Hugo Awards: A History of Recommendation Lists

Tuesday , 14, April 2015 15 Comments

“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 at 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?

~Frank Wu, December, 2005 at the now-defunct trufen.net (emphasis added)

 

 

Frank Wu’s Venn Diagrams Showing the Overlap Between Best Novel Hugo Award Recommendation Lists, Nominees, and Winners from 2001-2005. Out of 28 total finalists, only one came from outside of the two recommendation lists, and a majority of the nominees came from both lists.

Recommendation Lists

George R.R. Martin provides a nice recap of the open secret of campaigns, recommendation lists and the like:

“In 1987, members of the Church of Scientology campaigned successfully to place L. Ron Hubbard’s BLACK GENESIS on the Best Novel ballot. That was not disallowed — the Scientologists had done nothing illegal, after all, all they’d done is buy supporting memberships to a convention that they had no intention of attending, for the sole purpose of nominating LRH for a Hugo (hmmm, why does that tactic sound familiar?) — but their campaign created a huge backlash. Hubbard’s name was booed lustily at the Hugo ceremony in Brighton, and his book finished last in the final balloting, behind No Award. (The winner that year was Orson Scott Card, with SPEAKER FOR THE DEAD, for those who are counting).”

Orson Scott Card, incidentally, has also been acknowledged by insiders as being something of a campaigner for his landmark works. So if tactics alone (i.e. campaigning) didn’t single out the Hubbard fans to be booed, perhaps there is something of a unwritten dismissal by attendees of Worldcon of those with “mere” supporting, non-attending memberships. Card was on site for his campaigning. Hubbard fans, apparently, for the most part, were not.

Frank Wu’s Short Fiction Overlap Diagram. In this case, the vast majority of winners and nominees came from one or both recommendation blocs.

Martin continues:

“Of course, there were also recommended reading lists. That wasn’t campaigning, not strictly, but certain lists could have huge influence on the final ballot. The annual LOCUS Recommended Reading List, compiled by Charles Brown and his staff and reviewers, was the most influential. If your book or story made that list… well, it did not guarantee you a place on the ballot, but it sure improved your chances. NESFA (the New England fan club) had an annual list as well, and LASFS might have done the same, not sure. And of course the Nebulas, which came before the Hugos, carried a lot of weight too. Win a Nebula, and the chances were good that you’d be a Hugo nominee as well. Again, no guarantee, some years the shortlists diverged sharply… but more often than not, there was a lot of overlap.
 
So there were always these factors in play. Cliques, I can hear the Sad Puppies saying. Yeah, maybe. Thing is, they were COMPETING cliques. The NESFA list and the Nebula list were not the same, and the LOCUS list… the LOCUS list was always very long. Five spots on the Hugo ballot, and LOCUS would recommend twenty books, or thirty… sometimes more, when they started putting SF and fantasy in separate categories.
 
Bottom line, lots of people influenced the Hugos (or tried to), but no one ever successfully controlled the Hugos.”

Control, Not Influence

Frank Wu’s analysis of the awards from 2001-2005 suggests otherwise: that not only was there tremendous overlap in the “competing” lists, but that the appearance of diversity was, in fact, an important element of bloc-list unity. Some of the discrepancy between Wu and Martin is in interpretation: where Martin sees an issue of an individual body exerting “control” over the process, and the evidence of “independent” bodies diffusing that control, Wu boils it down to the practicalities: a clear harmony of recommendations by influencers effectively guides the Hugos.

In other words, with the exception of a single book out of 28, if your novel wasn’t on a campaign list…you simply weren’t nominated, and sure as shooting were not going to win. The recommendation blocs didn’t guarantee individuals made it to the final ballot, they guaranteed that outsiders were left off.

The short story category indicates a somewhat lesser – but still considerable – influence by the two recommended lists. Notably Wu identifies a Hugo winner from 2005 as an aberration – Mike Resnick’s “Travels with My Cat” – in that it did not come from one of the two identified campaigning bodies and was voted “most overrated” in a poll of trufans. My guess is that the lion’s share of those not on either of the two identified lists came from the third one that Martin indicates: the LOCUS recommendation list.

“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.” – Frank Wu

How Much for Just the Rocket?

SMOF Kevin Standlee endorsed Wu’s more in-depth analysis at the time. Standlee has been involved with fandom, the awards and Worldcon business meetings for a very long time, and is in good position to know. In 2009, he commented on the ability of someone to outright buy a Hugo Award for himself:

“Note that membership in the Worldcon only includes nominating rights for the following year, not rights on the following year’s final ballot.nnEven assuming you could buy enough votes to make the ballot, there’s a very good chance that the presence of a work that seems obviously out of place would generate a lot more “buzz” around the voting and lead people to vote who are eligible but don’t often do so, which would significantly increase the cost of buying the final award. There are hints that this sort of thing has happened in the past.”

A point upon which longtime Tor editor Patrick Nielsen-Hayden elaborated:

“It’s been tried on more than one occasion, and the people that run the Hugos have sensibly intervened to keep such schemes from working. The system works pretty well to spot and neutralize behavior in bad faith.”

Wu, Hayden, and Martin all indicate that there are informal processes (rec list monitors, system neutralization, and booing, respectively) in place to punish any who might attempt to take undue advantage of perceived loopholes. In fact, it appears as if Martin’s primary objection is that the upstart successful and open campaign lists of 2015 did not recommend nearly enough candidates this year.

