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Why the Hugo Awards are irrelevant

Allegedly, the Hugo Awards are one of the two most prestigious awards in science fiction and fantasy. Ask any Hugo winner, and I’m sure they’ll regal you with the importance of their little rocket ship trophy. To paraphrase Vice President Biden, it’s a big f-ing deal!

Except that they’re not.

The Hugo Awards are fan awards, voted on by a small group of fans who become members of WorldCon. In most years recently, that’s been fewer than a few thousand.

Supporters of the Hugo Awards as they stand argue that the awards are vital and that the system as it stands isn’t broken in any way. Well, the silly Australian rules voting system is kind of screwed up, but there are bigger problems than that.

The bigger problem is that most fans of science fiction literature don’t even. You see, this so-called “prestigious” award doesn’t actually matter to most readers.

Fun experiment. Go to your local bookstore and hang out in the science fiction section. Ask the people who browse the section about the Hugo Awards. A large number won’t even know what the Hugo’s are, and a number may have heard it but know nothing about it.

And these are the readers.

The truth of the matter is that the Hugo’s, based on their small sample size and failure to reach out to fans who have never heard of them, are irrelevant. However, that’s also not the only reason for their irrelevance.

In theory, a fan award and the bestseller list should have some similar names show up. In science fiction, much of the bestselling books are things like media tie-ins, which never show up in the Hugo nominations lists. In fact, the darlings of the Hugo’s don’t seem to be selling all that well.

Yes, I know the arguments. I know that sales doesn’t equal quality. If it did, Twilight would have swept some awards.

However, there’s a flip side to that. You see, sales may not always equal quality, but it does equal what readers are actually reading. Further, it equals what they’re saying good things about. The Wheel of Time, for an example, sold ridiculously well. When I started reading it, it wasn’t because of a TV commercial or anything else. It was because my friends were reading it and telling me how awesome it was.

No, being on a bestseller list doesn’t mean a given work should win. However, there should be some correlation at the very least. There isn’t.

What’s also interesting is how few people actually vote on the Hugo Awards. Last year, there were reportedly 1,595 ballots for best novel, which received the highest number of ballots. That’s less than 1,600 people deciding what “fandom” loves.

It’s also important to note that this was a banner year for Hugo voters. Prior to the turn of the century, most Hugo’s were decided by less than a thousand votes.

Wow.

As has been mentioned before, many readers of science fiction and fantasy have never even heard of the Hugo Awards. Hell, I’ve been reading the genre for over 25 years, and I only recently heard of them in sufficient quantities to actually understand what they are and my enjoyment of the genre wasn’t in the least bit deficient.

Am I having fun wrong? Some would argue that I am. I really don’t give a damn.

However, the inescapable fact is that the Hugo Awards carry a great deal of prestige that isn’t really warranted in the grand scheme of things. An author who sells only a few thousand copies, but sells them to a devoted fan base, can easily get their newest work nominated while authors who have spent years on the best seller list have not a single nomination to their name simply because their readers just don’t know there’s an award they can nominate this author for.

The Hugo’s aren’t irredeemable, however. The system could use a bit of an overhaul. Of course, I have some suggestions, and no, these aren’t designed so that my kind of books can win either. In fact, I suspect that a lot of my favorite authors won’t actually make it on the ballot this way.

  1. Advertise the Hugo Awards. Paperback books often have ads for other books in the back. Why not have Worldcon advertise the awards in the back. Work out deals with the major publishers like Tor, DAW, Baen, Orbit, and others to run a small ad in the back of the books letting them know that they Hugo’s want their input.
  2. Set a minimum number of votes. If the award is so prestigious, why must it be awarded every year? If there are less than a given number of votes, the award shouldn’t be awarded to anyone. Why should a few hundred people decide who the “best” new author is when the groundbreaking new author may not even be on the ballot?
  3. Create ad copies for indie authors to include at the back of their books. By creating an ad similar to what the big dogs will run, but providing it to indie authors to use in the back of their books will do two things. One, it will keep the Hugo’s front and center in people’s minds as they read. Two, it’ll prevent a new bias from showing up against indie authors.

So, just like that, the Hugo’s can regain relevance. As it stands, their relevance is really just an artifact lost in the minds of some folks.

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8 comments on “Why the Hugo Awards are irrelevant

  1. In days of glories past the Hugo had some cachet. Over the last 15-20 years I think it’s lost some of that with the turn towards Social Justice messages and the scorning of popular works.

    I think there might also be a small problem of dilution, and that in my mind started early on. I don’t really make much distinction between novella and novelette. For me there is Short Story and Novel, and everything in between is a novella. But, we’ve seen the categories increase with TV/Movie nominations for Dramatic Presentation (have any of the Award Winners ever picked theirs up in person?) in both short and long form. We’ve also got Related Works, Graphic Story, Editor (short and long), Artist, Magazine (semipro and fan), Fancast, Fan-writer and Fan Artist. I think a bunch of those could be whittled down, though I would like to see one category added that has all the elements of SF/F but apparently isn’t recognized (Gaming). This increase in categories has really diluted what it means to be an award winner, particularly when only a few hundred people voted.

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    • Some of those new categories makes sense. Some of what they nominate for those categories, not so much. Plus, I think Long Form Dramatic Presentation has been there a while. Long enough for them to nominate a soft core porn movie for a Hugo. (See: http://tlknighton.com/?p=73 for details). At least then the Hugo’s had a sense of humor about itself.

      Back in the early days of the Hugo, the WorldCon crowd mimicked SF readers in general, but in more recent years, they have represented the cliquishness that so many SF fans claim to hate. The outcry over Sad Puppies last year was just the best example. So many of the anti-Sad Puppy blog posts bragged about how they would vote against the slate on principle.

      I’m sorry, but if less than 2,000 people decide what is an award winner, and prominent people in those ranks actively brag that they won’t read certain works by certain authors because silly reasons, then there’s no way there the system is going to thrive. It may not actually be broken necessarily, but it’s worthless as it is.

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      • Personally, I’d combine the Dramatic Presentation categories and move the ‘fan’ stuff into the other categories. With the internet explosion and indie publishing, where do you draw the line between ‘fan’ and ‘professional’? I think most of the other Big Time awards for other media have a similar problem with dilution. Outside of the major categories (Movie, Director, Actor/Actress, etc.) I don’t think most people really care who’s getting an award at the Oscars or Globes.

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  2. I’d say toss the fan awards completely. I find more insightful and qualified work hidden in internet forums and on imageboards than nominated. Furthermore, the categories have been coopted by a series of pros. For instance, why is one of the names on the best fancast for 2013 also a nominee for best novel and best novelette for the same year?

    I also think that video games need their own category as do audiobooks. The audio and visual media of SFF are underrepresented.

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  3. […] at Otherwhere Gazette, I wrote a post recently about how the Hugo Awards are irrelevant. I maintain there that the freakishly small numbers of voters, coupled with how rarely the awards […]

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