The SFWA Indie Program: An Interview with Cat Rambo and Maggie Hogarth

Not too many months ago, the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writer’s of America (SFWA) opened its membership to Indie authors.  This was preceded by several months of internal discussion and eventually voting by SFWA membership, and an even lengthier period of research, open commentary and discussion across all points of the internet (and no doubt at various SFWA get-togethers).

Since this represented a watershed in the relationship between Indie and traditional authors, of the old guard and the up-and-comers, Amazing Stories wanted to follow-up and see how the program was faring.

When e-books first made a mark on the publishing scene and “self-published” authors first began appearing, the relationship between them and the representatives of traditional publishing was not a welcoming one.  The name “self-published” was itself used to evoke the much-maligned vanity publishing of a previous era.  Today they self-identify as Indie Authors, a much more positive sounding phrase. Many of them, along with an increasing number of traditionally vetted authors, have become “Hybrids”, authors who work within both the indie and the traditional forms of publishing.

Much of the early discussion between Indies and Traditionalists was acrimonious.   Traditionalists argued that the gate-keeping process was necessary to maintaining quality. Indies countered that the gate-keepers  were perpetuating an out-dated system, and were taking advantage of authors by keeping the bulk of sales for services  that were largely  unnecessary in an internet world.

When Amazing Stories first got rolling, I was very much in the Traditionalist camp.  My thinking on the subject largely came down to:  I have a drawer full of rejection slips and you can too.  The traditional system had served me well with works from publishing houses ably managed by well-experienced editors, the same for a (sadly diminishing) handful of magazines. How could anyone question, let alone fault the system that brought us Connie Willis, Samuel R. Delaney, Octavia Butler?  Who wouldn’t want to be vetted by such a system?

But familiarity bred respect rather than contempt.  Many of the contributors to Amazing are Indie authors, and after working with them I discovered that they were every bit as serious, professional and interested in producing the best work they were capable of as anyone else. Additionally, they  were learning to master new terrain, new technologies and were establishing a deep and meaningful relationship with their readers that in some ways seemed to surpass those I had observed over the years between traditional authors and their fans.

By the time SFWA decided to begin the process of opening membership up to Indie authors, I’d become a convert and greatly welcomed the organization’s decision.  By then I viewed it not simply as a good idea, but something that was critical to the future survival of the organization.

However, there still remain some on the Indie side who continue to reject anything that hints of traditional publishing, and this includes Writers Associations(and no doubt traditionalists who think the whole indie-thing will just blow over). .  I’ve read a fair amount of dismissive, critical commentary since SFWA opened its doors, enough to know that there is still a vocal minority out there.

It was with those folks in mind that I asked Cat & Maggie some of the questions I asked.  Those with an open mind, on either end of the publishing spectrum, will have already accepted SFWA’s good intentions, whether they choose to join or not.  Those who remain critical may discover that their concerns have been answered and that perhaps they ought to give SFWA a second thought.  (My apologies to Maggie & Cat for any concern some of those questions may have caused.)

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For this interview we are joined by Cat Rambo, current SFWA Vice President, and M.C.A. Hogarth, the driving force behind the Indie membership program.

Steve Davidson for Amazing Stories: What was the inspiration for SFWA opening membership to Indie authors?

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Cat Rambo

Cat Rambo: It was something that members raised, particularly ones who were already doing some indie publishing or knew writers who were.

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M.C.A. Hogarth

Maggie Hogarth: SFWA is an organization supporting professional writers of science fiction and fantasy. Once it became clear that indie publishing was a viable route to a genre writing career, it made sense to ask our indie peers to join.

ASM: How would you characterize the original reception of the idea by the membership?

MH: The membership asked for the changes. This was not a top-down directive, but a clear mandate from our members to recognize the changes in the industry so we can take advantage of them and help our members achieve more success in their careers.

CR: SFWA’s got a wide mix of members, and so that’s why we polled the membership to find out what they thought before moving forward. They were over 2:1 in favor of admitting independently published credentials and 3:1 in favor of small press credentials.

ASM:  If there was any push-back, how would you describe it?  Any serious objections?  Threats to resign?

CR: There were some folks who felt that self-publishing is a bubble and that we’ll swing back to traditional publishing only. That is not a  view I share.

