Hugo complaining as a spectator sport

Every year, the Hugo award nominees are announced, and every year we get to have the additional enjoyment of reading the traditional complaints about the Hugos.

(We also get to watch Kevin S and others who've actually been involved in the process try to clear up the same misunderstandings that always come up. Kevin does a valiant job at this; I'm impressed that he hasn't gotten tired of it yet.)

Anyway, here are some of those traditional complaints, and my responses to them, in most cases bolstered by things I've picked up from reading Kevin's responses to them over the years. As you will see, I don't mean to ridicule these complaints; in fact, I agree with some of them. The main point of this post is that the reason those works and people are on the ballot is that those are the works and people that the nominators nominated.

The works I like aren't on the ballot!
That's because not enough people nominated them.
The cabal that decides on the Hugos picked the wrong things!
There is no cabal. All attending and supporting members of the previous Worldcon and the next Worldcon are eligible to nominate. Generally, significantly less than 10% of eligible nominators actually participate in the nomination process. If more people participated, the results would be more representative of members' tastes--although they still might not be to your liking.
It's impossible to get the work I like on the ballot!
Although it's true that bloc voting is heavily frowned upon, there are several websites that let people provide lists of recommended works. In 2007, one of the best places for recommendations was the hugo_recommend LiveJournal community. I was sad that I didn't discover this 'til shortly before nominations were due, but that's because I wasn't paying attention; it was widely linked-to. Even the official Hugo page on this year's Worldcon site linked to that LJ community. Next year, I hope to read and post to that community well before nomination time. Even encountering it at the last minute, I found it a very useful resource.
There are works of fantasy on the ballot, and there shouldn't be!
The official Hugo rules say this: "3.3.1: Best Novel. A science fiction or fantasy story of forty thousand (40,000) words or more." (Emphasis mine.) Similarly with all the other fiction categories. Fantasy has always been eligible for the Hugo.
The categories are bad!
Changing the categories is possible, but it's very difficult, and you have to be pretty dedicated. The general idea is that you have to propose an amendment to the WSFS Constitution, which takes organization, persistence, and persuasiveness. It's particularly hard to do if you're not willing to take the time to learn about and participate in WSFS culture.
There aren't enough women on the ballot, especially in the fiction categories!
I totally agree. (And this year is even worse than usual in that regard. More on this later.) And the main reason there aren't enough women on the ballot is that not enough of the nominators nominated women and works by women. And one way to improve the situation is for more people to nominate works by women. (I'll add some other ways in a forthcoming entry.) There are a lot of ways to help address this issue, and it's a complicated and deep-rooted issue. But one of the easiest ways to help address it is to nominate and recommend more works by women.
(Special bonus complaint for this year.) The people who run the award didn't put any works by Japanese people on the ballot!
The people who run the award don't determine what goes on the ballot; the nominators do. I agree that it's unfortunate that more nominators don't nominate works published outside the US. Sadly, I'm part of the problem: like most Americans, I'm almost completely ignorant about Japanese science fiction. We don't know yet (and may never know) how many Japanese Worldcon members nominated this year, and we don't know (and will probably never know) how many of them nominated works by Japanese people. But it's clear that not enough nominators nominated works by Japanese people, or those works would appear on the ballot. As with the previous point, there are many ways to help address this general issue, but the simplest and most straightforward is for more people to nominate more non-American works, regardless of where a given Worldcon's being held.
Nominating costs too much!
I have some sympathy for this; paying $50 for a supporting membership simply for the right to nominate and vote in the Hugos (plus get some paper Progress Reports mailed to you) does seem like a lot of money. On the other hand, having a financial barrier to entry does help reduce the likelihood of casual cheating. And I don't think I see a better way to do it; allowing anyone and everyone to vote for free comes with its own problems. Under the current system, it's the people who care most about it who do the nominating--though it's also the people who can afford to, which brings up all sorts of difficult issues about class and wealth and such.
Not enough people are involved!
I'm entirely in agreement with this. I'm always distressed that only a few hundred people nominate, and only a few hundred more vote on the final award. It's true that there are (financial) barriers preventing many people from voting; but it's also true that only a small fraction of eligible voters actually do participate. (And the eligible voters have already paid for memberships, so this isn't a financial issue.) I would love to see more participation, but aside from my annual haranguing people to participate, I'm not sure what to do to improve things.

