Science Fiction Awards Watch

On Popular Vote Awards

Over at James Nicoll’s LiveJournal we find a new rash of people complaining that they are not qualified to vote in awards because they haven’t read enough of the field.

People, this is not what a popular vote award is all about. If you have a juried award then the judges have a duty to read all of the books submitted/recommended to them. If you have a list of nominees to choose from, such as the final ballot in the Hugos, then there is an expectation that you will read all of the nominees because there are only a few of them. But an open popular vote award, such as the nomination stage of the Hugos, or the Locus Awards, does not work like that.

Nicholl says he doesn’t read enough to be qualified to vote, but if he isn’t, who is? He reads a lot more than most people. Indeed, if the requirement was that you read “all of the field”, or even a majority of it, then no one would be qualified to vote. That’s clearly a ridiculous conclusion, so the argument must be ridiculous.

Popular vote awards are designed to find out what is popular. So when an award says “best” what it really means is “most popular”. The process of finding out what is “most popular” is statistical. You ask a large number of people which books (or stories or movies, etc.) they liked, and you add up all of their individual votes. Those works that get the most votes are, by definition, the most popular.

So to be qualified to vote in a popular vote award, all you have to do is to have read (or viewed) something that you thought was good. No other qualification is required.

Now of course you may think that the whole idea of a popular vote award is stupid, and that awards ought to only be given out by experts who are in a position to know what is “best”. But there are plenty of awards out there, and if you think that way all you need to do is pay attention to the World Fantasy Awards or the Clarke or the other awards that have juries.

One thing, however, is certain. If you don’t vote in a popular vote award then your views as to what is good won’t be included in the statistical process, and so the sort of works you like will be less likely to win. The only effect of taking this high moral stance and disqualifying yourself from voting is to hand control of the process to other people. And if you do that then you have no right to complain about the results.

17 Responses to “On Popular Vote Awards”

  1. on 16 Apr 2008 at 2:06 pmChristopher J. Garcia

    Can I rerun this in SF/SF?
    It would make a nice note with some other stuff I’ve got

  2. on 16 Apr 2008 at 2:16 pmEditors

    Sure. Go ahead.

  3. on 16 Apr 2008 at 3:16 pmJ. Andrews

    You couldn’t have posted this before the Locus Awards voting ended?

    Thank you, though. I was wondering about this very thing, since I’d never been involved in awards before. I wasn’t even aware that I was eligible to vote for any awards until this year, since I wasn’t going to shell out money to vote for the Hugos.

  4. on 16 Apr 2008 at 3:46 pmCheryl

    Sorry J. It is actually something we write about a lot, because this “I’m not qualified” argument gets trotted out every year with monotonous regularity. I think it is the single most common excuse I’ve heard from non-voting. We generally post about it when someone high profile like James makes the argument, but we’ll try to remember to be more proactive in future.

  5. on 16 Apr 2008 at 4:35 pmMike Glyer


    I’m sure you’re up to it, but writing proactively is going to be a bit trickier than writing in reaction to someone like James whose knowledge of the field is well known. Nobody’s going to gripe when you tell James “of course you’re qualified.”

  6. on 16 Apr 2008 at 7:14 pmKevin

    I’ve elaborated on this subject on my LiveJournal. Comments on what I wrote there are best added here to keep the conversation on track.

  7. on 16 Apr 2008 at 7:26 pmCheryl


    James is just the extreme end of the argument that proves how silly it is. There are two obvious end points. Firstly the qualification should not be stringent as to disqualify everyone (even James). Secondly if you haven’t read anything in the eligibility period then clearly you can’t vote for anything. Between that, how should you set a requirement?

  8. on 16 Apr 2008 at 8:27 pmMichael Walsh

    My nominations … well, I try to nominate material that if it won the Hugo it would be a worthy winner. That it would not be an embarrassment.

  9. on 16 Apr 2008 at 9:03 pmMishalak

    I read quite a bit last year. But I only read a very, very few books that were published last year. I tend to find out about things I like a year or two after they’re published. Until January of this year when I put a push on to read some other things I had read only one novel published in 2007. I nominated it, but I cannot help but think there were a lot of things that I would have rather nominated, but I just have not heard about them. yet.

  10. on 16 Apr 2008 at 10:15 pmCheryl


    If you haven’t read anything eligible then obviously you can’t vote for it (though in the the case of art awards it is really easy and quick to see a whole bunch of eligible material online, so there’s no excuse for not voting in those categories).

    Equally if you haven’t read anything you thought was good then don’t vote for it, though that does seem rather sad. Part of the theory is that people will read books they like, not books that they don’t like.

    But these are not what is at issue here. What we are writing about are the people like James who say that they have read lots of eligible work they liked but they won’t vote because they haven’t read enough.

    Your argument about missing something is in the same category. It applies to everyone. I know it used to apply to me when I was doing Emerald City. Even reading 10 or more books a month I would still miss really good books that I wished I had nominated after having read them. And if someone who reads over 100 books a year isn’t qualified to vote then the qualification requirements are stupid.

  11. on 17 Apr 2008 at 10:20 amAaron Hughes

    But there are marginal cases where it does matter how much one has read.

    If I have read 20 novels from the previous year, then I will definitely nominate my five favorites for the Hugo Award. It doesn’t matter that only the top three struck me as outstanding, award-caliber books. Even if the next two are just so-so, the fact that they made my personal top five list out of a decent-sized sample justifies a nomination — particularly if they rank ahead of some other novels that I know are likely contenders.

    But if I have read two novels from the previous year, and one is outstanding and the other is so-so, I will only nominate the outstanding one. I don’t feel that I have enough sense of what was published that year to give a nod to a middling book.

  12. on 17 Apr 2008 at 10:56 amCheryl


    Point taken, but you are saying that if you read two books you’d still be comfortable nominating at least one of them, whereas James is saying that even if you have read 50 or 100 books you haven’t read enough to be qualified to nominate. I think you are more on our side than his.

  13. on 17 Apr 2008 at 12:44 pmAaron Hughes


  14. on 17 Apr 2008 at 9:29 pmJames Davis Nicoll

    someone like James whose knowledge of the field is well known.

    [Apologies if that comes out wrong. I don’t know how to preview here]

    “A USENET poster of little known notability.”

    This doesn’t have as useful a line for quotation but the fact that it exists at all (and that my birthday is still considered a controversial point on my wikipedia entry) suggests that my fame is still restricted to a small population of people.

  15. on 18 Apr 2008 at 11:22 amMike Glyer

    See, Wikipedia does need an article about you. I only knew you were important. That you are also “eccentric” was new information.

  16. on 18 Apr 2008 at 12:56 pmJames Davis Nicoll

    If it’s eccentric to own a home whose walls are lined with books, to have been told by Fred Pohl that my idea about Fermi, FTL and relativity was the “most depressing thing he’d ever heard” [1] or to have once attempted to pet a wild raccoon while under the impression it was a cat [2], then I don’t want to be normal.

    1: This has been my ObJonathan vos Post moment.

    2: This could have worked if only it had been the raccoon that was under the impression that it was a cat.

  17. on 18 Apr 2008 at 9:28 pmMike Glyer

    You’re definitely headed in the right direction. I’m much more comfortable with the people who claim they are eccentric than with the people earnestly trying to convince me they are normal.