Paul Riddell Revisited: Placing "SFWA Member" on Your Cover Letter--
Will It Help Sell Your Story?
(Top SF Editors Reveal Their Views About This Misunderstood Belief)
by
James Van Pelt

Why should I care that Paul Riddell said in his Fall Tangent column, "I'm willing to bet that other editors feel the same way I do: with very few exceptions, seeing the letterhead that lists SFWA and HWA is a screaming neon sign saying 'crappy story enclosed; please flush at first opportunity'"? After all, as several editors and writers I talked to pointed out, the statement is clearly hyperbole and shouldn't be taken at face value.

Riddell went on to say, "My main beef concerns the SFWA members who put their membership on the letterhead, as in 'Joe Blow, SFWA Member.' When I started accepting manuscripts for the Genetech anthology a year ago, I quickly learned to look at the cover letter; with maybe one exception, every submission that made a big gardyloo about SFWA on its masthead was a complete and utter dog." He says that he plans on addressing in more detail in a future column in Tangent his feelings about SFWA.

Here's why I care. First, I made my second and third professional short fiction sales in October and November, thereby qualifying for SFWA membership. Second, I paid for the membership. Third, I sent several manuscripts out since then with "Member SFWA" as part of the letterhead. Finally, even if Riddell's statement is hyperbole, what exactly does it mean? Where is the truth at its core (if there is any), or what would produce such a belief?

So, a few phone calls, e-mails, snail-mails and face to face interviews later, I found things I guessed to be true as well as a few surprises.

On a literal level, the idea that with "very few exceptions" other editors view SFWA or HWA on the letterhead as an automatic red flag warning them away from the story is wrong. In fact, both Gardner Dozois and Ellen Datlow say that professional organizations on the letterhead afford the manuscript somewhat preferred treatment. Dozois says, "I take membership in a professional organization like SFWA or HWA as an indication that I should pay more attention to the story. Having "member SFWA" on your story will be enough to get you out of the slush pile and into the semi-professional pile at Asimov's, and in fact at most other places that I'm aware of."

Michael Swanwick says, "About two or three weeks ago I was in New York, and I dropped into Asimov's offices, and I was talking to Gardner Dozois. He was going over a slush pile. As we were talking, he went through four inches of story, glancing at them, writing a number down for which rejection slip to give them, the number one slip or the number two, one of which encourages you to send more stories, and one of which does not. We were talking about what takes you out of the slush pile, and he said that a simple declaration, just a little line, 'member SFWA' or mention that you had attended Clarion was enough to get them out of the slush pile and into the 'slightly better chance pile,' where the editor would spend a little bit more time reading it. So Riddell's statement, in this case, is literally not true."

Datlow says of her policy at Omni On-line, "Stating that someone is a member of a professional writing organization usually gets the submitter out of the slush pile. It won't get an editor to buy the story, but she will probably pick it up to look at herself rather than give it over to a first reader."

Dozois adds that at Asimov's, "None of this [professional affiliation on a letterhead] guarantees anything. There can be very good things by non-SFWA members in the slush pile, and there can be crappy stories by SFWA members, but it's an indication I think, that if a person can sell enough to get into SFWA that he's got something going. That's certainly more than is true for most of the people who fill up the slush pile."

Randy Dannenfelser, editor of Adventures in Sword and Sorcery, voices a similar opinion when he says, "Seeing SFWA or HWA indicates at least the person has a certain minimal level of ability. The story probably is not absolutely crap."

SFWA president Michael Capobianco reports that the specific issue of listing SFWA membership has come up before, and that most of the editors he's talked to said that is was a "slight plus, a very slight plus. It was nothing that would effect their handling of the manuscript at all, but it was certainly not a big negative."

Most of the other editors took neutral positions. Algis Budrys sums up the general feeling best when he says, "Well, in the first place, the very fact that a guy is in SFWA or a member of any writer's group or something like that doesn't mean anything. That's just so much window dressing. What counts is the story. A story may be good, it may be bad. I'm probably too old to consider that anything about a manuscript marks it as good or no good until I read it. I don't see the relevance."

