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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David Steffen

David Steffen is an editor, publisher, and writer. If you like what he does you can visit the Support page or buy him a coffee! He is probably best known for being co-founder and administrator of The Submission Grinder, a donation-supported tool to help writers track their submissions and find publishers for their work . David is also the editor-in-chief here at Diabolical Plots. He is also the editor and publisher of The Long List Anthology: More Stories From the Hugo Award Nomination List series. David also (sometimes) writes fiction, and you can follow on BlueSky for updates on cross-stitch projects and occasionally other things.

20 thoughts on “On Unqualifying for SFWA”

  1. I’ve been meaning to write a similar post for a long time.

    In short: SFWA is allowed to be any organization they want to be, including one that is not interesting or useful to me. They can be the “professional novelists union” if that’s what they want to be, and I’ll look into joining the professional novelists union when I need such a group. Currently I need such a union about as much as I need to be a member of the electrician’s union or the teamsters.

    Why am I going to keep battering down the doors to an organization who seems to be doing everything it can to convince me that it’s not for me?

  2. To qualify for SFWA Active status with a novel, a writer has to be paid at least $2000. There were lengthy debates among current SFWA members on the member-only SFWA forums about the change. I can’t speak about all the opinions expressed, but the consensus seemed to be that the 10,000 word mark was closer to novel qualifying method, and thus more fair. Previously, to qualify for Active status with short fiction, one only had to have three SFWA qualifying sales totaling more than $250.

    I too only have four SFWA qualifying sales, though I’ve sold several other stories at pro rates, and I too fall shy of the 10,000 word mark. However, since I qualified for Active membership before the rule change, I am able to renew my membership and remain an Active member with voting privileges. I don’t really have a problem with the 10K word mark, but I know others disagree (and I know it’s frustrating for some to have the finish line moved that much farther away from them).

    I do think some current SFWA members have problems with flash fiction, and another new rule change seems to reflect that. Now prospective Associate members (Associates have access to many of he same resources as Active members, but don’t have voting privileges) can only qualify with a sale of 1000 words or more to a SFWA approved market, excluding a number of markets on the SFWA approved list that don’t publish work that long (e.g. Nature Futures).

    I’ve asked that this rule for Associate membership be reviewed, and though I haven’t heard anything more about this issue, the new board members haven’t been in place very long, and things do not always move quickly in SFWA.

    As it happens, I renewed my SFWA membership yesterday and I intend to keep renewing it. I’m not particularly concerned that I don’t have 10,000 words of fiction published in SFWA approved markets yet, because I know my next sale will put me over that mark. I renewed because I believe SFWA still has some influence over the markets for novel-length fiction, and while I don’t have a finished novel to pitch to agents and/or publishers yet (I actually took a break from working on my novel-in-progress to write this), I will soon, and I want to be able to have my voice heard NOW over issues that will likely affect me in the future.

    I think there is an ongoing debate among SFWA members about the purpose of the organization. It will be interesting to see how SFWA adapts (hopefully) to the changing publishing world.

  3. >>To qualify for SFWA Active status with a novel, a writer has to be paid at least $2000.

    To further clarify, a novelist has to be paid an ADVANCE of $2000. Very different from being paid $2000 with royalties included.

    >>but the consensus seemed to be that the 10,000 word mark was closer to novel qualifying method, and thus more fair.

    Hmmm….. That’s interesting. Confusing to me, but interesting. That just provokes further questions.

    1. If the problem is the amount of pay involved, why wasn’t the amount of pay considered the actual target rather than word count? The new rate of 6 cents a word is still far from what would really be considered a fair wage in any field besides writing, especially considering the amount of work that a writer may put into researching, revising, writing stories that don’t sell, etc.

    The reason for not targeting the pay rate is probably that short fiction magazines are already rarely a profitable enterprise. In this Internet age they’re easier than ever to launch, but a lot of magazines operate at a loss or are happy to break even. SFWA qualification of a market gains it tons of attention from submitting writers and is one of the best benefits of the organization, but if the rate were doubled, the effect would probably be that magazines that tried to meet the rate would more often just quickly fail.

    But I fail to see how the minimum word rate really solves the difference between novelists and short story writers. It doesn’t solve the problem that it’s very very hard to be profitable as a short story publisher. Focusing on the word count instead of the pay rate just shifts the burden from the short story magazines to the short story authors, as if to say “The real problem is that you’re not making enough money as a short story writer. So writing more money at a similar rate will definitely solve that problem.”

