Debarkle Chapter 7: The SFWA

In our whistle-stop tour of the history of science fiction, we have met publishers, editors, writers, fans, fan clubs and conventions. However, the organised aspects of science fiction include other kinds of groups. Science fiction is many things but one thing it can be is a commercial endeavour, and the nature of capitalism means that the economic interests of fans, publishers, editors and writers are not always the same (even when a fan is also a writer, editor and publisher!).

In 1934, Donald Wollheim (who would later help lead the Futurians) sued Hugo Gernsback after Gernsback failed to pay Wollheim and other writers for stories they had written and Gernsback had published[1]. I doubt that was the first pay dispute between science fiction writer and their publisher but it certainly wasn’t the last.

A different Futurian, Damon Knight, would take a different step in protecting the interests of writers. In 1956, Knight along with writers Judith Merril and James Blish established the Milford Writers Conference[2]. The concept was for a meeting of professional science fiction writers to share ideas and experiences. In 1965 he worked with writers connected with the conference to establish a professional association of writers called the Science Fiction Writers of America[3]. In 1991 the “SF” in SFWA was extended to mean “Science Fiction & Fantasy” to clarify the inclusion of the twin genres.

In 1966, the SFWA began the Nebula Awards as a new set of awards for science fiction writing[4]. While there has always been a fair amount of overlap between the Nebula and Hugo Awards, the Nebulas are intrinsically an award for writers chosen by their peers. Like the Hugo Awards, they have not been without controversy but a full account would fall outside of the Debarkle story. However, one overlap with the political thread to the Debarkle was the 1991 Nebula Awards. The outgoing SFWA President Ben Bova invited the Republican politician Newt Gingrich to give the keynote address[5]. The context was the awards were being held in Atlanta, Georgia and Gingrich was a congressional representative from Georgia at the time and had a specific interest in space exploration. Several SFWA members walked out.

Instead, I’m skipping ahead to the late 1990s. A change was in the air within publishing. In 1994 Jeff Bezos had started, an online retailer for books[6] and other companies were taking online sales of books seriously also. With improved connection via the World Wide Web and more computing devices in people’s homes, the electronic distribution of books was also becoming far more feasible (if practically a less than great reading experience). However, the capacity for an organisation like the SFWA to adapt to changing times was limited in the normal ways of a long-standing community.

In skipping ahead though, I encounter an issue with my window into the past. The late 1990’s/early 2000s is a time in which the views and perspectives of some specific voices are readily and easily available. People who had active online platforms then and who maintained a continuity of platform into the present are easy to quote. Some of those people (John Scalzi, Charles Stross, Vox Day) are of particular interest to the wider narrative of the Debarkle. However, other relevant voices are less easy to include because either they didn’t have a strong online presence at the time or because they were using platforms (such as AoL or CompuServe etc) whose archives are no longer available or simply because they didn’t use what platforms they had to share their views on the ins-and-outs of the SFWA. In terms of both the time frame and their relevance to the Debarkle, contemporaneous accounts from somebody like George R. R. Martin (SFWA Vice President 1996-1998) and Catharine Asaro (vice-president 2002-2003 and president 2003-2005) would have added a wider perspective.

In 1998 Canadian author Robert J Sawyer ran on a reform platform for president of the SFWA. His platform included the following objectives:

1. Allowing professional English-language fiction sales anywhere in the world to count for membership (currently, we allow sales in North, Central, and South America, so a sale to Guatemala counts but one to Great Britain doesn’t).
2.Accepting electronic sales as membership credentials.
3. Establishing a Nebula Award for Best Script.
4. Allowing first publication in English anywhere in the world to count for Nebula eligibility.
5. Allowing a SFWA Grand Master to be named every year (instead of only in six years out of every ten).
6. Adopting a mild requalification scenario, requiring one sale (short work or novel) to a professional market every five years, OR one book in print, OR one book under contract with a delivery date specified in the contract no more than three years in the future. The book-in-print clause would keep all the future Asimovs — seminal names who take long breaks from actually writing SF — continuously eligible for active membership, and the five-year window should ensure that our part-timers aren’t unfairly discriminated against. Of course, no one would be kicked out of the organization — but, if such a bylaw change were approved, only those who passed requalification would be voting members.[7]

The platform had elements of further internationalising the SFWA and reducing a USA-focus, adapting to electronic sales and an attempt to push the membership more towards active writers. This last point would prove to be controversial.

