Writers of the Future and Scientology
An LJ friend recently posted a piece titled Why I No Longer Support the Writers of the Future Contest.
I was a first place winner in Writers of the Future back in 1998. It was my first major short fiction sale. WotF paid me better than anyone else ever has for a short story. They also flew me out for a week-long workshop with folks like Algis Budrys and Dave Wolverton. It was a great experience, and I’m genuinely grateful for that.
When the subject of Scientology came up, we were told that the contest and its finances were completely separate from the church. That’s something I’ve repeated to other writers more than once.
I’m no longer certain this is true.
Frank Wu wrote about the financial connections between Scientology and Writers/Illustrators of the Future back in 2005. He also reproduced a letter he received in 2006 from Joni Labaqui, one of the contest administrators, who wrote:
You were actually wrong in that Scientology pays for the writers and illustrators awards. The Hubbard estate (which is not the church) makes so much money on royalties from his hundreds of published fiction it would make your head spin. You were right about the fact that every one of us who works at Author Services is a Scientologist, but the judges of the contest are not. They share the same goal that Mr. Hubbard did in starting and paying for this contest – to help the new guy…
I met Joni 13 years ago, and while I was rather overwhelmed that week, I remember her as a nice and hard-working person. I liked her.
In a similar vein, Jerry Pournelle (one of the WotF judges) writes:
I also don’t have to have an opinion about the Church of Scientology, because it doesn’t operate the Writers of the Future, and has no influence over who wins it. That much I can guarantee. The contest isn’t rigged. Algis Budrys wouldn’t have anything to do with it if there were the slightest chance of that. Nor would I.
I agree that it’s not rigged, and I’ve seen nothing to suggest otherwise. Does the church operate the contest, though? It looks like the “Writers of the Future” trademark was assigned to the Church of Scientific Technology (if I’m reading the records correctly). What does that mean? I’m honestly not certain … but it suggests to me that perhaps the wall of separation isn’t as solid as Pournelle believes.
I agree with John Scalzi’s post that Writers of the Future is not a Scientology recruitment scheme. I remember joining a few friends as a kid for a Christian camp. I felt more pressure to join that church than I ever did at Writers of the Future. While the WotF experience idolizes L. Ron Hubbard, there was no attempt to recruit me. However, I’ve spoken to one individual who did observe precisely that kind of high-pressure church recruitment tactic toward someone there for the contest at a WotF event.
A fair amount of the “Writers of the Future = Scientology!” writing out there is big on angry rhetoric and short on anything resembling facts, which is a little frustrating. (See this piece, for example.) I’m not trying to tell anyone what to believe. I’m just trying to gather what information I have to try to sort things out in my own mind. Some of the information comes from people who prefer to remain anonymous. All I’ll say is that I wouldn’t include their claims if I didn’t think they were reliable sources.
I was told by one such individual that for the church, the goal is not so much to help new writers, but to promote LRH and his brand. Particularly in schools and to kids, where they push the contest anthologies hard, hoping the books will serve as a gateway into Scientology. (This was presented not as conjecture, but as directly-overheard statements from multiple church members.)
None of this is meant to undermine the good things the contest does. The judges are, for the most part, amazing writers and people. Getting a walking tour of Hollywood from Tim Freaking Powers remains one of my favorite writing-related memories to this day. And I know that a lot of people involved with the contest, particularly some of the judges, are insistent about keeping the church separate from the contest.
But I no longer believe that Writers of the Future is entirely separate from Scientology.
I’m not saying everyone should run out and boycott the contest. But I’ve publicly praised Writers of the Future on many occasions, so I thought it was important to state this publicly as well.
I know the comments on this one have the potential to get messy, so let me preemptively ban some of the things I’ve seen on similar discussions elsewhere.
- “Scientologists are all ________.” Just like Catholics are all pedophiles and Mormons are all polygamists and so on? Don’t be an ass.
- “All religions are equally evil!” I’ll buy this as soon as you provide historical documentation on the Quaker Crusades.
