SFWA: To Join Or Not To Join

written by David Steffen

NOTE: Coincidentally, there is a row going on right now about SFWA and things that Mike Resnick and Barry Maltzberg have said in their editorials in the SFWA Bulletin publication. I’m not here to comment on that argument one way or the other, and I haven’t taken great pains to follow it, but I have seen uncivil responses on both sides. I wrote this article several months ago and have only altered it to add this note at the beginning. I scheduled it to coincide with my SFWA membership renewal month, but that just happened to be about the time of this argument. If you want to know more about that argument, Google for it and I’m sure you’ll find plenty to chew on. But that’s not what I’m commenting on here.

Since I started writing SF, one of the long-term milestones I’d set for myself was to become eligible to join SFWA. SFWA keeps a list of markets that meet their criteria for professional markets, including pay rate, circulation level, regularity of publication, longevity, and variety of authors published. To become a SFWA member with short stories you have to sell three stories to qualifying markets.

In mid-2012, five years after I wrote my first word of fiction, I finally reached that goal, securing a sale to Escape Pod to add to my prior sales to Bull Spec and AE. I decided to go ahead and pay the $80 membership dues and find out what membership was all about.

Now my membership renewal is due this month, and the rates have gone up to $90. I am a pragmatic person and I don’t intend to pay that kind of money without considering the cost-benefit tradeoff. So, I’m trying to decide if it’s worth the money to renew my membership or whether I should just let it lapse. So I’m going to list out what I’ve seen as the benefits, to decide whether or not those are worth $90 to sign up again.

Note: This list is based only on my own experience of what I found to be potential benefits to being a member of the organization. Michael A Burstein mentions in the comments, for example, a print directory and the SFWA Handbook, neither of which I recall having seen.


1. Support of SFWA
Before I get any further, let me make it clear that I’m not questioning that SFWA does work that is of value. They do a lot of great things, acting as a writers’ advocate to point out when a publisher is offering questionable contracts, keeps a list of professional markets that have to meet certain criteria, provide lists of information for beginning writers to get their start and many other things. They run the Nebulas, which are one of the two big awards of the SF community.

To do this, they need money. I understand that. I think it’s worthwhile to give them some money for the things that they do. Some smaller donation per year? Definitely. $90? Well that seems pretty steep to me. Although I’ve made more than that in writing income each of the last few years, I’m not guaranteed to make that, and it would be very frustrating to me if I spent more on writing organizations than I made in writing.


2. Nebula Voting
The Nebula awards are one of the two big awards in the SF community (the other being the Hugos). The Nebulas are voted by active members of SFWA, which means you need to make qualifying sales and pay that membership fee.

There’s some satisfaction to knowing that you’ve contributed toward the award that fandom watches, but I personally have little enough influence over the result and am often surprised at the stories that actually get nominated (though not always) that it’s not something worth paying anything for.


3. Nebula Award Packet
Related to the last one is something new provided in recent years–the Nebula Packet. It’s still in kind of an experimental state, but every Active SFWA member can download all nominated works as part of the Nebula packet. They provide it so that voters can be more informed about the works that they’re voting for, but you could see the membership fee as paying for a collection of published works, including half a dozen novels and as many young adult novels.

This is certainly something of value, and it can help keep a pulse on the Nebula community, seeing what kind of stories they nominate. It’s certainly worth something, but not the full membership by itself by any means. Especially since the Hugo awards provide a similar packet for their nominees, that award is more interesting to me, there tends to be overlap between the awards, and the Hugo membership costs less money.


4. Forum
SFWA has a members only forum. Various levels of SFWA membership have access, including associate members who are not writers but who have other involvement in the community like editors. There are several benefits to the forums.

a. Interacting with industry professionals
There are plenty of recognizable names about the SFWA forums, such as Jerry Pournelle and editor Gordon Van Gelder. If you want a place to interact with them, this isn’t a bad place to do it.

But I’ve been spoiled by Codex forum, which costs nothing, has interesting and active conversations, and has both rising stars and some very recognizable names. A lot of the big names that would be on the SFWA forum are already reachable in some other online presence, Codex or Facebook or Livejournal or elsewhere. And, well, the SFWA forum is not particularly well moderated–an argument can escalate into something very unpleasant and not much is done about it. If you come across one of those conversations it makes for a very unpleasant experience. So while these conversations are of some value, there are perhaps better and free places to get similar things.

Note: Cat Rambo pointed out in the comments below that there is a new moderation team in place led by Cat

b. venue for sharing your published stories for award consideration
There is a section of the forum specifically for sharing your stories with other members for them to consider for Nebula nominations. In theory this is a handy way to spread the word about your stories.

I say “in theory”, but since others only read what they feel like, work by a relative no-name like me is probably not going to be read by most people. Again Codex has spoiled me, because they have something similar on that forum, and when I participated in that on Codex I got feedback from many people who actually did read the story as a result. I expect this has to do with establishing rapport with the Codex people because I’ve been in closer contact with them.

c. free fiction from industry professionals
In the same forum where you can share your award-eligible work, of course others are sharing theirs. The work posted there varies from various levels of experience, but there is plenty of good work to be read there and from more renowned sources. For instance, Gordon Van Gelder seems to post most F&SF stories there, so if you like that magazine enough you might consider the SFWA fee more reasonable as providing something like a F&SF subscription.

