Tuesday, October 11, 2011

I don’t know much about the British Fantasy Society, other than what I’ve gleaned from their website or at FantasyCon last year. In many ways, I’m in a poor position to pass any comment whatsoever on what they should or shouldn’t do after the recent controversy around the British Fantasy Awards. I’m not even in a good position to pass comment on said controversy. I’ve no inside knowledge, nor any great desire to fully read round accusation, counter-accusation, or response in order to form a considered opinion.

But what I can and want to do is think a little about about what the BFS might want to become. It’s clear that it’s at what could become an important inflection point, now that its Chairman has resigned over the awards. And it’s also clear that a number of people have questions about what the BFS is, or should be, or could be. And the only way we’re going to work out some answers is to have a public discussion about the issue, so here goes.

I’m not a member of the BFS. I hadn’t even heard of it until last year when Vince asked me if I was going to FantasyCon. I decided that, now I was taking writing more seriously, it would be a good investment and bought tickets. I knew that a few of my writerly friends would be there, so it seemed like a pretty good idea. And it was a lot of fun.

What it wasn’t was useful. At times, it struggled to be even interesting. It seemed to me that is was an event that didn’t really know what it was supposed to be.

The BFS is in the same predicament. It doesn’t know what it is or who it’s supposed to be serving. FantasyCon, I have heard, is theoretically a fan convention, but most of the people I met there were authors of varying degrees of professional. Who is the BFS for? Fans, or authors?

There’s a part of me that thinks, “Well, there’s no reason it can’t be for both fans and authors”. And it’s true that there is a valuable matchmaking role to be played between fans and authors, but can a single organisation fully provide for both sides of the coin?

What might fans want from an organisation?

  • Readings and signings
  • News about new book releases
  • Freebies and discounts
  • Content such as interviews, reviews and features in text, video, and audio, online and offline
  • Exclusives
  • Yearly booze-up where they can meet each other and authors
  • An online space to talk about the stuff they like
  • Probably some other stuff I can’t think of right now.

What might authors, at whatever stage in their careers, want from an organisation?

  • Access to fans via readings, signings, other events
  • Promotion of their latest works
  • Advice from experts
  • Content such as interviews, reviews and features in text, video, and audio, online and offline
  • A community of peers to discuss the industry/their work with
  • Access publishers, agents and other industry professionals
  • Yearly booze-up where they can meet each other and fans
  • Probably some other stuff I can’t think of right now.

There’s clearly some overlap. But any organisation wanting to serve both communities is going to be walking a fine line. The kind of content that authors want on a website, for example, is very different to that preferred by fans. But worse than that, serving both communities can create a conflict of interest.

Let’s take the idea of a convention. If your are a society of fans and you organise a convention, then you need to get in the biggest and best speakers to provide a compelling reason for the fans to buy tickets. If you are a society for authors, then your aim is to serve those authors by putting them in front of as many people as possible. An organisation trying to please both groups is likely to end up putting its own members in front of its own members, resulting in a small, cliquey event that doesn’t bring in or attract outsiders and thus doesn’t serve anyone properly.

This is a form of the Agency Dilemma and it is very hard to solve. Indeed, even with a single constituency, the Agency Dilemma persists, as can be seen by the current predicament that the BFS finds itself in: The goals of the organisation are at odds with the goals of its members, causing an inherent conflict of interest.

Indeed, this was at the heart of the issue with the BFS Awards. Having a publisher organise the awards was a serious mistake and would have been even if that publisher’s authors, publications and partner had not been involved as nominees. Any awards ceremony must be administered by people who are independent and unbiased, which means no publishers, publicists, authors, etc. Clearly, that’s going to be a real challenge.

It seems fairly clear to me that the BFS cannot be both a Fan organisation and an Author organisation without compromising its integrity. Which way it jumps is almost unimportant, as either decision would basically require the organisation to fork so that both constituencies can be served. I think it would make sense for there to be a British Fantasy Society which is focused on the needs of the fans and aims to be run by a majority of non-industry people, with the awards run exclusively by a non-industry committee.

I would then have a British Fantasy Author Society, run primarily by authors, publishers, publicists, agents and other industry people, and any dedicated fans who want to get involved. The two organisations could collaborate when it is appropriate, but would retain a sturdy dividing firewall whenever a conflict of interest might arise.

As for FantasyCon, well, that needs to decide what it is before it can decide who should organise it and how.

If I was the BFS right now, I’d be looking at a radical overhaul along these lines to not only regain credibility but also to retain some sense of relevance in this newly interconnected world. When I looked at the BFS site last year, I felt that it didn’t offer me anything that I couldn’t already get on Twitter. It would be a shame if I looked at the site again next year and felt the same way. This furore is an opportunity to examine what the BFS could and should be. We should all seize it.

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