20 Responses to “Hugo complaining as a spectator sport”

  1. Anonymous

    I wonder if offering a sliding-scale option for supporting memberships is a possibility; whenever I’ve done so, only a few people (perhaps 1% of any given group) have taken advantage of the option. Most folks I think have to have real financial hardship in order to request sliding-scale discounts.

    Offering a standard ‘student/senior’ rate is another way in, since that it less embarrassing for those requesting it, and acknowledges the tougher financial circumstances those folks are often in.

    Usually I do both, in fact, with the organizations and events I run.

  2. Mary Anne Mohanraj

    Sigh. That was me above. Sleepy.

  3. Wendy Shaffer

    Every year, I tell myself I’m going to participate in the Hugo nominations process, and every year I don’t. The major reason is that I don’t feel knowledgeable enough about the current state of the field. I’m a year or two behind in my novel reading- just as an illustration, I’m currently reading Neil Gaiman’s Anansi Boys (too late to nominate it for this year, if I wanted to) and Joe Haldeman’s Camouflage (much too late to nominate it for 2006, which is when it would have been eligible). I’m even farther behind on short fiction. Of the works on the ballot for this year, I’m ashamed to admit that I’ve read *none* of the fiction nominees, seen one of the Dramatic Presentation – Long Form nominees (Pirates of the Caribbean 2), and two of the Dramatic Presentation – Short Form nominees (“School Reunion” and “Girl in the Fireplace”, both of which I saw only after the window for nominations was closed.)

    It’s possible to argue that I’m unusually out of it, or that I ought to make a greater effort to keep up with the current state of the field, but I suspect that there are a lot of potential Hugo nominators/voters who are in my position – we’re reasonably well-read, and certainly not lacking in opinions as to what’s good, but we’ve read such a small fraction of the eligible works for a given year that participating in the nomination process seems silly.

    I don’t really have a solution – just offering my perspective on why the percentage of eligible voters who actually get involved is so small.

  4. Cheryl

    This is one of the great misconceptions about the Hugos. Firstly, you don’t have to be an expert in the field to vote. Anyone with the appropriate membership can vote, even if it is only for one item in one category. And secondly, no one, not even John Clute or Gary Wolfe or Charles Brown, reads everything. No one is the sort of expert in the field that people who use the “I haven’t read enough” excuse seem to think is required.

    The system is really quite simple. No one can possibly have read everything, seen everything, and so on, so nominators are asked to list what they have read and liked. And if a sufficiently large and diverse number of people do so, then the end result will be reflective of the views of the community. When the system doesn’t work it is because far too many people disqualify themselves from participating because of incorrect assumptions about their eligibility to participate.

  5. Jed

    M: I like the idea of providing some kind of discounted membership (especially supporting membership) to those who need it; among other things, that approach nicely sidesteps all sorts of hassles that could come up if supporting membership rates across the board were very low or free. I wonder if Worldcon committees have ever tried a reduced-rate option for people who can’t afford the full amount.

    Wendy: I sympathize with the case where I haven’t read anything in a given category from the year in question; for example, I almost never read novels in the year when they come out, so I almost never nominate in the novel category. But in categories where you have read (or seen, or whatever) some items in the category, I agree with Cheryl that there’s nothing at all wrong with nominating the things you’ve liked, even if you haven’t encountered very many works in that category. As Cheryl noted, the system works by aggregation; the more data it gets, the better.

