Self-Publishing and Writer Organizations

by Nick Mamatas

The Horror Writers Association (HWA) has decided to allow self-publishing as a criterion for its membership, and the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America (SFWA) is currently contemplating doing the same. Membership in both groups had previously been means-tested only to allow membership to writers who sold a certain number of short pieces at a certain pay rate, or a novel for an advance of a couple thousand dollars. (There are also other kinds of membership for publishing professionals, but that’s not relevant here.) Much anxiety and discussion has ensued, though of course there has been more light than heat.

The problem is that nobody understands the putative goals and purposes of these organizations, of which I was a member of both for a number of years — and a former Trustee of HWA and a former member of the grievance committee of SFWA. I am not a member of either right now, and have no plans to rejoin either group any time soon. I am a member of the Mystery Writers of America, however, though because MWA is sufficiently tight-lipped about its own operations I’m actually less qualified to talk about it.

The first question is this: why wasn’t self-publishing allowed before? The real answer has little to nothing to do with the ease of self-publishing, or “gatekeeping”, or the stigma attached to self-publishing, and it certainly had zero to do with the idea that self-published works make for worse reading than commercially published works. Though of course self-publishing is fairly easy, there are gatekeepers, there is still a stigma attached to self-publishing, and self-published works are, on the whole, more likely to be bad and to be bad in ways that bad commercially published fiction is not.

Self-publishing wasn’t a criterion for membership previously because the goal of these organizations was in large part to serve as a guild that would defend the commercial interests of their members against the state and the publishing industry. That is, publishers were the class enemy — even though editors and publishers could theoretically join the organization, and even though there is nothing to stop an editor from joining as a writer, as I did. Of course the groups had other goals: to give out awards, to provide some number of publishing opportunities via the licensing of member-only anthologies, to hold parties, to create and maintain a mailing list, and to make the mediocre feel grandiose. The goal of defense was incompletely manifested and riven with contradictions, but that’s life.

Who is the class enemy of the self-published writer? In times past, when self-publishing meant storing books in one’s garage, there was no class enemy. There were many enemies — bookstores that refused to stock books, mice and other vermin chewing away at the boxes, angry mail carriers, printers who get things wrong — but they are not class enemies. So there was never a reason for the self-published to join HWA, SFWA, or other groups, though of course the desire of the mediocre to feel grandiose led several to agitate for a seat.

And, it turns out that it is much easier to sell awards and grandiosity than it is to fight for writer interests, especially when the publishers the organizations dealt with would first collapse and then reform into far more powerful organizations thanks to conglomeratization. (The big achievement of these orgs over the past few years was to get a few magazines to pay five, and now six, cents a word, instead of three cents a word, for short fiction.) It used to make sense to have separate organizations for romance writers, science fiction writers, etc. Now, when the difference between a romance publisher and a science fiction publisher is which phone rings on which desk in the same office space, it does not. However, when it comes to awards and parties and grandiosity — well, you don’t get a lot of play on a country club scheme if anyone can walk off the street and join, especially when some of them are gross ugly nerds who smell like landfill, uh, I mean science fiction writers. In the pre-Kindle days, a number of self-published writers wanted to join, were rebuffed, and complained that they were “pros” too and made ever so much money — far more than three cents a word for a short story or whatever the going rate was at the time. and the Kindle changed everything for self-publishing. It solved the two problems of self-publishing, distribution and quality. The Kindle made distribution simple, and the ability to price one’s titles cheaply solved the quality problem: people don’t care as much about products that cost them a dollar, especially when high-quality substitutes cost between eight and twenty-five times as much while only being twice to five times as good. Plus, as Amazon’s new Kindle Unlimited rule about a reader needing to read ten percent of a book before Amazon will pay the writer suggests, lots of people are buying dollar books and then promptly forgetting to even look at them.

