Nebula and SFWA Thoughts

Everyone knows by know who won the Nebulas so it would be otiose to post a link here. I was disappointed that McDonald’s wonderful Brasyl didn’t win in the novel category, but Le Guin’s Powers is a superb book, doubtless without a doubt.

It was nice to see that Kessel’s “Pride and Prometheus” took the novelette award; it seemed to me the clear winner in that category.

And I didn’t have the nerve to vote in the Norton, because I hadn’t read even one of the nominees. But I was powerfully tempted to vote for Wilce’s Flora’s Dare: How a Girl of Spirit Gambles All to Expand Her Vocabulary, Confront a Bouncing Boy Terror, and Try to Save Califa from a Shaky Doom (Despite Being Confined to Her Room) on the basis of its radiantly moxie-tronic title alone, so I was glad to see it copped the prize.

Re the organization itself…

I guess I’ve been an SFWA member over half a year, now, and I’m not strongly inclined to renew my membership. SFWA does some great things (e.g. Writer Beware, a powerful force against evil–which may sound ironically bombastic, but which I think is actually true). However, it’s not really clear to me that any benefit is accruing to me, or is likely to accrue to me, for belonging to this group.

The recently adopted vision statement describes SFWA as “the best source for information, education, support and fellowship for authors of science fiction, fantasy and related genres.” And this sort of crystallized my discomfort with the organization. Much of its purpose seems to be founded on what my son and infonauts like him call “friction.” In essence, friction (in this sense) is generated by information limited by gatekeepers. That situation doesn’t really obtain anymore. SFWA is offering to reduce friction (i.e. increase the flow of information) to people who are already drenched in data. It’s an offer that seems resonant with the spinning of rotary telephone dials and the rustle of newspapers–old media, dead and dying media.

What we need in the age of new media is not so much a way past the gatekeepers of information as an authoritative source that helps sort good information from bad information. I’m not convinced that SFWA is poised to become that source.

An example would be SFWA’s own internet presence which is broken–obviously broken. That’s not a complaint: it’s just an observation. (The site is impossible to find information on; it’s awash in broken links; it’s inadequately centralized; it has inputs for print media that don’t exist anymore, like the SFWA Forum–etc.) SFWA officers and staff have been working energetically to set up a new website. That’s not a complaint: it’s praise. Here’s the complaint: people are complaining about the new site–quite vociferously and in a way that’s obviously affecting the morale of the people who are doing what I, in my unsophisticated way, would call “the work.” The site has not yet had its debut, by the way–it’s the whole idea of a new site which has been causing strife.

Also, a good number of members are expressing fear and hostility at the notion that their works may appear on Google Books searches. Since I am preparing to drop several c-notes (hopefully of my university’s money) on professional books that I have only examined through Google Books, this point of view seems to me strangely out of touch. Essentially, this is free advertising for the writer forever: it’s not like they’re offering downloads of material still under copyright. But in this new and threatening world we live in, all forms of e-text are a threat until proven otherwise. Heu mihi.

If I thought that SFWA had bad officers and the solution was an election to throw the bums out, I wouldn’t be discouraged. That sort of thing can happen. But if the membership itself is projecting an aura of apathy, ill-temper and bad judgement, the matter is more problematic.

Also, the “fellowship” element doesn’t seem to me to be remarkable, compared to the experience one might have on LiveJournal or Facebook, for instance. Possibly I should withhold judgement on this until and unless I attend one of the live-and-in-person functions. (Then again, my own liveliness and personability are nothing to write home about, so maybe this isn’t such a great idea.)

About JE

James Enge is the author of the World-Fantasy-Award-nominated novel Blood of Ambrose (Pyr, April 2009). His latest book is The Wide World's End. His short fiction has appeared in Swords and Dark Magic (Harper Collins, 2010), Black Gate, the Stabby-Award-winning anthology Blackguards and elsewhere.
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17 Responses to Nebula and SFWA Thoughts

  1. sartorias says:

    I too wanted Brasyl to win.

    All five of the Norton finalists were great, so I would have been happy for any of them to win. But Wilce’s is great–and the voice fits that insouciant title.

  2. burger_eater says:

    Essentially, this is free advertising for the writer forever: it’s not like they’re offering downloads of material still under copyright.

    Actually, they are. They’re planning to offer books that are under copyright but no longer “commercially available” ie. out of print.

    And they take the electronic rights to those oop books without a contract with the author. Copyright law says that copyright can only be transferred with a written, signed contract, unless you’re Google. If you’re Google, you take the copyright, expect writers who don’t want to participate to opt out rather than opt in, and opting out is not a legal requirement. They intend to voluntarily comply.

    Also, the settlement creates a new organization, the Books Rights Registry, which will act as your agent in terms of electronic rights. Google posts your work. You get the percentage Google decides (opt out if you don’t like it! hopefully, they’ll comply), which is paid to the BRR. The BRR takes a commission and passes the rest on to you. In five years.

    That makes the BRR your new agent, in charge of handling the electronic rights for your work. The settlement also allows the BRR to grant those same rights to anyone else who wants to post them online, at the same rate Google is getting.

    This is how some publishing attorneys describe the settlement, at least.

    For right now, sure, it seems like a good thing for writers to have their work available online. Many works that were unavailable are now closer than a couple keystrokes away. Me, personally, I’ve already asked my editor if we can give away a free electronic copy of the book first. But what will happen in the future, as publishing changes and electronic rights becomes, possibly, the only rights worth selling?

    The system needs to be changed to opt in, so writers who want the advantages of being in the Google database can decide the issue for themselves.