    There’s another piece to this, which is that there are several sites that provide lists of recommended works before nominations are due. I strongly recommend visiting those sites (especially the hugo_recommend LJ community), say a month before noms are due, and seeing what people have recommended; if any of it looks especially interesting, then go read it or watch it or whatever and see if you like it. Similarly, if there’s something that you particularly like, you can post to the recommendation lists to give other people a chance to take a look and see if they like it too.

    Cheryl: The only thing I would add is that I do see a distinction between nominating and voting. During the nomination phase, I totally agree that eligible nominators should nominate whatever they consider good, without trying to decide whether it’s the best of the field. During the voting phase, though, I personally almost never vote in categories where I’m not familiar with at least three or four of the nominees. But it’s much easier to familiarize yourself with the limited set of nominees than with the entire field. I don’t vote in the novel category ’cause I’ve rarely read any of them in time to vote, but for most other categories it doesn’t take too long to catch up on anything I’ve missed.

    (Well, okay, I would also add a tiny nitpick: Rich Horton does in fact read essentially all the short fiction published in sf venues every year; and other Year’s Best editors read quite a lot of it. So there are a few people who have seen “enough” of the short fiction to know what the whole field is like. But there are no more than a dozen or so such people, so this doesn’t actually contradict your point.)

  6. Kevin Standlee

    I wonder if Worldcon committees have ever tried a reduced-rate option for people who can’t afford the full amount.

    Nobody has tried it that I’m aware of. The questions I have are:

    1. Who qualifies as “can’t afford it?” This isn’t one where I’d say, “If I say so,” because then of course everyone will say so.

    2. How do you enforce an income-based requirement?

    I’ve suggested that Worldcons introduce a online-Hugo-voting-only sub-supporting membership costing, say, $10. No other voting rights (site selection). No publications: you get a postcard with your voting PIN, and you have to either vote online or download a paper ballot yourself. Nothing else. This keeps the administrative cost down low enough that the Worldcon wouldn’t lose money doing it. The response from SMOFdom has been tepid if not exactly hostile. Not everyone hates the idea; it’s just more work for already overworked Worldcon committees to manage.

    But you know what? I doubt it would actually significantly increase participation. I think that most of the people who complain about paying don’t think that they should pay anything; moreover, they don’t even notice that the Hugo nominating process is going on until they hear the nominations, and then they start griping about how “They” didn’t do the right thing.

    Yes, I’m a tad cynical about this. It doesn’t mean I won’t keep trying to persuade people to get involved; it means that I know that you have to sift a lot of gravel to find a few gold nuggets.

  7. Wendy Shaffer

    Cheryl, thank you. You completely convinced me that I’ve been missing the point. (How often do you hear that on the internet?)

    I’ll vote this year. And nominate next year.

  8. Cheryl

    Wendy – someone is agreeing with me in an online discussion??? This isn’t an April fool joke, by any chance?

    No, seriously, I’m delighted. I’ve made the same point before to other people and as far as I can recall you are the first person to agree with it.

    Jed, of course, is right about voting being different from nominating. I was just trying to keep the post short.

    And if you want a short version of the argument, it is that in any popular vote award people who decline to vote on the grounds that they are not qualified to do so are effectively ceding control of the results to others with no more qualifications but fewer moral scruples. The whole point of popular voting is that everyone is qualified to have a say.

  9. Jed

    Kevin: I think what Mary Anne is saying is that, in her experience, people don’t lie about not being able to afford something, possibly partly because there’s some stigma attached to not being able to afford something. I don’t personally have any evidence either way, but there are a fair number of contexts in which sliding-scale approaches to cost seem to work pretty well. But I don’t know whether voting on an award is one of those contexts or not.

