Hugo Neepery, Via Reddit

John Scalzi

Over on the r/fantasy subreddit, there was a post about recent Hugo Award stats (which excerpted this original post at the Mr. Philp’s Library blog), and in the comments people naturally speculated about why the Hugos are the way they are these days: Why Tor seems to get a lot of nominations, for example, and why diverse groups are represented in the finalist list as they are, and whether the Hugo voters are an insular and monolith bloc.

Naturally, I have thoughts on all of them and I posted them in a comment there, which I am posting here now (in lightly edited form, to add some useful qualifications) for archival purposes, and for the convenience of those who do not regularly go over to Reddit. Some of this is stuff I’ve covered here before and/or is known stuff to observers of the field, but it’s still useful, I think, when thinking about the current Hugos, and indeed about awards generally.

For the sake of context, here is the original post with its entire comment thread; and here is my original reply on Reddit with its own set of specific replies.

Some thoughts for all y’all to consider, and please note I am not an entirely objective observer, but do have relevant experience:

1. With respect to “why does Tor get so many damn finalists,” the answer (in my opinion) is: reach and design. The Tor Publishing Group (Tor, TorDotCom, Nightfire, and a couple of other imprints coming online soon) publishes more SF/F work in the English language than any other publisher, has an experienced and savvy group of marketers and bookseller/librarian representatives, and (this is frequently overlooked but is significant) has built up an exceptional editorial bench whose tastes and interests cover a wide range of work (Fun fact: The editor at Orbit, who was there in its heyday of Hugo finalists and/or acquired the authors who made the shortlist? She’s the publisher at Tor now).

Also, when authors want to publish in the genre, Tor is often the first stop for their manuscripts, so Tor gets the pick of the annual litter, so to speak, and continues to work with and cultivate the authors whose books hit.

2. The above advantages are especially borne out in the field of novellas. TorDotCom was originally created to acquire and market novellas, because Tor, pretty much alone out of all the major SF/F publishers, realized that the advent of electronic publishing meant there was now a viable market for them (supplemented by bookstore sales). Prior to the advent of TorDotCom, novellas were largely published by the SF/F magazines, who couldn’t publish many of them (they take up a lot of space, both in physical print and in the budget). They were, relatively speaking, few and far between — for years a hot Hugo tip was that if you wanted a fast track to award consideration, you should write a novella, because there were fewer of them to compete against.

And indeed this continues to be the case — except at TorDotCom, which has a robust novella publishing program (and also, non-trivially, pays better for novellas than most anyone else, again assuring they get first pick). In short, Tor dominates the novella category because, by and large, it created the modern novella market for SF/F/H.

3. If you are wondering how marginalized groups have started to become widely represented in SF/F awards (as they are not just in the Hugos, but also the Nebulas, the Locus and the World Fantasy Awards) there are three factors I want you to consider. The first is the (relative) decline of the “Big Three” short fiction magazines in SF/F (Asimov’s, Analog, F&SF) and the commensurate rise of a series of online short fiction publishing venues like Uncanny, Clarkesworld and Strange Horizons (among others). The Big Three ran on Silent, Boomer and Elder GenX writers, and the market forces for the genre those writers came up in was heavily cis and white and male. The newer venues, by inclination and necessity, cultivated younger generations of writers from more diverse backgrounds. When the Big Three declined and the online magazines rose, their respective stables of authors more or less rose or declined with them, in terms of award consideration.

The second thing to consider is who is buying science fiction and fantasy, both in the magazine and in the publishing houses. Surprise! The editorial stratum of SF/F/H is not the straight, white and (predominately but not exclusively) male enclave it was before; the editorial bench of SF/F/H publishing (and publishing generally) is much more queer and of color than it has been in years past. They are interested in publishing more than just the “usual suspects” in SF/F/H as defined by previous decades and — this is important — the diverse SF/F/H they are acquiring is selling very well. This will naturally have an impact on what is considered at awards time.

The third thing to consider with respect to the Hugos specifically is that close to a decade ago a group of right-wing fans and writers, alarmed by what they saw as left-wing, SJW, politically-correct, etc work creeping into the awards, decided to try to run slates of work to counter that trend. This did not go well, in no small part because their tactics energized a very large group of fandom to counter their actions, including a significant number of more progressive Hugo voters. When the “takeover” of the Hugos failed, most of these right-wing folks flounced from the Hugo voting pool; some of the more progressive voters stayed and continue to vote today. This is reflected in what gets nominated and thus, what eventually becomes a finalist.