- “Why are you picking on religion?” I’m pretty sure I’m not, thanks.
- “Aren’t there more important problems to worry about?” The Official Hierarchy of What We Can and Can’t Worry About pisses me off. Don’t go there.
With that said, discussion is welcome, as always. Just keep Wheaton’s Law in mind, ‘kay?
February 14, 2012 @ 10:45 am
Scientologists are all … people. (Sorry, I couldn’t resist.) They’re just as flawed and human as Catholics, Mormons, and atheists. They’re just as given to abuse/misuse of power as Catholics, Mormons, and yes, even atheists. Maybe not Quakers though. I don’t know a whole lot about Quakers. I’m really interested in these Quaker Crusades though. 😉
I think your post on WotF just about nails it on the head. It’s messy. It’s not perfect. Just like life. I wonder sometimes if writers are more prone to assuming schemes and conspiracies because that’s what we do: scheme and conspire against our protagonists. There are probably some people from the Church who intend to promote it as a “recruitment tool” but I’m sure there are just as many whose only desire is to recognize and give a leg up to new writers.
Thanks for sharing this though. I’d just recently read a rail against WotF (and Scientology) so this was a good balance to read. I appreciate when you write posts like this!
Stephen A. Watkins
February 14, 2012 @ 11:06 am
I’m a multiple-time entrant, never-time winner of the WotF contest. I’ve worried about the Scientology connection myself. And yet… multiple authors whom I respect (including our esteemed host, Jay Lake [a prominent atheist] and Patrick Rothfuss) were some level of winner in the WotF in the past.
There aren’t many opportunities for new writers on par with the likes of the WotF contest. Submitting short stories to a magazine pits a new author against the works of known and established writers – I figure I know who will usually win a spot in a publication in those tussles. But WotF is a blind-judged contest open only to non-professionals. I decided, for myself, that this was a valuable exercise: to pit my work against that of my peers – fellow aspiring but as-yet undiscovered authors, to let the work sink or swim based mostly on its own merits. I’m just not aware of any other high-profile contests like this that can attract a lot of attention to a brand new author, with the potential to jump-start a writing career.
So while the connection with Scientology worries me… I’m just not sure I really consider Scientology a significant threat to society (all things considered), especially as weighed against that career jump-starting potential for a writer. So for me, the scale tips in favor of continuing to submit to WotF as a test and measure of the quality of my work. Obviously, I’ve yet to prove my mettle as a writer in that venue as yet…
I’ll also say that as a multiple-time entrant, I’ve received some form e-mail communication from Joni Labaqui, and although I realize that I’m one of any number of people receiving the same “sorry you didn’t win” e-mail, the tone of said communication was always positive and encouraging. It gave me the sense that Joni, at least, actually cares about the stated mission of nurturing new writing talent.
February 14, 2012 @ 11:43 am
Pat Rothfuss also won Writers of the Future, which is how he was discovered. He was very vocal early on that he felt it a better path to publication than the querying process. I followed his advice and submitted entries. I also found Joni pleasant and polite. She was receptive to feedback and helpful with questions.
That said, I stopped submitting for a few reasons. First, the amount of mail advertising Galaxy Press and L Ron Hubbard’s writings was excessive in my opinion. Second, I placed higher the year I bought books than the year I didn’t. (While this proves nothing, it allowed for the impression that buying books could affect a person’s placement and that made me uncomfortable.) Third, a rather poor story still managed to earn an honorable mention and did so in only a few days. I got the impression that everyone submitting was at least an honorable mention, which made it feel more like a contest to keep people submitting so that they could continue to be advertised to.
I have no evidence of anything and have not spoken negatively of the contest, but for me, I had too many doubts and have benefited more from the querying process than the contest process.
Stephen A. Watkins
February 14, 2012 @ 11:50 am
I can at least attest to the fact that not every story earns an Honorable Mention. I’d read in several places that a number of multiple-entrants took several stories to rise earn an HM. My first entry was an HM, so I immediately suspected the possibility of the “every story is an HM”, and I started looking around to see how honored I should be to receive that HM; after discussions with other contest entrants I concluded it was indeed worthy of some honor. But my second entry had no mention at all (even though it was and still is, IMO, a superior story to the first).