Sawyer’s term of office was cut short when he resigned partway through his term and he was replaced by his Vice President Paul Levinson, who would go on to serve until 2001.

Skipping forward in time a little further, I already discussed that in 2007 John Scalzi offered himself as a write-in candidate for President of the SFWA in 2007. He said of the only nominee (a past and future SFWA President) Michael Capobianco:

“Simply put, the professional organization of speculative fiction should not be headed by people who believe their job is to hold back the future. I believe strongly that Michael Capobianco sees it as his role to hold back the future and to maintain the status quo in publishing and in speculative fiction. That battle has already been lost; the publishing world has already irrevocably changed from when Mr. Capobianco last published. It’s time that SFWA moves forward with leadership who understands this.”

John Scalzi’s platform also included some notable criticism of the Nebula Awards:

“The Nebulas are one of the two major awards in literary science fiction, but their luster has dimmed over the last several years; they are no longer the equal to the Hugos in terms of relevance and timeliness, and their nomination process leaves them open to accusations of nomination via logrolling rather than literary quality. As a result they are less useful to SFWA members in promoting their own Nebula-nominated work, and they are less useful to SFWA as a publicity-generating tool.”


“Logrolling” was a reference to the appearance that SFWA members were trading nominations for each other’s work on a quid-pro-quo basis. The nature of Nebulas as an award for writers voted on by writers meant that there is a likely correspondence between voting pattern and social networks.

Concern about relevance in both the Nebula Awards and the Hugo Awards led to speculation about an ageing demographic in the voting population of both awards. An essay at by Patrick Nielsen Hayden explored the question, linking to a statistical analysis by blogger and Hugo statistician Nicholas Whyte. In the comment, British SF author Charles Stross questioned the causes:

“Leading off at a tangent: in light of the age profile of Hugo nominees/winners, has anyone done anything similar about SFWA and the Nebulas? What’s the average age of SFWA members, and what’s the average age of Hugo voters? Could the perceived loss of relevance of the Nebulas over the past decade possibly be a harbinger of the same trend — age-related conservativism — hitting the Hugos?”

There would be further conflict in 2007 between the SFWA and the upcoming authors like John Scalzi and Charles Stross.

In August 2007 the Vice President of the SFWA Andrew Burt sent a demand to the text sharing website Scribd to remove a wide range of works on the grounds that they violated the copyright of their authors. The request was empowered by the 1998 Digital Millennium Copyright Act, a law that regulates the online use of intellectual property.[10]

Notable blogger[11] science fiction author and former SFWA Director Cory Doctorow was outraged to discover that some of his own work that he had intentionally put on Scribd had been taken down as a result of the SFWA claiming it was infringing the copyright of its author (i.e. him).

“In addition to the legal risks, SFWA’s actions have exposed it and its members to professional risk. For example, the page that used to host my book, Down and Out in the Magic Kingdom now reads, “The document ‘Down and Out in the Magic Kingdom’ has been removed from Scribd. This content has been removed at the request of copyright agent Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America.” Down and Out in the Magic Kingdom was the first novel released under a Creative Commons license, and I’ve spent the past four years exhorting fans to copy my work and share it. Now I’ve started to hear from readers who’ve seen this notice and concluded that I am a hypocrite who uses SFWA to send out legal threats to people who heeded my exhortation.”