4. It is true that many Hugo finalists have been finalists previously. This, however, is not a recent artifact of the award (or indeed, of awards in SF/F/H generally, or even of genre awards widely). A short glance at the finalist lists for the Hugos over their 60+ years of being run shows many authors/editors/fans with repeat appearances. Author Mike Resnick was on a Hugo finalist list 37 times in his career; Robert Silverberg 29; Connie Willis 24. Most Hugo finalists (this is an anecdotal observation) have their nomination cluster within a specific set of years, getting a bunch for a while and then making way (willingly or otherwise) to a new set of finalists. This sort of consideration largely replicates the arc of the creative popularity of most artists in any field; you have a certain time being “hot” (if you’re lucky), and then times change.

5. There’s a tendency to speak of Hugo voters monolithically, and it is true there is a core of fandom that associates with the Worldcon year after year (the overlap between this core, and the core of fandom that volunteers to run the Worldcon, is fairly high). However, this core is smaller than a lot of people think, and as for the rest of the voting pool, it can change significantly based on a number of factors. For example, this year, the Worldcon is in Chengdu, China, and thus a significant number of nominators were Chinese (this is borne out by the Chinese language nominations in the short fiction and fanzine/semi-prozine categories, and among the editorial slates). Next year it will be in Glasgow, Scotland, and the pool of potential nominators/voters will shift again.

Also, of course, anyone can nominate for the Hugos and vote for the finalists; all it takes is a supporting membership to that year’s Worldcon, which these days is going for around $50 — not a trivial amount, but not insurmountable, either. And indeed, every year there are a non-trivial number of first-time nominators and voters, and within the overall pool, loose groups with very different nominating/voting considerations. Again, not a monolith! And — trust me — very much not an organized cabal. Especially now, it’s difficult to think of a “typical” Hugo voter.

6. People like to suggest there are other things that go into nomination consideration than just the quality of a specific work, so let me be very clear about this: Sure, that’s totally a thing, nor is it confined to the Hugos. Other factors can include (but are not limited to) what and how much the nominators have read in the genre that year, their thoughts on the author as a human, their own personal preferences (for whatever reason) in the genre space, political/social interests and theories, how effective the marketing for that work was in getting the nominator’s attention, what they had for lunch that day, and how they are feeling about the world in general. If the world has been an abject shitshow recently, for example, you might see escapist work being nominated because people just wanted to get out of their own heads for a while. Something dense and philosophically knotty but possibly stuffy might get nominated because the nominators feel that after putting in the work, they want to get credit for it. And so on.

Even if they only considered the works as literature, however, you would still see finalists that you would be all “WTF?!?” about. Because taste is subjective! And what you think is trash, or slight, or overwrought, or impenetrable or whatever, could be someone else’s jam, and something they can’t wait to vote for, and something they could very cogently argue for and defend against your disdain. Work hardly ever gets nominated for a Hugo because the people who nominated it are stupid or foolish or lazy, or are part of a cabal (that event a few years ago notwithstanding). It gets nominated because someone likes it enough to think it should get an award. You can disagree! And maybe nominate next time.

— JS

21 Comments on “Hugo Neepery, Via Reddit”

  1. In the comments I was asked (I think somewhat leadingly, but even so): “What would you say to a young person who doesn’t check any of the diversity boxes who dreams of winning a Hugo/Nebula for short fiction?” This is my answer:

    Why, the same thing I would say to any young person who dreams of winning a Hugo/Nebula for short fiction:

    You can do an intensive study of which sites get the largest number of award nominations and examine which stories become finalists and win, craft your fiction precisely to those markets and conditions, submit them…

    … and still not get on a finalist list because a) by the time you can spot an award-winning trend in published work, it’s probably already over, b) you’re not the only one writing to any trend you might see, c) editors can tell when people are writing to trends because they suddenly get a flood of those types of stories, d) aside from any of that you’ll have to deal with the normal submission/acceptance/rejection cycle, which is highly competitive even for established writers.

    Which is to say, this is not a great way to win an award.

    Alternately, you could work on your craft and tell the stories that you want to tell and/or only you can tell, and give no thought to winning awards at all, but rather think about getting your work to the audience that will connect to your writing and want more of it from you. You could also dip a toe into the existing SF/F community, find some other up-and-coming writers and become each other’s cheering squad, giving encouragement to each other, celebrating the achievements, commiserating the disappointments, and helping each other through what is often otherwise a lonely process.

