Friday, May 30, 2014

The 2014 Hugo Awards: The Hugo Voter Packet

As has become traditional, the Hugo award administrators have published the Hugo voters packet, which includes ebook copies of many of the nominated works and samplers from many of the nominated people.  This includes myself and the other nominees in the best fan writer category (as well as Strange Horizons, nominated in the best semiprozine category).  I was a little mortified to discover that while the contributions by my fellow fan writer nominees ran to less than twenty pages, mine was more than twice as long, but I guess that won't come as a surprise to anyone who reads this blog.  (For those of you who are curious, the posts I selected for inclusion in the voter packet are my reviews of Look to Windward by Iain M. Banks, the first season of Elementary, Star Trek Into Darkness, and A Stranger in Olondria by Sofia Samatar.)

If you're a member of LonCon 3, you can download the voter packet here with your membership number and PIN (which you should have received by email; if not, contact the award administrators at the email address on the voter packet page). 

The voter packet caused a bit of a stir this year when Orbit, the publishers of three of the nominated novels (Parasite by Mira Grant, Ancillary Justice by Ann Leckie, and Neptune's Brood by Charles Stross) announced that they would not be including full copies of their nominated novels, but only excerpts.  It's easy to understand Orbit's reasoning.  Though there's a lot of debate about the effect that a Hugo nomination has on a novel's sales, the Worldcon membership is precisely the demographic that you'd expect to seek out your novel because of a nomination.  This year's Worldcon is on track to be the biggest in years, and in addition, the nomination of the Wheel of Time series (and publisher Tor's announcement that they will include all fourteen novels in the series in the voter packet) has caused a surge in supporting memberships--according to some accounts, over a thousand new members in the month since the nominations were announced.  It's hard to blame Orbit for choosing not to give away novels that they might have a reasonable expectation of selling, especially given that so many pundits have already declared the best novel race over and Wheel of Time the winner.

Nevertheless, the decision was greeted with exasperation and not a little ire--some of it from proponents of ebook publishing, who argue, perhaps quite rightly, that Orbit is being shortsighted, and that giving away books creates sales in the long run (both Grant and Leckie's books have sequels coming out later this year); and some simply from readers who expected to see Parasite, Ancillary Justice, and Neptune's Brood in their voter packets and now feel cheated.  Industry insiders have wasted little time in dubbing this latter group "entitled" (see, for example, this post from John Scalzi, who first came up with the idea for the voter packer several years ago and administered it himself before it was taken over by the Hugo award team), but this strikes me as massively unfair.  The fact is that, rightly or wrongly, the conversation around the voter packet has for years been taking it as a given that all nominated works will be included, and creating that expectation in voters and potential voters.  People who encourage others to buy supporting memberships in Worldcon (and to use them to vote for specific nominees) have been doing so with the argument that "you pay $50 and get five novels plus a lot of other stuff."  They might have been giving out misleading information, but I don't remember anyone with a huge megaphone hurrying to correct them.

Orbit's decision feels like a good excuse to have a conversation about the voter packet and the effect it's had on the award.  We've spent a lot of time this Hugo season, both before and after the nominees' announcement, talking about the changes that the award has been going through, the increasing effect of campaigning on the final shortlists and the growing balkanization of the voter base.  The role that the voter packet has played in this process can't really be overstated--it has made it much easier to galvanize the fans of a particular author of blogger, people who may not necessarily have any interest in the Hugos or the field as a whole, into buying supporting Worldcon memberships.  Possibly as a result of this, or simply because people like free stuff, the perception of the voter packet has shifted.  The original--and very laudable--idea was a way of evening the playing field, letting little-known authors stand alongside big names, and giving the less popular categories a platform that might encourage more voters to participate in them.  But from a method of creating a more informed electorate, the voter packet has come to be seen as a goody bag.  Does anyone think that the thousand new Worldcon members who joined after the nominations were announced did so because of a genuine interest in the award?  A sizable percentage of them, at least, probably did so in order to get free ebook copies of the entire Wheel of Time series for a mere $50.

We've already seen one effect of this in Orbit's choice to keep their full novels off the voter packet.  Another potential side effect was identified on the Coode Street Podcast.  According to the Hugo rules, to hand out an award in any particular category, it must have received at least 25% of the total number of voting ballots.  In other words, if 2000 people send in Hugo ballots, but fewer than 500 of them vote in, say, the fanzine category, no fanzine Hugo will be awarded.  This is usually not a problem--last year, even the least popular categories (fanzine, fan writer, and fan artist) came in at well over 40% of ballots.  But this year, with the huge influx of supporting memberships, we could very well see a situation where a large number of ballots vote solely in the best novel and other big categories, and where some of the smaller categories are starved out. 

In the immediate future, what this means is that those of us who care about the Hugo as an award for the whole field should feel an extra urgency about using the voter packet as it was intended, and voting in as many categories as possible.  In the long term, it would be nice if we could finally have a proper conversation about the Hugos and what's been happening to them, one that acknowledges that there is a difference between the interests of any single nominee and potential nominee, and the interests of the award and the field as a whole.  I'm already seeing more and more people talking about the unintended but deleterious effect of the voter packet (see Patrick Nielsen Hayden just this morning on twitter), and while that's not the full extent of the problem, it does feel like a good start.

