Friday, November 6, 2009

Long Ass Post about the HWA

Let me start this post by stating that I am proud to be a member of the HWA and I have a goal of achieving Active membership. I am not posting this on the HWA forum because it's too damned long. Part of it is rant, but most of it is my attempt at stating a position and making recommendations.

My position is that due to a combination of market factors the current membership guidelines attaining Active membership is viewed as being too difficult. Furthermore, that because the attainment of Active membership is viewed as being unachievable, not enough people are joining. The HWA will benefit from a larger membership through the increase in volunteerism, an increase in dues and the strengthening and in some locations creation of a stronger local chapter structure.

There is a very good thread on the HWA website where members are discussing what other professional organizations provide their members in the hope that the HWA can attract and retain members by adopting some of these practices. I think the discussion will bear fruit, assuming the membership is willing to make some changes.

Any easy rebuttal to my position is that my angst is just sour grapes. I'm not an Active member yet and I want to become one faster, so I'm just complaining. It could be pointed out that many current Active members struggled for years to get theirs, so why should it be changed now? Let me be clear. I don't think Active membership should be easy and don’t mind if I have to wait many more years. I believe I will gain Active status and will continue to work toward it regardless. What I do believe is that it should be realistically attainable, and based on the current number of qualifying markets, that is less likely now than it has been previously.

The market fluctuates, but this current economy is the worst it has been since the depression. I remember the recession in the early eighties, and the only thing that made that one seem worse, was the lines for gas. We are not currently being rationed by the government, but everyone is cutting back. Writing markets rise and fall, that is a constant. The downward trend we are currently facing however is impacting the business in more ways that simply having markets fold. New markets are being created, but paying rates below the professional level. The reason is simple. They can't sell enough subscriptions to pay out professional pay. This has nothing to do with the quality of the writing or the quality of the magazine and everything to do with customers choosing not to spend their money on things that are not a necessity.
One restriction in the guidelines is what qualifies as a professional payment. Section 2 of the membership requirements states:

It shall be required that the publication, publisher, or other entity making payment as described in Section 1 shall be one that pays the same qualifying rate to at least 90% of its contributors. This is necessary to avoid having members attain Active status through "traded" or other irregular sales at artificial rates.

In other words, this provision is in place to stop people from gaining membership through fraudulent means.

I understand the reasoning behind this, but I don't agree that it is necessary. Many organizations have a code of ethics that they required their members to sign. In such a small community, I would think it would be difficult to hide such obvious collusion, but I'm guessing it's happened at some point in the past. Based on this language, winning a contest would also not qualify. That is too bad, because it can be much more difficult to win a contest than place a story in a pro pay market. That is except for recently. According to Duotrope, there are 32 markets that pay pro rates and take horror. A closer look reveals that like Necrotic Tissue, the majority of markets pay on a scale that doesn’t meet the 90% rule. Not counting anthologies, there are only 9 markets that qualify. Of these 9, at least 3 are combination markets that say they take horror, but rarely do. That leaves 6 markets that specialize in horror and pay pro rates that qualify. Of those 6, 3 are temporarily closed to submissions.

Conversely, the SFWA has a more rigorous process of qualifying markets, yet they currently have 21 magazines on their list. Anthologies come and go, but they make it clear that only an anthology from a qualified novel publisher will be accepted.

When one of the six markets is open, there are very few slots truly open to submissions. This is a business, and it does sometimes happen that markets choose a known writer with a following over an unknown writer in order to boost sales. Also, many markets have reduced the number of stories in each issue, making dropping the number of professional pay opportunities even further.

The goal is to make gaining Affiliate and especially Active membership meaningful. There is also a desire to keep Active membership exclusive. The question is how exclusive. I wonder whether or not when the organization began was there a certain number of Active members desired? As time has progressed, does the membership overall wish these numbers would increase or decrease? SFWA has 1,500 members. I didn’t see in their website what percentage were Active members, but based on the larger number of market, I think it's safe to speculate that there are more than 200. The HWA posts two data points on the website. The first is on the About HWA section and is from 10/1/2006. There were 240 Active members and 146 Affiliate members. The current numbers as of 10/28/2009, show a decline, with only 196 Active members and 141 Affiliate.