This sentiment is echoed by Stanley Schmidt at Analog. "I judge a story entirely by its contents. I'm not positively or negatively impressed by anything in the letterhead. If I see SFWA up there it only means that someone has sold something in the past. This story in front of me may or may not be what I am looking for."

Gordon Van Gelder who has taken over at _The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction_ says, "A good story speaks for itself. I generally don't pay much attention to the miscellaneous organizations that a writer cites on his/her cover letter." Paula Guran at Wetbones, Teresa Keene at Keen Science Fiction, Mark Rainey at Deathrealm, Greg Meronek at Little Green Men, Patrick Swenson at Talebones, and Meg Thompson at _Blood & Midnight_, agree with Budrys, Schmidt and Van Gelder.

Paul DiDomenico, at Black October Magazine goes so far as to say, "As an editor, I think to prejudge any manuscript before reading . . . is a failure in carrying out the responsibility of being an editor." An anonymous small press editor adds, "I question the professionalism of any editor who consciously pre- judges any submission based on a few words on the cover letter page. I wonder if he has other prejudices we should be aware of? Maybe he has had several poor stories from the state of Idaho and now thinks anything with a return address there is not worth reading? Perhaps he reviles people with personalized stationery?"

Of all the editors I heard from, only one supports Riddell's statement, saying (anonymously), "I have found that at best, I can ignore the affiliation. It is difficult. 'SFWA' on the letterhead too often means a hurried, or even abrasive, presentation." He went on to say, "Oddly, my experience with HWA members is not only better, but actually quite good." For him, he says, he understands that his smaller magazine might not get a first shot at the newest work by pros, and for him it is much more pleasurable to buy from a promising newcomer.

On a literal level then, most editors disagree with Riddell's assertion that SFWA or HWA on the letterhead indicates a "crappy" story. But many of the editors and authors contacted about his statement agreed with something in the spirit of it. Almost none limited themselves to just addressing the specific issue of SFWA on the letterhead. They all expanded on their comments and explored what they thought might have provoked it.

For example, "SFWA Member" on the letterhead impresses Worlds of Fantasy & Horror editor Darrell Schweitzer this way: "Someone who puts that after their name is usually a neopro. It's a way to spot a neopro. An established writer wouldn't bother. But the writings of a neopro aren't necessarily unpublishable. It's the sign of a relatively inexperienced professional. So I would not flush it at the first opportunity. I would pay attention to it. If somebody makes insecurity about pro-status noises in their cover letter, I pretty much ignore that and go read the story."

Former SFWA president Barbara Hambly uses the term "neo- writer," to describe authors who include the title in their cover letters saying, "It looks --excuse the phrase -- amateurish to do so." But she also adds, "I've never had an editor tell me of any particular prejudice against SFWA membership per se."

Mike Resnick, who only takes manuscripts by invitation, goes further in his explanation of why "SFWA Member" on the letterhead doesn't mean much to him when he says, "My opinion is that SFWA voted three years ago to no longer be a professional organization. If I did have a slush pile, seeing the word SFWA would not get a story out of it. It wouldn't get it read any quicker; it wouldn't influence me favorably at all, because we voted three or four years ago and grandfathered in every person who joined without proper credentials. They outvoted all the working writers. They outnumbered them, and as far as I'm concerned it's an amateur organization and a social club now ever since that vote."

As far as Resnick is concerned, "Saying SFWA doesn't mean "crappy story" anymore than it means good story. What it doesn't do, is it doesn't mean professional, working writer."