    2. It’s unreasonable to expect a short story requirement to be on par with a novelist requirement because in the market as it is today, there are a lot more people reading novels than short stories. Most non-writer readers I know aren’t even aware of short story magazines. I would like that to change, and I think that the popularity and availability of quality publications like Lightspeed and Clarkesworld can help with that. The flow of money is not equivalent between the two. I wish it were, but I don’t know how to directly change that.

    3. If the idea really was to try to make the short story requirement more on-par with the $2000 Advance novel requirement, then I think SFWA is pushing in the wrong direction. The $2000 advance is rooted in tradpublishing, where slow publication schedules made the advance a necessity to keep the writing going until royalties could be distributed. For traditional kinds of publishing deals, I think that the requirement of the advance MIGHT be a worthwhile one because it encourages the publisher to not just forget about the author–but then again, if an author does not meet that advance then that kills future chances of publishing novels in the traditional way because the publisher has now lost money on the deal. If the author meets the advance, then they’d have made that in royalties anyway. If the author doesn’t meet the advance, then they’re going to have a hell of a time selling a second book in a traditional publishing fashion because they’ll have that history behind them–so I’m not convinced that the advance is a good criteria to be focusing on. It does have some benefit in that it ensures that publishers who want to get the extra attention offered by SFWA have to invest some amount of money in their authors so they don’t just pile up authors and neglect them in the hopes of occasionally striking it rich. But I think that a novel publisher should be qualified at least partially based on ROYALTY RATE to encourage an increase in that number. And authors should be qualified based more on total amount of income rather than the advance which in the long run is not all that meaningful to an author’s career.

    But with this requirement, an author could get a $1500 advance and sell millions of copies and wouldn’t qualify for SFWA. Or a selfpub author could make no advance because they’re not publishing with a trad publisher, but could make 70% royalties instead of the single digit royalties paid very quickly instead of slow single-digit royalties of a trad publisherand if they’re popular enough could make more than that $2000 in a timespan that’s less than the timespan where they might actually receive the check for the advance in tradpublishing, but again they’d be excluded. The fact that short stories aren’t equivalent to this model is not a problem with short stories, it’s that the $2000 advance requirement for novels is aimed at a publishing model that is becoming less and less the norm.

    Maybe there needs to be a different KIND of membership for short story writers and novelists? I don’t know. Writing a short story and writing a novel require different skills, are often done for different reasons, and you can expect to reap different rewards. I don’t think that anything anyone will do will change that because they are just inherently different mediums. We would do better to acknowledge that and work with it, rather than try to force the two into some kind of awkward equivalence that would probably be of no benefit to either medium.

  4. >>but the consensus seemed to be that the 10,000 word mark was closer to novel qualifying method, and thus more fair.

    Once again, SFWA is signalling that they are for trade pub novelists, and are only willing to entertain short story writers who behave like trade pub novelists.

    >>Maybe there needs to be a different KIND of membership for short story writers and novelists?

    Or a different organization who cares about short story writers. Or self-pub authors. Or people at the beginning of their career, who still have day jobs.

    SFWA doesn’t seem to want to cater to those people. So if they don’t want to, they don’t have to. I’m tired of being told that I should come help shape SFWA into some other organization that it clearly doesn’t want to be. Let it be what it wants to be, which happens to be something that is not useful for me personally.

  5. The issue of self-published authors qualifying is something I know the board intends to address.

    You brought this up earlier, David, and I happen to agree. I think SFWA should adapt to become more relevant to part-time writers who aren’t interested in becoming full-time writers, which I’ve been told was NOT the original intent of the SFWA founders. There’s an ongoing debate among members about whether SFWA should serve the needs of “professional” writers (people who earn their income solely from writing), or if it should ALSO serve part-time writers (people who earn a significant portion of their income, however they choose to define “significant,” from writing). This fits right into the self-publishing issue.

    I admit I wasn’t thrilled with the 10K word decision (particularly because it looked like a response to new members qualifying solely with flash fiction), but I came around to it (and it’s always going to be some artificially determined mark). In my mind, the 10K mark does not separate the casual writer from the “professional” writer, it separates the casual writer from the semi-professional writer I describe above.

    I’ll also add that even as an Associate level member of SFWA, I was able to participate in the debates about some of these issues, and I’m definitely in favor of making qualifying for Associate status more inclusive, including making it possible to qualify with flash fiction. The market wants flash fiction, and if we aren’t aren’t providing the market with what it wants, what’s the point?

