Tuesday, August 19, 2014

The Value of Awards

The winners of the Hugo Awards – the science fiction community's equivalent of the Oscars – were announced by the World Science Fiction Society (WSFS) at the 72nd World Science Fiction Convention (aka "Loncon 3") in London this week. In fact, given the time zones, as I type this Loncon 3 is in it's last hour.

If you don't follow the science fiction industry you can be excused for not knowing about the Hugo Award. The award is named for Hugo Gernsback, a man often credited as being the, or at least a, father of science fiction (which he originally called "scientifiction"). His contribution to the establishment of science fiction as a recognized genre was not creative – or at least not creative in the way H.G. Wells's or Jules Verne's contributions were creative. He was a businessman who, early in the 20th century, recognized the popularity – and profit potential – of stories we today call science fiction and began the first pulp magazine devoted to them. Actually he founded three. I've read that Gernsback's recipe for a good science fiction story was three parts story to one part science (even if the science was sometimes little more than a stand-in for magic). As an editor he had an eye for stories that inspired readers' imagination and made scientists more heroic than they had ever been before.

Gernsback did well for himself as an editor and publisher mostly by cutting every corner he could (his cheapness was the stuff of legends), paying writers and artist almost nothing (when he paid them at all), and generally living by an "all's fair" business ethic. As nearly as I can tell, no one who ever worked for or with the man had fond memories of the experience. But his popularizing of what had been a marginal type of story, motivating a generation of youngsters to want to be scientists, and giving the first great names among science fiction writers their (unpaid) start is what he's remembered for today.

This year – as with just about every award ever bestowed anywhere for any reason – the announcement of the winners was not greeted with universal approval and acclaim by the general public. There were murmurings of cronyism, or of politically motivated choices, or of votes indicating popularity of the writer rather than the merits of the works, or that only safe stories that didn't challenge the establishment were selected, or, or, or, ... and could we at least get through something without Game of Thrones winning?
I have no opinion on this year's Hugo Awards – I haven't read a single one of the nominated novels, novellas, novelettes, short stories, graphic novels, or related works. I will say that two people I like won in their categories and two other people I like didn't win in theirs and leave it at that.

The winners of the Hugo Awards are decided by vote. This year they were decided by about 2,500 votes cast exclusively by members of the World Science Fiction Society. What does it take to become part of this august body? $50. That's the annual fee for the lowest level of membership in the WSFS. But if that's all it takes, how come only 2,500 people voted? The WSFS has to have more members than that. I'm sure it does. I'm also sure that if every single member voted, they'd still be a statistically insignificant fraction of the number of people who read the books or stories or graphic novels and saw the movies and TV shows. The number of votes can't be that important; after all, the Oscars are awarded based on the votes of only six thousand people. (Note I foreshadowed this point by linking the Hugo to the Oscar in the opening sentence.) Of course this is a false comparison. With the exception of the honorary members, the people who make up the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences – the folk who vote for the Academy Award of Merit, aka Oscar – are all professionals in the industry who understand the craftsmanship and effort that went into the productions on which they vote. (Of course, statistically their mostly white men over sixty, but that's an issue for another column.)
In other words, the Oscar is voted on by six thousand professional peers of the nominees and the Hugo is voted on by twenty-five hundred fans of the nominees willing to pay $50 for the ballot.

Am I saying the Hugo Award is meaningless? Of course not. The Hugo may not be all that the WSFS would want it to be – and it's certainly not on a par with the Oscar – but no award is meaningless.

Not only can winning an award be a validation of your own work, it becomes part of your public identity – your brand as a writer. Awards and award winners have an affect on people – even those who don't have a clear idea what the award is about. Even being nominated for an award elevates the writer in the eyes of the buying public – which is why you see "nominated for...." on so many ads. Being a finalist carries weight – a potential reader unsure of choosing between unknown writers will feel a little safer plunking down $9.99 for a title that made the finals. And of course, once you've won an award you are forever an award-winning author.

So go for those regional, themed, and literary competitions. Check each one out first – it's basic common sense to make sure it's legitimate and respected; there are a lot of scams out there. If an entrance fee is required, use your own judgment as to whether or how much you're willing to pay. It's gratifying to have someone else nominate one of your published works, but writing specifically for a contest helps you build the discipline for finishing what you start, meeting guidelines and expectations, and delivering a story on deadline. It's all about developing professional standards.
And boosting your award-winning brand.


Charles Gramlich said...

I'm a member of HWA and I do vote in their awards. I don't often vote in every category, though, because I just haven't read all the works. It's a very hard thing.

KeVin K. said...

For me, because HWA is an association for professional horror writers (at whatever point they are in their careers),those awards carry more weight than fan votes like the Hugo.
Of course, every award is a major achievement - something every writer should be proud of.

Liane Spicer said...

I'll go see whether I'm familiar with any of the current Hugo winners.

I value awards less as validation of the work in a personal sense (for some of the very reasons you mentioned in paragraph 4) and more as enhancement of the brand as they carry heaping amounts of 'social proof' (a marketing term I discovered just recently).

Can't see myself paying to enter a comp, but many of the well-regarded ones are free.

Jewel Amethyst said...

I've seen so many awards given to authors I can't tell what is valid or not. Without discounting the merits of Hugo award or other (whether prestigious or not) awards, I find just about any author could claim to be an award winning author because there are so many awards that can be bestowed upon just about any author.

Some promoters even create competitive awards that the individual is entered into when they hire them to promote their work.

What do I mean? Awards have become more of a marketing tool, than a validation of excellent work.