Users Guide: Influences
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"Why did that book win when my favorite novel wasn't even nominated!"

Behind every awards ballot is a story, the story of how particular candidates got nominated and how others didn't, the story of why the winners won. Finding this story is an interpretive art much like explaining political elections or the movements of the stock market. Which is to say, the story might be bogus -- the imposition of motives and causes to events more likely determined by purely random influences. Nevertheless, there are numerous motives and causes that affect the awards game that can be identified. They're not unlike the factors that go into awards in other fields of popular arts, such as the Oscars or the Grammys.

These influences help undermine the notion that prizes and awards are in any way objective measures of what is "best". At the same time, they indicate that the determination of prizes and awards is a complex and subtle enterprise, not simply a superficial popularity contest.

Why some win or don't win

  • Awards voters are not the same as general readers; that's why winners of awards are rarely the same books that top bestseller lists. Bestsellers are more likely to appeal to average, relatively unsophisticated tastes; those who bother to nominate and vote for awards tend to have more adventurous, ambitious tastes, and are more likely to reward unusual or distinctive works.
  • Voting methods affect the outcome (obviously), and no voting system is perfect in that it never produces counter-intuitive results. Given the same voters and the same pool of candidates, different voting methods will produce different outcomes. For example, in a system in which each voter casts a single vote for the winner (as in most political elections), two popular candidates might split the vote, allowing a third candidate to emerge as victor. If the same voters ranked all candidates by preference, the two strong candidates would rank first and second, with the third candidate relegated to third place.
  • Something (almost) always wins, even in weak years.
    Historical perspective demonstrates that some years are better than others, whether for movies or books. Yet the process of awards requires one winner every year (the "no award" option rarely being taken), even in weak years. You can tell the weak years by the books and stories that never get reprinted.
  • Only one thing (usually) wins, even in strong years.
    Again, historical perspective reveals occasional strong years, like 1939 for movies, or 1953 for SF novels. Still, the awards process drives toward a single winner each year. That's why there are always "classic" works that never won awards. A recent example for SF was 1992, when three of the arguably strongest novels of the decade were all published in the same year: Connie Willis's Doomsday Book, Vernor Vinge's A Fire Upon the Deep, and Kim Stanley Robinson's Red Mars. (As it happens, the first and second tied for the Hugo; the first and third won Nebulas in different years.)
  • Particular authors go through phases, or cycles, of popularity. Sometimes a writer will be 'hot' for a few years, especially when first discovered, and then will fade from acclaim, even though his work remains of comparable quality; he comes to be taken for granted. (Even an occasional genius artist would suffer award fatigue.) On the other hand, some writers do debut spectacularly, impressing the reading audience with their distinctive style or point of view, and then replay the same notes again and again, satisfying their core fans but wearying general readers.
  • The overdue-award effect. Sometimes a writer will win an award because the voting constituency feels he is (over-)due one. He or she may have been nominated many times before, for example, and never won, for one reason or another; and so eventually the sympathy of the voters will tip the scales in that writer's direction even for a work that might not be as strong as the earlier candidates that lost. (Examples: Walter Jon Williams' and Martha Soukup's Nebula wins.)

    This, combined with the previous items, is the principle reason for the most common observation about the perversity of awards -- that works by an author that have won awards are not necessarily the ones regarded by anyone -- critics, the author's fans, posterity or even by the author him/herself -- as the author's best. This effect is routinely observed not only in the Oscars and Grammys, but in literary prizes like the Booker. And it's one reason that Grand Master awards are given, to make up for such injustices or oversights.
  • The last-chance effect. A popular author has died, and his last work, though perhaps unexceptional in the context of his entire career, is still available for an award, and so voters take the last chance they will ever have to honor this author. Examples: "Gold" by Isaac Asimov (Hugo winner for Best Novelette in 1992), and Richard McKenna's "The Secret Place" (Nebula short story in 1967, which won over Bob Shaw's "Light of Other Days").
  • The welcome-back effect. A once-popular author returns after many years absence (perhaps since before there were many awards) with a new work, and all of the nostalgic pleasure voters feel for that previous work now has an opportunity to be expressed. There were several examples in the early '70s: Theodore Sturgeon's "Slow Sculpture"; Isaac Asimov's The Gods Themselves; Arthur C. Clarke's Rendezvous with Rama.
  • The king-of-the-hill effect. Sometimes there is an obvious favorite in a particular category (especially an ongoing achievement category, like best artist or best magazine) who will win year after year. This creates resentment from competitors and sometimes fatigue from voters, who may come to feel it's time to give the award to someone else, if only for variety. Occasionally a perennial winner will avoid this reaction by withdrawing from future contests; more often not.
  • The small pond effect. The many awards that designate particular subjects, forms, or nominee nationalities have the effect of magnifying the significance of those themes in any larger pool of awards data -- like this Index. In particular, writers who happen to live in Australia or Canada, and to a lesser extent the UK, have an advantage in collecting trophies for their mantle-pieces over mid-range writers who have the disadvantage of being US citizens. The effect is even more pronounced in the larger pool of non-winning nominees.