Presumably, some of the Affiliates from 2006 have reached Active status. I don’t know how many, but it seems a safe assumption. So even with some new Active members, the overall numbers have dropped while the affiliate numbers have remained fairly constant. I would have expected much more fluctuation in the Affiliate ranks. My belief before I saw the data was that once reached, people would maintain their Active membership. I realize there may be some people who have passed away, but surely not 44. Also, while I don’t know how many new Active members there have been in the last three years, I have to believe the number would be at least counter a loss of membership through death.
This leads me to believe that people are leaving Active membership for another reason. I'm not sure if the SFWA has similar issues, but their numbers seem to argue that if they do, it is not to the same level.

I also find it odd that there are more Active members than Affiliate. Dues are the same for all levels of membership, but I would think one goal would be to gain more members and increase the amount of dues coming in. Based on the numbers above, there has been a loss of about 47 members for a total loss of $3,055 in dues annually. Almost half of the dues burden is on the Affiliate members, the ones that by very definition are not getting paid at professional rates. For many, paying even $65 dollars in dues is an issue. Based on the difficulty in finding qualifying markets, I would expect the Active membership to be less than Affiliate, not more. Still, I expected there to be more than 196 Active members. There must be at least 500 writers currently living today that meet the requirements for Active Membership. I don't think I'm way off base guessing that as many as 1,500 people qualify for Affiliate membership. NT alone has paid at no fewer than 150 writers the requisite amount in the last two years, more than the current total of number of Affiliate members. Regardless of what the optimum number of Active members is, it's my opinion that there should be at least three time the number of Affiliate members striving for Active membership. So why aren’t people joining? And why are Active members leaving?

I do think that the perception is that gaining Active membership is more difficult than is warranted. While I can only base my conclusions on what I have read and heard, it seems to me that the goal for Active membership was to ensure a certain level of writing skill be validate through the free market. The assumption being that once this level of skill was attained, that the requisite number of professional acceptances would follow, whether it is in short story (the example I am beating to death), novel or the other avenues.

The novel requirement for Active status is a $2,000 dollar advance on 5% royalties. This eliminates the possibility of any small press I am aware of. The goal stated here is to set a professional rate for a novel, yet the advance could be given and the novel could have so few sales that the publisher would not even come close to covering the advance. It also doesn’t state whether the Royalty is to be 5% of Gross or Net sales. Presumably Gross, which was more common in the past, but it could be Net and still qualify since it isn’t defined in the rules. Again, I would argue that there should be flexibility. With the advent of Print On Demand marketing structures, a small press publisher could and often does according to Duotrope and Ralan, give between 25% and 50% royalties. There is rarely if ever an advance since small press does not have the operating capital necessary, but the volume of sale could exceed that of a novel sold to a larger publisher that issued a $2,000 advance with 5% royalties. These models may have made sense at the time they were created, but I think it’s time to reevaluate. Perhaps a $1,000 dollar advance on 10% royalties or no advance on 40% royalties would be acceptable. Presumably when the original amount numbers were chosen, there was some formula used that represented total pay to a writer. If that is the case, then a scale could be created that maintains the desired outcome but gets there in different ways.

Trying to come up with a market based approach could not have been easy. The rates were the rates because that is what the market would bear at the time. The goal was to find a way to identify "professional" work from amateur. Using pay is certainly easier and less bias than trying to have a group of members evaluate an applicant's writing to determine if it had achieved the required level of skill. I can’t think of a better method and my proposal isn't to ditch the market based approach, but instead to modify to keep in line with market conditions. The exception to this should be a new rule for those that win the Stoker award. If the real goal is to validate a certain amount of skill has been achieved, why then doesn’t winning the Stoker award automatically qualify a writer for Active membership?

I don’t think Active membership should be given away. It should reflect a level of skill and accomplishment, or it means nothing. While Active members may not even think about it anymore, there is a perception out there that gaining Active membership has gone from challenging to extremely difficult. If the market is the sole determiner and the market is constricted, the original intent has not been met.

I for one have not "given" professional level pay to any writer at Necrotic Tissue. They have earned it by submitting what I believe is the best story of that issue. The best of not only the 22 or so in the issue they were accepted for, but the best of over 400 submissions that were received during that month. If I paid pro rates for all submission, it would still be my judgment on who was accepted. It would still be possible to "trade" professional pay with another market, though admittedly, due to the cost it would happen a lot less. The exception to this is anthologies. It is possible to have an anthology that pays professional payment to all of its writers thereby qualifying under the 90% rule described in Section 2 and to "select" either only friends or a writer that is also doing a professional pay anthology and accept each other in trade. With the glut of anthologies that comes out annually, this could be common practice and there is currently no way to identify the activity. Yet magazines that can’t afford to pay pro rates for all stories at what is usually four times a year, don’t qualify.

