Looking back at a kerfuffle

Back in July the Galaxy’s Edge* magazine, Robert J Sawyer’s regular column discussed some issues around the SFWA. The column was also covered in this Pixel Scroll at File 770. I didn’t engage a great deal with Sawyer’s comments because I’m not a part of the SFWA and I’m unlikely to ever be and I’ve also really zero idea of what the make up of the organisation should be or what practical impact a writer’s organisation can have. Suffice to say, Sawyer has had a long career writing science-fiction and is a former SFWA president so ostensibly knows a lot more than I do on the topic. Having said that…well I didn’t get a clear sense of what he thought the issues were (other than that the SFWA should be more like the Writer’s Guild of America).

There was one point that bugged me though but I decided not to focus on it at the time because it was secondary to Sawyer’s broader points. The point was a throw away comment part way through the column:

“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.”

Sawyer is referencing the controversy earlier in the year regarding Nebula finalists connected with the publishing self-help group 20booksto50K and the independent publisher LMBPN. I wrote about it extensively at the time but the best overall account is by Cora Buhlert here: http://corabuhlert.com/2019/03/01/the-latest-developments-regarding-the-2018-nebula-award-finalists/

So what is my issue with Sawyer’s brief description? Several things but primarily it promotes the misleading framing of the kerfuffle as self-published versus traditionally-published authors. That framing was pushed by various people at the time and while there is some superficial truth to it, the framing is deeply misleading:

  • Many of the authors nominated who were on the 20booksto50K list had been traditionally published previously.
  • At least one was a long term member of the SFWA.
  • Some of the most vocal SFWA members objecting to the list were from an indie-published background.
  • The framing obscures the role of a publisher (LMBPN) in the list.

That misleading framing was part of the issue with the original not-a-slate i.e. byt setting up not just a list but a narrative as to why random voters should feel some loyalty towards the list is part of how the whole issue became problematic.

However, those aren’t the only issues with Sawyer’s statement. He also overstates the impact of the list, the nature of self-published writers and ignores the subsequent behaviour.

  • “huge numbers of self-published authors to join” – I don’t know how many people voted for the 20booksto50K list but it didn’t need to be huge numbers to impact the Nebula short-list and it probably wasn’t. That only some works from the list were finalists implies it was a significant but not large number.
  • “Hustlers by nature” – is just pointlessly insulting. Sure, there is a Wild-West aspect to the world of Amazon self-publishing but we have a very obvious comparison group to compare with (which I’ll get to). There are certainly notorious examples of self-published authors behaving badly but they aren’t the norm.
  • “hijacking the Academy Award of the science-fiction and fantasy fields” – I’m not making excuses for the not-a-slate but the overall impact on the awards I believe was small. Multiple, excellent works that would have been finalists regardless were still finalists and the final outcome was probably indistinguishable with what would have happened regardless.

The comparison group I mentioned above is, of course, the Sad Puppies. It is true that post-hoc leaders and supporters of the Sad Puppies have used the same framing of indie/self-published versus trad-publishing as a kind of factional distinction. However, Correia, Torgersen, Hoyt and Wright were all from a traditionally published background and at the time (at least initially) there focus was on authors and works that were traditionally published. As hustles go, the Sad Puppy Hustle was bigger, more damaging and more significant to literary awards and had its roots in traditional publishing.

It is also notable how much better key figures around the 20booksto50K/LMBPN groups behaved. Again, I’m not making excuses for anybody’s actions, just making a comparison with the obvious other kerfuffle. Of the various interactions I had with authors connected with the Nebula fuss at the time, only one was reminiscent of the way Sad Puppy leader’s behaved and that one example had their own connections with the Sad Puppies.

No deep conclusions to draw other than messy things are messy.

*[Maybe too many things are called Galaxy’s Edge. It gets confusing.]

18 thoughts on “Looking back at a kerfuffle

  1. Yes, the 20to50k group for the most part seemed to quickly understand the objections. They had no effect on the Hugos — I don’t even think they were on the longlist. I don’t expect any repeat at next year’s Nebulas. I am hopeful that next appearance of indie or small press will be organic.