  6. >>SFWA doesnà ₠℠t seem to want to cater to those people. So if they donà ₠℠t want to, they donà ₠℠t have to. Ià ₠℠m tired of being told that I should come help shape SFWA into some other organization that it clearly doesnà ₠℠t want to be. Let it be what it wants to be, which happens to be something that is not useful for me personally.

    I completely agree.

  7. >>The issue of self-published authors qualifying is something I know the board intends to address.

    I look forward to hearing what comes of that. I hope they’re actively working on it now, because I think the longer that it takes the more the growing body of selfpubbers are just going to say “why do I care?”

  8. Also, if advances are the only monetary value considered for novel sales, shouldn’t that advance at least be required to meet the minimum cents/word requirement? Consider a 40,000 word novel (I pick that length because for award season that’s considered to be the shortest length that is considered a novel). At $2000 that’s 5 cents/word, which no longer meets the cent/word minimum for short stories.

    And it only gets farther from that market the longer the novel is, because the advance requirement doesn’t change with novel length–so an 80,000 word novel only has half the word rate, etc…

    I’m not suggesting that the minimum advance amount be raised to meet the cents/word requirement. Rather, I’m trying to illustrate why using advance amount as the sole determination of value isn’t even self-consistent with the short story rate, and why something that actually depends on sales of the novel has to be part of the criteria if you want the measure to be meaningful.

  9. I think dollar figures only confuse the issue. What we need is the helpful clarity of an analogy:

    Joining SFWA is like joining the super-cool club of apes with big sticks. To gain entry into this super-cool club, you must pass the gatekeeper ape who wields his/her own sizable stick. If your stick is big enough, you can howl and wave it around, and the gatekeeper ape will let you pass. If you collect a few smaller sticks and then howl and wave them around, the gatekeeper ape will briefly consider braining you with his/her own stick but will eventually relent and let you pass.

    However, if you collect a bunch of thin sticks and howl and swing them about, the gatekeeper ape will scratch his/her own butt and say, “Those aren’t sticks, they’re twigs.”

    You’ll protest, “But they’re made of wood and if you wrap all the twigs together, they’re bigger than a stick.”

    At that point, the gatekeeper ape will hit you with his/her big stick and say, “Take that, twig boy!”

    Then all the members of the super-cool club of stick-wielding apes will laugh and howl and wave their sticks about, while the zoo-going public complains that the stupid monkeys with sticks should really get back to poo-flinging because they’d heard the stupid monkeys were really good at it.


    And it all clicks right into place, doesn’t it? You’re welcome. 🙂

  10. QUALITY is another issue overlooked in SFWA membership. à ₠ŔInflectionà ₠by Tina Connolly, published in Daily Science Fiction and reviewed by me here in Diabolical Plots, is one of the most literary speculative fiction stories Ià ₠℠ve ever read. Yet it is only 817 words. Heà ₠℠s what I said in my review: à ₠ŔFor such a short piece of fiction, à ₠ŔInflectionà ₠has a high percentage of literary devices. No small feat. A good one for the literature textbooks.à ₠Ted Chiang is not a prolific author, yet he wins a lot of awards. Karl Bunker recently sold to Asimovà ₠℠s and Analog and one of his stories was recently selected by Gardner Dezois for his Yearà ₠℠s Best anthology. Bunker sells only one or two stories a year. He doesnà ₠℠t crank out the volume, but he maintains the quality.

    Carl Slaughter

  11. How many flash markets are there? And how many flash markets pay 6 cents a word? So MARKET AVAILABILITY is another factor.

  12. Does PODCASTING count toward membership? Because Mur Lafferty won several Parsec Awards before her Shambling Guides series sold to Orbit. What about RESELLING stories? David has resold one of his stories several times. A sale is a sale.

  13. >>QUALITY is another issue overlooked in SFWA membership.

    The trouble is that quality is by it’s nature a qualitative measure. I thought three of the four Hugo nominees for short story this year were no good, even though they sold to respectable markets, but that’s just a matter of taste. All of the current guidelines are quantitative–there is a clearly defined measurement, a yardstick to define membership eligibility, and there’s no subjectivity to it. A person either qualifies or they don’t.

    >>Ted Chiang is not a prolific author, yet he wins a lot of awards. Karl Bunker recently sold to Asimovà ₠℠s and Analog and one of his stories was recently selected by Gardner Dezois for his Yearà ₠℠s Best anthology. Bunker sells only one or two stories a year. He doesnà ₠℠t crank out the volume, but he maintains the quality.

    I’m going to be honest–I’m not sure what point you’re making with this part. It’s not that you’re wrong, I’m just not sure what that has to do with the topic at hand.