    I like your idea of a low-cost voting-only membership. I don’t actually need any of the other things that supporting membership gets me–I’d just as soon not receive progress reports, because I never get around to reading them, and I never remember about site selection until it’s too late. I suspect plenty of other people would feel the same way. It’s true that there are some who don’t want to have to pay at all, but I bet there are a bunch of people who would consider $10 a reasonable fee for voting (who don’t feel that way about a $50 fee). (Though there would certainly be questions like “Why should it even cost $10 if a volunteer is doing the tabulating?”) I agree that it probably wouldn’t increase participation by a lot, but I suspect it would increase it some. But yeah, the fact that 80-90% of the people who can already nominate for free (as part of a membership they’ve already bought) don’t do so suggests that cost is not the biggest barrier.

    I would also worry a little bit that $10 to vote is a small enough amount to make people start thinking seriously about stuffing the ballot box. But I would hate to keep costs high solely in order to prevent fraud. I guess your idea of sending the PIN via papermail postcard would help make it harder to steal the vote.

    Anyway, if at some point there turns out to be support for your idea, and if there’s anything I can do to help implement it, let me know.

  10. Gwenda

    I remember being shocked in Glasgow to see how few of the people who are already eligible to vote (members) actually do so. I have absolutely no idea how you would go about increasing that percentage, but it seems like something to look at as well. I find it incredibly depressing that more people who are invested enough in SF to attend WorldCon aren’t interested enough in the Hugos to bother voting.

  11. Mike Glyer

    I don’t want worldcons to create cheap Hugo voting memberships. That will undermine both the worldcon and the award.

    Ask yourself why anyone wants to vote in the Hugos in particular? There are plenty of free online science fiction polls, there are sf/fantasy conventions that are bigger than the worldcon which give their own awards, there are even other sf/fantasy awards that have writers/artists/etc. involved in the selection. I suspect people are attracted to the Hugos because they are first attracted by the community that values the Hugos. Active fans who write in all media and like to meet at the world science fiction convention. The professional writers and artists who gather there. The people who help put on this all-volunteer convention.

    Access to join this community is available to anyone who considers it worthwhile to buy a membership and help defray the costs of holding the convention. The only filter at work is that people are more likely to pay for a membership if they will be able to invest their time and effort in going to the convention at some point. (Supporting members are also eligible to buy site selection memberships and vote where to hold future worldcons). I think this makes a collectively better population of voters. (And so help me if this doesn’t sound like the answer to a History and Moral Philosphy quiz.)

    Also, the cost of memberships with voting rights has long been a useful barrier to voting fraud. To piece out the voting right at a discount is asking for trouble, all the more so to allow Hugo voting at no charge on the internet.

  12. Cheryl

    Gwenda: we all wish we had a solution to that one. But the majority of non-voting members I have talked to have given me excuses along the lines of the one I talked Wendy out of above. The only major exceptions are with non-US Worldcons where I get variations of “It is an American award, nothing to do with me” and “There’s no point in voting because the Americans always win.”

    Mike: With you all the way on preventing voter fraud, but there are reasons why I don’t want Hugo voting tied so closely to Worldcon membership.

    Firstly I don’t think that the right to vote should be closely entangled with willingness to attend a convention. I know you don’t have to actually attend, but people do get the impression that voting is something you only do if you are a regular Worldcon attendee. I’d love to see people in Brazil and South Africa and Japan voting regularly. And I suspect that having more people voting would lead to more Worldcon attendance, rather than the other way around.

    Secondly the whole system of supporting memberships is way too closely tied into the production of progress reports (which people don’t seem to want any more) and to the minimum price that Worldcons can charge for memberships once seated. Consequently the cost of voting is much higher than it needs to be. (I’ll leave Kevin to explain how this works if anyone wants to know.)

    Finally, because voting has very little cost to the convention, I think that having a cheaper voting membership that lots of people bought would actually be more of a financial benefit to the convention than the current system.

  13. Mike Glyer

    Cheryl: The value of the Hugos is that a worldcon-focused community gives the award. People who want to fiddle the Hugo voting rights to let everybody with an opinion participate doubtless do so because they want to identify with and vicariously participate in that community. Well, it’s very easy to participate in that community in a genuine way, and far more meaningful. I appreciate how often you try to explain the realities to people.

