[I’m less than happy with this chapter as it stands – it lacks some other dimensions and has a perspective issue (which I discuss. I’ll plead ‘first draft’]
In our whistle-stop tour of the history of science fiction we have met publishers, editors, writers, fans, fanclubs 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. 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. 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. 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. 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. 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. Change was in the air within publishing. In 1994 Jeff Bezos had started Amazon.com, an online retailer for books 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 2000’s 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).https://www.sfwriter.com/platform.htm
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.
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 part way 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.”https://whatever.scalzi.com/2007/03/15/sfwa-president-im-a-write-in-candidate/
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.”ibid
“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 Tor.com 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?”https://www.tor.com/2008/08/11/dying-earth/comment-page-1/#comment-3341
There would be further conflict in 2007 between the SFWA and the up-coming 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 copyright of their authors. The request was empowered by the 1998 Digital Millennium Copyright Act, a law that regulates online use of intellectual property.
Notable blogger 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.”https://boingboing.net/2007/08/30/science-fiction-writ-1.html
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.
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 . 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.
Meanwhile, while the SFWA was struggling to cope with this changing world, Amazon.com 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.
Next time: Patrick Nielsen Hayden, Charles Stross and John Scalzi meet Vox Day in an argument about the Nebula Awards.
-  https://fancyclopedia.org/Donald_A._Wollheim
-  https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Milford_Writer%27s_Workshop
-  http://www.sfwa.org/about/who-we-are/
-  http://www.sf-encyclopedia.com/entry/nebula
-  https://nebulas.sfwa.org/award-year/1991/
-  https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Amazon_(company)
-  As mentioned earlier, Sawyer was somewhat of an early adopter and the generic domain name “sfwriter” is for his own website.
-  as discussed in Chapter 5 https://camestrosfelapton.wordpress.com/2021/02/16/debarkle-chapter-5-dramatis-personae-john-scalzi/
-  https://www.tor.com/2008/08/11/dying-earth/ the comment thread has everybody in it. Nicholas Whyte’s analysis is here https://nwhyte.livejournal.com/1073264.html?rfrom=nhw
-  https://boingboing.net/2007/08/30/science-fiction-writ-1.html
-  https://xkcd.com/239/ I’ll confess this is how I still picture Cory Doctorow
-  http://www.antipope.org/charlie/blog-static/2007/11/sfwa_attempts_to_commit_public.html
-  https://boingboing.net/2007/11/29/science-fiction-writ-2.html
-  https://efanzines.com/File770/File770-151.pdf
-  https://www.pocket-lint.com/gadgets/news/amazon/137303-amazon-kindle-history-kindle-to-the-kindle-oasis