Harlan Ellison best articulates the perception of SFWA's decreased status when he says,

"While I think that Paul [Riddell] is purposely enhancing the hyperbole for dramatic effect, nonetheless I suspect he perceives very clearly that in the case of Art, too many cooks overcrowd the kitchen till the Health Department condemns it. That is to say--for instance--when you have only three or four authors who can claim 'Hugo Winning Novel' on the cover of a book, you've got a rara avis, something special that will capture attention, that will set it apart. But when we have forty-five years of Hugo winners, and thirty-two years of Nebula laureates, well, it does tend to water down the gene pool insofar as whoopee rhapsodic unusualness is concerned.

"When every third paperback--not only trumpets the blurb encomium of some author only slightly better-known than the person who wrote the book itself--impertinently declares itself a HUGO NOMINATED or HUGO CONSIDERED or HUGO NOTED or HUGO WINKED AT book, well, to be kind, the cachet has long since been tarnished beyond even the aid of Brasso. Common sense, which seems to be a commodity in short supply among amateurs who reside more in the Land of Urban Fantasy than they do in the realm of pragmatic business career, ought to tell writers and their editors and even the nameless drudges who write cover blurbs for Tor and Berkley and Roc, et al, that when a phrase like 'Nebula Winner' has been reduced to the level of white noise, to mere bibble-babble, that it has lost its exclusivity, has lost the power to generate any electrical clout of exclusivity. The analogy holds for the slathering of 'SFWA Member" on an unsolicited manuscript.

"Ectothermic rodomontade apart, in my view Paul is absolutely correct that, to a genuinely professional editor (not one or another of the jumped-up parvenus who fancy themselves 'editors' because they managed to get Marty Greenberg to adopt them for some goofy anthology idea), the appearance on a manuscript of the words 'SFWA Member' or 'HWA Member' has about as much power to command attention as the magical phrases '4-H Member' or 'Registered Voter, Libertarian Party.' By the same token, none of those implied importunities will suggest to a reasonable editor that the manuscript ought to be, in Paul's unfortunate words, flushed at the first opportunity.

"In something like forty-five years it's been my overwhelming experience that editors as a group, with very few exceptions who don't remain editors for too long, treat the slush pile as a necessary responsibility. An obligation. Neither a privilege nor a boon, but something like Respectable Charity. Doing good works among the terminally fanciful. It's a burden, because every twit who ever wrote a line of astrological poetry in school deludes him/herself that s/he can be A Writer (if only they took the few scant moments necessary to do it). But it's a burden all sedulous editors bear, with gritted teeth.

"And what compels them to be diligent about the chore--a chore that takes more time per increment of reward than any other of the multitudinous jobs an editor performs--are the few, rare, occasional treasures that surface from that Sargasso of crippled sentences and blotto story lines. Every editor longs to discover another Chip Delany or Richard Matheson in the over-the-transom effluvium. They envy the editors who found Dan Simmons and Eliot Fintushel and Lucy Taylor and Tananarive Due and Poppy Z. Brite in amongst the endless vampire New Age pseudo- X-Files military pastiche crapola that inundates every accredited editor. They all read that nose-dripping and tone-deaf Philistinism because if they do find something tasty, and they pull it out, and work with the writer till it's publishable, and it gets some notoriety . . . it raises the editor's stock. S/he gains a rep for being astute, alert, perceptive, not to mention attentive to detail and touched by compassion. In short, for all the anomie and angst and simply mind-deadening boring time-consuming and mainly unrewarding effort of it, and despite the paranoia of hopeless amateurs who would rather deal in conspiracy than in logic, editors do read what comes in unsolicited. Look how smart I am, they can say; I was able to spot these fledglings when no one else could; they were rough clay, and I was able to shape them through dint of sheer talent on my part into the scintillant icon you now see published here. It is pure self-interest, so editors do it assiduously.

"Reading slush pile submissions, if you've ever done it--and I've done it, and every editor worth mentioning has done it at one time or another--is likely the most depressing, dismaying job in all of publishing. You just want to slash your wrists after a while . . . or slash somebody else's throat . . . usually the person who suggested you put a 'manuscripts wanted' notice in Locus or the HWA Newsletter. After a while, and not too long a while, you hear a gibbering in your head that tells you to dash off to read a little Faulkner or Colette or Donald Westlake, for a couple of hours, just to remind yourself that there is such a thing as Real Writing.

