12 September 2014 ~ 20 Comments

On Unqualifying for SFWA

written by David Steffen

Note: It has been pointed out to me that because I have qualified and joined SFWA previously, I don’t need to qualify again regardless of rule changes. As a result, I could technically join again any time I wish. For me personally it’s more the principle of the thing–becoming eligible for SFWA was a long-term milestone as I started writing, and so being able to join by being grandfathered in doesn’t feel like actually meeting that milestone anymore. Also, regardless of whether I can technically join or not and regardless of whether one agrees with my qualms about being grandfathered in, the 10,000 word minimum affects anyone who hadn’t met the previous guidelines for full membership before the deadline and is still a change that I consider very problematic in both its strategic implications of keeping out writers who excel at the shortest form and practical effects of reducing potential membership for no clear reason.

For a lot of science fiction and fantasy writers trying to lay their claim to fame, becoming eligible to be a member of SFWA is a major milestone to mark their progress, and I was no exception. At the time, to get the full Active membership you had to make 3 story sales paid at least five cents per word and which totalled more than a certain dollar amount (I forget what the exact total was, a few hundred dollars I think) and where each individual sale was worth at least $50. I reached that goal and became eligible with the acceptance of “Marley and Cratchit” to Escape Pod, adding to my prior sales of “Turning Back the Clock” to Bull Spec and “The Infinite Onion” to AE. So, I reached that goal and there was much rejoicing (by me at least). I was able to join, and could go to the SFWA suite at Worldcon 2012 which was a great place to be.

This year SFWA changed their criteria, to up the professional rate to six cents per word, and also to add a minimum word count of your qualifying stories to 10,000 words.

I generally approve of the upping of the professional rate–it needs to go up periodically to have some relation to inflation, and I think that’s really overdue. Yes, it makes it more difficult for magazines to meet the criteria, but this list of markets is a large part of why SF/F has generally higher standards than some other kinds of short story markets.

I don’t approve, though, of the 10,000 word limit. Presumably there was a specific reason–but what is that reason? It seems to me that this is a strategy specifically designed to keep flash fiction from counting toward membership. I don’t know if this is another one of those conversations where some older members of the organization think that SFWA membership should be kept only to those who have writing as their only job. Could you do that? Sure. But the organization would be small and much more irrelevant, and would explicitly exclude a whole ton of award winning authors like Ken Liu who have day jobs. Who does that benefit exactly?

So, who does this benefit,changing the rules so that flash fiction is less important? I’m not the only writer whose most sales are flash fiction. Is it because the people prompting the rule change don’t understand the form? I’ll grant you, you can’t have a full complicated plot in a flash story like you can in a longer story, but flash fiction has its own appeal that other kinds of fiction can’t do well. Anecdotally, I’ve heard speculation that this is to keep some well-paying drabble (100 word story) sales from getting you to membership, but if you can sell a drabble for $50 you are my hero and I want to pick your brain. I haven’t seen any public statements about why SFWA’s organizers thought this was a worthwhile change.

As a result of this change, I no longer qualify for SFWA membership. I have 4 individual sales, but they only add up to 9180 words. So I’d need to make at least one sale of 920 words which makes at least $50. This frustrates me, for me and other flash writers like me to be excluded for no explained reason when we meet the other criteria.

I will note as well that the rules on the SFWA website say “Three paid sales of different works of fiction (such as three separate short stories) totaling a minimum of 10,000 words to Qualifying Professional Markets”. Note that it says “three” not “three or more. Which, if that’s what was actually meant, would limit flash sales even more, because getting 10 professional 1000-word story sales wouldn’t count to get the 10,000 if you can only pick 3 of them to count. I’ve been told by members of SFWA that the actual bylaws say “three or more”, which is a relief because then I’d have even further to go–then I would only be able to count 3 of those sales to count 8200 words and I’ve just have to sell longer stories. One story of 2800 words or 2 stories that total 4100 words between them. The trouble with the website being wrong is that it’s the source that newbie writers are going to use to determine whether they should apply or not–so even though the bylaws are the source, this is the public side of it. Hopefully they’ll get the website updated soon.

And I hope that they repeal the 10,000 word minimum. At the very least, I’d like to hear why they think flash fiction isn’t valuable to the SF community, or what other strategy they might have behind this change–I don’t think such a thing would make me happy, exactly, but then we could have a discussion about the topic at the core of this rather than just complaining about the symptom.

In the meantime, I guess there’s nothing to do for it but to consider “Requalifying for SFWA” as a new milestone to reach. Onward and upward!

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