I’ve been accepted as a full member of the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America.
What is the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America?
The Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America is a professional organization for, well, it’s right there in the name, isn’t it?
In addition to offering resources, advice, and networking opportunities for its members, the SFWA oversees one of the two top-tier awards in the genre, the Nebulas (the other is the Hugo Award from the World Science Fiction Society).
Why I Joined the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America
I had my eye on membership for many years. As a life-long lover of science fiction and fantasy, of course the Nebula Awards were on my radar. There’s a certain air of prestige to the idea of membership, too… and I’ll admit the idea of being in the same club as many of the creators who’ve influenced me since I was a child has always been compelling.
Until relatively recently, though, the criteria for eligibility in the organization effectively ruled out most independent author-publishers like myself, so I put membership out of my mind.
Every so often, though, authors I respect are nominated for, or win, a Nebula; folks with whom I have (often, pardon the pun, nebulous) connections serve as president…
…and sometimes, the SFWA, as an organization, does something baffling.
In May of 2022, after the SFWA sanctioned grandmaster Mercedes Lackey (there was a link to their statement about that, but it’s since disappeared) for what was by most accounts an unintentional verbal faux pas, bewildered irritation inspired me to revisit their membership requirements.
What can I say? Indignation can be a powerful motivator for this Gen X punk.
I discovered things had changed since I’d last looked, both for the SFWA and for me. I was now eligible, and, indeed, had been for some time.
I submitted my dues and proof of eligibility and now, a couple weeks later, here I am, a full member.
This is one of those situations where I feel compelled to say, “I’m sure everyone involved is lovely…”
A Nice Welcome
Once I learned of my membership, I wrote up my obligatory introduction post in the members-only online forum, and it wasn’t more than half an hour or so before welcome messages began coming in. That was nice. Skimming through the posts, the tone seems friendly and relaxed.
I was a bit struck by how quiet (measured by the age of most recent posts and replies) most of the forums are.
If there’s a place the most active of the 2,000 members of the SFWA congregate, the forums aren’t it… and if the forums are it… “most active” isn’t, so much.
Maybe there’s a secret Slack or Discord server I’m too green to be privy to…
A Cob-webby Site
Browsing through the website, I’m surprised to see so many pages that, based on references to things coming up in 2018 (for example), haven’t been updated in years.
Even on pages where the essential information maybe hasn’t changed in four or five years, dated references like that erode confidence, and risk presenting the organization as stagnant. On that very same page, one can read, “For some reason though, we’ve always had difficulty presenting our services in a meaningful way.”
Maybe start by keeping your website — the organization’s proxy on the web — vibrant, current, and up to date.
The (Dis)Member(ed) Directory
One of the biggest draws of membership, at least for me, is access to the member directory. I’d love to see who’s in the metaphorical room with me.
Unfortunately, all links to the membership directory serve up a “404” error — web-speak for “what you’re looking for is either broken, doesn’t exist, or has been moved.”
Took me a lot of digging to figure this one out: somewhere around May 21st, 2022, someone with valid SFWA login credentials signed in and “scraped” (automatically copied by means of a script or “bot”) all of the public-facing member information. They then released it “to the public,” whatever that means in this case.
In response to this, the SFWA took the entire directory down while they look for “a better solution to help facilitate communication between members.”
As someone who spends a lot of time working with authors and their websites and social media, I have… thoughts.
First, you don’t take a resource down without some kind of notification in its place.
A simple “The Membership Directory is temporarily unavailable. Please see <link to press release> for more information and please contact <person> if you have questions or concerns” would be easy to implement.
The SFWA website’s content manager has had three weeks to set up a very basic page to that effect.
Instead, new members (and there are several every day, based on the Welcome section of the forums) are shown a broken web page.
Not only is that disheartening to encounter after dropping as much as a hundred bucks on membership dues, it makes for an awful first impression, and is unnecessarily unprofessional.