One of my goals is to make NT a pro pay market. Until then it's my opinion that if I pay someone professional pay for having what I feel is the best story of an issue, that it should be allowed as one of the three stories required to achieve Active membership. If there is any hint of impropriety, then the sale should be challenged and brought before either the membership committee or the grievance committee, whichever is deemed appropriate.
In the last two years, there has been a dramatic increase in the creation of sites devoted to horror. The Haunt attracted many members, some fans, but a lot of writers. The Dark Fiction Guild continues to grow but is currently at 396 members, though some are artist and horror directors. There are several other new sites and some have been around for years. The question we should ask is why? There is clearly a perception that these other sites are offering something that they can’t get from HWA. Some haven’t yet received the required $25 dollar sale to become Affiliate members, but many have. The Dark Fiction Guild has a section for groups, yet there is no HWA group. The perception, whether it is fair or not, is that the HWA is elitist. We can complain about this perception, or we can accept that it exists and work toward changing it. Time is limited to be sure, but if we want new members, we must market the HWA. Anyone out there who is writing horror should be a member. We should try to estimate how many there are and set membership targets. I can't speak for other magazines or publishers, but I would be honored to have an HWA ad in Necrotic Tissue and I would let the HWA advertise for free.

I believe in the HWA and think that it is capable of meeting the needs of all horror writers. To summarize, here are my 6 suggestions:
  1. Change the current rules to allow any professional payment to qualify toward Active membership. Establish or modify existing committees to investigate reports of impropriety.
  2. Create a Code of Ethics that all members are required to sign before being accepted.
  3. Qualifying sales and payment of dues should not be sufficient. A group is only as strong as its members and a level of professionalism and mutual respect as well as appropriate conduct should be the minimum requirements.
  4. Adjust the novel formula to account for a lower advance in lieu of higher royalties.
    Grant Active membership to any winner of a Stoker award in any category.
  5. The HWA should solicit membership, by having booths at conventions over a certain size and to create a presence on the web outside for the HWA website wherever it seems viable.
  6. Consider the creation of a beginning membership level that would cost less in dues and would allow people to get involved sooner (This suggestion may necessitate the creation of segmented levels in the forum and tighter monitoring).


  1. I didn't know about the 90% rule. Bummer. And the reason I haven't yet joined the HWA is I object to paying the same amount as an active member. I agree all Stoker winners should get automatic membership.

  2. Eh, that's lame. Plus how many stories do those magazines even publish? Clarkesworld for example is 24, but only 12 of those are unsolicited. Chizine is 3 quarterly I believe, so 12. F&SF, who publish only 15% horror and only 3% of their 1% acceptance rate is new writers (according to that number break down released last year). Not sure which the other ones are, but making three pro sales at this rate is quickly reaching impossible territory. I'm still trying those markets, but it looks to me like pro-rate anthos are the only way to go.

  3. Bravo, Mr. McCoy. You've really done your homework and made a fairly convincing argument. The best part, of course, is that you've provided a solution and not just a complaint.

    With the high level of competition at semi pro mags like NT, one can only shudder at the nearly impossible, everest-like task of cracking a pro market.

  4. Ironic an organization that had such a hard time getting off the ground would turn into an exclusive club. Can't imagine that's what McCammon had in mind.

    Anyway, I've never been invited into the cool kids clubs and frankly, I'm not sure what I'm missing.

  5. We talked briefly about this at Context on the last day, and I didn't know about the 90% rule, which is probably why I didn't here back when I inquired about becoming and Affiliate member.

    You touched on all the points that it think are not only reasonable, but stimulate growth. Here's the way I look at it:

    - A lot of resources for new writers say something to the effect of, "Join the HWA as soon as you can."

    - new writers are going to have a wide spectrum of talent and experience, but that spectrum will narrow with time and practice

    - The guidelines for joining the HWA doing allow for writers to be recognized in their eyes because the spectrum for qualification is even more narrow.

