Science Fiction Awards Watch

We’ve had a comment on out post about campaigning for the Nebula asking why it is frowned upon to campaign for a Hugo. This seemed like a question worth elevating to a post all of its own (thank you, mysterious Purple Ranger), so here are some thoughts.

On the one hand it was probably a useful barrier to entry. There have always been people in fandom who wanted to restrict access to the Hugos to those whom they deemed “part of our community”. And outsider whose work was not known to that community would have to make his or her work known to them in some way, and that act could then be called “campaigning”, thereby providing an excuse not to vote for the outsider.

But there are more valid reasons for trying to restrain people’s enthusiasm. The Hugos are a strange hybrid of juried and popular vote awards. The electorate is large, but at the same time it is supposed to be an expert electorate in that it is comprised of serious science fiction fans, not just any old joes and janes who happen to come along. The more campaigning you get, the more people are likely to complain that the Hugos are merely given to works that are popular rather than to works that have quality. (And yes, that might be a daft argument, but it is an argument that people make.) Equally, if campaigning happens, when the results are announced people will complain that so-and-so only got on the ballot or won because of the campaigning, not because of the quality of the work, or even because their work was well-liked, but simply because of the effort they put into cajoling people to vote for them. This may all be nonsense, but the more campaigning you have, the more likely it is that such complaints will be made.

Perhaps more importantly, the electorate is not that large. When the nominees are decided by a few hundred people it is just about possible to get on the ballot by running an overt ballot-stuffing campaign (e.g. by paying people for their votes). Regardless of the various conspiracy theories that abound, we don’t think it is possible to win a Hugo by ballot stuffing, but it might be possible to become a nominee that way. Discouraging campaigning is one way to try to prevent this. However, we feel that encouraging more people to participate in the nominations process is a better way to achieve the same effect.

Finally, the SF community has always prided itself on being a community. The arguments in favor of professionals being included in the fan categories have mainly been along the lines of us all being in this together. If John Scalzi or whoever writes entertainingly about science fiction and related issues in a personal blog, that makes that person a fan. But if we are all in this together, that means that there is no “them and us”. Campaigning for an award can bring with it an air of “look at me, I’m wonderful” which suggests that the person doing the campaigning is somehow better that the great unwashed mass of fans. And that would be the very opposite of what the community is supposed to be about.

So what do you think? Should people campaign for the Hugos? If not, why not? If they should, are there limits to proper behavior?

6 Responses to “To Campaign, or Not To Campaign”

  1. on 07 Feb 2008 at 7:47 amWarren Buff

    I continue to find some of the distinctions strange. While it is unacceptable for a faned to ask his readers to vote for him on the Hugo ballot, it is acceptable for Locus and the like to run recommendation lists. I suppose this preserves something of the feel of a gentlemen’s arrangement — the voting is much more polite than it would likely be if there were active campaigning. It just seems odd that the recommendation lists wouldn’t be discouraged by such an arrangement.

  2. on 07 Feb 2008 at 8:03 amCheryl


    I guess that depends on whether you think there is a difference between someone saying “vote for me” and someone saying “this is what I’m voting for”. Locus doesn’t recommend that people vote for itself, and it has no business connection with most of the works it recommends. It isn’t even saying “these are books we think should get a Hugo”. It is simply saying “these are books we think are good.” If you are going to ban that, surely you have to ban all book reviews.

  3. on 07 Feb 2008 at 10:21 amWarren Buff

    I’m not in favor of banning any of it. I like the idea of a gentlemen’s agreement, but I dislike the idea of a strict rule. No one has any place to tell the good folks at Locus what they can’t publish (short of the relevant laws). It just struck me that there was something of a divide between the wide-spread acceptance of the recommendation lists and the wide-spread condemnation of Hugo campaigning. It’s a shame that Frank Wu’s article on the effects of the recommendation lists isn’t available where I’d seen it linked on right now, especially since I can’t remember his conclusions.

  4. on 07 Feb 2008 at 10:25 amCheryl

    Well, not everyone likes recommendation lists. When I first started doing them on Emerald City I was accused of campaigning for myself.

    I’d love to see Frank’s article though. I didn’t know he’d written one. Frank, are you out here?

  5. on 07 Feb 2008 at 11:33 amMike Glyer

    Warren, my advice is not to take all of this at face value.

