March 15, 2007
SFWA President: I'm a Write-In Candidate
I got a ballot from the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America about a week ago; the ballot is for electing the officers of SFWA -- President, Vice President, Secretary and Treasurer. As I read the ballot, I noticed two things. First, there was only one candidate on the ballot for each category, and no way to register a "none of the above" vote; two, the SFWA members standing for president and vice president are people who, for philosophical reasons only (having nothing to do with their respective personal characters), I would not vote for nor wish to be at the helm of the organization at this time.
While the ballot does not offer a "none of the above" option for voting, it does offer SFWA members the ability to offer a write-in candidate instead. This is me announcing, somewhat reluctantly, that I am now offering myself up as a write-in candidate for SFWA President. If you are a member of SFWA and you are dissatisfied with the presidential choice offered to you, you may write me in; if elected, I will serve.
Allow me to note that I am not particularly keen on serving in this position; I've been a SFWA member long enough to know that it's a fairly thankless position, with lots of herding cats and dealing with aggravating minutiae, and I have a career to look after at the moment. I'd just as soon not be president of SFWA, and if I am elected president, you should know now that I will view the position as something I am doing in addition to my writing career, not something of equal importance. I might as well be honest with you on that score.
If I don't really want to be president of SFWA, why am I offering myself as a write-in candidate?
1. Philosophically, I'm opposed to having only one candidate for a leadership position of any organization I am involved with. I don't think it speaks well for the organizational health of the body; it suggests an apathetic membership. One can debate whether the membership is apathetic because the organization is not useful enough to be engaged in, or whether the membership is simply apathetic in a general sense (or both). Whatever the cause, it's not an encouraging sign.
I have always been honest that I've pretty much viewed my membership in SFWA as an affectation; I've never expected SFWA to do anything for me because I require nothing from it. However, I have the luxury of regarding my membership as an affectation; other members of SFWA might actually want it to do something useful for them. I happen to think SFWA can be useful; I happen to think it doesn't do a particularly good job of being useful. I have opinions on the matter strong enough that I believe that I can be a reasonable candidate for the job of president. As there is only one other person running, I feel obliged to put my hat in the ring if only to offer a reasonable and notable choice for the position.
2. I don't believe that Michael Capobianco, the fellow running for SFWA President, is at all the right person for the job. Let me note again that this is not a reflection on his personal character; I've not met him outside the online SFWA newsgroups and a few other online venues, so I cannot speak as to whether he is a nice guy or whatever. I'm sure he is. Likewise, Mr. Capobianco is a past president of SFWA and has won the organization's service award, which suggests that in the past, at least, he has been viewed as a reasonable choice for leading the organization. The question in my mind is not his past service, of which I have no experience (it was before my time) but whether he's the right person to lead SFWA forward now.
I don't think he is for two reasons. First, he hasn't had a novel published in this century; his last published novel, White Light, which he co-wrote with William Barton, was published in hardcover in 1998. Essentially, he's a decade out of practice with the practical aspects of publishing science fiction. This matters if one believes, as I do, that SFWA should primarily be a professional service organization; it particularly matters if one believes, as I do, that the publishing world in the 21st century, even this early on, is manifestly different than it was in the 20th century. I have books professionally published in both centuries; I know how much it's changed, and I deal with the publishing world on a daily basis.
Second, I believe that based on what I've read from him Mr. Capobianco is fundamentally afraid of the changing publishing world, and the changes in the world of speculative fiction, and that this fundamental position will cause him to make his tenure as SFWA backward-facing and defensive, rather than forward-thinking and innovative. This will make SFWA even more irrelevant to working writers -- that is, the people who are shaping science fiction -- than it already is.
Simply put, the professional organization of speculative fiction should not be headed by people who believe their job is to hold back the future. I believe strongly that Michael Capobianco sees it as his role to hold back the future and to maintain the status quo in publishing and in speculative fiction. That battle has already been lost; the publishing world has already irrevocably changed from when Mr. Capobianco last published. It's time that SFWA moves forward with leadership who understands this.
I'm not keen on being SFWA president. But I'm even less keen on Mr. Capobianco being SFWA president, enough so that I'm willing to offer myself for the position.
(I believe similar things about Andrew Burt, who is the fellow running for Vice-President; however, I'm not offering myself for that position, so I'll leave it at that for now.)
Now that you know why I am offering myself as a write-in candidate, it's time to hit you with my platform. It's a platform that is based on the idea that the primary goals of SFWA should be a) to advance the position of speculative fiction (and particularly written speculative fiction) in the mind of the public and b) to benefit and advance the active speculative fiction careers of its members.
Here's what's on the platform:
1. A rational view of copyright issues that while strongly affirmative of a creator's right to control his or her work also recognizes that the biggest problem facing creators is not piracy but obscurity. To that end I suggest re-evaluating the potential of online browsing initiatives in particular, to get samples of work to the largest possible audiences while still giving authors a say in how that work is viewed. That said, while this issue is "sexy," this is the issue out of all the ones I'm presenting here that SFWA should spend the least amount of time on. Other issues are more practical and more fundamental to the well-being of SFWA members' careers, and the health of the speculative fiction genre.