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  2. Something found odd about that piece at the time, was the way he described others as “Hustlers by nature” with an apparent straight face, when we have his fellow countrymen saying stuff like this about him:

    “Which is not to say, of course, that self-promotion doesn’t work. It obviously does. (I don’t know if anyone in the genre has won more awards than Rob Sawyer, and offhand I can’t think of a more relentless self-promoter.)” (source: https://www.rifters.com/crawl/?p=5837)


    “Many science fiction writers (Canadians in particular, because Canada) are not especially outgoing and thus not inclined to actively promote themselves (one reason why I try do that for them.. With one noteworthy exception: a former Waterloo resident and past Edna-Staebler-Writer-in-Residence [1] named Robert J. Sawyer, who, if he ever suffered from this common debility, managed to overcome it. As a result, his online bio is sufficiently voluminous that I find myself paralyzed by choice. What, if anything, to quote? So I will just link to the ten-thousand-word Sawyer version. Enjoy!” (source: https://jamesdavisnicoll.com/review/controlled-by-the-pull-of-another)

    I was completely out of the written SF world at the time he was regularly getting Hugo and Nebula nominations, does anyone recall whether there was any comparable discussion of his sefl-promotional activities at the time, e.g. in fanzines, or Usenet or Compuserve groups, etc? When I later caught back up on the history I missed e.g. at Jo Walton’s Revisiting the Hugos column at tor.com, there seemed to be a distinct lack of anyone defending those works as meriting their award nominations.

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    1. Likewise not in the loop but I did a lot of reading around him for the Far Seer chapter of the Hugosauriad. Sawyer himself wasn’t shy about the influence he had from Compuserve and being very online early

      Liked by 1 person

    2. I remember being baffled by Robert J. Sawyer’s many awards nominations. At first, I had no idea who he was, since I was never a member of the early online groups where he was active. And after I actually read something by him, my reaction was, “Well, that was all right, I guess, but why did it get an award nomination?” I didn’t even know that he’d been active in early online fandom, before the Hugosauriad post in question. I just assumed that Sawyer was one of those Hugo favourites whose appeal I just don’t get. There were several of those in the early and mid 2000s.

      Liked by 2 people

      1. I’ve read one book (Quantum Night) of his because I saw it on a Canadian awards list and well….let’s just say I cracked up at the book way to often for a book that was not trying to be funny. So add me to the “not seeing the awards-worthiness” grouping here.

        More on topic, sure self publishing has some grifters as well as many many not that talented writers – but there’s also quite a few gems there (and writers of color have often found success there after publishers didn’t take to them for obvious reasons), and I feel really bad that I failed in my new year’s resolution last year to try and read one self published book per month. Preventing such writers from joining the SFWA seems stupid and counter-productive.

        Liked by 1 person

  3. I was irritated by Robert J. Sawyer’s comments, too.

    For starters, SFWA started admitting writers on the basis of self-published works in 2015, but the 20booksto50K Nebula uproar took place in 2019. Four years later is not what I’d call immediately.

    Also, admitting self-published authors was hardly “and unprecedented loosening of SFWA’s membership credentials, undertaken by fiat by the board”. For starters, there was a committee that came up with a proposal. Besides, the criteria for self-published authors are actually more stringent. A traditionally published author who gets an advance over whatever the threshold currently is gets admitted to SFWA, even if the book never earns out. meanwhile, a self-published author has to prove that they made the minimum income threshold with a given book in the space of a year.

    I would probably qualify on the basis of aggregate sales, but since I write in more than one genre and my bestselling titles are not SFF, I don’t think I qualify under the rules as they are. Never mind that I have no idea how to even prove how much money a given title earned.

    Furthermore, the 20Booksto50K groups has 25000 members or so. Only a minority of those are SFWA members and an even smaller minority nominated/voted for the Nebulas.

    In general, I believe that unfamiliarity with the culture and norms of SFWA and the SFF genre in general lies at the root of the 20Booksto50K Nebula problem. In the SFF world, canvassing for votes, tit-for-tat voting, anything that goes beyond an eligibility post or recommendation list is frowned upon. In other genres, this is different, e.g. an RWA member told me that much of what would be a complete no-no in the SFF world is considered normal behaviour for the Ritas.