6 comments:

Douglas Pettit said...
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Douglas Pettit said...
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The Editor said...

I agree that, in order for best novel nominees to compete fairly, whether or not a complete work is submitted to the Hugo voters should not be up to the discretion of the individual publishers. They should all submit the complete work, or an excerpt of pre-defined size. The former is preferable as strategic excepts from a weaker novel can be used hide weaknesses in the larger work.

Ken Marable said...

There are libraries, and most even have interlibrary loan programs if yours doesn't have it. There are various ways to get the books (including digging into your pocket - Amazon has used copies of the books available for $4-8 or Kindle editions for only $10 if you want to support the writers and buy books that were good enough to earn multiple award nominations).

Of course, it would have been easier for us to just get them all in the voter packet and I think Orbit is making a mistake. However, to decide to not even bother considering these works because they aren't in the voter packet in complete form seems quite frankly silly. The Hugos lasted for decades before there was a voter packet. Not even considering to vote for a work because they didn't give you a free book is ridiculous.

Now that is separate from the discussion of a) whether or not Orbit is wise in this decision and b) whether or not whoever is running the WorldCon should be more emphatic in stating that all of the works might not be in the voter packet. IMHO - a) it's a reasonable business decision but one I wouldn't make if I were in their shoes and I agree that it is shortsighted, and b) I think LonCon 3 has had a few missteps and "not being vocal enough about the voter packet maybe not having everything" probably won't be remembered as their worst.

It is also separate from the discussion of whether this might be a problem for "lower ticket" awards that might not meet minimal numbers. That could very well be a serious problem, and the only thing we can do at this point is to inform the voters of this. I think it would be great if the con organizers made it clear that people should vote for as many categories as possible to avoid a bunch of "no awards" because the percentage of voters was too low. I'm sure many are not aware of that.

It is a clear step they could take that I think would help immensely. I'm optimistic that if there are a larger than normal group of voters who are only interested in Best Novel (which seems to be the case), if they were informed of the situation many would take the time to at least vote something. Hopefully somewhat informed voting, but that's asking a lot, so hopefully at least randomly enough that they cancel each other out. But in years when there is intense interest in the upper categories, I think the rules do need altering to avoid this kind of problem in the future.

scipiosmith said...

If issues like this could emerge in future - and I don't see that there's any way to stop it happening short of contracting publishers to provide books prior to nominations - perhaps it would be better if the packet were to only include not-for-profit works such as, well, this blog. That would once again level the playing field in the fiction categories and stop some works getting a wider distribution than others.

It would also correct the present imbalance whereby publishers are expected to give away their work for free, while movie & tv studios are not, which does seem to me to be a little unfair.

Abigail Nussbaum said...

The Editor:

As Ken says, there are plenty of ways to get hold of the nominated books other than the voter packet - in fact, maybe more than there used to be, since I think the ebook field wasn't nearly as developed as it is today when the voter packet first started.

Ken:

I should say that I don't think it's very likely that the lower volume categories will be starved out - going by last year's numbers, there would have needed to be 1400 extra voters (or an increase of around 70%) to endanger the fan writer, fanzine, or fan artist categories. Though the huge number of supporting memberships sold after the nominees were announced is a concern, I suspect that most of those members won't bother to vote. But I do think it's worth publicizing the issue as a way of getting people to vote in as many categories as they can (and, of course, I'm not entirely motiveless here since my category is in the danger zone and I'd be very sad if no award was handed out).

whoever is running the WorldCon should be more emphatic in stating that all of the works might not be in the voter packet

I'm not sure that's the Worldcon's responsibility, though. I mean, when Larry Correia advertizes his ballot on an explicit platform of wanting to stick it to those elitist snobs running the Hugos, how likely is it that anyone receptive to his arguments was paying attention to anything the award organizers have to say? My point was that there were some pretty loud voices calling fans "entitled" for being disappointed at Orbit's decision, and any one of them could have responded to Correia, or to the growing consensus that nominated novels would be included in the voter packet as a matter of course, before the problem occurred. Now, I suppose, there's been such a brouhaha that no such announcements are necessary.

scipiosmith:

I'm not sure that there's as big a gap between the professional and non-professional categories as you suggest. Certainly if you look at categories like best editor or best professional artist, there's a high knowledge barrier for knowing how to vote. And even if you restrict your argument to best novel, the gaps between bestselling and respected-but-moderately-successful authors, in terms of sales, are apparently quite large. The voter packet was originally envisioned as a way of leveling the playing field, and I think that's still necessary even in the best novel category.

Movie & TV studios seem to fall outside the insider/outsider divide that determines a lot of what appears in the voter packet. The Yiddish Policemen's Union, for example, wasn't in the voter packet the year it was nominated because it was published by a non-genre publisher (despite which it went on to win), and this year there's no copy of Saga in the packet. It's something else that's worth discussing about the packet, and indeed our entire conception of what the award should be.

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