    I don’t agree that campaigning for a Hugo is contrary to any fannish code, shibboleth, unwritten rule, or whatever somebody wants to call it. Every year a lot of people reach out to potential nominators in a variety of ways and excite no comment at all. No comment at all — taboo, where is thy sting?

    When there are comments, it’s usually apparent that underlying the criticism about campaigning is the critic’s belief that someone or something manifestly doesn’t belong on the Hugo ballot. As I’m sure you’ve seen, people often try to create a sense of privilege for what are simply subjective opinions by couching them as criticisms of a violation of some widely-held value.

    But what is that widely held value? It’s certainly not opposition to campaigning. I think it’s more akin to people’s dislike of being evangelized to adopt views they don’t already hold.

    Or some people may feel antagonized if the campaign involves soliciting a vote, period, without consideration of the merits of the nominee.

    Campaigning, itself, is clearly accepted by the fannish culture. In my comment on the other thread, I gave an example of open campaigning for which the people involved received very little (if any) negative comment within fandom. I could easily provide a dozen more.

  6. on 08 Feb 2008 at 2:06 pmFrank Wu

    The article that I wrote, now in discussion, was really more about the statistical overlap between recommendations in Emerald City and NESFA Hugo rec lists and what made the final Hugo ballot (years 2001-2005 studied). I also discussed overlap between Hugos, Nebulas and World Fantasy Awards. I couldn’t dig out the accompanying figure/images (they’re on my computer at home), but below is the text of the piece (pub’d at in Nov. 2005).

    The take-home messages:

    1. Of 104 Hugo nominees total (from 2001 to 2005), 83% appeared on one rec list or the other (NESFA or EmCit); 42% appeared on both.

    2. And about self-promoting yourself by trying to get on one of the rec lists? From 2001-2005, about 400 works of fiction have been recommended. Only a small fraction of recommended items make the final Hugo ballot: 14% for EmCit, and 18% for NESFA. The best advice for getting on a Hugo ballot is still – quoting Spider Robinson – “it does help if you don’t suck.”



    Around April every year, the nominees for the Hugo awards are released. Anticipation about what might be (or should be) nominated builds throughout the spring, stoked by various Hugo recommendation sites. The two most popular online rec lists are Emerald City and NESFA. How predictive are these lists? How much overlap is there between these lists and the final ballots? Could the rec lists be used for nefarious self-promotion? I also wanted to compare the Hugo nomination list to two other major genre awards: the Nebulas and World Fantasy awards. The administration of these awards varies, as do their covered subject matter, so I wanted to see how overlap (if any) there was. Did the awards agree on who the best writers of the new century were?

    First we compare the Hugos to the rec lists, with the results in Figure 1 (novels) and Figure 2 (short fiction).

    I cover the years going back to 2001, when the EmCit list started. For the final ballot, members of the worldcon send in nominations, with only the final five (or six in case of a tie) making the final ballot. Theoretically, anyone can recommend something to a rec list, with only one recommendation needed to get it onto the list. However, in practice, participants for Cheryl Morgan’s EmCit list are largely members of Cheryl’s “home” fan group, BASFA (the San Francisco Bay Area SF Association). NESFA’s participants are (mostly) from the other side of the country, but about 40 people contributed to each list – with no one contributing (or allowed to contribute) to both. Of course, many NESFAns and BASFAns attend worldcons and thus actually nominate for the Hugos, so I first tested if this exercise was pointless. It turns out that 83% of 2004 NESFAn recommenders had attended the worldcon on their opposite coast (ConJose 20002), while only about half of BASFAns journeyed cross-country to Noreascon. For me, that was different enough to justify proceeding. So let’s get to the meat: how much actual overlap is there between the recommendation lists and the actual ballots?

    Figure 1, examining the Novels, shows almost complete overlap. All the nominees except one had appeared on either or both rec list. The lone exception was Robert J. Sawyer’s “Humans,” which came in fifth in Hugo voting in 2004. Two notable novels appeared on both rec lists and won the Best Novel Hugo: Neil Gaiman’s “American Gods” and Susanna Clarke’s “Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell.” This reassures me that at least some people liked all the Hugo nominees, justifying their appearance on the final ballot.

    I expected more spread with the shorter fiction categories (Figure 2), as there are twice as many stories published as novels. (Locus magazine [] listed 568 novels and about 1300 stories from 2000]). However, even here there was good overlap, suggesting that the Hugo noms did not come out of nowhere. Of 104 Hugo nominees total, 83% appeared on one rec list or the other; 42% appeared on both. This is pretty good consensus to what the best in the field is.