This is SFWA. If people don’t like the font of the webpage, they threaten to resign. =)

All kidding aside, no one wrote to me to say they’d resign if we did this, nor did I see any threats to do so on the boards. Some people may not have renewed when it came time to; that’s something we’ll see play out over the course of the year, I think.

MH: There were the usual concerns about authenticity, but these aren’t much different from the sort of concerns that have been floating around for decades now. The question of ‘who’s a real author’ will always be a divisive one among people who have made it their core identity.

ASM: Is SFWA actively trying to recruit some of the bigger Indie names?  (Howey?  Weir?)

CR: Mr. Howey is a member. I’d love to have Mr. Weir as a member!  I’d love to see some come in, but I’ve got too much on my plate at the moment for much active recruitment!

ASM: During the open comment period there was evidence of the “anti-traditional publishing” bloc among the Indie responses.  Was that anticipated? 

CR:  I know there are some writers who are very anti-traditional publishing because they worry that they’ll get fleeced by agents/publishers/etc.

There’s room for both models in the org. I think that increasingly we’ll see more and more hybrid authors, who do a little of both, and there’s room for that as well.

MH: I don’t think it’s a good use of energy to approach people who’ve already decided that SFWA is pointless. The only way we can change people’s minds is through our actions. We’ve made a good start on that by amending our membership requirements. We already offer services that our indie members will find useful, and we have more such initiatives in the works. Give us a few years of offering real value to our membership–no matter their career path–and we’ll more than demonstrate the relevance and utility of SFWA to authors who weren’t sure of us before.

ASM: SFWA membership has always been predicated on a monetary basis:  sales of X to approved markets.  Indie membership requires proof of sales at a certain level, yet some of the pushback from Indies seemed to center on “SFWA wanting them to prove themselves”.  Why do you think there was such a disconnect, when its fairly obvious that all members are being subject to the same criteria, although different methods are used to assess them?

MH: The only substantive concern among Indie authors I noticed was that they would be required to prove themselves above and beyond what we require of traditional authors. We wanted to make it absolutely clear that we weren’t going to hold our Indie authors to a different standard than our traditional authors, despite it being a more complicated process to vet all the different ways an Indie might be making their money. I think the committee did a fantastic job working through those permutations; we spent several weeks in discussion, researching real case studies of indie successes and brainstorming what documentation would suffice for proof. One of the results of that work is that SFWA is one of the first–if not the first–organization to accept crowdfunded money as proof of professional income. Our Kickstarter and Patreon success stories are part of the new narrative of the industry, and SFWA’s at the point of that spearhead.

CR: This is why we have sayings like “your mileage may vary” — people’s perceptions so often are different from one individual to the next.

For some folks, SFWA is a stand-in for some of the forces they’ve objected to in the past, like traditional publishing, and — reasonable or not– that’s going to affect their perception to a degree where such a disconnect can occur.

ASM: How were the Indie sales requirements calculated?

CR: We wanted to make them comparable to the traditional requirements but at the same time raise the traditional ones, which were overdue.

MH: We took the existing requirements for traditional authors and extrapolated them to the business models that Indies use. So the $3000 advance on a single book required by our traditional author’s standards became $3000 in income earned on a single book, etc.

ASM: How difficult is it proving to verify Indie sales data?  Can you describe that process a bit? 

CR: We have been leaving it up to people to decide how they want to prove it, and slowly compiling our list and what is/isn’t working Generally it’s pretty easy for people to furnish things like Kindle royalty statements. Crowdfunding has been trickier because we want to make sure of things like the work being delivered to the backers.

ASM:  When the vote approving the membership change was announced, I was a bit surprised to see relatively low voter turn.  Is this typical for  SFWA voters? If so, how do you characterize the lack of participation? Why do you think so few members were actively involved in a membership change that could have profound impact on the organization?

CR: That is something we’re investigating, for sure, both in terms of making it easier to vote and encouraging people to do so. Historically SFWA has had to use paper ballots due to some old issues that got resolved this issue (time), so I hope to see numbers go up. The officer election that just started interests me because I am curious how many of the new members will be voting.

I think that most of them perceive this as a reasonable adaptation to a changing publishing market and so they didn’t feel moved to rally to vote against it.

ASM: Do you think that the lack of majority participation in the vote will lead to future issues?

