So, I’m speaking here as my personal self, and not as Secretary of SFWA.
First off. Writers. Any editor who tells you that they’re doing you a favor by giving you exposure? Not worth submitting to.
Because they’re not doing you any favors. If they’re just publishing your story for free on the web, you could get exactly the same “exposure” by publishing that story on your own blog.
Now, I’m not saying all non-paying venues are crap, or not worth subbing to. For one thing, your goals in submitting might not have much to do with being a professional writer–writing and submitting might be all about the fun for you, and that’s awesome and wonderful and have a great time! And there are, actually, or at least have been, a few places that pay nothing but have really good critical reputations. But those few non-paying venues that appearing in actually might do something for your career? Are edited by people with standing and reputation in the field such that yes, others pay attention to the stories they select. Those editors will never say they’re doing you a favor publishing you, because they know that in the end, you’re doing them just as much of a favor by giving them your story. Their reputation is based in part on their consistently publishing good work. That reputation doesn’t exist without you and writers like you. And they know that, and aren’t going to try to tell you that they’re somehow doing you a favor and trying to give you a leg-up.
Seriously, I’ve got no problem with non-paying venues, so long as they’re up front about not paying, and don’t try to act like they’re granting favors from on high by publishing you.
I do have a problem with zines that conceal the fact that they don’t pay. And I’ve got an even bigger problem with zines that pay some writers, but keep a slot for “promising” writers, you know, to give them a leg up. Without, you know, also giving them a check.
Now. A bit more than a year ago, the ezine Penumbra opened its doors. Their guidelines said they paid pro-rates–five cents a word. They also had a slot in each issue for “Rising Talent,” a story from an up and coming, new writer they felt deserved the spotlight.
What the guidelines, and the description of the Rising Talent thing, didn’t say was that the writers so-spotlighted would not be paid for their stories.
It appears this is no longer the case–the Rising Talent page on the website now only lists the existing Rising Talent stories and the description of it has been deleted.
So, this is where my personal desire to inform new writers intersects with my role as Secretary of SFWA. Because it’s become clear over the last year that some number of writers have been assuming that Penumbra was a SFWA-qualifying market, or at the very least would be in the fullness of time, that once their year was up, they’d be found to have met all qualifications and the writers who had sold to them in that last year would have a qualifying credit to their names.
Sadly, because they didn’t pay for the Rising Talent stories, and SFWA requires qualifying markets to pay SFWA minimum for all new fiction acquired, that isn’t going to happen. Not for this year, anyway. And when I say “sadly” I mean that–it’s to the advantage of writers to have lots of interesting, well-run, thriving venues for fiction around. The more there are, the better it is for us. When I see a zine obviously trying to get SFWA status–whether because they’ve announced they are, or whether it’s clear from their policies and guidelines–it gives me a warm, happy feeling. I wish them success. When I’m sitting in my Secretary Seat, it makes me happy to send an email telling someone that yes, they are a SFWA qualifying market!
So, I genuinely want Penumbra, and other zines trying to get that status, to succeed.
I want to say again, btw, that I am not at this moment sitting in my Secretary Seat. I won’t even be able to in a few weeks–on July 1, Susan Forrest pulls up with the SFWA Trailer and hauls that baby away. But it’s still here for now, and I am not sitting in it. I’m speaking only for myself at this point.
There’s been some back-channel chatter about the Penumbra situation, with some surprise and dismay at not only the lack of payment for Rising Talent stories, but also for the way Penumbra didn’t mention that lack of payment up front in its guidelines. From one angle, it looks pretty exploitative–let’s say you’re a new writer, hoping for a good home for your fiction and (oh please oh please) a SFWA qualifying sale. You get the dreamed-of acceptance–but wait, it’s for the Rising Talent slot! Isn’t that great!
Except you don’t get paid. You’re asked to write a nonfiction article to go along with the story, and you’ll get a free full page ad in the magazine! And they’ll pay for the nonfic!*
Now, if you’re a new writer who’s been paying attention, you know that there’s something off here. The guidelines said nothing about not getting paid for Rising Talent. You’ve been reading blogs and you know about the debates over whether it’s ever worth letting anyone publish your fiction for free. But damn it, you’ve been submitting and submitting and hardly getting any love, and this is almost the next thing to a SFWA pro market and if you pull out, will that leave you with a bad reputation? After all, SF&F is small. Everyone knows each other, what if you get blacklisted because you’ve acted like some kind of spoiled special snowflake over this?
