Does “SFWA Member” help sell your story? Top SF editors comment

The question arises from time to time, “Should I put SFWA member on my cover letter.” Here are what some editors had to say about that from an article in 1998.

Gardner 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.”

Ellen Datlow said of her policy while 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.”

Gardner Dozois adds that while 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, says, “Seeing SFWA or HWA indicates at least the person has a certain minimal level of ability. The story probably is not absolutely crap.”

Algis Budrys 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.”

Stanley Schmidt at Analog, says, “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 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.”

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.

“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 standpoint, 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.”

James Van Pelt teaches Creative Writing at Mesa State College and Fruita Monument High School in Grand Junction, Colorado. His short fiction has appeared in Pulphouse, Adventures in Sword and Sorcery, Analog Science Fiction.

Excerpts from taken from “Paul Riddell Revisited: Placing “SFWA Member” on Your Cover Letter” which was first published in Tangent and Copyright © 1998 by James Van Pelt. Reproduction and distribution specifically prohibited. All rights reserved.