  14. On the subject of quality I think the current SFWA guidelines probably do as good as can be done in requiring sales to be to qualifying markets and to require qualifying markets to have a minimum circulation number of 1000, so they have at least gathered an audience. Whether that audience has good taste is something that is again qualitative, but circulation numbers are quantitative.

    >>How many flash markets are there? And how many flash markets pay 6 cents a word? So MARKET AVAILABILITY is another factor.

    Yes, but that’s really a separate issue. If editors/publishers don’t choose to make flash fiction markets, then nothing SFWA puts in their guidelines is going to change that. I could see there being a reverse effect, though. If an aspiring editor is thinking of starting a market and sees SFWA guidelines as being averse to flash, they might reconsider making a flash market.

  15. >>Does PODCASTING count toward membership? Because Mur Lafferty won several Parsec Awards before her Shambling Guides series sold to Orbit.

    If you’re talking about self-publishing stories on a podcast, then no that does not count toward SFWA membership. Not because of the medium, though, but the lack of working through a qualified publisher. The rules are not prejudiced against the audio medium per se–one of my own qualifying sales was to Escape Pod. But in general podcasts are distributed for free, and in general most people on the Internet won’t donate for free stuff, so trying to make enough money to maintain a well-paying publishing entity in podcast form is HARD and RARE.

    >>What about RESELLING stories? David has resold one of his stories several times. A sale is a sale.

    I don’t believe that the current publicly posted rules are against reselling stories, though the private bylines that they’re based on might be a different case? This has never been a big deal, though, because reprints typically pay significantly less than original fiction. This makes sense from both the editor/publisher standpoint and the author standpoint. From both perspectives, reprint rights are significantly less valuable than first publishing rights because with first publishing rights, no one has ever read this story before and so it’s new to absolutely everyone–not so with reprint rights. Lightspeed, for instance, is a SFWA qualified market and pays 6 cents a word for new fiction as part of that requirement, but they pay 1 cent per word for reprints–which is not a bad rate for a reprint, as the author’s already been paid for first rights somewhere else.

    IF you could find a publisher that qualified for listing as a pro SFWA market, and they did pay at least 6 cents per word for a reprint, I think that that sale would count for the author toward SFWA membership as the rules stands. And if you could find a publisher that does this, please let me know, because I will send them all my reprints.

    1. The question of reprints sort of came up on the SFWA forums. Cutting to the chase, you can only count a story ONCE, so if you happened to sell it to a SFWA market, then turned around and sold it as a reprint to another SFWA market for 6 cpw, you would still only have one SFWA qualifying sale. However, you might be able to sell a story to a non-SFWA market, then turn around and sell it to a SFWA approved market as a reprint for 6 cpw and have THAT sale count, but I’m not sure.

      And to clarify something that hasn’t come up yet, you need at least three sales to hit the 10,000 word mark, meaning you can’t sell a single 10K word novelette and have it count as your Active entry, you’d still need two more SFWA qualifying sales.

      1. Regarding not being able to use two sales of the same story towards membership–that makes sense. That would seem like a scam if someone tried it. Regarding if a story sold to a non-SFWA market than got paid full price for reprinting, I would think that would count toward SFWA. Why not?

        But neither of those really matter until a SFWA-approved market shows up that pays pro rates for reprints.

  16. So, that’s actually the situation I am (was) in. I sold a story for pro rates ($0.05 at that time) and then later sold it as a reprint to Escape Pod. They had a minimum payment rate, and the story was on the short side (~1800 words I think), so I ended up actually being paid more for the reprint than for the original.

    I was (mentally) counting each of those sales as a qualifying sale.

    I didn’t think I was trying to scam the system. I just thought of it as selling a story to two different SFWA markets for pro rates, something that is just as difficult the 2nd time around as the first time around. Unlikely, yes, but, I don’t know, I can’t think of any reason why it shouldn’t count. Conceivably my reprint was competing against originals for that spot.

  17. Shane,
    Interesting situation! The situation had honestly never crossed my mind before Carl mentioned it. You’re right that the reprint would’ve been just as difficult to sell as the original–not looking down on reprints. And “scam” was a harsh word that I didn’t really mean to direct at anyone, it just seemed like a situation that wouldn’t have actually come up for anyone anyway so i wasn’t too thoughtful about my words. Sorry about that!

    I feel that the intent of the rules of having three pro sales is not just to show you can write saleable stuff, but I think it might also be to show that you can write several different stories that will sell, rather than somehow selling the same story three times. But that’s just the general impression I get from the way the rules are written and I’m just speculating.

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