[Robert J. Sawyer] Science Fiction Writer
Hugo and Nebula Winner

SFWRITER.COM > About Rob > Rob's SFWA Presidential Platform

Platform for the Position of President of SFWA

by Robert J. Sawyer

February 26, 1998

Copyright © 1998 by Robert J. Sawyer
All Rights Reserved

On May 4, 1998, Robert J. Sawyer was elected President of the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America, defeating his closest competitor in the four-way race by a 3:2 margin. What follows is Rob's election platform statement.

[SFWA logo] I was the first to throw his hat into the ring for SFWA president. I did it because months after the call for candidates had gone out, no one was running for the position, and there was concern voiced that indeed no one would step forward. So I volunteered; I care too much about this organization to let if fall apart.

After I announced my candidacy, other very worthy individuals made known their willingness to serve; if any of them had come forward earlier, I wouldn't be running. Indeed, on the day he put forth his name, I told Norman Spinrad that I would gladly step aside. But Norman urged me to continue to run, in part because he believes that a platform as militant as his requires the real mandate that goes with being chosen by the membership over other options.

So, to contrast my platform with Norman's, I think there are things SFWA can and should be doing related to the publishing of science fiction and fantasy. However, I don't think that on its own SFWA can tackle the matters Norman is concerned about such as Thor Power Tool (which SFWA's own special committee determined had negligible impact on SF publishing anyway) or possible antitrust violations by bookstore chains. These aren't SF/F issues per se.

Still, I would like to considerably strengthen SFWA's role in dealing with such issues as part of a concerted effort in conjunction with other writers' groups. Toward that end, I would eliminate the current position of "SFWA Writers' Organizations Liaison" and instead make that part of the President's or Vice-President's job.

Even so, my presidency would concentrate mostly on the things that specifically and uniquely affect SF/F writers. A bad contract from one of the genre magazines? I'll be all over it. The banning of books in our field? You bet. No royalties for SF media tie-ins? I'll continue the fight. SF being dissed in the press? I'll address that, too.

I'm prepared to spend money; SFWA is rolling in dough, and there's no reason we shouldn't put some of our surplus to good use. I proposed what became SFWA's Random Audit Program in letters to Forum (October 1991, during the Bova administration, and August 1992, at the beginning of the Haldeman administration). These audits have been tremendously educational. I'd increase their frequency from once a year to three times a year (which would also substantially enhance their value as deterrents to publisher dishonesty). Three of the four issues of the Bulletin would contain random-audit reports (the fourth, the Nebula issue, is already full to bursting).

I'd also devolve significantly more power to regional directors, including letting them accept membership applications in person from those who have sold to approved markets (I agree strongly with secretarial candidate Michael A. Burstein — whose candidacy I wholeheartedly endorse — that bringing qualified writers into SFWA should be a top priority).

And I'd designate up to ten percent of each member's dues for activities within that member's own region (that is, each region would have a budget equal to five dollars times the number of members in that region). This money could be spent at the discretion of the regional director on specific approved activities such as regional newsletters and SFWA suites at major conventions within the region.

I'd also try to establish two new original annual anthologies — one fantasy, the other SF — open exclusively to SFWA members, published by a major house, and edited (at least as far as making the final choices is concerned) by our biggest, most-bankable names. This approach has been successful as a moneymaker and profile-raiser for the Horror Writers Association (working with Pocket Books). I'd also have the SFWA Handbook completely redone, and try to sell it to Writer's Digest Books (which is what the Mystery Writers of America and the Horror Writers Association have done with their handbooks). And I'd look into renaming the Bulletin something like SF&F Author, in hopes of increasing its newsstand and subscription circulation beyond the current few hundred copies.

Speaking of publications, I think we have an obligation to educate aspirant writers — part of Heinlein's paying-forward. I'd have us create a SFWA booklet that would be freely and widely distributed to writers' groups and at conventions: a guide to the realities of SF/F publishing (don't pay reading fees, the truth about vanity press, etc.). Wannabe writers are getting ripped off, and we should do something to educate them.

And on the topic of ripoffs, I'd end one of SFWA's own. We have many writing couples in our organization. I'd institute a family membership rate: two members, in the same membership class, at the same address, receiving one set of publications between them, would pay only $10 a year for the second membership.

I have no interest in tying up SFWA's energies with internal matters, but there are a number of issues that still fester and can only be dealt with at the bylaw level; other candidates wish simply to ignore them or to set up an elaborate online infrastructure that, I fear, will allow them to be debated forever. My belief is that we should quickly settle them, then move on to other, more important things. Therefore, I would send out a binding bylaw-changing ballot within the first ninety days of my mandate. None of these issues are new; we've all already had time to think about them. So let's vote on them and then move on. The issues include:

  1. Allowing professional English-language fiction sales anywhere in the world to count for membership (currently, we allow sales in North, Central, and South America, so a sale to Guatemala counts but one to Great Britain doesn't).

