“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)
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.
“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.”
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
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.“