    So, if you are a new writer, what benefit is the HWA to you if by the time you have worked on your craft, had multiple publication credits, yet never quite made that those guidelines? They certainly are trying to help new writers as an organization (though I heard mention of some for of mentoring program once, so maybe they are coming to some kind of realization).

    Also, in the age of social networks, Twitter, and blogs, what does membership offer you. If you look at the list on the Members Only page, besides the HWA related things like the merchandise and the handbook and such, the only thing that I see that I can find out these days on my own are the Exclusive Market Listings. It that really worth the dues payment, sure they are markets that might be harder or impossible to get into otherwise, it not like there is a lack of market listings on Ralan and Duotrope and Gila's.

    Being a fellow member of the Dark Fiction Guild, I think the HWA could learn a lot from the way it is structured. They are planning on multiple levels based on experience as well as sales, it is open to new writers just starting out and working towards the big breakthrough, and it does build a community of artists.

    It's not that I think the HWA is bad or elitist or anything like that, and if I had the chance to join I probably would, I think the organization just is standing still while everything else is moving on, changing and adapting

  6. Finally. Somebody had to say it and I'm glad it was said with such understanding of the problem at hand, and followed by a very convincing compromise proposal.

    I'll add my two cents in the only view I can: the view of a struggling, low-tier horror author.

    Coming up in this industry you hear it fast and you hear it often: become part of the HWA. And after several sales of my work, I looked into it. And looked into some more...and some more. And I've got to tell you, at this point and time, under these conditions, I saw nothing worthwhile that I could gain from membership in its current form at a status I can actually grasp at this moment given the market. Sure, benefits are there, but one has to ask themselves in their own personal situation, "does this benefit me right now?" And I found the answer for me to be a resounding "no."

    Another thing I heard alot while coming up is from a number of high profiled authors that had given up their Active memberships. The main reason I found during these scans of blogs, posts, and personal relating seemed to hone in on the childishness and elitism that had run rampant inside the affiliation. I hear that (for the most part), as of late, that is now changing. But most of those ex-Active members seem content to stay away and it makes you wonder. Not pointing fingers or making accusations towards the HWA in its current form, but most of those posts are out there still to this day for the world to read. Go make of them what you will.

    The handful of markets that make reaching a worthwhile status are in a total bottleneck; a handful of publications that, let's not beat around the bush, cater to bigger names (and rightfully so) and the minute amount of slots left are being vied for by an enormous amount of lesser-known talents in my very same position.

    Maybe when/if things turn around, maybe when they show that they're trying to strive for and support the horror genre and the people that spin tales in it...maybe then I'll shoot for membership.

    Until then, "what's in it for me?" At this point, nothing.

    "...being a member can open doors for you." Ugh. No, thanks. I'm a self-serve kind of guy.

    Basically, if I'm going to whip out $65 that needs to go for a week's worth of gas to work or diapers for the baby, it's going to have to be for something more than a workshop book I already own or "opening the doors" to three magazines with a line credential that over 100+ other authors in my same boat, shipping hopeful stories to these same mags, own as well.

    I'm with Cate Gardner considering the dues.

    Frankly, that's $65 better used buying several subscriptions to horror fiction magazines or books. Something that would actually benefit the entire genre and authors as a whole by supporting the presses that support us.

    "Adapt or die." The ball's rolling.

  7. Cate, I got a note from Lisa Morton saying that perhaps pro pay from NT or a contest could apply. I think they need to either rewrite section two or give a couple scenarios to better explain it.

  8. Getting into one of the pro markets (by the HWA definition) can feel like trying to thread a needle blindfolded. Thank you for writing this post : )

  9. Well said, sir.

    I'm a member of the AHWA (the Aussie version of the HWA) where the focus is very much on prompting the emerging writers. We have mentorships, workshops, added benefits for members, market listings, competitions, writing contests, etc, etc.

    Last week we had an open forum for members with Clive Barker!

    Every year I've gained more than shelled out in fees.

    Lucky for you guys, we now have a few Aussies rising in the HWA ranks and are part of the group looking to change things a little.

    Elitism in any form needs to be pulled apart. The publishing industry is changing - it's time the associations coupled with it did as well.

  10. Finally! I am so glad you postd this, Scott. I will make reference to it on my site as well. ; )Thanks for the very infromative post! Have a great week!

    -Ben Eads