    Finally, most of the 20Booksto50K folks behaved decently, when the whole thing blew up. There were exceptions, e.g. the author who managed to pirate himself or Craig Martelle (who wasn’t even nominated), when he threatened lawsuits. There also was some trashtalking behind the scenes in forums aimed at self-publishers and at least one guy quit SFWA in protest. Still, compared to the puppies, this was nothing. And the self-pirater is linked to the puppies.

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  4. There’s a bit in his column about the SFWA mission statement being virtue signalling that has given me an eyeroll dislocation injury.

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    1. I took one look at that white text on purple planet background and decided it wasn’t worth the trouble. Now I have even more reason not to risk my eyes!

      Liked by 1 person

    2. I think virtue signalling is a real thing, and I can think of several examples on the right (those “Support the Troops” magnets on the back of cars in the US [did they do that in the UK?] and various boycotts (Nike for supporting Colin Kaepernick, Gilette for an ad implying that men aren’t perfect, Keurig for I don’t even remember what anymore). I’m sure if I had the time I could dig up examples in the various Puppy messes, too.

      Really, the only thing “wrong” with it is the implication that the signaler doesn’t actually care about the virtue signaled. To be fair, it’s not typically *effective*, but that’s another issue.

      Liked by 2 people

      1. I’m not sure that bumper stickers or magnets on cars ever really took off in the UK. Our racists mainly stick with adorning every available surface with flags.

        Liked by 3 people

  5. I missed this entirely. That’s really awful of Sawyer and very irresponsible as a former SFWA president. The self-pub authors who are members of the SFWA are just that — members — and they do not deserve to have their author group’s other members and past officers declaring they don’t deserve to be there. That’s not the services that they’re paying dues for. Hey, on this blog we raked the self-pubs over the coals for their block voting mishap, but even we acknowledged it was mostly due to clueless behavior and they did retrack, apologized and dropped it. They were not invading hordes, but somewhat new members who didn’t know the ropes. The Internet dropped on their heads and they mostly adapted and learned.

    I have spent a lot of time, more than I care to, having to reassure self-pub authors that the field is not self-pub Rebel Alliance against the Death Star Empire of license publishing, that publishers look on self-publishing as a resource for potential authors, that about half of license published authors also self-published, a chunk of self-pub authors go on to doing deals with license publishers and the two areas have always been linked. That the license publishing field does not, in fact, hate them.

    And then you get someone prominent like Sawyer coming along and saying, yes we do hate them, the barbarian hustlers, and it’s just so clueless and unnecessary. It’s unprofessional, and if Sawyer really does want the SFWA to progress to being a full-out guild organization, that unprofessionalism isn’t the way to go about it. Part of the Puppies’ nonsense they settled on because Beale took over was to try and portray SFWA as a snooty, elitist organization. And it’s not. It’s a professional group and it should be listening to the needs of its members in the changing industry, not calling the Nebulas the “Oscars”. Sawyer’s entitled to his whine and Galaxy’s Edge can publish it, but it’s foolish of both of them, in my view.

    Liked by 3 people

      1. So he doesn’t really care about self-pub authors, he just wants less competition for the Nebula. Nice. And again, unprofessional in his commenting about the SFWA. Kind of a surprise from Sawyer, to be honest. This sort of thing is exactly why a lot of newer authors don’t want to join the SFWA, sadly. Organizations need to stay up to date. This rant of Sawyer’s was not that.

        Liked by 4 people

    1. Wasn’t Sawyer’s tenure as SFWA president only 6 months (due to some incident or series of incidents that I’ve never been quite clear about)? Seems like an awfully short level of experience to be using as one’s credentials for providing opinions about how the current folks are doing it wrong.

      P.S. I’ve read quite a bit of Sawyer’s fiction. I generally enjoy it while I’m reading it, but find it vaguely dissatisfying afterwards. This may be my fault for continuing to be attracted by the advertised premise without remembering the previous times that that has led to disappointment (generally, the closer the works are to the present, the better I like them – something about how Sawyer attempts to portray the future falls flat with me).


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