These are very real feelings, and very real fears. And the way the Rising Talent thing was set up, it was almost custom-made to play on these feelings.
Now, in the various conversations I’ve heard about this, it’s been suggested that Penumbra just made an honest mistake. They didn’t mean any harm and didn’t know any better.
On the one hand, I really hope that was the case, because the alternative is something I’d prefer not to be true. On the other hand, if that is the case, it displays a pretty astonishing lack of knowledge of standard practices in SF&F. A complete ignorance of the conversations surrounding writing and selling science fiction and fantasy. And given that they’ve been aiming at SFWA qualification, it’s a bit puzzling how they could have failed to notice the mismatch between the “at least five cents a word for all new fiction” requirement and the whole “who needs money when we can give you valuable exposure” Rising Talent thing. Heck, once you know Rising Talent wasn’t Paid Talent, even the language of the Rising Talent description is dicey, given the common advice to new writers about the value (or more properly the lack thereof) of “exposure” as payment. That text is gone now, but this was the last sentence:
This is just our way of bringing a talented writer into the spotlight, in the hopes that exposure will lead them to bigger and better things.
And in fact, this isn’t their only problem. While I know a number of writers who have had a great experience selling their work to Penumbra, I also know of a number who have had decidedly negative experiences. I’ve seen emails, and let me tell you, I raised an eyebrow while reading them. And I admit I’m kind of raising an eyebrow over the response to “You shouldn’t be only paying for some stories and not others” being to delete the Rising Talent, not, you know, start paying for it.
Now, maybe the editor had a bad day. Or a bad week. Or has a bad week every couple of months or something. That happens–but it doesn’t excuse the sort of treatment of writers that I’ve seen. Let me say again, it’s not like someone told me what happened and they blew it out of proportion or twisted it around. I read the emails themselves. There is no excuse for what I read.
But let’s say it was a bad day, and most of the time they’re not like that, and all of it–the badly-written (and poorly understood) contract, the surprise non-payment for Rising Talent stories, the sporadically unprofessional emails–it’s all just them learning, just honest mistakes, and they’ll do better in the future.
I sincerely hope that’s the case, I really, truly hope they do better in the future. But as far as I’m concerned–me, personally, not anyone else–they’ve got a very, very long way to go before I’m going to tell a new writer that it’s a good place to submit. And I’m not happy to say that, I’d really much rather say, “Hooray for Penumbra, they’re a qualifying market now!” But I can’t say that, and it makes me sad.
*I’ve seen the correspondence and the contract of one of the Rising Talent authors. It was a whole ten bucks for the article. Or, actually, the contract appears to say the ten bucks was for the story–the only work named in the contract–while the correspondence insists that the article is also somehow covered in the contract that nowhere mentions it.
**Incidentally. There seem to be several widespread misapprehensions about SFWA qualifying status. One is that it’s some sort of mark of quality–that publishers that put out well-regarded work that wins awards but don’t pay minimum or meet circulation minimums ought still be able to be on the list. Sorry, no. There’s a list of requirements right here and they all need to be met. SFWA qualification makes no statement whatever about the quality of any market, or of the fiction it publishes.
There also seems to be a misapprehension that just paying five cents a word is sufficient. It is not. Please read that link above.
Please do not tell me about the requirements being outdated. I know they are. There’s a distinct possibility the Board will be looking at maybe changing those requirements in the nearish future. Please do email a Board member (any Board member! Seriously!) with your thoughts on the matter, if you’re having serious thinky thoughts or concerns you’d like them to know about. Be polite when you do, whoever you contact is a volunteer who’s working hard on any number of things right now.
***New writers, no one reputable is going to blacklist you for asking questions about a contract, asking to negotiate things that seem dicey to you, or just refusing to accept an acceptance that doesn’t seem right. An editor who tries to tell you that pros never question, negotiate, or pull out of bad deals, or who tells you that you’ll be blacklisted for doing those things, is not reputable and doesn’t actually have the ability to blacklist you that way. That editor might refuse to work with you again (no big loss!), but there’s no industry-wide blacklist they can put you on.
****Whether you’re a SFWA member or not, if you have an experience with a SFWA qualifying market that suggests that market might no longer qualify, please by all means email the Secretary of SFWA at email@example.com and let whoever that is (it won’t be me after June 30!) know what went down.