How Awards Work: A Quick Primer

John Scalzi

Because I think it will come in handy for some folks, a quick primer about literary awards (this may or may not have relevance outside the realm of literary awards, but I’m going with what I know, here):

1. If an author/book has won an award, and you are unhappy with that, for whatever reason: Cool, be annoyed all you like. You do you. Have fun with it!

2. The author may disagree with you on that score. So might other people.

3. The author is themselves only rarely personally or directly responsible for their winning the award, or being on their shortlist, aside from having written a work that conforms to the award’s consideration criteria. Literary awards generally happen to authors.

4. The people responsible, for award wins and shortlists, are the people empowered to select both: Sometimes juries, sometimes a wider group of voters, with the qualifying criteria for the latter ranging from award to award. In the realm of science fiction and fantasy, for example, voters for the Hugo have to be members of that year’s Worldcon; voters for the Nebula have to be members of SFWA; and voters of the Locus can be pretty much anyone who decides to cast a vote (although the votes of Locus magazine subscribers, if I recall correctly, are given greater weight).

5. If you want to know the specific reasoning on how a particular book and/or author won an award or got on its shortlist, you probably shouldn’t ask the author — they’re not the one who put it there, they’re just along for the ride. They usually don’t know, aside from a vague “Uhhhh, because people liked it?” For a more complete answer, you should probably ask the people who nominated it for the award, and, in the case of a two-stage (or more) voting process, those who voted for it to win. They can probably tell you better than the author could.

6. Be aware there may be lots of different reasons. Some or all of the reasons you may find reasonable, or not. Bear in mind that what you think about it is probably neither here nor there to the individual voter, as they are likely to use their own judgment and not yours, and if the award has already been given, it’s probably too late anyway.

7. Likewise be aware that different books/authors can be on the same shortlist for wildly different reasons, so long as those reasons fit the basic qualifying criteria. Some shortlists can be comparing apples to apples, apples to oranges, or apples to ice cream. Depending on your own personal preferences, you may agree with what is on the shortlist or what wins, or not. This is not the problem of the voters, however, or the winners (or those on the shortlist).

8. If you want awards to better reflect your own taste, priorities or desires, and it is possible for you to nominate and/or vote on the finalists and winners, then the best way to do that is to vote, and to encourage likeminded people to vote as well. This does not guarantee your choices will win or even be selected for the shortlist (much will depend on other voters as well), but it won’t hurt and may help. In my time in the SF/F field I’ve seen significant shifts in who is on shortlists and who wins because new individuals and groups of voters have come in (and also, importantly, stayed for more than one or two voting cycles). Participation matters.

9. In my experience, which is not entirely trivial in this case, most works/author on a shortlist tend to be within hailing distance of each other in terms of quality. Any one of the works/authors could win, and which one is eventually chosen is very often up to intangibles that are difficult to quantify. The phrase “it’s an honor just to be nominated” is, strangely enough, absolutely true. The winning is often a crapshoot. The measure of quality usually comes in the shortlist.

10. Again, totally within your rights and purview to be annoyed when an author/work you don’t like wins an award. That’s life. It might be useful, however, to ask yourself what other people, motivated enough to nominate an author/work onto a shortlist and then vote for it to win, found to be of quality in that particular work. Yes, possibly everyone who voted for the author/work you dislike champions absolute mediocrity and only you and your compatriots have true critical vision and literary taste. More likely, however (sorry), their reasons are different and more complex than that, even if you don’t agree with them. Very likely their reasons are not necessarily worse than your own reasons (if you voted at all). Try to imagine what they might be — or, again, ask. Nicely.

(Note: All the above assumes the award processes running in a largely unremarkable manner, and not actively being gamed/sabotaged, which has been generally rare enough, and also, when it happens, rectified as quickly as rules allow.)

Are award processes perfect? Ha! No. Are all winners the “best” winners, by whatever criteria you (or anyone else) consider important? Given the fact that there are always complaints, no matter who wins, evidently not. Are you going to be happy if someone you dislike/whose work you dislike wins an award, especially over someone or some work you prefer? Again, no, but again, that’s life and the nature of awards. Literally, you win some and you lose some. And that’s okay.

— JS

20 Comments on “How Awards Work: A Quick Primer”

  1. You’re right — Locus subscribers such as myself get our votes counts as two points against one point for non-subscribers.

  2. I use the shortlists of locus, Hugo, Nebula et al to help me put books on my to be read pile.
    While the one you think is best might not win, all are worthy of taking a look at.

    I did like Kaiju Preservation Society and from what I am seeing those that do not see it as being worthy are also those that did not bother reading the book. It was fast paced, readable and was the kind of book that I have gifted to several people to get them interested in science fiction.

  3. Like Wgdo, I use the Nebula and Hugo novel short lists to populate my to-read list. I don’t use the Locus short list, but do use the World Fantasy and Edgar short lists

    While I have quibbled over whether a winner was better for me compared to others on the short list; I have overall found the short lists as a group to be of very high quality. Such that I continue to use them as a way to populate my to-read pile

    Congrats on your recent win btw John!

  4. Haven’t been paying attention (and don’t really care) but I’m guessing “He who shall (or at least should) be nameless” or his sycophants are disappointed in your well-deserved award.