Which begs the question: if campaigns and rec lists and membership drives are nothing new, and mechanisms are in place to prevent abuse, what is there left to do but celebrate what promises to be the highest participation in Hugo Award voting history?

Or, in the more succinct words of 9-time Hugo nominee and NY Times Bestseller John Scalzi, “No, The Hugo Nominations Were Not Rigged.

15 Comments
  • beerme says:

    Is there an award for internet necromancy?

  • Daniel says:

    Thank you. Necromancy, Daemon Summoning…we’ve got it all running in the background, so to speak. The key to internet superintelligence is intelligence.

  • Tintinaus says:

    Martin is right. If either of the puppy slates had put together a recommended reading list, we probably wouldn’t be having this discussion. Look at the figures you put up for Emerald City and NESFA. Over 5 years they recommended a total of 244 novels and ~450 shorter works. That is 49 books and 90 shorts per year.

    These numbers compare pretty well with the group sourced long lists that Brad said he worked off(35-40 from memory). We didn’t get that list though, we got 5 selections.

    The reading lists suggested close to 10 books per nominating slot, Brad 1. I hope you can see the difference.

    • Daniel says:

      Yes. The difference is that this year’s strongest rec lists did not swamp the boat. That may be something they consider for next year though, I have no idea.

  • Craig says:

    To answer the question you raise (not “beg”, please) at the end, the one thing that remains to do is ask Kate Paulk nicely to provide a slate of suggestions with more than 5 entries per category.

    You could even try it with Vox Day: I’m not sure there’s enough of a track record for polite requests to tell how he’d react.

    I am not sure if anyone has actually done that: they mostly seem to prefer shouting but there are one or two positioning themselves as reasonable voices.

  • Steve Simmons says:

    I don’t think the Venn diagram proves what you think it does. EC listed 152 books, NESFA listed 143. The overlap of the two was only 51 books, meaning that overall the two lists recommended 295 books – almost 60 per year. If both groups have even a modicum on taste, it’s highly likely that the best five books (by Hugo voter tastes) are on one or both lists. Heck, let Joe Average SF reader pick his top 60 books for a year, and he’ll probably do just as good as NESFA and EC. I don’t think anything is proven here w/r/t self-promotion; heck, I don’t think there’s even a reason to infer it.

    • Daniel says:

      You don’t have to speculate: Joe Average SF reader picked his top books this year and not only do his selections not match the traditional recommended slates, but he has done better than NESFA and EC in doing so. This year’s novels are the highest rated ones in recent history (at least 30 years).

      I’m fairly certain the various recommendation bodies can develop lists next year consisting of 25 recommendations, but my question is this: are there Hugo guidelines for the correct number of recommended works that should appear on a slate? Is recommending 3 too few? 75 too many? How do you arrive at that figure?

    • Tintinaus says:

      I would add that the only way to see the numbers fairly would be to add an extra circle that shows the number of Hugo nominations that weren’t on the lists promoted by Emerald City and NESFA. The diagrams as they are are compaeing apples and oranges.

      I am assuming that if someone nominated a title they also liked it enough to at least recommend it to their friends, so these would be “Human” suggestions not ones from the hidden robot/supernatural overlords who control EC and NESFA.

      • Daniel says:

        Huh? I don’t think you understand the diagrams, which have been endorsed by Worldcon insiders. Go look at Frank Wu’s analysis of his own research (link above).

        I have no idea what you are talking about regarding “Human” suggestions. Humans was the only novel nominee that was not endorsed by the two rec lists under consideration.

  • Daniel says:

    Here’s the smoking gun. Compare the above Venn Diagram 1. to this one:

    Some Sad Puppy Analysis

    2015 was more inclusive, with less list control than the previous "lock-out" approach of 2001-2005. In five years only one novel nominee was allowed to compete that was not on the rec lists. That’s 3% of nominees.

    This year, two out of five did not appear on the rec lists. That’s 40%.

  • Daniel says:

    And you know what? I was counting Correia in the above figure. 3 out of the 5 did not appear.

    A majority (60%) of current nominees were not on the two dominant rec lists. (For the graphically or numerically impaired, that means that the empty red circle above in 2001-2005 would now have a majority of the little black nominee blocks in it, instead of nearly none.)

  • Richatrd Brandt says:

    Oh, right. All the nominees this year were on one guy’s recommendation list. That’s much more inclusive.

  • Daniel says:

    The exact same thing is true for 2002. All the nominees that year were on one guy’s recommendation list: George Flynn’s.

  • Jo Phan says:

    This diagram is not even a damp squib let alone a smoking gun proving that specific slates have existed in the past or that a secret cabal has controlled the nomination ballot:

    * These lists provide a large number of recommendations every year vs the allowed number of nominations

    * They are long lists rather than a specific Hugo ballot slate with all categories listed with only the allowed number of nominations in each category

    * These lists do not tell people specifically to vote for these works but merely present recommendations of the best work of the year

    * The NESFA Recommended Reading list is a collection of the recommendations of several people (including George Flynn but not limited to him) with their initials next to their recommendations – although George Flynn contributed to it, he didn’t present his own list, or obviously tell people to vote for his recommendations

    * The blindingly obvious fact that these would be pretty awful yearly recommended reading lists if some of the works they contained *didn’t* make the Hugo ballot.

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