"When I was engaged to be one of the five judges of the original Twilight Zone Magazine short story competition, years ago when TED Klein was the editor, we got something like ten thousand submissions, and out of that vast Gobi Altai of semiliterate and redundant manuscripts, we could not find ten that were of publishable quality. I found Dan Simmons at a Colorado Mountains writing workshop right around that time, and urged him to enter a story that subsequently won first prize. But the noise-to-signal ratio of that TZ contest is hardly out of line with the day-to-day reality of what an editor sees in the slush pile. And I'm afraid 'SFWA Member' doesn't cut no mustard, don't open no portals."

What daunts most "non-name" writers, which is the largest percentage of writers, is the frightening anonymity of huge slush piles. Remember the "four inches" of manuscripts that Swanwick watched Dozois deal with? Scott Edelman at _Science Fiction Age_ reports that, "I get about 800 a month; I buy seven or eight every two months. I'm buying a tiny fraction of what is sent to me."

I don't believe that any except the densest of writers think that SFWA, HWA or a long list of publications in their cover letter will get a poor story published. What they probably hope for, though, is that their story will get an attentive read. They hope that the information on the cover letter will tell the editor "real writer aboard."

Edelman says, "Obviously when Robert Silverberg sends me a story, he does not have to say on the cover letter, I'm a SFWA member in order to cover himself with some kind of glory that SFWA gives. There are those that seem to feel the need. I don't think of it as saying horrible things about the manuscript, because the people who get to that level have climbed out of some portion of primordial ooze that the rest of the people are in."

So, it's hard to fault writers for trying to separate their manuscripts from the inches of other manuscripts sitting on the editor's table. Edelman said a lot to me that made sense. "When you get to the point where you don't need it anymore [SFWA on the letterhead], then you don't need it anymore. If you think you need it, you need it, and if you think you don't need it, you don't need it. From the editor's stand point, a story's got to stand or fall on its own. I've rejected a ton of stories from SFWA members, and I've bought stories from non-SFWA members. So I think what it becomes is something that has less meaning than writers wish to imbue it with, so what he [Riddell] is doing is saying to writers, 'Look, it doesn't mean as much as you think it does.'"

The gist of this discussion about the efficacy of placing SFWA or HWA on ones cover letter probably has less to do with any difference it might make to an editor, and more to do with the writer's self image. For some newly minted professionals, the SFWA/HWA affiliation stands as a goal to be achieved, and once achieved, a kind of merit badge of acceptance. I know for me that any sale, whether it is to a "pro" market or to the smallest of the small press 'zines, is an achievement. That some stranger thought enough of my writing to spend money and page space on it.

So discovering first hand that Riddell's statement about seeing SFWA/HWA in a cover letter fails to describe the literal truth is a kind of relief, but no surprise. For myself, I'll continue to include it until I feel that I don't need to. Edelman says that there are three kinds of writer, "Either you're bigger than SFWA, or smaller than SFWA or just SFWA size. Once you're bigger, you don't have to say that anymore. So by saying that, you're saying you're not a household name; I'm not yet Benford, or Silverberg or Brin, so therefore I have to say it to get your attention. There's nothing wrong with that, because you need every single thing you can to lift yourself out of the gene pool."

As to the larger issues behind Riddell's comment, I found that by joining SFWA I've joined a group with an interesting, varied and fiery history. Clearly, whatever benefits I get from it will come from networking, camaraderie and education, and probably not from any status that membership might indicate to editors. Evidently, the acronym 'SFWA' on ones letterhead used to mean more. It seems to mean less now. However, it does not automatically say, "crappy story enclosed."


[jvanpelt@mesa.k12.co.us.]