  2. Accepting electronic sales as membership credentials.

  3. Establishing a Nebula Award for Best Script.

  4. Allowing first publication in English anywhere in the world to count for Nebula eligibility.

  5. Allowing a SFWA Grand Master to be named every year (instead of only in six years out of every ten).

  6. Adopting a mild requalification scenario, requiring one sale (short work or novel) to a professional market every five years, OR one book in print, OR one book under contract with a delivery date specified in the contract no more than three years in the future. The book-in-print clause would keep all the future Asimovs — seminal names who take long breaks from actually writing SF — continuously eligible for active membership, and the five-year window should ensure that our part-timers aren't unfairly discriminated against. Of course, no one would be kicked out of the organization — but, if such a bylaw change were approved, only those who passed requalification would be voting members.
    Not part of Sawyer's original platform statement but well worth noting: ongoing membership requalification was one of the core values intended by SFWA's founder Damon Knight. In the original draft bylaws sent to the 72 charter members of SFWA on February 28, 1965, Knight proposed:

    Article II

    Section 1. Any person is eligible to become or remain an active member of the Science Fiction Writers of America who has done any of the following:

    1. Had a science fiction story published, for the first time, in an American magazine of general circulation, or in a collection or anthology published by an American trade publisher, within the previous two calendar years;

    2. Had a science fiction novel published, for the first time, by an American trade publisher within the last five calendar years;

    3. Written an original science fiction radio play or teleplay broadcast, for the first time, in America during the previous calendar year; or

    4. Written a screenplay for a science fiction motion picture released, for the first time, in America during the last two calendar years.

    Any person who has done any of the things listed in Section 1, but not within the time restrictions set forth in Section 1, is eligible to become or remain an inactive member of the Science Fiction Writers of America.

  7. Ensconcing the Senior Membership Benefit — first proposed by me in the August 1993 Forum — in the bylaws: after thirty years of continuous membership, at least twenty-five of which have been active, a member would be entitled to free associate (non-voting) membership for the rest of his or her life, allowing our retired (and, sad to say, often impecunious) elder members to keep in touch with their field.

Every active member would have a chance to vote separately for or against each of the above propositions. Of course I have personal opinions on all these issues — who among us does not? But my goal is simply to determine and enact the will of the membership.

And, yes, I'd even do some things with the Nebulas. For starters, I'd shift all Nebula Awards Report tasks onto the paid Executive Director, rather than having a volunteer do this onerous, time-consuming job.

I'd also set up a centralized system for members to distribute hardcopies of their short fiction for Nebula consideration, subsidized by SFWA to the tune of $1,500 annually (one dollar per member per year), with the shortfall to be made up by the writers who choose to participate. I proposed such a system four years ago for Canada's Aurora Awards through the Canadian writers' group SF Canada, and it has been very effective. Members could submit photocopying masters for stories they wished included in an annual mailing along with a check for a per-page share of the unsubsidized portion of the copying and mailing costs. The mailing would only go to active members who have chosen, via a check-box on the annual dues notice, to receive it. This would do something to level the playing field in the short-fiction categories. And for those members who prefer to do their own separate mailings, instead of taking advantage of the economies of scale inherent in a group mailing, I'd cut the cost of SFWA mailing labels sold to members from the current $130 per set to a cost-recovery rate of $20 per set.

In addition, I'd have SFWA set up a password-protected web site, open only to SFWA members, on which members could post for free stories that have made it to the preliminary ballot, if they wished; this seems preferable to the spate of e-mail spam, both from writers and publishers, that went out in January 1998.

Finally, one of the things I managed easily as Canadian Regional Director of SFWA was negotiating twenty-percent discounts for SFWAns at some of Canada's SF specialty stores; surely something similar could be done in the States, and would clearly be of benefit to most members.

A bit about me: I've been a SFWA member for fifteen years. I founded the Canadian Region of SFWA, and served on SFWA's Board of Directors from 1992 to 1995; you can read about all the things I did during that time in the August 1995 Forum. I won the Nebula Award for Best Novel of 1995 (for The Terminal Experiment), and I've sold eleven other novels. I've been published by Ace, HarperPrism, Tor, and Warner, and I've been represented by two of the field's top agents — Richard Curtis and Ralph Vicinanza — so I've got a fairly broad background in the standards of this industry. Although I'm usually thought of as an SF writer, I also proudly write fantasy: my short fiction has appeared in such anthologies as 100 Great Fantasy Short Short Stories and Dante's Disciples, plus the lead stories in Dark Destiny III: Children of Dracula and Urban Nightmares.

I'm not a big name but I do make my living solely by writing SF, and I am early enough in my career (my first novel came out in 1990) to understand just how tough the current marketplace is, something (if they will forgive me for saying so) that some of our superstar presidents have perhaps been somewhat out of touch with.

So, there you have it. If elected I will do the job . . . and I think I will do it well.

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