As announced yesterday, we have closed the poll on onsite voting and opened a new one. This asks you what you think is a reasonable cost for the right to vote in the Hugo Awards. We’ve included $0 as an option for those of you who think it should be free, and a notional $100 for those who think it ought to be more expensive that it already is. But any decision of this type is bound to impinge on Worldcon economics so here is a short essay on the concept of Hugo Voting Memberships.
We’d like to start by saying that we do not believe that voting for the Hugos should be free. There are several reasons for this.
To begin with, the Hugos are not, and have never been, a pure popular vote award. If we want to know what the most popular books of the year are, all we have to do is look at the best seller lists. Sometimes Hugos do go to books that sell well – Harry Potter, Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell – but most years they don’t go to best sellers. This is because the Hugos are not voted on by everyone; they are voted on by the members of the World Science Fiction Society who, at least in theory, are passionate about and knowledgeable about science fiction. In order to vote in the Hugos, you have to care enough about SF to be a member of WSFS.
Requiring WSFS membership is also a good way of tackling ballot stuffing. It isn’t just the cost. The mere fact that in order to vote you have to pay money and give contact details makes the whole process of ballot fraud much more difficult. It isn’t impossible, and with the current low numbers of voters it is still feasible for someone to have enough generous friends to “buy” a nomination legally, but for the most part the memberships requirement keeps fraud at bay.
Finally, it takes money to run a set of awards. WSFS has a huge pool of volunteer workers, but even so they can’t do everything for free. There are trophies to be made, ballots to be mailed, an award ceremony to be staged. If the Hugos had no revenue then sooner or later they would have to look for sponsorship. Having a source of income (albeit currently disguised in Worldcon budgets) means that we can keep the Hugos independent.
But does it have to cost $40-$50 to vote? And does voting have to be tied in to Worldcon membership? We think not.
One of the real problems with the Hugos is that the current system sends all of the wrong messages to the people who want to participate. Because voting rights are something you get “for free” with a Worldcon membership, that’s how people think of them. To many Worldcon members the right to vote in the Hugos is something they don’t think about because they joined Worldcon to go to the convention, not to get a vote. And for people who want to vote, there is an apparent barrier of having to buy a membership in a convention that they either don’t want to, or cannot afford to, attend.
For many people, of course, this is what they want. For them participation in the Hugos requires not just membership of WSFS, but participation in Worldcon. That is how it always has been, and that is why it is mostly the people who attend Worldcon regularly who bother to vote. Unfortunately that means that WSFS is not just a club of people who care about science fiction, it is club of people who are rich enough to attend Worldcon regularly and who happen to live in the right part of the world for this not to be prohibitively expensive. And that is why the wider science fiction community can often be heard muttering that the Hugos are under the control of an exclusive cabal.
But it doesn’t have to be that way. There is no reason why WSFS can’t simply sell memberships that have nothing to do with Worldcon, and simply bestow the right to vote in the Hugos. Obviously they would have to rely on Worldcons to sell those memberships for them, but we think those Worldcons would find it in their interests to do so. Here’s why.
Currently the only way to get a vote in the Hugos without attending Worldcon is to buy a supporting membership. For next year that will cost you $40. But a supporting membership has costs. Supporting members are entitled a copy of the Worldcon souvenir book, and to a number of Progress Reports. Based on Worldcon budgets we have seen, we estimate the cost of servicing a supporting member to be around $25. The other $15 is used by the Worldcon to help put on the convention; and at least part of that money will go to paying the costs of running the Hugos.
But suppose you had a type of membership that entitled you to nothing but Hugo voting, and suppose it cost only $20? What then?
An obvious objection is that Hugo voters need to get Progress Reports because they contain the ballots, but in these days of electronic communication that is no longer the case. The vast majority of members already vote online. It seems entirely reasonable to say to potential members that they can have a voting membership for $20 rather than $40 if they agree to electronic communication, thereby saving the convention printing and postage costs. And you know, Worldcon committees really hate doing mailings. These days most of what goes into Progress Reports also appears on the convention’s web site. It would be better if we didn’t have to bother with them.
The next concern is likely to be that the convention will somehow lose money. But how? Suppose every existing supporting member opted to be a voting member instead. That just means that instead of their being the source of $40 income and $25 costs, they become the source of $20 income and $0 costs. It is a win.
And actually we suspect that most supporting members will not convert. Most of the people who buy supporting memberships are either people who attend Worldcon most years but for some reason are having to give the current one a miss, or they are people who voted in site selection but are unable to make the convention. (This year, for example, a lot who people who voted for Kansas and Columbus were unable to go to Yokohama). The former group will probably still buy a supporting membership because they won’t want their collection of Worldcon souvenir books to have a gap in it, and they will want to vote in site selection. The latter group will still exist, because Hugo Voting Memberships will not get you a vote in site selection.
So actually we think that the number of supporting members won’t be drastically affected by the availability of voting memberships. But we do think that $20 will prove a much less off-putting proposition to potential voters than $40. This will be even more the case if the $20 is presented to the community as a WSFS membership (with associated Hugo voting rights) rather than as a Worldcon Membership (which looks like something potential voters don’t want but have to buy to get voting rights).
The cost to Worldcon? Very little. Obviously they will have to process any additional memberships that come in, and the Hugo Administrators may have to work a bit harder because of the extra voters, but basically a Worldcon will be able to see Voting Memberships as money that comes in to help finance the running of the Hugos, and that will make Events Directors very happy people indeed.
Will cheaper voting make attempts at ballot stuffing more likely? Probably, but if such attempts happen they will probably be easily spotted. Also having more voters will raise the number of memberships you have to buy in order to “buy” a nomination.
And the benefit to the community? We think it will be substantial. It will transform WSFS from being an organization that says, “in order to be part of our club you have to come to our very expensive convention,” into an organization that says, “you can be a member for just $20; and get to vote in our famous Hugo Awards”. We think that this will cause a lot more people to pay attention to WSFS, and care about what it does. And that, in the longer term will transform into a desire to attend Worldcon one day.
If nothing else, voting memberships will give an opportunity to people who care about the Hugos, but who currently feel excluded, to participate in the process. At present WSFS has around 5000 members each year, of whom 70%-80% don’t care that they are members and don’t participate in any WSFS activity, even though they have the right to do so. If there are people out there who would like to be part of WSFS, but who are unable to get to the convention, it would be wonderful to be able to reach out to them and involve them in the Society.