    Of the 20 Hugo winners, 40% were on both rec lists, and only 4 were not on either. These four are quite interesting: “Hell Is the Absence of God” by Ted Chiang; “The Faery Handbag” by Kelly Link; “The Ultimate Earth” by Jack Williamson; and “Travels with my Cats” by Michael Resnick. The first three were multiple award winners: Chiang’s story won the Locus, Nebula, and Seiun awards; Link’s won the Locus; and Williamson’s also won the Nebula (though these awards may be more of a celebration of Jack’s wonderful career rather than the particular merits of this story). I would like to single out Resnick’s story as a peculiar aberration. This author likes much of Resnick’s work, but this story was too schmaltzy for me. Others agreed – almost half of those polled at considered this story to be the most overrated Hugo winner of 2005. Thus, I would argue that, except for a very few notable exceptions, the strong overlap between the three lists again lends validity to the Hugos. Or viewed from the opposite end, the overlaps gives credibility to the rec lists. NESFAns and BASFAns can feel good about themselves as being collectively well-read.

    This begs the next question: Could an unscrupulous author raise his visibility by having a friend send in a recommendation? First, I can’t speak for them, but I suspect that the rec list monitors might look askance at recs submitted by folks not known to them – particularly in support of a glaringly bad book. Recent discussions of Robert Stanek’s attempts to manipulate have raised the awareness of excessive, unwarranted self-promotion. Furthermore, over the last five years, about 400 works of fiction have been recommended. Only a small fraction of recommended items make the final Hugo ballot: 14% for EmCit, and 18% for NESFA. The best advice for getting on a Hugo ballot is still – quoting Spider Robinson – “it does help if you don’t suck.” Thus, while the final Hugo nominees are likely to be presaged by the rec lists, the appearance of an item on a rec list far from guarantees that it will be actually nominated.

    I also compared the Hugos to the Nebulas and World Fantasy Awards (Figures 3 and 4). I expected the nominees to be different, as the awards are administered in vastly different ways. The Hugos are determined by the members of that year’s worldcon. The Nebulas are awards for writers from writers. The WF awards are administered by an ever-changing panel of judges. Two places on the ballot are open for nomination from WF convention members, but the final decisions are determined by judges. WF award judges also collectively attempt to read everything in the field, so obscure but good pieces (such as those from high-quality small presses) are more likely to appear on the WFA ballot than either the Nebula or Hugo. Finally, the Hugos are technically open to works of fantasy, according to the WSFS Constitution, though many nominators still cling to the idea that the awards – once officially called the Science Fiction Achievement Awards – are still limited in scope. Still, I was surprised by how different the ballots were.

    The Nebulas and Hugos showed the most overlap, naturally, but 67% of nominees were unique to the Nebula ballot. 86% of the WF short fiction nominees did not even appear on either the Nebula or Hugo ballot. (In some ways this is good, because it spreads the acclaim, but it also upsets me as a pattern-seeking animal.) No work of fiction – novel or short fiction – has ever won the “Triple Crown” of the Hugo, Nebula and World Fantasy. Ever. This may be a worthy goal for the ambitious writer. 37 short fiction pieces [] and 17 novels [] have won both the Hugo and Nebula. However, very few won both the Hugo and the WFA. Prior to Susanna Clarke this year, the previous Hugo-WFA double winner goes all the way back to 1988: LeGuin’s “Buffalo Gals, Won’t You Come Out Tonight.” Only five works have appeared on all three ballots in the last five years. One was by China Mieville (“Perdido Street Station”) with two each by Neil Gaiman and Jeffrey Ford. “Perdido” was swept in all these competitions. But Gaiman’s “American Gods” won the Hugo and Nebula, as did his “Coraline.” Jeffrey Ford’s “The Empire of Ice Cream” came away with the Nebula and his “Creation” won the WFA. Since 2001, Ford’s collected 2 Hugo, 3 Nebula and 6 World Fantasy award nominations; Gaiman, 3 Hugo, 1 Nebula and 3 WF nominations. Other writers have been nominated for more awards (Ellison, Clarke, Card, Willis, and Silverberg come to mind), but not necessarily this decade – that was then and this is now. Out of these analyses falls the idea that Jeffrey Ford and Neil Gaiman are among the most acclaimed and most popular authors of the 21st century, but I suppose you already knew that?

    Frank Wu