There are numerous warnings being raised in the SF/F genre about connections between the Writers of the Future contest and Scientology. While these connections have been explored before, new concerns are being raised — such as by former WotF winner Keffy Kehrli and others like Vajra Chandrasekera — that the contest gives "legitimacy" with regards to Scientology and its abusive practices. For more, see this post from The Underground Bunker.
These concerns should absolutely be listened to. The science fiction genre spawned Scientology and for far too long the SF/F genre has maintained a "look the other way" attitude to Scientology and its many documented abuses. The genre must now take the lead in ending this relationship and support.
As other winners of the WotF contest write about their experiences I'll add links here. But right now I want to discuss the annual WotF anthologies, and why these aren't a good market for new writers even aside from other concerns surrounding the contest and Scientology.
For those who don't know, each year the winning stories and illustrations along with selected finalists are published by Galaxy Press in a paperback Writers of the Future anthology. Galaxy Press also pays winners and finalists separately to publish their stories in the WotF anthologies, with payment at around 6 cents a word (there is debate on if this per-word rate applies to longer stories, since the anthologies have sometimes capped payment at $500 per story). Still, this generally means WotF stories qualify for SFWA membership.
As a new writer, this sounds great — even if you don't win the contest you're published in a professional anthology which will be noticed by readers, editors and others in the genre.
But will you be noticed?
Galaxy Press is a publisher essentially set up by Scientology to release books by their founder, L. Ron Hubbard. While their books are carried in many bookstores and online markets, their sales are questionable. For example, prior to Galaxy Press being created, Hubbard's books were released by Bridge Publications, another Scientology owned company. As has been well documented, Bridge used Scientology members to purchase their own books from bookstores, enabling Hubbard's works to land on the bestseller lists.
As that LA Times article states, "Hubbard's writings have become a means by which to spread his name in a society that often equates celebrity with credibility. It is not with whimsy that the church often calls its spiritual father 'New York Times best-selling author L. Ron Hubbard.'"
A look at the Nielsen BookScan for the WotF anthologies makes me wonder if a similar scheme is happening today.
Bookscan is a book industry sales-tracking data system which tracks about 60% of actual physical book sales. BookScan does not report e-book sales or some print copy sales, but does allow for general comparisons of how many people are reading specific books.
According to Bookscan, here are the reported sales of previous WotF anthologies:
- 2010 edition: 753 copies
- 2011 edition: 711 copies:
- 2012 edition: 1,120 copies
- 2013 edition: 2,111 copies
- 2014 edition: 1,413 copies
That fits the pattern of an anthology which doesn't sell many copies and doesn't have many readers.
However, in 2015 something changed. Here are the Bookscan numbers for the following three years:
- 2015 edition: 7,563 copies
- 2016 edition: 5,405 copies
- 2017 edition: 13,731 copies
These sales sound far more impressive until you look at the background data. For example, Writers of the Future Vol 33 (the 2017 edition) came out in April 2017. Of those total 13,731 copies sold since release, 10,935 copies were sold in the fourth week or so. And of those 10,935 copies, 8,927 copies were sold that week in the Florida and LA headquarter cities of a certain SF-inspired religion which owns the anthology's publisher, Galaxy Press.
It is even worse, all together, when you take into account sales the week before or after. Across this three week period sales match up extremely well with related Scientology locations, which would suggest more than 90% of total sales are bought in locations with a large Scientology presence.
To me these numbers don't fit the pattern of normal book sales and suggest Galaxy Press may be engaging in the documented behavior used by their previous publisher to put Hubbard's books on bestseller lists.
Why should this concern new writers? Because you want people to read and notice your stories. And if the sales numbers are being artificially inflated, that means few people will see your story in a WotF anthology.
So what's my recommendation for writers considering submitting to the Writers of the Future? I'd say listen to Jonathan Strahan, who edits a prestigious "year's best" SF/F anthology. Stahan recently said "SF should walk away from Writers of the Future."
This is sound advice and I hope the SF/F genre finally starts to listen.