2. An understanding that the most critical segment of our audience is the youngest segment; to that end I will suggest SFWA undertake initiatives with publishers, libraries and educators to get speculative fiction in front of new readers and help create the next generation of speculative fiction writers. These initiatives will include mentoring aspiring science fiction writers and creating SFWA-branded anthologies of new, fun and age-appropriate anthologies that the organization will offer to schools, free in printable electronic form.
3. An expectation of service from all SFWA members in the organization's institutional and educational goals, including those noted in point two. Speaking as someone who has a membership primarily as an affectation, I can say that requiring active service will be beneficial in shaking out the hangers-on and giving those who remain the feeling that SFWA is doing something useful, because it requires something useful from them.
4. SFWA should be viewed as a first-stop resource for every literary event, SFF convention and speaker-seeking organization in the country for speakers and panelists. I suggest the hiring of a full-time and salaried Director of Speculative Fiction Evangelism. The director's job will be to identify, pursue and generate opportunities in organizations and communities where SFWA members can promote speculative fiction, the organization, and their own work.
5. SFWA's Web site sucks, with abominable aesthetics and clunky design and navigation. The official organization of the literature of the future should not have an online presence that looks like it came from 1997. I will suggest a massive revamp of the site to make it more attractive, easier to use and most importantly more relevant to speculative fiction readers and enthusiasts, including an initiative to create new content on the site on a regular basis, to attract readers and raise awareness of SFWA and its relevance to both speculative fiction readers and writers.
6. The Nebulas are one of the two major awards in literary science fiction, but their luster has dimmed over the last several years; they are no longer the equal to the Hugos in terms of relevance and timeliness, and their nomination process leaves them open to accusations of nomination via logrolling rather than literary quality. As a result they are less useful to SFWA members in promoting their own Nebula-nominated work, and they are less useful to SFWA as a publicity-generating tool. I will suggest a number of steps to bring the Nebulas back to their position of pre-eminence in the science fiction world, including a return to calendar year nominations, making the nomination process anonymous to eliminate the appearance of quid-pro-quo nominating, and presenting the Nebulas at major SFF conventions -- i.e., in front of fans, rather than away from fans at a private SFWA function.
7. Presenting the Nebulas at a major science fiction convention would necessarily eliminate the need for a Nebula Weekend, but it would still be useful and beneficial to have a SFWA-themed event, to handle face-to-face SFWA business and to let the members socialize, and also to get SFWA members in front of fans old and new. I will suggest the formation of a SFWA Jubilee Committee, whose task will be to run an annual convention complete with programming for fans and readers as well as for private SFWA business, and to have the Jubilee move its location annually and work with organizations in the communities in which it is held to raise interest in the event and to bring in both old-time fans and new potential readers (particularly from high school and middle school).
8. Two of SFWAs most useful initiatives are its Emergency Medical Fund and its Legal Fund, to help members who find themselves in tight spots. I will suggest active, aggressive and persistent fundraising initiatives to pile money into both of these funds to assure they are always ready when members have need.
9. Any professional organization lives and innovates by attracting new members. I will suggest initiatives to assure that every SFWA-eligible writer who is not a member knows he or she is eligible to join -- and that we want them in our ranks.
That's enough for one one-year term, I think.
Now, you may ask, do I honestly think all of these things can be accomplished over the course of one term? I do not; there's no assurance that any of these initiatives will make it out of the gate, and remember, in all of this I'll also be having a career, writing my own books and taking care of my own business. Be that as it may, these are the things SFWA should be tackling, whether I am the one at the helm or not. Please consider this an open-source platform; if you want to be a write-in candidate, or be a candidate next year, please take as many of these ideas as you want. I don't mind getting off the hook for this gig.
If I am to be the one at the helm, it would be helpful to have a SFWA executive committee that is both philosophically aligned with these goals and willing to do the work to implement them; I suspect I would be particularly in need of an uber-competent VP who would have a passion for organization and a gift for details, because God knows I'm deficient in both. I hope someone will step forward and offer themselves as a write-in candidate for VP, and please please please be competent.
I will say this: If you're a SFWA member, don't vote for me if you're not willing to have me come in and stomp around and try to get these things done, and not necessarily be the most politic guy when I do; likewise don't vote for me if you are not willing to pitch in when I come asking for your help, which I will. I'm not going to try to get this done on my own; if I look out among SFWA members and I don't see people willing to step forward and make the organization useful and relevant to their careers and the careers of other science fiction writers, I'm out of there. I want to be very clear about the fact I have no compunction against saying "see ya" if I don't think SFWA's membership is serious about SFWA. I'll resign the post and go back to my plow. So make no mistake that a vote for me is a vote for an obligation to SFWA by you. If I have to stop thinking about my membership as an affectation, I think you should have to, too.
There it is. Thanks for reading.
Update, 1:17 am 3/16: Derryl Murphy has announced a write-in run for SFWA VP.
Posted by john at March 15, 2007 10:14 PM
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