    FWIW, I think KPS was thoroughly enjoyable and hugely entertaining — which are the exact criteria that I personally use in deciding what is “award worthy”. Perhaps it is because of the fairly depressing times (Covid, Ukraine, Trump …) but I’ve already “needed” to read KPS twice and listen a few more times (thanks Will W.) just to counteract the too frequent sad news.

    Also, as mentioned above, I at least check out all of the nominees for major awards. Even if they aren’t all my cup of tea, they are almost always “good” and I can generally see why they would appeal to lots of people.

  5. Your last paragraph made me think; what is the least contentious award ever given? Like, has there been a ‘Best Picture’/’Best Album’/’Best Book’ where pretty much everyone was like “oh yah, that was the right call”? I’m curious what the top contenders for that would be.

  6. I encourage friends to read books I like, whether they have won prizes or not. I have noticed that people love books I don’t, and vice versa, and that’s cool! Congrats to nominees and prize winners; I kinda like being generous about this stuff.

  7. I mean, was it on the same level as the Interdependency, Old Man’s War, or Haden Syndrome series? No, I don’t think anyone is trying to say that it is. Even when it was released he said it was written during a pandemic and wasn’t the book he meant to write, so it didn’t have the timeline required to flesh out those books.

    My only criticism is that he was rushed and we ended up with one quick joy read instead of a fully realised trilogy.

    Whatever. Have the award. If people can’t agree that he should have gotten it for this book, then maybe they can say it makes up for all the awards he didn’t get when the conditions were better.

    Now since I’m here, it would be a shame if I didn’t tell him how to live his life as well. “John, I’m ready for you to write government gender laws into a new Haden story” and, “if you wanted to write a directors cut of Kaiju, with added chapters making the trilogy possible, I’m ready for that too”

  8. I think that boils down to

    “Sometimes what you like wins an award, sometimes it doesn’t. Try reading what won and maybe it’ll surprise you. Or maybe not. That’s life: not everyone agrees with you.”

  9. Apologies if this ULTRA-IMPORTANT BURNING QUESTION has been answered elsewhere, but:

    How do pre-recorded acceptance speeches work? Do they let the winner who can’t attend know in advance, so they can record the speech, and swear them to secrecy until the ceremony? Or do they have all non-attending finalists record acceptance speeches, and then junk the ones that are non-operative once the winner is revealed?

  10. I’ve occasionally been unhappy that someone I liked didn’t win an award. I’ve never been unhappy that someone I didn’t like or wasn’t familiar with HAD won. That’s kind of like saying, Well I’m not gonna eat this; let me poop on it instead.

  11. it has been known for stuff that I really disliked to win awards.
    I got over it.

  12. Solid and clear-headed, as you tend to do.

    I am still mad about Toni Collette not getting nominated for Hereditary (though I admit 2018 was a stacked year for Best Actress)

  13. what is the least contentious award ever given? Like, has there been a ‘Best Picture’/’Best Album’/’Best Book’ where pretty much everyone was like “oh yah, that was the right call”?

    Saving Private Ryan.

  14. My much less informative reaction to the complainers is get a life. Move on.

    I too use award lists to choose books. Even if they turn out not to be my cup of tea, they’re well-written and tell me what other people are reading.

  15. I served on the committee for the Mythopoeic Fantasy Award for many years. Often the award-winner was a consensus book.

    To serve on that committee, you need to be a member of the Mythopoeic Society (open to anyone) and sign up for the committee. You commit to reading all of the final nominees and as much of the initial long list as possible.

  16. @DAVID

    To pick a nit – “Saving Private Ryan” did not get the Academy Award for Best Picture, although I agree that it should have received it.

    That award went to “Shakespeare in Love”. I felt at the time, and still do, that it was because this film was a love-letter to the profession of the voters. Turning your back on it would be rejecting your own life’s work.

    Tom –

  17. Now that there is social media, wherein the authors can remind their followers to vote, the author may have slightly more influence on the final outcome than prior to social media, but yeah: by the time it is a shortlist, provided there have not been extensive shenanigans, they’re usually all really good at whatever it is they’re doing – those things may just be very different.

    I have certainly found that some books just aren’t for me, either due to style or tone or type of emotional manipulation or themes/subjects that I don’t want to dwell on in a book. Some people just plain hate first-person, esp. casual first-person, and that’s… okay? Some people do! Some people don’t want to read 20 pages about a close-to-reality fictional technology in near-technical-manual specificity and with sentences a half-page long, each; that also is okay? And some people do!

    There can be arguments over whether it is intrinsically more valuable to read something that stretches your attention span instead of shortening it; arguments over word choice and loss of nuanced vocabulary; arguments over structure and whether it tells the truth about the world or whether it creates pervasive misunderstandings about power structures [i.e. the vast world of underdog-wins-the-top-prize stories, which are not balanced out by a statistically-reasonable number of underdog-loses-the-top-prize-despite-working-super-hard].

    But some books are going to be your jam, and others aren’t, so as long as a book isn’t actively toxic to socialization (i.e. endorsing rape): read what you want to read, vote for what you want to vote for, and let the awards fall where they may?

    (and enjoy silly book/award dancing moments; probably everyone can enjoy that!)

  18. To pick a nit – “Saving Private Ryan” did not get the Academy Award for Best Picture, although I agree that it should have received it.

    That was the somewhat obscure joke. SPR was so widely agreed to be the Oscar winner that it was a genuine shock when it didn’t.

    Shorter version: wait, what? SPR didn’t win?

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