Howard] After a fashion. It's an informal association. I'm not a member of the national cartoonists society, which is a... It's a weird thing. You have to show that cartooning represents 50% or more of your income. Which is really weird. If I ever published a novel and it made more money than Schlock Mercenary made, were I a member of the national cartoonists society, I'd...
[Brandon] You'd lose your membership.
[Howard] Yeah, I'd lose my membership. But NCS does many of the same things that SiFWhoa... SiFWay... Does...
[Brandon] SiFWah.
[Mary] SiFWA.
[Howard] SeFeWah?
[Dan] SighFWah.
[Brandon] Didn't your wife tell me that you guys joined the professional guild for self-employed people? Which is another option.
[Howard] Yes. Yes, we did. That is a much looser professional organization. But what it provides is access to things like health insurance and legal insurance. Which for self-employed people is awesome.

[Brandon] SFWA does not do that. Let's make the establishment here, talking about the difference between a guild/union and a service organization.
[Mary] Um...
[Brandon] SFWA did, at one point, offer insurance as I understand.
[Mary] Well, we're working on it now.
[Brandon] You're working on it again.
[Mary] Yeah. It's complicated because we have members spread out all over the place. And the insurance landscape is changing.
[Howard] Dramatically.
[Brandon] Right. As I understand it, one of the big reasons why SFWA stopped doing insurance is because you have to negotiate a contract with an insurance company for each state, because insurance is regulated on a state-by-state basis. Because of that, negotiating for everyone in every state when you may have one member in the state or none can be pretty complicated
[Mary] No... Yes, that is complicated. That's part of what's complicating getting new insurance. But usually you go to a company... And we're going to get into a discussion of insurance. What happened in that case was that the insurance company that we were working with decided that it was going to stop offering that. Then, finding someone new has been lengthy.

[Brandon] Okay. So let's go ahead. Let's stop for the book of the week. Howard, you've got the book of the week this week, too.
[Howard] Okay. Book of the week. This one's another Hugo nominee. Cryoburn by Lois McMaster Bujold. I am a big Miles Vorkosigan fan. This one's set in the... It's a Miles Vorkosigan story. It's all about life extension through cryogenics, and all the cool things that can go wrong and right and in between. Visit You can start a 14 day free trial membership. Pick up a copy of Cryoburn or some of the other Hugo nominees. If you're looking for a list of Hugo nominees... I'm going to go ahead and plug this real quick... has a list of the things that you should be reading on... Reading up on for Hugo voting.
[Brandon] I should mention Cryoburn is late in the Miles Vorkosigan series. If you want to read from the beginning, you can start... There are a couple of starting points. But the first one about Miles is... Was it Brothers in Arms? No, Warrior's Apprentice is what it's called. So that's where you start. Fantastic book. They're all great.

[Brandon] Let's talk about why people should join SFWA, or...
[Mary] I have an answer to that. I actually think this applies to pretty much any organization that is a service organization, which is an organization that is trying to work for its members to improve the territory. There are two basic categories. One is the personal reasons, and the other is the societal reasons. Personal reasons are things that the organization can do for you specifically. Like Grief Comm can negotiate a contract for you... Not negotiate a contract... Negotiate a contract dispute for you specifically. The directory is something that helps you specifically get in touch with other members.
[Brandon] Directory is a list of all their members and their contact info assuming they want to be part of the directory.
[Mary] Correct. Also their agents. So it's very handy. We also have agent members, and we have affiliate members. So we have a number of different classes. The societal reasons are actually, I think, the more important reasons. This is things that the organization can do because it is a group. For instance... This is public knowledge, we've recently been in conversations with Dorchester, trying to help them resolve some of the problems that they've been having with... We had to put them on probation. That's an act that we can take as a group that we could not do individually. The Google books settlement is another really good example of something that effects every author as an individual, but it's not something that... Well, you might be able to negotiate a Google book settlement, but it's not something that most authors would be able to do. They just don't have enough clout. But if you join an organization, just by signing up, just by putting your name on the roster, you can give them more clout to get things done.
[Howard] You give them more clout, and you become a benefi... Beneficiary of the clout they already have. I'm having a hard time pronouncing words. This is weird. With regard to the informal cartooning association to which I belong, one of the things that I really enjoy is when somebody will post into the community space and say, "Hey, have any of you seen this e-mail?" Because we will regularly, as web cartoonists attached to social media, get e-mail requests for things. I gotta tell you, when you spam a dozen different cartoonists with a request for whatever... With a proposal for whatever, you need to know, whoever you are making these proposals, that we compare notes behind your backs.
[Brandon] Right. These have happened in books before. You'll see an e-mail go around someone says, "Hey, I got this e-mail from a dying kid with cancer in this country. Says I'm his favorite author, could I please have a free book?" Everyone else will say they sent me that exact same e-mail saying the exact same things about me. Something's up here.
[Dan] That's one of the reasons that I joined the Horror Writers Association. The horror market is very different from fantasy and science fiction. It's very small, and it's largely very independent. It's mostly small publishers and things like that. So the ability to talk about these issues and the ability to have a group that has that kind of clout to deal with those issues, is even more important in that market then it is in many.