My experience lead me to conclude that whether I got an HM on any given story or not depended as much on the quality of the competition from other stories as it did on the quality of my own submission – and probably also on the particular tastes and moods of the contest judges at any given time.
Jim C. Hines
February 14, 2012 @ 11:51 am
Joe – given the judges involved and the judging process (as I understand it), buying books does not and cannot affect your placement in the contest. Identifying information is supposed to be stripped off of every story before they get passed on to (non-Scientologist) judges, and I’ve heard more than one judge express that if they ever felt the church was encroaching or pressuring on them as a judge, they’d walk away from the contest.
February 14, 2012 @ 12:35 pm
“Quaker Crusades” just gives me a mental picture of Walter Brimley in a suit of armor (with mustache peeking out of the helmet) charging into battle on a mighty steed saying “Give Quaker Oats a try for breakfast!”
Jim C. Hines
February 14, 2012 @ 12:38 pm
All right, where are the fanartists who can make this happen?
February 14, 2012 @ 1:04 pm
And that seems entirely reasonable, but compounded reasons for feeling uncomfortable was why I stepped away, and I have no regrets for doing so. It’s also why I didn’t say anything to others, as it was a personal response to my experience. It’s something I did, but it’s not something I will do again.
February 14, 2012 @ 2:57 pm
I really don’t see the worry. No amount of mail or personal approaches could induce me to join Scientology, so I don’t mind if they have links to the contest. In fact, I figured they had links as they sort of staff the office ::grin:: I just can’t fathom what their involvement could do to make the contest unfair or a waste of my time and that’s the only thing that matters to me.
If they want to give me money for putting words together, I’ll be happy to take it. God knows I need it.
Full disclosure–I have an Honourable Mention in the contest and have submitted 3 times over the last 18 years or so.
Daniel D. Webb
February 14, 2012 @ 3:14 pm
This kind of thing is always tricky. Religious organizations do promote themselves as a matter of course (with rare exceptions), but many also do charitable work because for nearly all religions, helping people is a worthy goal in and of itself. Do we, then, dismiss every charitable or other initiative affiliated with a faith group as some kind of Trojan horse? And if we don’t, do we fall victim to those that actually are? Tricky.
I guess the best solution is to look at each case carefully and use your best judgment. It’s when we generalize that we run into trouble, in my experience.
I actually wasn’t aware of this particular contest until reading this blog post, and though I am deeply suspicious of organized religion in general and Scientology in particular, I plan to look into it carefully. Not everything is a trap, and this seems like it could be a wonderful service to the community of struggling writers out there.
SF Tidbits for 2/14/12 - SF Signal – A Speculative Fiction Blog
February 15, 2012 @ 1:06 am
[…] Jim C. Hines on Writers of the Future and Scientology. […]
February 15, 2012 @ 4:34 am
I think you have to balance your fear of being recruited against your desire to become a published writer, taking into account the chances of either of those things actually happening.
I got the full on Scientology recruitment effort when I was 16 (pretty girl used as bait – lesson learned). It was vastly less oppressive than the average Sunday School class.
Writers of the Future is a contest for new writers that promises to pay you a very substantial sum of money and provide a very significant chunk of exposure should you win. If the only downside is that, at some point, you might get asked to fondle a couple of tin cans (true story), then I say bring on the alphabetti spaghetti.
Hilary Moon Murphy
February 15, 2012 @ 3:54 pm
Oddly enough, I still qualify for WOTF, and so decided that what the heck, I’m going to keep submitting until I either win the thing or manage to disqualify myself with a third pro story.
While Scientology is not my favorite religion, so long as they keep it out of the judging I will continue submitting there.
