Norman Spinrad at Large – Save the SF Magazines from AI, Amazon, and SFWA?

It is no secret that the three traditional ink and paper SF magazines,  Asimov’s, Analog, and Fantasy and Science Fiction, are in deep trouble, and perhaps not as obviously so are the main online SF magazines. All of them are overrun with submissions thanks to Amazon and what was once SFWA, a professional SF writers’ union in all but name, has become just as much a part of the problem, if not worse.

When the SFWA, of which I was one of the creators, if you wanted to be a full member, as I remember, you had to have published 3 stories in magazines accepted as professional, or one novel published by such a book publisher.

This more or less continued while I was three-time president, and until fairly recently. In those days, there were no more than 1000 full members of SFWA, but rather rapidly it has now become bloated by about 2500 members of all sorts of memberships which you can join and remain as long as you pay for one of the various levels of available membership. And you can also buy even more sorts of official SFWA stuff, a perfect fannish economic operation.

Back in the day, you could write “Member of SFWA” on the header of your submission as long as it was true, and it could mean something to an editor, and it might get your story read above the slush pile.

It took half a year to get my first story bought, but my later stories to the same editor got to read in a month or two.  No more now because the magazines have been drowning in slush. Way back, I worked in the Scott Meredith Agency which did represent many important writers, but which also made lots of money telling anyone who could send in anything for money, no matter how hopeless, and we were supposed to tell them to try, try, and pay, pay, pay again.

When I suggested to Scott that this was dishonest, he told me that we were a real professional agency that did represent major writers and when anyone else produced something we might be able to sell, we tried, and even now and then succeeded, but the truth was that no one could turn people with no talent into talented writers and the truth was that 90% of what came in was hopeless..

And SFWA membership now plays the same lucrative game. Now since anyone could email anything anywhere without having print it, put it into an envelope, and mail it into the slushpile, anyone can do likewise for free, and of late, you don’t have to really be human, to make the slushpiles even more enormous.

And to make matters worse, since sales in book stores or even drug stores have largely disappeared,, the magazines were forced to largely resort to online subscriptions, meaning Amazon, which has now stopped serving them.

What is more, the SF magazines have for some time become just about the last magazines containing any real short stories, and if they should disappear, so might the literary short story, period.

What can be done about this? It seems to me that the magazines should just use AIs to filter the obvious hopeless 90% out of the slushpiles. They could be easily be taught to do that, if not to recognize the 10% of literary interest.

So what I propose is to look backward instead of forward to the original SFWA. Call it simply the SF Society.  It could be the top of the SFWA or it could be independent, it doesn’t matter.  As the original SFWA, there is a membership requirement of say the same 3 published stories by the approved magazines or maybe books too, but with a difference.

If you are a member of the SFS you are entitled to say so on your submissions to any SFS approved publications.  But the SFS does not approve the publishers, they approve themselves! They just understand that the SFS mark on a submission means that the writer is a member and they can read it atop
of the slushpile, it’s not a requirement,  it’s a service.

But where does that leave would-be writers who believe they have what it takes to join  the SFS?  Look backward.  There have long been SF writing schools where you must not just pay but where you must send a story and have it be accepted by a literary board as sufficiently promising.

But SFS is not a school.  It has its own literary approval board for the sufficiently promising writers. So who is on the approval board?

Look much further back to Plato’s REPUBLIC. Plato was skeptical of democracy, so he wrote what amounted to the very first skeptical fiction in the form of the non historical Atlantis, ruled by proper philosophers such as himself.  And who had selected them?  Philosophers who had already been approved by other such philosophizers and so far up the line.

Okay, this is not democracy, but we are not talking about selecting rulers. An SFS approval board could be self-elected SFS member volunteers. Or even magazine editors as well who might want to serve and were approved by the SFS approval board.

Who would pay for all this?  Ideally no one.  No paying for membership. No payment from magazines. But in the real world that might be impossible unless the SFWA wants to make the SFS a part of itself.  So there may have to be some membership payment. On the other hand, SFWA could use it as a legal donation to help it keep itself being a so-called non-profit company paying no income tax.  And anyone or company for that matter which needed one could do it too.

Doing well by doing good.

Besides which way back when, SFWA with less than 1000 members, ran the whole thing with only one paid executive secretary. The perfect is the enemy of the good, the price of liberty is taking care of good business, not monkey business.

Over to you.

Norman Spinrad

1 rue de la Bucherie
75005 Paris

My asteroid: Normanspinrad
Wikipedia pages:
English –
Francais –

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