    Once you rip the Hugo award name from the Worldcon what defines the community of voters? It just becomes another at-no-charge click-your-Javascript-voting-button-now poll of web readers. And then what will be the significance of the award having the Hugo name? None that I can see.

    You draw the picture to look as if your idea democratically adds voters, but they have that right already, they are welcome to add themselves to the Hugo voting roll on the same terms as the existing voter community. Equality is available now.

    As for your economic arguments, well, I think they’re just specious. If there really is an online community of people who will pay $5 to express an opinion about written sf, then you’ve found your next career.

  14. Cheryl

    Mike: I think you’ve pretty much summed up why I’m so disillusioned with the Hugos and with fandom. I don’t have exact figures to hand, but there are roughly 1000 people who attend Worldcon regularly and a much larger group who attend only when Worldcon is close to them (a different 2-4000 people each year). Right now it looks like only the regulars ever bother to vote. And yet the occasional attendees clearly have some interest in Worldcon and the Hugos. I’d like to see us try to encourage them to participate more. If we won’t, well, next time someone tells me that I don’t deserve to have won a Hugo because I’m part of a SMOFish clique that restricts voting by keeping the cost artificially high, I’ll just have to put my hand up and say, “Guilty as charged.”

    I note also that you’ve been rather disingenuous. I didn’t suggest any specific price for voting membership other than that is should be less than we currently charge. Kevin suggested $10. In your last post you have various suggested that I want voting membership to be free (“no charge”) or $5. Given that I started out by saying that I supported the need to prevent voter fraud, I think that’s a pretty cheap shot.

  15. Mike Glyer

    I see Hugo voting as one of many ways to participate in the worldcon. You seem to feel Hugo votes are a scarce commodity being unjustly hoarded by evile smofs. You have not explained why you come down on the commodity instead of the community side of the debate.

    If the amount matters, then why don’t you name a figure? It’s implicit in your argument that you are advocating a figure between zero and the current cost of $40. I just hadn’t forgotten that this is the internet, where so many complain if things aren’t free regardless of their ability to pay.

    Lastly, I had anticipated you arguing there is no relationship between the cost of supporting membership and the prevention of voter fraud. You may yet, so I concede the point in advance. My thought was that $40 is enough to deter fraud under the current method of enrolling voters with its low ID-authentification requirements (assuming you buy a supporting membership anytime after site selection is over; they’re a bit more demanding beforehand). But you could defer fraud, more effectively, by requiring verifiable ID information. And in such a system, the level of expense for a supporting membership ceases to be relevant.

  16. Kevin Standlee


    As I’m sure you’re aware, I’m one of those people who has been unhappy about the cost of a Worldcon going up at 2x the cost of inflation relative to my first Worldcon, that being the 1984 one in Anaheim where the at-the-door cost was $75. I feel the same way about supporting memberships. In fact, I think the main reason that supporting memberships have increased in price so much is becuase they are the baseline for attending memberships. I’ve done some analysis and have worked out that the marginal cost of a supporting membership is actually a fair bit lower than “common wisdom” seems to have put it.

    It’s “common knowledge” that Worldcons lose money on supporting memberships. But if you actually cost out the variable expenses, you should find that the variable cost of a membership — publications and postage mainly, plus a membership badge if you choose to issue one to the supporting members, which not all Worldcons have done — is a lot less than $40. Depending on your exact costs, it’s less than $20.

    (Yes, you can find outliers. I’m not talking about the expense of servicing that one member in Kuala Lumpur; I’m talking about average variable cost per member, not including overhead, fixed-cost items.)

    So a Worldcon could offer supporting memberships for as little as $20 and still not “lose money” on them. I’d rather have more supporting members paying less per person and resulting in roughly the same contribution to overhead that the current pool pays.

