Advancing the discussion

My little post the other day about Random House and SFWA is the second most-read post ever on this blog.* Unfortunately, it looks like a lot of folks took the wrong message from it.

There's a lot of "screw SFWA" coming out of the Random House discussion here and on Facebook. I need to be clear: I think SFWA and HWA are fine institutions, and probably the only major organizations attempting to stand up for the rights of writers.

John Scalzi et al are making a lot of noise about these egregious contract terms, and we need to cheer them on. If we quietly ignore it when one press screws the authors, suddenly it will show up as boilerplate in all contracts. Just take a look at how it's going with cons.

My criticisms of SFWA were solely in the realm of practicality: by refusing membership to those who don't receive advances, they are hurting themselves, not the publishers. Scalzi addressed this issue head-on today, in which he detailed his reasons for insisting that publishers should always offer advances.

Scalzi makes some fair points, and I agree strongly with most of them. God knows I'd love a check for $5,000 just for signing the contract. I disagree, however, that the publisher is less invested in the project if he hasn't paid an advance. Maybe that's what New York thinks, but small presses operate on the thin edge of a dime. One bad book can sink the best small press. If a press puts out five books a year, you better believe they put heart, soul and gonads on the line for every single one of them. Small presses devote every possible drop of blood to making that book sell, because therein lies their future. I don't see New York putting that much focus on any given book, frankly. (The rest of it, about "changing models" and such: total BS, and Scalzi is absolutely right to call it such.)

My point was solely for the practicality of SFWA membership, which is refused to anyone who hasn't received one of those coveted advances. The theory, as borne out by SFWA's ballsy response to Random House today, is that by refusing to certify the Hydra imprint for membership criteria and threatening to decertify Random House itself, they can influence Random House's contract.

I don't believe that's true. Other than posturing on the internet, I don't think Random House or any of the Big Six give a mousefart about being a SFWA-eligible publishing house. It might matter more, honestly, to the small press; it could raise the quality of their slush pile. But really, does Random House care if it's a SFWA-certified publisher or not? How does that affect their bottom line, which is clearly all they care about?

What the policy does do is lock out thousands of authors in the small press, working for small publishers that really do honestly pay their people, who make up for the lack of advance with much more generous terms than you're likely to get from the Big Six.

If SFWA wanted to harness a vast new membership ready and willing to fight for better contract terms, to participate in a Random House boycott and vocally blog across the 'net in protest of authors getting bent over the barrel, it need only look at the advance clause to double its membership. And that, friends, would give SFWA a much bigger megaphone to affect real change (and HWA et al, I'm not letting them off the hook).

I'm not saying "screw SFWA" at all. On the contrary, if I thought it was a useless or hidebound organization, I wouldn't care about me and my fellow small-press authors being able to join. From the outside at least, it appears to be an excellent organization, and I'm glad that it is fighting this fight. Someone needs to do it.

* In case you're wondering, the most-read piece is the one about my attempt to be a lawyer. At which I epically failed, to borrow my teenage son's terminology.