A letter arrived from the author Malcolm Rose. He said that he and a couple of author friends had decided that being a children's writer was too lonely a business, and they wanted us to connect up via e-mail. There was a paper newsletter for those who hadn't yet made the leap to computers.
I'm a grumpy so-and-so, not a willing joiner, but for some reason, I did join. And eventually I was persuaded - by Celia Rees - to show my face at some of the local lunches where SAS members met.
Linda Newbery suggested that we hold a 'Conference' (code for 'shindig') at Charney Manor. I signed up for one of the first, and I cannot tell you how exhilarating it was to spend four days with a crowd of writers, talking about anything and everything, but especially writing. It's been a highlight of the year ever since.
Another member, Cindy Jefferies (who used to keep sheep who wore welly-boots) set up the SAS posting board, Balaclava. This was an instant success, and proved to be a constant, never-sleeping source of support, advice, jokes, wisdom, practical help and new directions.
Many good things have sprouted from the SAS. Anne Cassidy, the mover behind the SAS most of the time, suggested we set up a multi-blog, the Awfully Big Blog Adventure, or ABBA, which has gone from strength to strength.
The excellent History Girls blog is organised by SAS member Mary Hoffman - and, of course, this very blog that you read now, the Authors Electric's blog, was founded by Katherine Roberts and myself, who met and became friends through the SAS. Several other SAS members are also Authors Electric. We are, in many ways, the self-publishing arm of the SAS.
But why am I blogging about the SAS in Author Electric's time and space?
Well, because an A-E - possibly because of my enthusiasm for the SAS - thought she would like to join them. So she went over to knock on their on-line door - and saw this notice:
We welcome new members as long as they have a contract in place with a traditional publisher.
Our A-E hastily left, feeling hurt and angry. When she reported back to the other Electrics, they were angry and hurt for her - as was I. The A-E in question is a hugely talented writer, who's produced well loved and classic books. She just doesn't happen to have a contract in place with a traditional publisher at the present moment. Or perhaps, like many, has given up on traditional publishing.
But I was also hurt for my friends in the SAS when they were called hide-bound and snobbish, and accused of looking down their noses at self-publishing writers, and thinking that the only proof of good writing is possession of a publishing contract. I've known many of these people for more than 20 years. I know they don't think like that. I know they are, possibly, the warmest, most sympathetic, encouraging group of people I've been lucky to fall in with.
So what's their excuse?
Simply, that things were very different way back then, when the SAS began. There was no such thing as indie-publishing. Brace yourselves now, but there was no such thing as Amazon.com. There were Vanity Presses, but they were a very different thing from indie publishing.
The SAS started as a social club - which it still still is. Its members were very clear that this was what they wanted - a meeting place for writers, where they could talk frankly about agents and publishers, and about their struggles and failures and successes. So, no agents or publishers could join. Only writers.
The question came up: what about unpublished writers? And, again, the members were very clear. No unpublished writers - which didn't, then, mean talented mid-list writers who couldn't get a contract for love nor money.
The reason for this apparently heartless rule was that nearly every member had, at some time, been pestered by people who wanted them to read and comment on their manuscripts and help them to get published. Many had been members of writing circles where, unfortunately, a certain amount of jealousy had been generated by other members' success in finding a publisher. They wanted to escape from this in the SAS - they wanted to enter a club where all were equal, where there was no fear that someone would ask you to 'just have a quick look through' a 300,000 word manuscript, or badger you for an introduction to your agent.
The simplest and fairest way of preventing this was the rule against writers without contracts. Even then, members were aware that it was clumsy, and that some of those excluded would be writers every bit as good as those clutching a contract. But as a rough rule of thumb, it worked. And, at the time, there was more reason to think that a good writer would, in a year or two, find a publisher.
That's why those words were there, on the SAS website. They just hadn't been rewritten in 20-odd years - because the SAS is run by volunteers, and everyone was too busy with other things to remember this unfortunate wording.
After our A-E member was rebuffed, I went over to the SAS gaff and had words. (I know which flowerpot they hide the key under, so I got in the back way and was amongst them before they knew it.) The members were shocked that someone had been hurt. It hadn't been their intention.
However, changing the offending wording was difficult. The members still want a quiet life, and though the SAS posting board buzzed with discussion of this matter for some while, no one could come up with a real solution. They know very well that there are excellent writers among indies - many of them are SAS members already.
They would welcome indies - but they also know that some indies are, well, let's be honest here, not so good. The only way to tell the difference would be to vet potential members in some way - to download and read free samples, for example. But no one has the time to commit to doing that.
So, in the end, the page on the website was altered to read:
We welcome new members as long as they have a contract in place with a traditional publisher or have been traditionally published in the past.I'm not too happy about this solution either. Despite having been a published writer since my teens, I've never actually thought traditional publication equalled excellence. After all, I was just as good a writer the day before I got my first contract as I was the day after. Also, I think I'm a better writer now than I was then - but if I was starting today, I don't think I would get a contract.
And, (if I needed convincing), no one could be a member of Authors Electric without quickly realising that a good writer is a good writer is a good writer, publishing contract (past or present) or not.
This divide between the good writer, old-style published and the good writer, indie is a sad thing, I think, but I don't know how to end it.
Does it matter? What do people think?