Hang around the SFF scene long enough and you might have heard someone mention the SFWA. Maybe your favorite science fiction or fantasy author talked about them in a newsletter. Maybe you saw them headlining a panel at a convention. Or maybe you saw the acronym in a Twitter hashtag. That’s all well and good, but it doesn’t answer a crucial question: what is the SFWA? A fair question. Science fiction and fantasy writers might recognize the acronym, but readers not so much.
Until recently, SFWA stood for the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America. It is, as you can guess, an organization for professional science fiction and fantasy writers. According to its website, SFWA’s purpose is to “promote, advance, and support science fiction and fantasy writing.” To accomplish this, they support writers—both working writers who live off their publications and aspiring writers who are still seeking their first sale—and educate the general public. While the organization is based in the United States, genre crosses international borders and the SFWA supports SFF writing all over the world. To reflect this, the organization changed its name to the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers Association in 2022.
The SFWA was originally founded in 1965 by science fiction writer Damon Knight. In its initial incarnation, perhaps due to Knight’s chosen genre, the organization was called the Science Fiction Writers of America. It wasn’t until almost three decades later in 1991, that the organization changed its name to the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America to reflect its membership. Despite the name change, the acronym remained the same. And as you can tell, SFWA as a shorthand endures to this day. With Damon Knight as its first president and Jeffe Kennedy as its current one, many well-known authors have led the organization including John Scalzi, Jane Yolen, and Robert Silverberg.
You might be wondering what SFWA’s membership requirements are. Like other organizations, SFWA features different membership tiers, each with their own set of qualifying criteria. Writers, for example, can select between two membership tiers, depending on how much their published works have earned. In the past, the SFWA used to look at the venues that published a writer’s work to determine eligibility, but those requirements have been eliminated. With the rise of indie publishing and the role it plays in the science fiction and fantasy genres, the current membership requirements are far more accessible to a wider set of working writers.
But it’s not just writers that can join the SFWA. People that work in adjacent fields can join the organization. What are adjacent fields? Basically, any field related to the business of publishing science fiction and fantasy. This means editors and agents can join the organization. After all, one of them helps place a writer’s work with a publisher and the other edits that work for the publisher. That’s not all, though. It also means that the person who designs the cover for a writer’s novel can join. It means that someone creating podcasts about SFF books can join because their work educates the public.
The SFWA participates in many publishing industry events and SFF conventions, but it also hosts its own events. Among these is the SFWA Nebula Conference, during which the Nebula Awards take place. Winners of the Nebula Awards have included many recognizable names such as Frank Herbert’s Dune, Ursula K. Le Guin’s The Left Hand of Darkness, William Gibson’s Neuromancer, Neil Gaiman’s American Gods, and Ann Leckie’s Ancillary Justice.
Beyond its awards, however, SFWA is probably best known for its advocacy. Soon after its formation, the association attracted attention for its efforts to help J.R.R. Tolkien when he faced issues with pirated sales of The Lord of the Rings. That legacy continues today. In addition to funds that assist writers with unexpected medical costs and writer-related legal expenses, the organization sponsors Writer Beware and supports the Grievance Committee, also known as Griefcom.
Writer Beware is probably recognizable to both aspiring and working writers who’ve spent any amount of time on the internet. Co-founded by Victoria Strauss and A.C. Crispin, Writer Beware maintains a robust presence consisting of a website, blog, various social media accounts, a database, and even an email service. Its stated mission is to “track, expose, and raise awareness of fraud and questionable activities within the publishing industry.” Despite being sponsored by the SFWA, Writer Beware doesn’t limit its scope to the United States, a writer’s publication history, or even the genres of science fiction and fantasy. In fact, the Mystery Writers of America and the Horror Writers Association support Writer Beware’s mission. After all, sketchy publishing practices affect all writers, no matter their chosen genre.
Fraud needs no explanation, but what does Writer Beware mean by a “questionable activity?” Here, questionable activities are defined as nonstandard practices that are not in a writer’s best interest. This might mean a publisher charging submission fees or an agent recommending their own editing service to a querying writer. In short, Writer Beware seeks to educate writers of these unethical practices and highlight parties that engage in them so that writers can be informed and avoid them.
This leads into another advocacy component of the SFWA: Griefcom or the Grievance Committee. The committee’s purpose is to help members with issues related to writing industry. One example would be a publisher not paying a writer for contracted work that has been submitted and accepted. A recent, highly publicized case that falls into this category is Disney’s breach of contract with Alan Dean Foster. In short, the corporation acquired the rights to several books written by Foster. Despite continuing to publish the books, which continued to sell, Disney withheld payment. The publicity, and dedicated Twitter hashtag #DisneyMustPay, were highly unusual since cases brought to Griefcom typically remain private when resolved. Disney’s refusal, however, necessitated public attention since their interpretation of contractual obligation not only affected Foster’s livelihood, but also set a negative precedent for other writers whose works are acquired via company consolidation.
Not a working writer? That’s all right. Aspiring writers can find resources on the SFWA website such as the information center and indie publishing 101 section. Not a writer at all? No worries. If you’re a reader, you can always use the Nebula winners and nominations as a reading list.