[Brandon] Yeah. We'll express one thing, and I actually do like this about SFWA. You don't have to join. It is not a union. You don't have to join. Also, SFWA is fairly cheap. Mary, what is it now?
[Howard] You want to write a fantasy book, kid? You gotta pay up.
[Brandon] No. It is a bunch of self-employed people working together for common goals. What does it currently costs for SFWA?
[Mary] It's 80 bucks.
[Brandon] 80 bucks a year?
[Mary] A year.
[Brandon] Yeah. It's not... I mean, the Writers Guild for movies and film is that much a month, I think more. So it's fairly cheap. Can you still buy a lifetime membership? Or is that...

[Mary] Technically, you can. We're... But we've priced it outrageously, so that people won't...
[Howard] Actually, Scalzi was telling me you haven't priced it outrageously enough. Because people are still taking it seriously. The lifetime membership. He suggested, "We should have just priced it at $50,000 so people would stop asking about it until we could solve some of the issues with it."
[Mary] Yeah. Part of the issue... And this is dull, but I'll tell you... The delightful things that happen when you're on the Board of Directors. The bylaws currently specify that we have to offer lifetime memberships.
[Brandon] Oh, really?
[Mary] So we can't actually make them go away. But the problem with lifetime memberships... And this is true for any organization. The problem with lifetime memberships is that they're good for a quick influx of cash, but unless you expect your members to die very young, you wind up...
[Dan] Losing money overall.
[Mary] Yeah. It winds up being a problem. Like when... It was 500, I think, or 700?
[Brandon] It was 700. I can tell you my story. I joined SFWA right when I first got published, and then... This is another problem with a lifetime membership. I paid the... It was $50 then. Then I kept thinking I should just pay the full because it was 10 times. I should just pay the full. The next year, I just paid the 50 bucks again. I'm like, "Arrgh. I should just pay the full." Now I've already paid $100, I could have... After that, it went up to 70. I thought, "Okay, I'm just going to save up and rejoin and buy a full, once I can afford it." Then my membership lapsed for like two years. So I finally then said, "Okay, I've got the money. I'll go back and I'll buy the full." But it actually kind of discouraged me a little bit from joining because it's like, "Oh, I should just wait up and buy the full thing for 10 years." It's like, "Why buy one when you can get 10 for 10 times..." You know. Anyway, it was kind of a wacky thing in my case with that.
[Howard] So the bylaws require you as an organization...
[Brandon] To offer it. They can change those bylaws, but it means going through Jerry Pournelle. I mean... It means...
[Mary] We've got... Actually, if I can just put in a plug for any SFWA members who are listening. We're about to send you the new bylaws packet. Massachusetts state law, which we are currently governed by, requires us to get two thirds of the membership to vote.
[Brandon] Oh, wow.
[Howard] Well, that's not going to happen.
[Mary] No, it's just... It's incredibly important that you vote.
[Howard] Do the bylaws dictate that you have to be incorporated in Massachusetts right now?
[Mary] No, but in order... We're moving to California. That's the... For various incredibly dull legal reasons, in order to make this move, we need two thirds of the membership to vote. That is... Let me make this clear... That means that I have to get 952 science fiction and fantasy writers to vote.
[Howard] This actually means licking a stamp, doesn't it?
[Mary] Were sending them self-addressed stamped envelopes, and giving them the option of voting online. We will be calling yes, every member that we do not hear from.
[Dan] Wow.

