SCBWI - A Debate
I received this e-mail recently and it raised some issues concerning the SCBWI (Society of Children's Book Writers and Illustrators) that were news to me. I'd be interested in what members of the organization have to say on the topic.
I don't know how much interest you and your readers might have in the Society of Children's Book Writers and Illustrators. They put on a conference every year in New York, and another in Los Angeles, at which eminent kids' book people give speeches and workshops, and they have many small local chapters across the country, and a website, and a newsletter. They provide some useful services for people who write and/or illustrate kids' books, and for people who are interested in trying to throw their hats into the overcrowded ring. But there is also something about this organization that has always irked me. One would assume, from the name, that it is a professional organization, like the American Medical Association, or the American Library Association -- that is, a non-profit organization that was founded by members of that profession, and answerable to them. But the SCBWI is a private business. It has a "President" and an "Executive Director," titles which suggest a democratic structure. But none of the "members" ever gets to vote for or against these two people (Steve Mooser and Lin Oliver). From what I can determine, they are simply the owners of the business. They seem to me like essentially benevolent people, with a genuine interest in kids' books. But they also, like most of us, are not without their own self-interest, and this leads one to wonder about the motivation for some of their activities. But even if all of the policies of the SCBWI were beyond reproach, it seems to me that there is something essentially deceptive about asking people to pay $60 a year for membership (and another $300 or so to go to one of the conferences) in what sounds like a professional organization, but in fact is closer to being something like Arthur Murray's School of Dance.They go on to say...
I have been a member of SCBWI for about 15 years. Initially, I didn't think very much about the structure of the organization, but assumed that it was a non-profit organization, presumably with a board elected by the membership. But then, after several years, I realized that I was never asked to vote for anything, and that the "President" and "Executive Director" never seemed to change. There is a "Board of Advisors," but it is not clear if they have any real authority over things like how much the President and Executive director get paid. I suspect that they just give their opinions about more peripheral issues, like the categories for awards, or whether there should be more attention paid to illustrators as opposed to writers, and things of that nature. A few months ago I raised my misgivings about this issue on a listserv of kids' book illustrators to which I belong. Someone else posted in reply that the SCBWI was registered as a for-profit corporation in California. Someone else replied that they had had some dealings with Steve Mooser, the President, and that he was a great guy, and deserved to get paid for his work. I replied that I agreed that the organization did much that was worthwhile, but that I nonetheless had the feeling that there was something deceptive about its self-presentation. This presentation seemed to suggest that it was a conventional professional organization, when in fact, I had come to suspect, it was simply a business. I thought I would try to resolve the question more definitely by writing an email to SCBWI. I said that the exact structure of the organization had become a topic of discussion at a kids' book listserv I belonged to, and I asked them to clarify the issue. Were they, in fact, simply a privately-owned business? How was the compensation of the paid officials decided? Were the financial records available for members to see? My email was never answered. A few weeks later I had occasion to email them again, about a trivial matter of eligibility for some award. The email was answered the following day.Prior to the creation of this blog, I hadn't even heard of SCBWI, let alone had any opinion on their structure. However, I am aware that many of you out there do pay attention to it and may have some opinions on the matter. More interesting to me, however, would be the thoughts of those of you who do NOT belong for one reason or another. How are we to take all of this?
Well, what difference does it really make, I suppose someone could ask. If the website makes useful information available to members, and you can see interesting panel discussions among well-known editors and authors at their conferences, who cares if the thing was organized democratically or is run by people who, although autocratic, seem to know what they are doing? Firstly, I think if an organization is deceptive about one thing, it is likely to be deceptive about other things as well. I also think that, ideally, the SCBWI should exist to represent the interests of writers and illustrators of children's books. But if they are simply a privately-owned company this raises the possibility that an interest in profitability might on occasion come into conflict with an interest in what is best for the membership. In fact, it seems questionable whether you dues make you a "member" in the commonly accepted sense, or just a customer. And lastly, if there is something that someone doesn't want me to know, that makes me want to know it.