    If you do it this latter way, you’ll find out two things: The first is that while awards are certainly a thing, they’re not the only thing, and there are many happily successful authors (by whatever criteria one defines success) who never take home a bauble. What they have instead is an audience and a peer group, and to paraphrase a well-known statement, an audience and a peer group will get you through a time of no awards better than awards will get you through a time of no audience or peer group.

    But if you do win awards – because you’re writing stuff that only you can write, to an appreciative audience and a supportive peer group, both of whom can and might nominate and then vote on awards like the Hugo and Nebula – then those awards are sweeter, knowing that you got them not by trying to time the market, but by doing your own thing on your own terms. And how great is that.

  2. I have a slight quibble with point #2, based on some commentary I first heard from Catherine Lundoff of Queen of Swords Press. In 2023, there’s a surprising number of outfits publishing novellas these days. But they’re unable to compete with Tor’s reach and, more importantly, budget, when it comes to marketing. I think you’re correct to say that Tordotcom played a huge role in creating the current landscape for novellas, but their dominance isn’t just due to the quality (which, to be fair, is generally very good). It’s the discoverability problem in another form. There are equally great works coming out from QoS, Apex, and elsewhere, but those presses don’t have the footprint and mindshare that Tor/Tordotcom does. And people can’t vote for work they’ve never heard of, no matter who wrote it or how great it is.

    I don’t mean this as a criticism of Tor/Tordotcom, BTW. Just pointing out some of the larger systemic issues at play.

  3. John Appel:

    As someone whose novellas are published by Subterranean Press (including one this year!), I can certainly sympathize with this point. I think it’s correct that TorDotCom has a substantial advantage in reach.

    What I am surprised about is that more of the SF imprints associated with the “Big Five” don’t have similar novella programs. They may do one-offs, but I don’t see any real commitment to the market. I could be wrong here but I don’t think I am.

  4. Well-considered, persuasive, and illuminating. Thank you! (Nice use of “flounced,” by the way.)

  5. John:

    Your point about the other Big N publishers (and some of the second-tier publishers) not having similar novella programs is a good one. I suspect that’s got more to do with the corporate leadership and the constraints they put on the knowledgable folks in those houses. No inside knowledge here, just my years working for big companies and the people who run them, and a little tea-leaf reading. MacMillan, despite being a corporate behemoth with all the accompanying ills, has so far been smart enough to listen when the folks at Tor identify opportunities.

  6. One thing I’ve noticed in the last several years is that a larger percentage of the finalists are fantasy versus science fiction — a genre which is historically been more open to women writers.

    Funny enough, I (a white, cis, bi woman) actually prefer the kind of novels that are more traditionally “hard” sci fi (and of course the irreverence of Scalzi!), but I find it hard to believe there’s a large conspiracy — more like tastes change and evolve, and I’m sure that in 5 years the Hugo zeitgeist will be different from today!

  7. You wrote “straight, white and (predominately but not exclusively) male”. I would change that to “white and (predominantly but not exclusively) straight and male”. I doubt that there were fewer LBGTQ+ people in that group than in the general population; they just were closeted, as were most non-straight people in those times.

  8. I have to agree 100% with the observation that world conditions play a large role in what gets read. I’m a middle-aged white cishet married lady, but I work in voting rights and have a transgender adult son who has many LGBT friends that I love dearly. My brother killed himself in 2014, we all know what’s happened since 2016, and we live in Texas so you can imagine what’s been happening close to home lately.

    I’m also a Hugo voter, and since 2016 I don’t think I’ve nominated more than a handful of subgenres because my reading has just been so much more avoidant of subgenres that hit too close to home.

    I cannot, for example, currently read near-future post-apocalypse stories that aren’t funny, or hard sci-fi that’s not significantly utopian. There are several authors I typically love but whose works I’ve been avoiding, two of whom are personal friends, because they write genres and topics that are too close to home.

    I also am less likely to seek out authors I’ve never heard of, because I don’t know whether I can trust them to not throw something truly horrible at me when I’m not expecting it. In those cases, I typically wait for my husband (also a Hugo voter and less traumatized by the world in the same specific ways that I am) to finish and let me know if he thinks I’d hate it or not. It’s nice to have my own personal trigger warnings, but I imagine many people don’t have that.

    As a side note, I was extremely pleased to see Kaiju Preservation Society make the shortlist. I’ve recommended it to several friends who are similarly looking for things that aren’t frivolous but also won’t make them curl up in a ball and sob for six hours. So thanks for writing what, and the way, that you do.