CR: Nope.

MH:  I think members who aren’t engaged enough to vote probably won’t be engaged enough to create issues.

ASM: Can you describe the success of the Indie membership drive?

MH: I was pleasantly surprised by how many indies have joined us! It’s great to see so many of my peers in that arena excited about becoming new members. Their energy level’s been wonderful to see.

CR: It’s been about what I expected. March saw 70+ new members, and another 10 or so we’re still trying to sort out. That’s a nice growth, but it’s also clear a lot of people are waiting to witness what happens with the experiment and whether SFWA really does offer independent writers a lot (it does, in my opinion).

ASM: How are new Indie members expressing themselves upon gaining membership?

CR: It’s been delightful to see them introducing themselves on the discussion boards. I’m looking forward to meeting a number of them this weekend at Norwescon. I’ve been impressed how many of them are immediately volunteering too!

MH: Many of them have mentioned joining SFWA as one of their longtime career ambitions, and have been generous in volunteering their time and experience to the organization. Several of them are already active in volunteer initiatives. It’s fantastic to see so much enthusiasm, and to see that our new members are so willing to pitch in to help the organization, to the benefit of all our membership, no matter their career permutations.

ASM: Now that you have a fair number of new Indie members, how would you characterize them?  Are they younger than the current membership?  Are they earning more or less?  Are there differences in what they are writing?

MH: I don’t perceive them as younger or older. They seem the usual cross-section you see in writers. They write everything from military science fiction and space opera to urban and epic fantasy (I know, I’ve been downloading so many samples! Every time a new author introduces themselves, I go check out their work!). In general, though, they do seem to be earning amounts that would probably surprise people to hear. We now have several threads in our private forums devoted to average and monthly income numbers, where authors can report what they’re making and compare notes. The numbers are instructive.

CR: I have been so busy this month that I don’t know! 🙂 They all seem smart and pleasant and I’m looking forward to meeting them at cons throughout the year.

ASM: What do you see as the primary difference(s) between “traditional” members and Indie members?

MH: Increasingly I see less and less difference between them. So many traditional authors today are becoming “hybridized”: they are re-issuing their backlists themselves, or putting out indie projects that their publishers can’t afford to take on. The trend in SF/F authorship today is toward more business savvy, more entrepreneurship, and more personal agency. Our Indies right now might be more on one side of that scale, but the traditional authors among us who weren’t are rapidly moving in that direction too.

CR: SFWA is so diverse that I really don’t think these categories are very meaningful.

ASM: How are they fitting in? Are they being well-received? Are they being properly respected for their work?

CR: They seem to be being welcomed to the conversation on the boards, and providing all sorts of good information about their experiences.

MH: They’re doing fine! And having a good time, if what I see on the forums is any indication!

ASM: It may be too early to say, but it strikes me that both sets of authors have a lot of different experiences and knowledge to exchange.  Is that happening?

MH: Most certainly. I see that information exchange going in both directions, as well. Everyone seems excited to have the chance to pick each other’s brains… which is one of the most valuable advantages a professional organization can give its members.

CR: Yes! Which is awesome.

ASM: If Indies are earning more than their traditional counterparts – is there any evidence of jealousy? Are traditional authors planning on going Indie?

CR: I haven’t seen evidence of either of these.

MH: I haven’t noticed any jealousy, no.

ASM: Do you think that the expansion of the field carries a concomitant “dumbing down” of the genre?  Is it a bad thing to lower the expectations of the genre, or is it a good thing to simply get more people reading SF – any SF?

CR:  There’s a few things going on right now, but one is that F&SF is taking on more mainstream appeal, showing up more in film and television, for one. That’s always going to bring with it a certain broadening, but I don’t think it’s one that will drive the better stuff out of the genre. To the contrary, it creates even more room for it.

MH: I don’t know what original SF you were reading, Steve, but the campy stuff I was reading when the field was newer wasn’t exactly “intelligentsia” material. Unless you think nubile bikini princesses of Mars are somehow the stuff of intellectual discourse. Those were fun stories, but they weren’t exactly high-falutin’.