Why some do get nominated

  • Some authors campaign. They e-mail copies of their stories to potential voters (or in the old days, made photocopies and snail-mail them), ostensibly simply to make sure their works are seen by those who otherwise might not have seen the book or magazine that the story was first published in. Some feel such campaigning is crass self-promotion, but it's become increasingly common (especially with the ease of using e-mail) because it works.
  • Cliques of writer friends, or writers of sympathetic ideological bent, can easily nominate each other in contests where a relatively small number of votes is required to make a final ballot. (Interestingly, SFWA's Nebula awards process allows lists of cumulative recommendations to be distributed throughout the year with each nominator's initials indicated. This might prevent obvious collusion from taking place, but it also allows everyone to know who's voting for whom and who isn't.)
  • It helps be mix with the public. Writers can improve their visibility, and their chances for being nominated for awards like the Hugos, by attending conventions and becoming personally known by fans. It is not entirely a coincidence that the most honored writers of the 1990s are among the most frequent, and popular, convention guests. (Resnick, Willis, Brin.)
  • Similarly, presence on-line (Usenet, CompuServe, GEnie, AOL) can have a salubrious effect on a writer's chances for being remembered at nomination time. (This effect reaches almost perverse proportions in the HOMer awards, made by the members of the Science Fiction forum on CompuServe, whose nominations, though ostensibly open to all, are usually dominated by works by writers who frequent CompuServe.)
  • Constituency vote. Judging from Locus Poll ballots, relatively few nominators for awards with a broad range of categories actually nominate in most categories, or for a wide range of works. Many voters simply nominate the type of books and stories they like and have read that year, whether romance novels, military SF, or by the one writer they always favor. Nominations for such awards therefore are less a consensus of wide-ranging tastes than an overlap of competing constituency voters.
  • Vote by rote. Familiarity with a nominee's previous works can count for a lot. If an award voter hasn't read or seen all the nominated works, the voter may be more likely to vote for a work by a nominee he is previously familiar with from earlier works. This can happen if the voter has read or seen none of the nominated works. The voter knows he likes work by so-and-so, and checks the ballot off automatically.

    This tendency is almost unavoidable in categories for general achievement rather than for specific works--"best artist", "best editor". Do award voters really consider the specific works by artist X that appeared in the eligibility year? Or do they vote for artist X out of a general preference for his work?
  • For many awards, it doesn't take very many votes to end up on the final ballot: fewer than 20 nominations even for many categories of the Hugo Awards, for example. (Even the novel and short fiction categories often require only a couple dozen nominations.) For smaller awards, the requirements are even less. Robert J. Sawyer on his website cites a case where a candidate in the French Other Work category of the Aurora Awards made it to the final ballot with only 2 nominations.

Why some don't get nominated

  • Accessibility. In certain judged awards, nominations are made by the publishers. (Just as, in the Oscars, the foreign language films are submitted for nomination by the originating country.) Thus, a work may not win an award like the Campbell or the Clarke simply because it wasn't brought to the attention of the judges, not because they dismissed it in favor of the book they did select.
  • Affordability. In the early years of the Hugo, it was much more likely for a book that had run as a magazine serial, or had appeared in paperback by voting time, to be nominated and to win. This was because, for one, there were far fewer sf books published in hardcover in those days, vs. paperback original. For another, many Hugo voters were and still are primarily paperback readers. Since the mid-70s the majority of 'important' genre books have been published first in hardcover. Even now, though, there are readers who complain that Hugo voting is a rich-man's game, because it requires having to buy hardcovers in order to have read eligible works in time to vote.
  • Timing. A frequent pattern in the Nebulas, where recommendations of works accumulate throughout the eligibility years, is for works published nearer the beginning of that year to have the advantage, while a work published in November or December, leaving less time for nominators to read it in time for voting, would have a slim chance of being nominated. (For the evidence, see Table S9.) This pattern was probably a principle motivation for changing to the current "rolling year" eligibility period for Nebula candidates, in which each work may accumulate nominations for 12 months following publication, even if this period spans two calendar years.
  • Self-competition. Nominees sometimes withdraw works from competition, especially when two or more works are nominated in the same category -- they don't want to compete against themselves. Examples include the 1971 Nebulas, when Robert Silverberg withdrew Son of Man and The World Inside from competition, leaving A Time of Changes on the ballot -- which won.
  • Over-exposure. Award candidates occasionally withdraw themselves from competition out of a feeling of overexposure, because they have won, or at least been nominated, frequently in the past. Thus Michael Whelan withdrew himself from Hugo competition after winning several times in a row; Greg Egan withdrew all his works from the 1996 Ditmar ballot after winning twice the year before. Occurrences of this type are not always officially recorded, so that the potential explanation exists for odd omissions of prominent candidates failing to appear on awards ballots.
Copyright 2000-2009 by Mark R. Kelly and Locus Publications. All rights reserved