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.]