[Howard] So we're sitting around the room here, laughing at Mary's pain. But one of the things that I want to call up is that, Mary, you're doing this because you see it as important?
[Mary] Absolutely. I am a volunteer. I started on the board three years ago. This will... I just was reelected for my second term as vice president. The first two years, I was secretary. I ran because I thought that the organization was important, and that the work it was capable of doing was very important to the field. Since it's a volunteer organization, we have one paid employee. Everything else is done by volunteers. A volunteer organization is only as good as the people volunteering... It's only as good as the members. So if I want the organization to function, I have... I can either try to get someone else to volunteer, or I can just step up to the plate and putting my time.
[Howard] But right now, with you stepped up to the plate, the organization is just made of awesome.
[Brandon] SFWA has been made of awesome, these last couple of years.
[Mary] We've got a really good board. I have to say, Russell Davis, who was the president before John Scalzi, started a lot of changes and reforms that I think have been very positive.

[Brandon] But I want to take this out just by ending with someone who isn't on the board. Me. Why did I join SFWA? Why was I so excited when that first opportunity came? One reason is simply the I've made it factor which... This is how you know you've made it. It's one credential is I got my card and I am a card-carrying professional science fiction and fantasy writer. But beyond that, SFWA is an organization that was founded by some of the great science fiction writers who saw a need. It has been a means... Science fiction and fantasy is essentially a fan run job meaning the writers come out of fandom, the editors come out of fandom. We are all... It's a weird situation. People end up in science fiction and fantasy because they love science fiction and fantasy. That's actually kind of different. That's actually kind of rare. If you go to New York, a lot of the genres, people end up working at that genre not because they love that genre but because they wanted to go into this job. This is the family job, you go into publishing or things like this. That happens in a lot of jobs. This job comes from our love of science fiction and fantasy. This is where everybody in this business comes from. Being part of SFWA is acknowledging that in a way. It's saying, "Yeah, I'm part of this. We are a community together. We are not random individuals. We are not..." There is just something cohesive about it. Something wonderful about it. That we've all opted in. So I'll give a strong plug for it, and just say SFWA is worth your money and worth your time.

[Howard] So when they sent you the decoder ring, the message... The secret message was not, "Be sure to buy next year's membership?"
[Mary] We are getting decoder rings.
[Dan] You joke, but we are getting decoder rings.
[Howard] Woo! I say woo, ... I don't qualify for membership.
[Mary] Sorry.
[Howard] No, no, no. John Scalzi and I had a fascinating conversation about this in Melbourne in which he and I... He actually gave me the terminology. He put my thoughts in words. I do not want to be, as the science fiction cartoonist self published guy, I do not want to be the affirmative-action case for changing the bylaws. If you guys change the bylaws and I suddenly qualify, awesome. I'll join. If I publish a book and that's how I qualify, awesome. I'll join. But until then, I will be unhappy and content.
[Mary] You're unhappy because we are made of awesome and we are going to have decoder rings?
[Dan] Ha-ha. You don't get one.
[Brandon] All right. We're out of time. You're out of excuses, now go join SFWA. I guess you have to write first. Go write some stories.

[Howard] Do you want a writing prompt?
[Brandon] Oh, yeah. A writing prompt. Sorry.
[Howard] Okay. Come up with a way, with rappelling, for me to join SFWA.
[Brandon] Okay. This has been Writing Excuses. You're out of excuses, now go write.
Tags: benefits, community, decoder ring, group clout, insurance, professional organizations, recognition, service organization, sfwa
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