Deirdre Saoirse Moen
February 19, 2012 @ 8:12 pm
Granted, I’ve lathered myself up into a fit of moral outrage as I’ve been peeling back layers on this, but:
1) Is it okay with you that women working on aspects of the contest (or similar jobs) have been coerced into abortions? http://deirdre.net/when-coerced-abortion-is-a-sacrament/
2) Is it okay with you that working conditions are so horrific for the people involved in contest administration? http://deirdre.net/on-the-alleged-separateness-of-writers-of-the-future-and-scientology/ and the above post
3) Is it okay with you that minors are operating machinery they’re not permitted to by law, getting injured and receiving no compensation so that the anthologies get printed and bound? http://markrathbun.files.wordpress.com/2011/03/montalvo_v_bridge_publications.pdf (Bridge Publications operates the press equipment for the Galaxy Press anthologies) Even for non-minors, is it okay with you that the machinery is operated without proper safety equipment? And that it’s still being operated without proper safety equipment even after Stacy Moxon Meyer was electrocuted (dead electrocuted not just injured electrocuted) at Gold base because she was ordered to do her job without proper safety equipment? http://xenutv.com/print/riverside-moxon-062800.htm
It isn’t necessarily about the obvious money connections as much as it is about the treatment of the staff doing the work. In my opinion, supporting the contest is supporting human trafficking. I am not rich, but $5,000 isn’t worth that.
AmyCat =^.^= (Book Universe)
March 14, 2012 @ 10:23 pm
If Galaxy Press (or whatever they’re calling themselves now) were just WotF, I wouldn’t mind so much. As a bookseller, though, I’ve been appalled at some of the blatantly racist and sexist content they’re promoting with their “Golden Age” book series. A couple years ago, I received a carton of promotional material which went straight into my paper-recycling bin, because I’d have been embarrassed to even give away flyers, posters, and bookmarks with a stereotypical 1940s “Yellow Peril”-type Evil Asian Overlord character menacing a Helpless Dame.
Interesting to see Ms. Moen’s information on the “behind-the-scenes” machinations at Bridge Publishing. They’re a heavily-C.o.S.-subsidized “business” whose primary purpose is to keep L.Ron Hubbard’s mediocre sci-fi (“Battlefield Earth”, etc.) in print in perpetuity. It doesn’t surprise me at all that they’re using cult members for free labor to work the presses… I know they have a logstanding practice of using cult members to collect marketing information (booksellers’ business cards) in the dealers’ rooms at science fiction conventions, and to go around to booksellers asking if we carry Hubbard’s books (if not, we’d get ‘phone calls, SPAM e-mails, and junk-mail from Galaxy Press).
There’s plenty to distrust in Scientology, but of all the cult’s activities, WotF is probably the most innocuous…
March 26, 2012 @ 8:11 pm
As I’m sure you know by now, your blog post resulted in a Village Voice article. And reading that article resulted in my (politely) rejecting a paid trip to the WotF ceremony (as a former winner and also a successful SF short story writer [Yeah, I know that’s an oxymoron]). And my action spawned another Village Voice article:
(thought you might be interested.)
Jim C. Hines
March 27, 2012 @ 8:00 am
Thanks for the link, Carl. I’ve seen a fair number of people struggling with this … heck, I’m still struggling to sort it all out in my head. It sounds like a hard choice, but the one that was right for you.
In some ways, I think it’s been easier for me because there was never any follow-up from the contest. I won, I went, I had a great week, and that was the end. For folks that the contest takes an interest in, where they’re offering to bring you back or providing promotion and publicity, there’s more of a cost, and that’s hard.
Deirdre Saoirse Moen
March 27, 2012 @ 4:46 pm
Wow, I’m fascinated by that. You’re one of the more successful contest winners, too, so why wouldn’t you be one of the people the contest took an interest in?
Jim C. Hines
March 27, 2012 @ 6:32 pm
I don’t know. I wouldn’t expect them to ask me now, but beyond that? ::Shrug:: Maybe I pissed someone off without realizing it, or maybe they just weren’t promoting winners as actively back then. The promotions in general do seem to have increased since I was there in ’99…
Whence Writers of the Future? A Proposal… « The Undiscovered Author
April 11, 2012 @ 12:43 pm