Update on SFWA and the Writers of the Future Contest

Published on December 27, 2018 by

On 12/10/2018, I published my blog post about SFWA and the Writers of the Future Contest. (I’ve since updated it a few times for various reasons, including an official response from the SFWA Board on 12/18/2018.)

On 12/11/2018, the SFWA Board issued an update to clarify the rule about contests:

Qualification Update: Publication Via Contests As Applicable to Rule III Sales

Short fiction and novels that are published as part of a contest, including publication in print or digital anthologies and magazines or online publication on a web site, can be used as qualifying sales under Rule III of the SFWA bylaws, provided they meet all requirements. The qualifying sales are subject to the same restrictions as sales to any other market (such as: no entry or submissions fee, no warnings by Writer Beware, no advisory by SFWA, appropriate minimum payment per word). The contract must show that the author is receiving payment for publication rights separately from any monetary contest prize that may also be received.

So, what does this mean, exactly?

A couple of years ago, SFWA added an alternative to the traditional route for qualifying for membership: Rule III. Basically, Rule III was a way to allow self-published authors to qualify by proving their earnings, since the publishing world has changed dramatically due to ebooks. The rule also allows proof of earnings from small presses and non-qualified markets. Since it requires proof of earnings, rather than just proof of publication, Rule III involves more paperwork in order to qualify, but other than that, it’s pretty much the same as far as I can tell:

  • For short fiction, three or more publications totaling at least 10,000 words, paid at the minimum SFWA professional rate (currently 6 cents a word).
  • For novels, a novel of at least 40,000 words, payment of an advance of at least $3000 (for traditional route) or earnings of at least $3000 during one year (for Rule III).

Since Writers of the Future pays 6 cents per word for publication, in addition to the prize money, that means publication in the Writers of the Future anthology could be used as a Rule III sale to qualify for SFWA, even though Writers of the Future is no longer listed as a qualifying market.

However, there are still a couple of questions unresolved:

  1. What exactly is an “advisory by SFWA”?
  2. What exactly are “warnings by Writer Beware”?

I was unable to find definitions for these terms on the SFWA website (which includes the Writer Beware website), nor in the bylaws or Operating Policies and Procedures Manual. Does the SFWA Board’s statement about concerns with the Writers of the Future Contest count as an “advisory”? Does Writer Beware blogging about the SFWA Board’s statement constitute a “warning”? Absent a further clarification from the Board, I think it’s reasonable to think that unless the specific terms “advisory” or “warning” are used in an official communication, those parts of the rule don’t apply.

But with regard to other contests, such as the New Visions Award, this clarification certainly puts writers in a better position than it appeared initially.

I want to shift gears a little now. In my previous blog post, I quoted the letter I had sent to the SFWA Board back in April. The part I’d like to discuss is this:

Now, when it comes to allegations of improper conduct in connection with the contest and/or publication of the anthology, I agree that SFWA has a duty to investigate the allegations in order to protect the interests of authors.

In a post months ago on the Codex Writers forum, I said:

(When it comes to abuses against authors in the contest, I think that’s a different matter, which would be best addressed by getting the contest to firm up the “firewall” and reform some of its practices, rather than by delegitimization.)

However, because my main focus was on countering the people who wanted to get the contest de-listed because of its connection to Scientology, I haven’t taken the time to address particular concerns people have that I believe can and should be addressed by WOTF, mostly because I felt it went without saying that of course they should be addressed. But sometimes it’s necessary to say what you think goes without saying, just so others can hear you say it.

The following is a partial list of reforms I think the contest should make, most of which come from concerns publicly expressed by past winners.

  • It should be made clear that authors who are gay, lesbian, transsexual, etc., are welcome to enter and that stories can feature characters who are gay, lesbian, transsexual, etc.
  • In author bios and in the workshop and awards show, people should be referred to with their preferred pronouns. (I’ve heard there was a problem this year with a proofreader changing pronouns in a bio, but that someone higher up at the contest resolved the problem to the author’s satisfaction. Hopefully, lower-level staff will have gotten the message in order to avoid such problems in the future.)
  • Winners with disabilities should be accommodated.
  • At the awards ceremony, winners should be allowed to wear formal attire that matches their gender identity or that they prefer to wear for other reasons. (I’ve heard they’ve recently changed policy to allow this.)
  • Winners should not be body-shamed for how they will appear at the awards ceremony.
  • The winner’s choice of a guest to accompany them to the awards should not be questioned.
  • If the expense of formal attire is a strain on the winner’s finances, the contest should provide or pay to rent formal attire for the occasion. (I’ve heard they’ve started doing this.)
  • During the workshop scheduling, they should make sure there is sufficient time (at least one hour) for meals, and maintain that amount of time even if other scheduled events change.
  • Because money is tight for some winners and eating in Hollywood is expensive, maybe look into either providing more meals for the winners or giving them a per diem stipend to cover meals.
  • I think the workshop organizers should be commended for how much they try to pack into the workshop. But different people have different energy levels and endurance, so the workshop should allow winners who need some extra rest to get it. (My wife was five months pregnant when she attended the workshop, and the workshop staff were accommodating to her. But people who are not pregnant may still need extra rest.)
  • Any media release forms should be properly filled out before authors are asked to sign them.
  • No author should ever be asked to participate in a book signing under misleading or false pretenses. I don’t think there should be a complete ban on signings at Church of Scientology events, because some authors might be fine with doing them. But the invitation to do the signing must make it clear that it is a Church of Scientology event, and that participation is purely voluntary.
  • In fact, that last bit goes for all book signings: it should be made clear to the winners that such signings are voluntary. If WOTF wants to require winners to do some book signings, it should be in the contest rules and in the contract. (Something like: Winners may be required to participate in up to two bookstore signing events within 50 miles of their home within 6 months of the release of the anthology.) Personally, I think I did about twenty signings between the two WOTF volumes I was in, but that was because I enjoyed doing the signings (and I was single and didn’t have a lot going on in my life at the time).

I’m sure there are other reforms that would also be good, based on public or private feedback that has been given to the SFWA Board.

I’ve had a chance to talk to the contest administrators about some of the items on the list above, and they would welcome any feedback from other past winners as to how to improve the contest, workshop, and awards ceremony, because their goal is to make it as great an experience as possible for the winners.

Similarly, it’s precisely because I had such a great experience with the Writers of the Future Contest that I want it to make changes, so it can be a great experience for even more authors in the future.

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