At the risk of sounding confrontational, your question reminds me of how literary authors used to dismiss writers of genre as artistic sell-outs who appeal to the lowest common denominator, to people who “aren’t real readers.” We worked very hard to prove that genre writing is not somehow the more stupid stepsister of literary fiction. Are we going to turn around and exercise this same behavior on our indie peers now that we feel threatened? SF/F has never been solely the literature of ideas. It’s also been the literature of bug-eyed aliens, elves that could shoot arrows hanging upside down from trees, and extraterrestrials arriving to Earth so they could learn how to ‘serve man.’ Let’s  strive for some perspective, and some humility.

ASM: It’s pretty much a given that the total population of Indie authors FAR exceeds the population of traditional authors. This suggests that it will not be long before the balance of SFWA membership shifts in favor of those with an Indie background.  Some of us perceive the younger generations as having vastly different values from our own. Do you think that such a generational shift poses any problems for the future?

CR: I’d like to wait a year and see what the numbers look like before I say how much the balance is going to shift. Honestly,

FWIW, I’m a hybrid author myself — came in through traditional story qualifications, but my first novel just came out with a small press.

MH:  I’ll tell you what I tell everyone: you have to create the culture you want to live in. As artists that means our duty is to educate our readers about what it takes to be an artist. Many of these “entitled” people you’re talking about aren’t bad or selfish people; they’re just honestly unaware of what it takes to make a living as a writer. They assume because you’re good at something that you must be able to earn your bread with it. When you explain this isn’t how it works, and invite them to understand the process of success, they will often become active–and enthusiastic–participants in your career.

It’s true that these new generations are different. The internet has enabled a culture of engagement and transparency that is bewildering and often dismaying for people to navigate who were born before it came about. (I’m one of them, for the record.) The path to success in the modern age is community, and people who don’t understand that often mistake the lack of engagement of newer generations as entitlement, selfishness, or disdain. It’s not. They privilege a different mode of communication, and are not impressed when you think the limit of your work is to make something, sit back, and let the money fly in. They want to be as important in your life–as an aggregate, if not as individuals, as you are in theirs. And if you demonstrate through your actions that you either don’t care, or can’t, then they will move on to an author who makes them feel like their money and their enthusiasm matters.

Video killed the radio star… and now internet is killing the video star. If you aren’t willing to dig into the roots of those changes and understand them, you’re never going to know how to connect with your audience.

ASM: Do you think Indie influence is going to lead to more traditional authors getting their back lists out? More “hybridization”?

CR: Yup! Absolutely.

MH: I do think so, yes, and I’m very excited about it! There are lots of authors I’d love to buy again in e-book format whose works are currently unavailable. Putting money in their pockets and having a fresh copy of their work to read would be wonderful. And I can’t help but see hybridization as good for everyone: for traditional authors, because it gives them more freedom in their creative choices, more money, and more power to walk away from deals that are unfair to them; and for indies, in the ability to reach fellow authors’ audiences, make new professional connections, and leverage those opportunities into more income streams to diversify their earnings. It’s a fantastic time to be an author, and I’m excited that SFWA’s riding the wave at last!

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M.C. A. Hogarth

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Daughter of two Cuban political exiles, M.C.A. Hogarth was born a foreigner in the American melting pot and has had a fascination for the gaps in cultures and the bridges that span them ever since. She has been many things–web database architect, product manager, technical writer and massage therapist–but is currently a full-time parent, artist, writer and anthropologist to aliens, both human and otherwise.

You can learn more about her from this Publisher’s Weekly Spotlight.

For a complete reading order, check her website’s Where To Start page (http://mcahogarth.org/)

M.C.A. Hogarth’s most recent work is Earthrise, the first book of the Her Instruments series
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Cat Rambo

catCat Rambo lives, writes, and teaches by the shores of an eagle-haunted lake in the Pacific Northwest. Her fiction publications include stories in Asimov’s, Clarkesworld Magazine, and Tor.com as well as three collections and her latest work, debut novel Beasts of Tabat. Her short story, “Five Ways to Fall in Love on Planet Porcelain,” from her story collection Near + Far (Hydra House Books), was a 2012 Nebula nominee. Her editorship of Fantasy Magazine earned her a World Fantasy Award nomination in 2012. She is the current Vice President of the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America.
For more about her, as well as links to her fiction, see http://www.kittywumpus.net

Cat’s debut novel is Beasts of Tabat.
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