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03 September 2007 Blog Home : September 2007 : Permalink

Wither the Hugos

Last year I wrote about the utterly dismal electorate for the Hugos. This years ones, as I noted in the No Hugo for Baen post were little better and my hopes of a Baensweep were dashed. Well, them's the breaks. However it might be worth thinking about the value of a Hugo and about whether the Hugo categories are sensible.

First off what does a Hugo mean? Going on the last three years results (I seem to recall looking at earlier years last year but I can't be arsed to repeat that chore) it means that somewhere between about 300 and 600 people vote for each award and, typically the winning entry is positively chosen by around 50-100 people as the first preference round and by the time we get to the fifth round preference that number has reached about 200. So in other words what this means is that about 100 people thought the nomination was really good and another 100, who voted for number 3-5 in the list of preferences thought it was better than the number 2 alternative. This is not, as I said before, a very large electorate.

The only saving grace is that we voters have to pay for the privilege. In other words what it is saying is that only around 500 SF fans (out of the thousands of readers) are willing to pay the money and take the time to vote. In many ways I consider this to be a good thing because it means that only committed people vote, unfortunately it also means that a small clique can control the voting. If they know what they are doing that is fine. If they don't it ain't. I voted for no award in a number of categories because I really had no idea which was the most deserving having watched/read none of the entries (or seen the artwork etc. ). I suspect that some people will simply have voted for the "Oh yes I've heard of this one" or "he's a pal" options regardless of whether the choice made sense. I have to admit I voted for Scalzi as Fan Writer for precisely that reason. I've never read ANY of the others knowingly and he writes well so he got my vote. I suspect that quite a few people are like me in that they have one or two awards that they are clear on the choices and another couple where they have a vague clue and the rest of them they have no clear idea and hence tend to vote for reasons other than informed opinion. This may actually be a downside for paying to vote: you've paid your money so you want your money's worth and hence you vote in many categories even though you have no informed opinion in most of them. I strongly suspect that the Novella, Novelette and Short Story suffer on these grounds. We know that the readership of the various categories of short fiction is far smaller than the readership of novels but yet between 75% and 90% of the voters for best Novel also voted for Best Novella, Novelette or Short Story. This implies that either the votes for Novel are unrepresentative of the larger readership or the votes for the short forms are.

This leads on to the question of the categories themselves. Splitting the Novel category into two: Best SF Novel and Best Fantasy, along with a Best Short Form (Novella, Novelette or Short Story ) and Best Series might be more suited to today's publishing environment. Rules about how we would define the series eligibility could be tricky but trilogies and series are way more popular than they used to be whereas short form fiction is way less popular.

And what about some of the other categories? I'm reasonably happy with the "dramatic presentation" awards although I don't vote in them because I didn't watch any of the nominations. There is an excellent comment at Supergee's LJ about the editor award pointing out that no one knows who the editor(s) are. The same, only more so, for the artists. It would help enormously if the Hugo website provided a list (possibly one from the nominator(s) or nominees) of the works that the award covers and, for the artists, some sort of link to their portfolios.

Then there are the "fan on fan" awards - "semi-prozine, fanzine, fan artist, fan writer." Umm nice to show respect for major fans and their works of dedication but unless I'm much mistaken most of the winners are repeats. David Langford has won Fan Writer for the last 5 years and Frank Wu has been either winner or runner up in the Fan Artist category over the same period. In the 'zines Locus has won semi-prozine four out of five times. In the fanzine the winners have been different but the names of the five nominees look remarkably similar. It is worth noting that the votes for Best Fanzine were just over half the votes for Best Novel (242 vs 471) indicating it isn't a very exciting category. Given that these days a lot of stuff is moving onto the internet maybe we could modify or delete a couple of these so that we have "Best SF related blog or website" as an entry.

So how about some proposals to fix this?

I've already noted modifying the categories to combine the short fiction and split the novel. Best editor (long) might be better as "Best Publisher or Imprint" to avoid the "who is that?" problem. Many people know Ace, Roc, Tor, Baen etc., rather fewer know Nielsen Hayden, Weisskopf etc. Short Editor is OK because in anthologies or magazines it is pretty clear who is the editor is.

I think "Best Fan Blog or Website" would be a good thing instead of best fanzine (if you wanted you could combine fanzine and semi-prozine). I think Best Fan Writer and Artist should simply be abolished - sorry David & Frank - implying that we could have some other categories e.g. Best Fanfic? Best fan forum?

Some other categories? How about best electronic publication? Best pro website? Baen ought to win the latter roughly as often as Locus wins semi-prozine but having an award might actually cause some of the other publishers to get their websites updated slightly more frequently that once a year and get serious about electronic publication and marketing.

More radical? Well "buying a Hugo" fairly blatantly would probably be one way to cause revolution. Done right it would take a couple of years because in the first year you would need to create entries for most categories*. Then in the second year you would buy 200+ supporting memberships and make sure your choices were voted as number 1 by all 200, you might not win in the more popular categories but you'd probably either beat everyone or cause a "No Award" in all the minor awards. You could invest in 500 memberships and pretty much guarantee the nominations would win though...

More seriously the Hugos could benefit from single category voting. If you were allowed to vote for one or two categories for $10 each then you might find considerably more people willing to vote for popular categories such as Best Novel and skip the dull ones. We could have a rule of "No Award" for categories where the total votes are less that two thirds the votes for the most popular category. There may be other possibilities.

The voting scheme tends to select the "compromise" or "least unpopular" candidate. I am not convinced this is a good voting scheme. Best Editor Long, Best Novel and a number of other categories switched between first preference vote and final runoff, a weighted scheme which gave more value for the first preference compared to the runner up preference(s) might be more appropriate. As might ranking the top three in the order they are in after the bottom two (including no award) have been eliminated. You could also have a total of N votes per category and a choice of how to distribute them so that one person could put all N behind one choice and another could split them between different choices. I should note that I found the scheme currently in use confusing in some respects and I would very much like a way to vote "hell no" to certain choices.

PS (especially for those coming from the No Hugo post) I am unclear whether any of the above changes would have got Jim his Hugo. I'm sad that he hasn't but I'd prefer to have a better more popular and representative award rather than have one particular person win.

* If you want to demonstrate the irrelevance of the Hugos it is unfair to vote on actual authors/editors etc. because they would be forever smeared by your tactics.