As for “a better solution,” well, I can’t really speak to that, because I don’t know what the old directory looked like, what software it used, and so on.
Again, though, I have thoughts.
The person who scraped the data didn’t break in, they didn’t “hack” the site. They logged in with valid credentials and took what they wanted. Anyone with legitimate access could do it. Their offense was that they chose to distribute that data to the public (read: non-members).
If the culprit was a member, well, there’s not much to be done. Anyone can use a tool like wget to do much the same to pretty much any website.
If the culprit was not a member, only used a member’s credentials… that’s a relatively straightforward fix. Two-factor authentication should be required if a login comes from an unrecognized device, or from a geographical location that doesn’t match the member’s usual IP address. Or, access to the member directory could be time-limited, requiring a new login after a certain amount of time has passed.
A Societal Problem
But honestly? This is a societal problem, not a technical one.
The members of the SFWA — writers — are not high-value targets (in other words, individually they’re probably not worth the effort to extort or fleece — again, they’re writers) for some outsider group of cyber-criminals.
So it’s likely this was a straight-up inside job by a member with an axe to grind, bone to pick; what have you.
In other words: this shit is going to happen, and there’s nothing anyone can do about it.
Punishing the other 1,999-ish members by removing a paid-for resource does nothing useful.
Meanwhile, though… seriously, SFWA… for the sake of appearances, replace that 404 page…
I know, I know… I’ve used a lot of words to complain.
I’m a brand new, dues-paid member expressing not a little disappointment that an organization dedicated to serving people who write science fiction (among other things) doesn’t seem to have a good grip on the technology it uses to communicate to its members and the world.
But then, the bewildering behavior of the SFWA is, remember, one of the reasons I joined.
That said… I am grateful the SFWA exists, and for many of the services and resources it provides. Such as…
Arguably, Writer Beware, which is accessible to SFWA members and the general public, is its greatest public good.
For at least a couple of decades, the site has warned writers about disreputable and unscrupulous editors, agents, publishers, service providers, and other entities that might take advantage of writers and authors. Invaluable.
The Grievance Committee
Recently in the news when they came to bat against Disney on behalf of Alan Dean Foster, the SFWA Grievance Committee is “the last resort before legal action” when an author isn’t being compensated as expected.
This might come as a surprise to you, dear reader, but, as I might have mentioned, most writers don’t make a whole lot of money from their creative endeavors. Even when they do, it can be a struggle to get paid. The Grievance Committee helps make sure contracts are honored.
That’s a big deal.
Medical and Legal Emergency Funds
These are loans and grants to offset legal and medical expenses in situations that would otherwise leave a writer unable to write.
As a new member of the SFWA, I’m proud some portion of my membership dues goes toward supporting these good works. As self-employed people, very often writers are uninsured, or our insurance isn’t the best.
Me and the SFWA
I allocated a hundred bucks to be part of the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America. One of the hours of work I did for clients in May went to the SFWA. Since then, heck, at least a couple of hours went into writing this blog post. I’m invested. So.
I intend to be a part of it.
What that means in practice remains to be seen.
The SFWA expects its members to volunteer their time for many things; I don’t always have the bandwidth for that after serving clients and my own creative endeavors, so we’ll see how that goes.
At least at first, though, I’m going to do my best to participate in conversations with my fellow members and with the leadership. I don’t want to only be a gadfly, but I believe in the mission:
“The purpose of the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America is to promote, advance, and support science fiction and fantasy writing in the United States and elsewhere, by educating and informing the general public and supporting and empowering science fiction and fantasy writers.”
That means I’m going to speak up when I think the SFWA is acting to the detriment of that mission. I’ll do my best to keep that criticism constructive.
I also hope to meet new folks in my field, make connections, and hopefully make friends. I’m especially keen to meet members local to me, face to face. Again, we’ll see how that goes.
I’m proud to be a member of the SFWA. The corollary is: the SFWA has to make me proud.