    And if Google were doing this to music or movies, they’d have already had their weenies whacked but good. Instead, they’re doing it to writers and publishers, who can’t afford the legal battle. That’s why the Author’s Guild has been forced to swallow a shit sandwich, and is thanking Google for squirting mustard on it first.

    • JE says:

      I guess my offhand summary was inaccurate, but I don’t think the situation is quite as you state it. If writers don’t choose to opt out, and if a work becomes inaccessible, readers will be able to buy access to the books online or physical copies, for which the writer will be paid royalties. That’s really not like scribd distributing pirated copies for nothing.

      Personally, I’m not letting my books fall out of print; when rights revert to me, and if no publisher is interested in the books, I’ll put editions up through or the equivalent. If worse comes to worse, I’ll put up e-copies and distribute them under a Creative Commons license. But if I (or my heirs) can’t do this for some reason, I’d rather have the books being read than sitting unread in some library’s warehouse. I don’t see how the latter scenario benefits me (or my heirs).

      • burger_eater says:

        James, I’m not saying you shouldn’t be able to put your books in the Google database. I’m saying it should be your choice.

        And I’m not a lawyer (Thank Pikachu), but my take on the situation is based on the analysis of lawyers.

        And I hear what you’re saying about SFWA. There was a time when I really wanted to join up. In the last few years, though, I’ve been increasingly turned off.

        • JE says:

          “I’m not saying you shouldn’t be able to put your books in the Google database. I’m saying it should be your choice.”

          Yes, I do see your point on this. Sorry if I came off as truculent.

          • burger_eater says:

            Jeez, and now that my own message has turned up in my email inbox, I realize I was being pretty testy just there.

            I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to post to you in that tone.

  3. asterling says:

    Hi James – thank you for commenting and giving your perspective. I’d just like to emphasize that there could not be less of a representation of “What SFWA is” on those online discussion areas. I cannot say the damage done over the years by that problem; I really cannot.

    Very few people who actually participate in the events (planning, etc), who volunteer on other committees (about half are still functional), and/or who have done so in the past are ever seen online on SFF.NET. A toxic culture built up over the years that was allowed and kind of even condoned by a lot of the leadership over the years. Either that, or some were genuinely unaware of the issue or problem.

    Please do not take online comments of members seriously. Most everyone is very active in all of these matters you discuss. Everyone is looking at different possibilities and alternatives re: the Google Book situation (I have opted in, as has the organization – and the main future dispute for the writers’ organizations is creative control, which it currently allows some, but more could be added in the future).

    And I took Mr. McDonald to dinner Friday night and he actually rode in one of my vehicles, which means there surely must be some type of freeway/terror/angst tale soon!

    • JE says:

      Thanks for the perspective. I definitely appreciate your real-world perspective on SFWA–in addition to all the work you and others are doing for the organization.

      • JE says:

        Maybe you should write a story about the car-trip, too–that suggests a new type of thematic anthology: stories from trips in other writers’ cars…

  4. peadarog says:

    There’s far too much to comment on in this post, really there is. You could have split it out into a few different ones for my convenience.

    1) Thanks for the insight into your experience in the SFWA. It doesn’t make me feel like joining just yet.

    2) Ian McDonald should have won and not just because his book has an Irish priest.

    3) I have “opted in”, although with more than a hint of anger in my heart.

    4) I too, would rather have my books read than gathering electronic dust.

    • JE says:

      I promise to return to my pointless egotism shortly!

      And I certainly get the anger; the business has certainly been high-handed. I guess I under-emphasized that because of the rhetorical corner I’d painted myself into. (What business do I have, painting rhetorical corners? Am I Michelangelo, all of a sudden?)

  5. Anonymous says:

    I expect to join sometime in the next year (once the membership fee has less of an impact on my life). Someone once said about SFWA, “It’s the professional organization for my chosen profession. Why would I not join?” Which is more or less the camp I’m in. It’s going through changes, from the outside they appear to be positive changes, and I know and trust some of the people involved in those changes. (I also know some long-time members who bailed in the last year couple of years, and I know their reasons for doing so.) I want to offer my support to the direction it appears to be going. Much easier to do that from inside than out.

    If nothing else, I figure it’s grievance insurance.

    –Jeff Stehman

    • JE says:

      “It’s the professional organization for my chosen profession. Why would I not join?”

      There’s something to this. All I can say is the vibe I’m getting from SFWA is less professional than I expected. (That’s not a slam at the current slate of officers–and, as has been pointed out, I may be dealing with an unrepresentative sample. But I paint what I see, if you see what I mean.)

  6. Anonymous says:


    Thanks for sharing your perspective on SFWA.

    There’s a couple of thoughts I’d share with you in regards to what you’ve said. SFWA is, in many ways, undergoing both an organizational and cultural change – but it can’t and won’t happen overnight.

    Being a SFWA member (at least in my opinion) shouldn’t just be about what a person gets, but about what a person can give. Writer Beware, the Medical Fund, etc. exist to help others. The work we’re doing in regards to the Google Book settlement is also about helping writers in general, not the specific. There are opportunities to help with these activities (and others), and even if you’re not the volunteering kind, the dues paid by members help support those activities.

    Culturally speaking, SFWA members represent an incredibly diverse range of opinions. I don’t honestly believe that the 100 or so people who regularly post in the current newsgroups are necessarily representative of any one majority opinion. As we transition to the new website (in beta testing now), and as we finalize other tools that are in process, I think you’ll see that information is only one piece of a much larger pie and that the culture you’ve seen *is* undergoing a change.

    I hope you’ll consider staying a SFWA member.

    Russell Davis

    • JE says:

      I am considering it, and I appreciate the perspective you bring. (I also appreciate the heroic work you and others are doing on SFWA’s behalf.)

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