I upgraded to a Full SFWA membership at the beginning of January. Finally. “Finally” because I’ve been eligible but under-documented for a while, under the current rules. And also because, even after I decided to just restrict myself to recent publications, I had a whole set of files sitting unsent on my hard drive since…October, mostly? (Note that the staff completed their verification in less than 24 hours, on the heels of the holidays. That’s a ridiculous degree of bureaucratic efficiency; I would’ve been impressed if they opened the email before the end of January.)
The new membership requirements are loosey-goosey about format, length, medium, and pay rate. (This change worked in my favor: I was able to count $.08/word flash sales and sales to semi-pro markets, something I would not have been able to do under the previous rules.)1 There is an income bar to clear, however you can clear it, and that’s it. The approach makes a lot of sense to me. There’s a refreshing amount of clarity and an allowance for the gig-type nature of many writers’ careers.
I’ve always planned to write for publication, even though I’ve never planned to count on writing as a primary career. That is perhaps the single most sensible job- or career-related decision I’ve ever made, and it’s due in part to SFWA: in the ’90s, I read an article on the website talking about the death of the midlist.2 I had the ego to think that people might read what I wrote, but I never thought a lot of people would read what I wrote, so articles and stats like that made it clear that I should treat writing as a serious hobby while working a day job. That skepticism about the business end has generally stuck with me, even with the various changes to publishing practices and technologies during the intervening years. My disappointments have been tempered by low expectations.
For some people, joining a professional organization is a goal. I figured that it would be more of a side effect: if I made enough sales to qualify, I’d probably join. Since I’m the sort of nerd who pays attention to the politics of professional organizations I don’t belong to, I followed various kerfuffles over the years. Fifteen, twenty years ago, I sometimes gave SFWA the side-eye. But in more recent years, I found myself approving of various public stances.
I didn’t think I’d bother joining at the Associate level. I wasn’t expecting any concrete benefits from membership and I had a bit of…not quite imposter syndrome, but maybe seeming too keen. And then, shortly after I made sales that would qualify me for Associate membership, SFWA announced that it would waive membership fees for Black writers (among other actions aimed at an antiracist response to Black Lives Matter). That impressed me. It wasn’t much, in the face of centuries of racism in general and pervasive racism in publishing; but I have some idea of the limits of what a small professional organization can actually do, and this seemed a good use of SFWA’s resources and platform.
That, I decided, was a decision worth supporting. My birthday gift to myself was an Associate membership. And shortly thereafter, SFWA announced its #DisneyMustPay campaign. A nonprofit professional organization was publicly calling out the Mouse (as well as doing all the behind-the-scenes legal and advocacy work). I felt even better about where my dues were going.3
Since joining, I remain pretty pleased with the organization’s public positions, including waiving fees and earmarking funds for writers and institutions in Ukraine and updating the organization’s name to the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers Association. As a member, I have occasionally visited the boards, dipped my toe into a couple Discord channels, attended virtual business meetings, recommended/nominated/voted in the Nebula Awards, intermittently attended a Nebula Conference, consistently failed to log on for other hosted events, and joined a committee. I’m planning to remain a member for the foreseeable future.
So, that’s how and why I joined, which does not quite answer the perennial question writers have: Is it worth it for me to join? The answer to that is, of course, a resounding “maybe.” There are benefits to membership, but also many free resources and programs that are open to members and non-members alike. While membership fees are waived for certain demographics or circumstances, not everybody has a spare $100 lying around. My personal advice would be to avoid tying yourself in knots to join a professional organization. It’s not just a clubhouse, but the concrete benefits of joining may not make it worth it from a strict ROI perspective.
Networking is one potential benefit; members get access to the SFWA boards and Discord. While this is a good and useful thing, there are also other ways to find that community. (I recommend neo-pros check out Codex. There’s membership overlap and similar discussions of industry news, but no fees.)
Nominating and voting in the Nebula Awards is…dandy, I guess, but not a huge draw for me personally. I have specifically avoided voting for other awards (e.g. Hugos, which a bunch of my real-life friends read for diligently) because it feels too much like homework. I don’t know why the Nebulas feel like less homework, but somehow they do, so I’m happy to fill out my ballot and shrug at the weirdness of brains.
I attended the Nebula Conference for the first time last year. It was all virtual and my presence was intermittent, but I was still glad for the experience. It’s been a long time since I’ve gone to a convention—I used to find them fun but never a terribly high priority, and COVID makes them too high risk to approach casually—and it was nice to zoom4 with folks I’ve met on Twitter or Codex or SFWA boards. One day, I will doubtless take advantage of other programming opportunities—Weekly Writing Dates and such—but that day is not today.
Am I going to run for office? Am I happy that I can vote? The answer to the first is…probably not. Certainly not any time soon. Two of the absolute best decisions I made in the past few months were to avoid NaNoWriMo and Weekend Warrior, and time-bounded writing contests are far less of a time sink than holding any sort of office for a professional organization. I’m glad I can vote, but I am hoping not to be really glad I can vote. (Some utterly vile individuals have sullied SFWA ballots. I’m a forty-something USian, so my instinctive approach to elections is “vote for the lesser evil.”)
I joined the Short Fiction Committee, an area where I feel like I have some useful knowledge and experience and can make meaningful contributions. (I’ve been very actively writing and subbing during the past few years, and I have staler, contrasting experience from the ’90s and ’00s.) I discovered a number of years ago that I am the sort of nerd who likes to join committees, and there’s a “this is gonna take a while” expectation that aligns very well with the intermittent time/energy commitment: participation without burnout!
…well, that post was longer than I’d planned. But now you have Opinions as well as a status update. And, more seriously, I feel like openness and transparency about experiences with membership organizations is a good thing, whether it has actual bearing on governance or only de-mystifies mechanics and benefits for potential members.
1. There have been a number of changes to the membership requirements of the organization over the years: the removal of a requalification requirement, which made continued active membership a publish-or-perish situation; removal of circulation requirements for periodicals; acceptance of electronic publications in membership applications. Many of these changes caused disagreements, sniping, and kerfuffles. (Back)
2. The midlist is taking an awful long time to die. But the fact that it’s still hanging on doesn’t make it a viable income-generating plan. (Back)
3. This was happening on the heels of RWA’s implosion (I am the sort of nerd who follows the kerfuffles of professional organizations I am unlikely to join). In contrast (and with things like Shades of Gray, Vox Day, and questionable editorial decisions at the Bulletin in the rearview mirror) SFWA was looking like a hoopy frood who knew where all the towels were. (Back)
4. Like “xerox,” “zoom” (“to video conference”) is now a verb. As such, it does not require capitalization (or wracking one’s brain to remember which particular video conference software was used for a given event). I’m not sorry, and I do in fact make the rules for this blog. (Back)
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