  9. I want to verify point #1, as a bookseller. Tor, and tordotcom, Nightfire–and already Bramble!–make the vast majority of their titles broadly accessible to us as digital ARCs, so we’re primed to talk these up to our regulars sometimes months in advance. This is likely one of the reasons buyers in general have a high level of trust in the quality coming from these imprints, so the availability at your local bookshop is just going to be better than other publishers, even among the Big Five. Orbit does a credible job with this too, but Macmillan’s genre imprints have really stood out over the last decade or so as everyone switches from print to digital ARCs.

  10. Well done, Minion Scalzi. The cabal is pleased with your maskirovka. You’ve been put up for team leader for flouncification in Glagow. (Stross couldn’t put in the prework.) Are you interested?

  11. I do think there was an effect created by the puppy problem, as you alluded to. Yes, it meant some people in that camp dropped out of the Hugo voting process. I do think many who started voting to counter their efforts did stay and have continued to nominate and vote, but may not as many as some think.

    I know that many consider Tor (and especially TorDotCom) to be the SJW publisher of choice. It’s naive to think that in today’s business climate, a publisher would forge through with an agenda to purposefully put out more diverse material because it fit their collective beliefs. No, the Macmillan groups are hard-nosed publishing folks and realize that their books have to sell well if they’re staying in business. The reason they publish so many is BECAUSE THEY SELL! The market is different than what it was in the 70’s and 80’s. Just as the country is more diverse and open-minded now, so is publishing. Market forces are pushing to more diversity (Adam Smith’s “invisible hand” is now a rainbow grin).

    You’re spot-on about TorDotCom having a marketing advantage. Their webpage is an extremely popular spot online that is constantly checked, giving them an incredible marketing edge. They built up a name for themselves with their novellas, so that people began actively looking for whats new from TorDotCom. They developed an extensive mailing list that can be used for marketing. And that’s not to ignore the fact they have some damned good editors and a savvy publisher that has guided them.

  12. I would like to provide a gold star to the person who commented on your Point Three, Paragraph Three item, “Also, they wrote bad books.”

  13. What the data is telling me is that I need to look harder for novellas. It’s easy to find the Tor ones- I’m a reader, so am easily advertised to. I get the online magazines, but they do tend to stack up. It’s easier to remember/nominate/vote for the novella ebook I purchased than to remember the one from SH/Uncanny/et al.

    The ongoing death of Twitter means seeing fewer reviews and recommendations od books that haven’t crossed my radar.

  14. The Big Three ran on Silent, Boomer and Elder GenX writers, and the market forces for the genre those writers came up in was heavily cis and white and male.

    And the way that the editorship leaned in response to that, from maybe about 1980 onwards, catered to a specific slice of the cis white male demographic, namely those who might want and be able to get a security clearance. The conservative turn in worldview was a reason I gave up on the magazines, even before the Internet.

  15. My only quibble is with lumping Asimov’s in with the other of the “Big 3” in publishing primarily (to paraphrase) “old white dudes”. It very well may have started off that way but that started to change in ’81 or thereabouts when Shawna McCarthy took over much of the editing duties (well before she was officially named Editor).

    By the current standards it was probably weak sauce, but for the early ’80s in “Reagan’s America” they were practically pinko liberals.

    Of course, that’s entirely from my memory and I have no “inside baseball” perspective so I could be entirely off base.

  16. Another factor may be cost. When I first subscribed to Fantasy & Science Fiction in high school, an annual subscription was $3 (I’m old). Today it’s $39.97/year. But I can visit or some other sites and read stories for free.

  17. Lively discussion board at Tor as well, in all the various genres, from Star Trek to comic book movies. Gotta be a decent aid in marketing (akin to having a well read blog for an individual author). Not necessary (or sufficient), but definitely doesn’t hurt.

  18. Novella publishers of which I am aware:

    Aqueduct Press
    Blind Eye Books
    Book View Cafe
    Crystal Lake
    Innsmouth Free Press
    Luna Press Publishing
    Meerkat Press
    Neon Hemlock
    NewCon Press
    Nine Star Press
    Paper Road Press
    Prime Books
    PS Publishing
    Queen of Swords
    Small Beer Press
    Solaris Satellites
    Twelfth Planet Press

  19. Lifetime F&SF subscriber here, since Sept 1977.

    (I think the $100 that I paid turned out to be a pretty good deal.)

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