    I don’t think Cheryl wants membership to be free. I would object to it myself. I’d set $10 as the floor value, and $20 as more likely to sift out people who are actually interested in a one-year membership to WSFS at a minimal level.

  17. Kevin Standlee

    Looking back on my earlier comments, I don’t think I made it clear that WSFS (that is, the WSFS Business Meeting) does not have to authorize Worldcons to sell lower-cost Hugo-voting-only memberships. Worldcons are already authorized to sell other classifications of membership than Attending and Supporting memberships. Supporting membership are supposed to get everything that Attending members get except the right to attend, but there’s no rule against having other membership classifications that have selective rights, such as only Hugo voting or something like that.

    (Forcing committees to sell a less-expensive class of membership would require a change in the WSFS Constitution. Details upon request.)

    As far as I know, no Worldcon has ever offered such “sub-supporting” or “voting only” memberships, but they’re allowed to do so. So I think that people who think such a lower-cost classification would be a good thing might want to work on future Worldcon committees to convince them to try it, or try making it a campaign issue in site selection. The problem with the latter course, however, is that the people who vote already will get voting rights and will be paying more money than this proposed lower-cost voting-only membership.

    I’ve never denied that the current system is biased in favor of maintaining the status quo, but it’s not immune to change, just resistant to it.

  18. Mike Glyer

    Kevin: Your response is somewhat beside my point that the Hugos should be voted on by genuinely participating members of the worldcon, and not just anybody who is willing to vote (and perhaps, willing to pay to vote.

    Supporting worldcon memberships exist for both the benefit of the worldcon “enterprise” and the convenience of the fans who want publications and the right to vote for Hugos and buy Site Selection voting memberships.

    Your economic analysis is not in dispute, and I agree that $40 is more than it costs a worldcon to service supporting members with publications and a copy of the souvenir book.

    It’s really a policy question whether or not supporting memberships should be priced to yield a surplus and fulfill their original purpose to “support” the cost of putting on the worldcon. Some worldcons will be hurt much more than others by a marginal reduction in the price of supporting memberships, but you know how to analyze that as well as anyone.

  19. Jed

    I recently learned that at least one smart and perceptive reader read my entry here as saying “If you didn’t vote, shut up and stop complaining.”

    To clarify, although it’s true that a fair number of people do say things like that (in real-world political elections as well as in this kind of vote), that was not at all my intent with this entry.

    What I meant to say–and certainly should have said more directly and clearly–is this:

    If you don’t like the results, then the best way to improve them in the future is to participate next time.

    Hell, even if you do like the results, the best way to make sure that you’ll keep liking them is to participate next time.

    My goal is to get greater participation in Hugo voting. My impression is that a lot of people see the Hugos as something voted on by Others, and therefore something that the ordinary person has no control over. My response: if you’re willing to pay the entry fee, then you (yes, you personally, not some abstract faceless Other person) have as much say in the results as everyone else who participates. Since not very many people participate, that’s quite a bit of say.

    Remember, it takes only 15 or 20 nominations to get a work or person on the ballot in some categories, and it’s not uncommon for a work or person to miss the ballot by a single vote. Your personal individual nominating vote can have an enormous influence.

    So the core main message of this post was meant to be an encouraging and empowering one: Go out and vote!

    I apologize to anyone who felt I was saying something else.

  20. Mike Glyer

    I’ve come to believe that the “don’t complain if you didn’t vote” type of feedback is a political stance masquerading as a moral stance. Its political thrust is to repress dissent against the status quo by characterizing the speaker as having no right to express a view. The political stance violates the real moral value at issue, which is a person’s responsibility to speak out against immorality and injustice.

    Whether the 2007 Hugo shortlist is either injust or immoral (or fattening) is a matter of opinion that anyone has a right to discuss.

    Of course informed opinion is preferable. So thank you for pointing out that the Hugos are chosen by poular vote and individuals can exert a lot of influence on the results.


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