Charles Stross called on Andrew Burt to be removed from his e-piracy role only to discover that the only person entitled to remove him from that role was the Vice President i.e. Andrew Burt.[12]

Burt’s e-piracy committee was disbanded and John Scalzi was asked by the SFWA to chair a committee to develop a new policy. Following Scalzi’s report the SFWA established a new committee…only to have Andrew Burt be the chair of the newly formed copyright committee. Cory Doctorow was not happy [13]. Meanwhile, other authors who were hoping that the SFWA would do something about the genuine piracy at Scribd, (such as Hugo Award winners Robert Silverberg, Jerry Pournelle and Harlan Ellison) were naturally angry at finding themselves appearing to be the bad guys in the dispute.[14]

Meanwhile, while the SFWA was struggling to cope with this changing world, add a new log on the fire. In November 2007, as this dispute was raging, they released their first dedicated reader for ebooks: the Amazon Kindle.[15]

Next time: Patrick Nielsen Hayden, Charles Stross and John Scalzi meet Vox Day in an argument about the Nebula Awards.



28 responses to “Debarkle Chapter 7: The SFWA”

  1. Meanwhile, other authors who were hoping that the SFWA would do something about the genuine piracy at Scribd, (such as Hugo Award winners Robert Silverberg, Jerry Pournelle and Harlan Ellison) where naturally angry at finding themselves appearing to be the bad guys in the dispute.[14]

    That’s ‘were’, not ‘where’.


  2. Not sure how you’re going to tie this to the rest of the narrative though. Does a reader need to know most/any of this in order to understand the events of the debacle? SFWA had almost nothing to do with it, other than being a source of resentment by Vox Day.


    • Multiple things:
      1. the presidency of John Scalzi
      2. the expulsion of Vox Day
      3. the overlap of the Vox Day – Scalzi feud
      4. The Vox Day – NK Jemisin feud (which directly ties to 2)
      5. The ’12 rabid weasels of the SFWA’ comment of Mary Robinette Kowal
      6. The whole great big SFWA bulletin thing,
      6.5 Dave Truesdale’s petittion
      7 Kate Paulk’s ‘glittery hoo haas’ and Hoyt’s SFWA posts

      The Sad Puppies wasn’t only a spill over of a whole bunch of inter-related SFWA fights but it was an extension of those fights. They bring in Rachael Swirsky (VP 2012-13), Ann Leckie Sec 2012-13) also, as well as figures like Truesdale, Paulk, Hoyt, Day, more ambiguous figures such as Mike Resnick (i.e. the kind of influential people that the Puppies hoped would side with them) as well as defined a kind of opposition faction (figures like Jim Hines).

      More immediately its a lead into to Vox Day (or rather Theodore Beale) being a three-time Nebula Award Juror

      Liked by 2 people

      • I’m going to deploy a question I used back in my ‘zine publishing/editing years when questions were raised to an author of a piece under consideration and the author replied with a list of answers to the questions: “Cam, is any of that information in the piece itself?”

        Because right now I’m with Greg… it doesn’t tie to what’s come before in an obvious way.

        Liked by 1 person

      • I think if that’s the connection, there needs to be more of the Why of Scalzi’s attempt in this section.

        I realize you don’t want to include things past a certain cut-off date (and I don’t remember what it is), so I presume that these other things aren’t in there because they are after the date… but do we know when Vox joined SFWA? Is there a way to include that along with the fact that SFWA is going to become more tightly embroiled in later chapters?

        To be clear, I love the idea of this project, and I have really enjoyed it until this chapter. I agree with you that SFWA needs to be introduced before things go pear-shaped, but this doesn’t feel as foundational as the other chapters did. At least to me.

        Liked by 1 person

        • With this specific chapter I didn’t want to go past 2008. The loose ends will come up in the last chapter of Part 1 which will bring all the plot lines together in 2010.

          I don’t know when Vox joined. I hunted for it. He co-authored a novelisation for one of his games and that might have been enough to qualify.

          I think I should just say upfront on this chapter that John Scalzi ends up President and battling Vox inside the SFWA and then do the record scratch thing and flashback. I mean all these chapters are really just setting the feud. The next chapters bring in Baen and Larry. Then key trio is in place.