This would be a perk if I had more time than I knew what to do with. But I already have way more fiction to read than time to read it, so adding more fiction posted by its writers isn’t a huge perk.

d. Nebula suggested reading list
This is definitely a neat feature, a list of stories sorted by the number of recommendations given for it. Unlike the self-posting of stories, the result is more meaningful (authors are not allowed to recommend their own stories). This is very neat because you can get an early pulse of what people like before the award results are out. If you care about such things it can guide your reading or just give you a list of well-liked fiction.

This is a neat feature, but essentially only because it gives you a peek at what the Nebula results might be before the Nebula nominations are announced. That’s not something worth money to me.


5. GriefCom
This is the grievance committee available only to SFWA members. If you have a problem with a contract they will help you sort it out. SFWA is a large enough and visible enough organization in the fandom community that they do have some clout to clear up contract conflicts when they arise.

I can see how this would be hugely beneficial for higher stakes contracts, like with novels. However, at this point I write short stories pretty much exclusively. Short story contracts are generally very straightforward, and most of those that I have managed are low enough yield that paying a membership fee to get help with potential problems would be counterproductive. If I did sell a novel I might consider starting a membership in case I needed help.


6. Emergency Medical Fund
This fund provides interest-free loans to Active members in emergency medical situations

This seems to be mostly beneficial to someone who doesn’t have health insurance. I do, so that’s not a draw.


7. The SFWA Bulletin
The SFWA bulletin is a quarterly nonfiction magazine that provides writing advice articles, reviews, market rundowns, and other information about the SF publishing field. You can subscribe to the Bulletin if you’re not a member, but it costs as little as $32 for a year in the US, to $90 a year for outside of North America, or $10 per single issue.

If you find this content valuable, this would be a big draw of membership, justifying a great deal of the cost since you don’t have to pay for the subscription then. But none of the information in the magazine issues that I’ve seen so far has struck me as anything that I couldn’t find elsewhere, and generally I don’t find writing advice all that helpful because each writer really has to find their own way in any case.

In addition, by what I’ve heard the production of this magazine takes up a large portion of the SFWA budget. Why, I’d like to know, is it deemed worth that kind of expenditure? If this magazine weren’t taking up a bunch of the budget, the money could be spent elsewhere and perhaps rates could lower.


8. The SFWA Member Directory
Active members have access to a member directory in which each member can provide whatever contact information they want, addresses, phone numbers, emails or whatever.

While this is a convenience, I don’t see this as a big value. Most anyone who is a writer these days who would respond to contact from me is going to have an online presence anyway. It would make more sense, in general, for me to contact them via those publicly available routes than to cold-call them. Maybe there will come future work that I will be involved in for which this kind of contact information would be useful, at which point I may need to reconsider this opinion.


9. SFWA Convention Suites
SFWA hosts a convention suite at some convention. WorldCon for sure, I’m not sure what other ones. Members can come, as well as bringing a guest. There is food and drinks, sometimes meals or other times snacks. Other SFWA members come and go. Sometimes there might be specific events in the suite, like release parties or retirement parties.

So far I haven’t been very active on the SF convention circuit. I am very frugal by nature, and especially since I have a family to which I would need to justify the travel and the expense, I haven’t done it much. I did go to WorldCon 2012, however, which was a really great experience. Even once I decided to go I wanted to keep down my expenses as much as possible, sharing hotel room and other cost-saving measures. One of the things that I at first found was hard to be frugal on was food, since the hotel convenience store had the most expensive and most disgusting wrap that I’ve ever eaten, the cheapest thing they had available, and going out to restaurants always adds up quickly. Soon I realized, though, that I had access to (at least) three sources of free food: the convention suite (available to everyone but mostly only very simple cheap food like peanut butter, cereal, etc), the green room (available to program participants, somewhat nicer food), and the SFWA suit (pretty good spread, even with some meals). So the availability of very good spread at certain times was huge perk and a huge money-saving measure. Also, whenever I came to the suite I would scan the nametags for people I’d like to talk to or people I’d met online, and even if I didn’t recognize anyone I met some very cool people chatting with whoever was about.




10. The secret handshake that will make editors buy your stories. Joining SFWA will make editors buy your stories.

The last sentence was a lie, but it is the kind of thing that seems intuitive from many beginners’ point of view. You can put your membership in your cover letter if you want, but it’s not going to make a lick of difference. It might be a point of mild interest, but isn’t going to make a difference in your sales. Having a marketable name can influence a sale, but your SFWA membership has nothing to do with that. Some big names aren’t members, some no-names (like me) are. It doesn’t matter. If you don’t have a marketable name, your story just have to kick enough ass that the editor wants to buy it despite your lack of notoriety. In either case, your SFWA membership does not matter.




The Verdict

So, what does it all come down to? At this point, I am not going to renew my membership. I mightpay something like $40 a year for the Nebula packet alone. I would pay some larger amount (maybe a few hundred dollars) for a lifetime membership, but $90 a year (which will certainly go up periodically as it did this last year) is just too much for me at this point in my career.

I think that at this point I’ll renew my membership whenever I am planning to go to WorldCon that year, because it is such a good place to meet people and also to save money on food expenditures that it is well worth the membership fee to do it. In the years when I do that I’ll happily read the Nebula packet and actively participate. But otherwise I probably won’t unless something big changes to convince me of the worth of a membership. With a newborn at our house, I’ll be skipping WorldCon this year. Next year it’s in London, too far of a jaunt for me. So for at least the next couple years I am out.

For those who choose to maintain their SFWA membership, I am curious to hear other points of view on the subject. What is it worth to you? Why do you do it? Do you consider cost-benefit as I have? Is it more a point of pride than a monetary value? Please share!