Writers of the Future and Scientology, Redux
I sent the manuscript for Terminal Alliance to my editor and agent on Sunday, which means I am now allowed to stop and breathe and catch up on a little of what’s been happening in the world recently. I wanted to start with the discussion about the Writers of the Future contest that’s been making the rounds.
I was a first prize winner in the contest back in 1998, and attended the 1999 workshop. My story was published in Volume 15. At the time, I knew L. Ron Hubbard, the founder of the contest, was also the founder of Scientology. We were told the contest and its finances were completely separate from the church.
In 2012, I talked about some of the reasons I no longer believed the “firewall” between the church and the contest was as strong as we’d been told.
That was six years ago. Since then, I’ve learned more about people’s experiences, how the contest operates, and the alleged firewall between the church and the contest.
The Writers of the Future trademark is registered to the Church of Spiritual Technology. As of 1994, Scientology owned the WotF trademark. Ownership was transferred in 1997 to the L. Ron Hubbard Library…which has the exact same address and correspondent as the Church of Spiritual Technology.
The workshop is taught using materials from Dianetics. J. W. Alden posted a thread with one of the first handouts the writers receive at the WotF workshop. I remember that particular worksheet from my own workshop week. What I didn’t know until Alden pointed it out was that the text of that worksheet comes directly from page one of Dianetics.
Transphobic edits. Keffy R. M. Kehrli was a WotF winner in 2011. His story “Bonehouse” was, to the best of his knowledge, the only story to receive any edits that year. The edits in question? Removing references about a trans character who was transitioning.
The anthology sells poorly…except to Scientologists. Jason Sanford investigated the Bookscan numbers for previous WotF anthologies. He found sales to be relatively low, but with an unusual anomaly:
“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.”
This would not be the first time the church encouraged or forced members to buy books with Hubbard’s name on them.
The publicity machine has gotten much more intense since 1999. Winner Anaea Lay wrote about her mixed feelings after the workshop. One quote that jumped out at me was, “The winners are not real people to ASI. It’s not malicious. From ASI’s perspective, there are no real people, just pawns in their great publicity machine designed to sell books with L. Ron Hubbard’s name on them.”
WotF Staffers are all Scientologists. This point was made by ex-Scientologist Dierdre Saoirse Moen, and affirmed by contest director Joni Labaqui in a letter to Frank Wu (see Edit 4 in the linked blog post).
- Why does this matter? I see two things here. One is that it undermines the idea of any real barrier between the church and the contest. The other is various reports of unfair labor practices within Scientology, and whether the people working at WotF are a part of that.
Winner speeches are allegedly used at Scientology ceremonies. Former Scientologist Mike Rinder writes that the winners’ speeches and photos are used at weekly Scientology “graduation” ceremonies, as a way of bestowing legitimacy on both L. Ron Hubbard and the church.
WotF Presence at the 1987 Worldcon. Conspiracy Theories, edited by Chris Evans, is a chapbook discussing the presence of Author Services Inc and related manifestations of L. Ron Hubbard at Conspiracy, the 1987 World SF Convention in Brighton, England. I’m not sure how much weight to give events from more than 30 years ago, but it’s part of the history, so I thought it worth including the link.
None of this makes me any less proud of my winning story from 20 years ago. The judges are not Scientologists, and they chose my sword and sorcery piece as one of the best stories they saw that year. I enjoyed the workshop, made some friends, and had a wonderful experience.
Did it kickstart or provide an irreplaceable boost to my career? Nope. I can’t see into alternate timelines, but I’m 99% sure I’d be in the exact same place if I’d never won. (Everyone’s experience is different, of course. I know the contest was much more of a springboard for at least one now-big-name author. But as a rule, a single story sale/publication will not make or break your career.)
I’m not interested in shaming winners or people who choose to participate, or the judges, some of whom are people I have tremendous respect for. But I want to make the information available so people can make more informed choices about whether to participate.
If I’d known then what I know now? I would have removed Writers of the Future from my submission list and sent that story to another market, somewhere without the transphobia, with a bigger audience, and without the close connection to a religious organization with a long list of alleged abuses.
Deborah J. Ross
April 24, 2018 @ 4:16 pm
I was already ineligible due to prior professional sales when the contest started but my reaction was extreme reluctance to have anything to do with it. Budrys was and remains a respected figure in our field; neither he nor the winners and contestants are responsible for the egregious actions of Scientology. When I stopped by the WotF booth at a large convention, however, the creepy vibes were overwhelming. I’m sorry about Keffy’s story; they’re a talented author who deserved better.
Bottom line: Run away, run away very fast.
Benjamin C. Kinney
April 25, 2018 @ 6:08 pm
If you’re looking for more data points, here’s evidence that the contest seems to be lying to authors. Specifically, telling them that a slot opened because “a finalist was disqualified” rather than admitting that a finalist withdrew.
Benjamin C. Kinney
April 26, 2018 @ 4:00 pm
Note: I am no longer 100% confident in the data I mentioned in my comment yesterday. It remains suspicious-looking to me, but I can’t be certain these things line up.
Definitely true: Two withdrawals are known. Two replacement contestants, one of them was told it was due to a DQ (as shown). However, because not everyone announces their status, it’s possible there was also a third rejected story (DQ) and third unannounced replacement.
Seems unlikely, but I can’t rule it out.
April 26, 2018 @ 7:30 pm
As a 2013 winner, I believe most of what you said is correct but will dispute two points: While the people at Author Services are, as best as I could tell, all Scientologists, the authors who run the workshops and do the judging aren’t. The other point is editing of stories: as far as I know, everyone was edited. Mine sure was and the editing was generally sound. I made a lot of changes at Dave Wolverton’s suggestion and it made my piece stronger. I doubt if the Scientologists use my acceptance speech since I never mentioned Hubbard.
The Scientologists don’t seem to be respecting the firewall and that’s a pity since there is nothing else like the contest as a showcase for new talent. I hate to see it tainted.
Jim C. Hines
April 26, 2018 @ 8:13 pm
Stephen – Thanks. I wasn’t considering the judges as part of the staffers, and I don’t think Joni was either, but you’re right and that’s worth pointing out. None of the judges, to the best of my knowledge, are Scientologists.
The editing piece is news to me. That wasn’t the case, as far as I know, for my year. But like I said, that was 20 years ago…
April 28, 2018 @ 11:01 am
For anyone who prefers ebooks to web pages, Conspiracy Theories is also available in various ebook formats from the freebies page at the TAFF website: https://taff.org.uk/ebooks.php?x=Conspiracy
Jim C. Hines
April 28, 2018 @ 11:21 am
Loose-leaf Links #61 | Earl Grey Editing
May 10, 2018 @ 5:03 pm
[…] In the wake of concerns around Writers of the Future and the Church of Scientology, Jim C. Hines chimes in with his concerns as a past WotF winner. […]