          Liked by 1 person

      • I think I should just say upfront on this chapter that John Scalzi ends up President and battling Vox inside the SFWA and then do the record scratch thing and flashback

        I suspect any readers starting at the beginning with little knowledge before reading this of the situation will, by this chapter, be more than willing to allow you to do a teaser thing like this and then give the SFWA background.


  3. Good stuff Camestros. Introduces another major player (SFWA), illustrates some of the fault lines already existing in it that would get further cracked in the Debarkle, and ties in the previously chaptered players

    Liked by 1 person

  4. I just left a comment, pointing out that former SFWA president Paul Levinson has an active and longrunning web presence, though I’m not sure how far back it goes.

    However, it seems to have landed in the spam folder to listen at Phantom ranting about something or other.

    Liked by 1 person

  5. This is a bit confusing as an intro to the SFWA in relation to the Puppies. The disputes over what were essentially business changes from the Internet and early e-books weren’t really political and didn’t entirely result from the generational age of authors. Scalzi and Doctorow weren’t all on the same page about issues. E-books really weren’t a big issue in the Puppies campaign and this chapter makes it sound like the big impetus is going to be e-books. And while the Puppies certainly did try to engage older authors in their causes and claim that old style SFF was better and being ignored, they were highly ineffectual at it.

    It might make more sense, re the SFWA involvement, to look at controversies at SFWA not over copyright policy among white guys but instead controversies at SFWA over sexism, race and queer issues in the 1990’s and early oughts that lead up to the Bulletin and other SFWA controversies proceeding the Puppies that involved Scalzi and Beale. Beale’s scrap with Scalzi, as you’ll cover later, was political anger and then attempting to have a fake “rivalry” with Scalzi to build up his own activist brand. And his beef with Jemisin was that she existed, a black woman author who was gaining prominence and sales success and wasn’t afraid to speak out about racial and discrimination issues in the SFF field. He encouraged the Puppies to frame much of their Hugo discontent as involving the SFWA as the cool kids club running the conspiracy, etc., enough to confuse a lot of Puppy cheerleaders into thinking the SFWA controlled the Hugos.

    Jemisin’s much shared speech that set Beale off to abuse the SFWA Twitter account and get himself kicked out was partly about Beale but in terms of the SFWA and the larger field allowing people like Beale to terrorize marginalized authors, about the problems with discrimination and exclusion in the field. This was reflecting the longer running problem of the SFWA, which was that since it was an authors organization of mainly white men who wanted to things to stay quiet, it had a lot of problems attracting white women and particularly authors of color, queer authors, etc. This was partly generational, that the organization was behind the times on modern issues (like e-books) that authors needed them to go to bat on. But a lot of those issues were that the organization didn’t help get marginalized authors opportunities or deal with obstacles, help them deal with prejudiced business issues (like whitewashing covers, sexual harassment at conventions, etc.,) didn’t seem to do much to improve things, and that wasn’t entirely age related. That problem was going on for a long time, which was one of the reasons the Bulletin kerfluffle was such a large kerfluffle, followed by the sexist petition about the Bulletin, the sexist MC for the Hugo Awards banquet dispute, etc. All of those played into the Puppies’ hope to get a lot of prominent authors on their side for their claims that marginalized authors winning awards for stories they didn’t consider proper white bwanna SF was unfair and a rigged conspiracy. Their claim was mainly that all those marginalized authors (and their fans,) were getting too uppity. But the late oughts/teens disputes were the outgrowth of older problems in the SFWA, problems that are common throughout the western world — that SFWA was a white, mostly man-run organization whose members liked their advantages and didn’t see why all these other people were so upset about it.

    However, there might not be a specific incident that spurred enough controversy in that time period for you to use. But the focus on e-books I’m not sure how that ties in and it could be kind of confusing if it’s the main thing about the chapter. (Though it was a factor in the later self-published author group log-rolling the Nebula Awards.)