Self-publishing today is more accurately called direct publishing via online networks that operate under some set of terms of service. The class enemy stands revealed! And yet, heavy subsidies by Amazon and competitive pressures from other firms — if you like your 70 percent royalty, thank Apple for forcing Amazon’s hand, not the other way around — makes it appear subjectively that Amazon is not a class enemy. That is, self-published writers have gone from rejected to accepted, from poor to rich, from mediocre to grandiose! With the press of a button, and the ritual payout to freelance “editors” — most of whom in fact do not edit. (Relatively few editors tell their clients, “Throw this book away. Do nothing but read widely and deeply for five years. Then try again.” This is an important part of the editorial process, formerly made manifest by the ubiquitous rejection letter.)

The only thing missing…the stamp of approval from a guild. Well, now they got that too.

What they don’t have are fighting organizations. What would SFWA and HWA do if tomorrow Amazon decides to cut royalties in half, or if Google decides to give every book away for free, or if Apple decides that vendors get paid only after 100 percent of a book is read? They would do nothing. They can do nothing. If the CEO of Macmillan can’t score more than a twenty-minute meeting with Amazon execs, and if Hachette finds itself outboxed and outfoxed by the company, what can a bunch of sad little mid-listers (SFWA) and, to be frank, a mess of small-press tyros and wannabes (HWA) do? Within the caste elite of publishing, Amazon reigns supreme. And its subsidy to the self-published and only slowly increasing demands ( royalty reductions, increased pressure for exclusivity to thwart B&N and Smashwords) mean that most sellf-published writers are not interested in an organization that will fight against Amazon. The irony is that while successful self-published writers complain that the writer organizations were acting as gatekeepers and such, it is the top tier of the self-published who are truly the labor aristocracy, to only slightly misuse the Marxist term.

The lower tiers? Well, Steinbeck’s quip about “temporarily embarrassed millionaires” comes to mind.

So, what does this mean for the groups? Well, it means that now we will see more self-published material on the Nebula and Stoker Awards ballots, as being in a group is always the best way to get nominated by the group. Increasing amounts of the internal conversations in the groups will be given over to pricing schemes for Kindle, the creation of “box sets”, cross-promoting by writers, and laments when these strategies start working less well because now everyone is doing them. The promotional tactics of the self-published will also be focused internally: you-read-ten-percent-of-mine-and-I-will-read-ten-percent-of-yours, vote for me and I shall vote for you, and the like. When New York makes its countermoves against Amazon by squeezing margins on its writers, well, that will just prove the point that self-publishing is better, and by then it will be too late.

What should have happened is this: in the 1990s, SFWA, HWA, MWA, RWA, and whatever other groups out there should have merged. As stated above, there is no compelling reason to keep separate writer organizations when huge conglomerates publishe mystery and romance and science fiction and Western and other fiction. A significant group of size — with little affinity branches to hand out the various legacy awards and throw the parties and publish innocuous newsletters — could have perhaps done something about both New York and Seattle. The groups should still merge, but this would be a rearguard action at best.

What will happen is this: the last impulses toward guild status and interest-defense will fall to the wayside, and the groups will become fan/aficionado clubs. If you want an extant model, think of the cruises occasionally held by Turner Classic Movies. Do famous people show up for the cruises? Sure they do. Are the cruises interesting and fun? Sure they are. Are the cruises a useful tool for organization to change TCM’s programming, or to agitate for better pension plans for aging stars, or even to encourage better storage facilities for old film reels? Of course they are not, even if a petition is passed around or a small educational meeting is held. They are for fun. SFWA, HWA etc. are for fun. They were mostly for fun before, and will be almost entirely for fun and nothing else, at all, in five or six years. Not because self-publishers are the bad pennies flooding the market to adulterate the Real Horror and the Best Science Fiction, but because the battle was lost before it was joined. Before Amazon was even founded.

And thus the grandiose shall have their mediocrity revealed.

[Editor’s note: this essay original appeared on the author’s blog.]

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