What to do with the British Fantasy Society?

by Suw on 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.

Anne Lyle October 11, 2011 at 7:09 pm

I have to say that as a writer, I’ve found FantasyCon invaluable – heck, at last year’s Fcon I met the guys* who eventually offered to publish my novel, so my career almost certainly wouldn’t have taken off as quickly if I hadn’t started attending such events.

I think that FantasyCon itself provides a good mix of events for both readers and writers, especially when (as this year) they have a wide range of guests from across the speculative fiction field. Some of those guests can be a little aloof, but on the other hand not much beats a casual chat in the bar with the likes of Joe Abercrombie 🙂

As for the BFS itself, I think that’s best left to the members at the forthcoming EGM…

* Marc and Lee from Angry Robot

Suw October 11, 2011 at 7:32 pm

Anne, thanks for commenting.

My experience of FantasyCon is just mine and doesn’t undermine anyone else’s experience. But I do think that it’s a bit confused as to what it is supposed to be and who it’s supposed to be for. Some clarity in what it’s doing and why would really help it to become a more compelling event.

I really do hope that the BSF is interested in the opinions beyond just that of its members. There’s a wealth of experience and insight to draw on out there, and ignoring it would show a lack of sense and maturity.

Debbie October 11, 2011 at 10:01 pm

Suw, you have hit the nail on the head. As somebody who has been on the BFS committee in various guises for over 20 years and organised countless FantasyCons in the past, that is *exactly* the dilemma faced. Do we run a fan convention in a convenient location with affordable accommodation/rates and accept that maybe industry pros won’t want to attend? Or do we run a big flashy Con that the industry and a lot of writers love, but that Mr/Mrs/Miss Fan can’t afford? I’ve always leaned towards the fan side of things (I’m Mrs Fan, whose family aren’t interested and wouldn’t be impressed if I spent the holiday budget on a long weekend for me), but I accept that others may have different opinions.

Another problem has always been a lack of volunteers. I’ve only been around as long as I have because AGMs come and go and people leave the committee with nobody to replace them. I’m so glad that this recent crisis appears to have galvanised members to volunteer – the BFS needs new blood! I just hope they are still around when it comes to action. It’s a lot of fun, but a lot of hard work too.

Vincent October 11, 2011 at 10:41 pm

As more of a writer than a fan, I agree that these events are invaluable for networking within the industry. However, despite the panels on ‘how to be a writer’, ‘how to market yourself’ or ‘how to get published’ invariably being immensely popular, I think such writing-focussed panels are mostly pointless. They always repeat the same basic advice that you can find on the Internet after about ten seconds of searching. That might be why the crime events I attend focus almost exclusively on panels a reader would be interested in going to.

Suw October 12, 2011 at 8:50 pm

Debbie: It’s very interesting to hear the perspective from a BFS insider! I do agree that running volunteer-based organisations is hard. I bootstrapped a mainly volunteer-lead NGO in 2005/06 and it damn near broke my head. One of the things that I learnt doing that, and Ada Lovelace Day, is that you do need one person who is very clearly in charge and who can delegate very clearly delineated tasks. (Something I find easier to say than to do!)

I would certainly consider helping out a little bit if I can fit it in around other stuff I’m doing, but it would have to be very specific, discrete tasks that I can do and which stay done!

Vince: The networking is good, and you can’t beat meeting someone face-to-face. But that said, I actually think the face-to-face stuff is better when you’ve been talking to someone online a bit, as you hit the ground running when you meet. I also agree about the panels, though what you would replace that with would depend on who the event really is for.

Suw Charman October 13, 2011 at 3:36 pm

I was just pootling through the BFS forums, still wondering about joining, still unsure if it’s for me, when I stumbled upon a message from Graham Joyce, acting chairman, which included this nugget:

“note to non-members: thank you for your interest though I’d be happier if you were prepared to subscribe before dispensing lengthy advice”

Well, I guess that includes me, and I guess that goes some way towards answering my question. No, I will not join an organisation that talks to non-members in this manner.

Maybe if things change after the reshuffle and non-members are spoken to with a bit more respect I might change my mind, but right now, well, no thanks.

UPDATE: Having had a bit of a grump about this on Twitter, I have been persuaded not to be put off, but rather that I should go to the open event on 9 Dec which is a part of the EGM and talk to people.

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