    Liked by 3 people

    • Thanks – yes. I mean the thing with ebooks and Amazon is that it was clearly a destabilising factor (and also ebooks is relevant to the Baen story) but as you say the three big puppy campaigns were actually quite trad pub focussed. It’s relevant to Castalia House though but also post-2015 and PupsGoingThereOwnWay Amazon is a big deal. Then there’s Chuck T (but not redoing that side of the story because it’s in the Hugosauriad). I guess I was going for a changing climate underneath things

      Liked by 1 person

      • One way of looking at the copyright crisis in SFWA is that it was the last SFWA crisis (that I’m aware of) that didn’t get sucked into a culture war context. The culture war elements were bubbling underneath the surface, but SFWAns in 2007 could argue enthusiastically about a subject without the issue rolling into accusations of partisan bias, etc., etc.

        Liked by 1 person

      • Well there are all sorts of marginalization issues around e-books and some around copyright. Nothing is divorced from marginalization since we base whole societies and industries on it. The issues I was talking about that marginalized authors complained about have been going on since the 1950’s and definitely heated up in the 1970’s-1990’s period. But the specific arguments in the SFWA over it in the oughts were not about those marginalization-relevant aspects of copyright and e-books. Instead, most of the arguments were between white men who were thus the voices who were listened to on all sides. And e-books/copyright issues were very tangential to the Puppies.

        “Culture wars” — civil rights — have always existed as an issue in the industry. It’s having some success at reducing marginalization that causes many of the outbursts. The Puppies I don’t think started out entirely trying to cast their cause as pro-marginalization (i.e. Larry wants a Hugo,) but it took them about two seconds to get into it that way as they desperately came up with arguments for why the authors who were nominated and winning Hugos should not be and why the Puppies should get those things instead. And when Larry enlisted Beale as a nominee and agitator, it became openly that way.

        Liked by 1 person

  6. Not sure this is germane but just throwing it out there.

    Google tells me that Waldenbooks closed in 2011. I would think that this would have been of more concern to genre authors around that time than worries about what impact ebooks would have. At least in the US, ebooks had been promised as the next big thing for a long time (along with multimedia) without ever making much headway on how people actually consumed content. However, people in the publishing industry were concerned with Amazon selling such a large percentage of hardcovers and paperbacks. Amazon’s business model really threatened the US bookstore model where publishers would ship product, and then pay the bookstores for what didn’t sell.

    I will say that, to judge from what I remember seeing at the time, Kindle take up was not all that popular, except among genre readers that read a lot of stuff every year. This was mainly romance readers but I would guess readers of SF&F were a close second.

    A few years ago I had a table at a small, local con as I was selling off some of our library prior to downsizing. I had some buyers who bought multiple books, but mostly seemed to be people buying saying they didn’t really buy hardcopy anymore.


  7. This one is really a rough draft. Sort of all over the place, and maybe it should be shorter, but I am a bear of very little brain right now so I’m no help.
    (Cottleston, Cottleston, Cottleston Pie)

    Liked by 1 person

    • The SFWA definitely has a role in the Puppy Debarkle. In large part because the Puppies kept trying to drag them into it. It’s just that this intro to them maybe could be moved to later when the SFWA/Beale stuff is gone into? Because this doesn’t really create a sea change moment relative to the Puppies or political climates.

      Then again, I’m not sure entirely what your focuses are going to be. You can always change things around later. 🙂


      • Yes – hard to position some things. This SFWA chapter is early in the Scalzi v Vox story. The Electrolite chapter includes SFWA things (the Nebulas, both VD & JS are members, Asaro) hence the current order. The alternative was a shorter by-the-way-the-SFWA was a thing para in the Electrolite chapter. By the end of Part 1 JS is President and Part 2 has lots of SFWA bits (then hardly any in the rest)


  8. I am reminded again of that Cat Rambo tweet about the guy going to a SFWA meeting to burn down the Hugos…

    I don’t care what chapter that ends up in, but it needs to be somewhere in the book.

    Liked by 2 people

    • Also I remember people asking why it wasn’t called “SFFWA” after 1991 and the reasons given were:

      1. we already got name recognition and legal papers
      2. it’s way harder to pronounce


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