Vincent Docherty Discusses
Online Hugo Eligibility

Eligibility of online works
under the amended

Hugo Award rules
By Vincent Docherty

I am the WSFS Division Head for the 2010 Worldcon, Aussiecon 4, and Administrator for the Hugo Awards.

Mike Glyer recently asked for my opinion on how a couple of the newly-ratified WSFS rules changes will be administered. Specifically: ‘Will blogs and websites be eligible in the Best Fanzine and Best Semiprozine categories if they meet the general criteria of either category?

Hugo administrators usually refrain from commenting on general eligibility questions in advance, preferring to deal with actual nominations. There is a lot of interest in the Hugos among people with an interest in the rules and potential nominees, and feedback can be unforgiving of actual or perceived errors. However Mike did raise an interesting point in regard to the recent changes to the WSFS rules, which resulted from the work done by a sub-committee looking at the eligibility of web-based works: “This coming year poses different problems, however, and fans will want to know in advance whether it’s a waste of a nominating vote to write down blogs and websites in the Best Fanzine category.”

I’d like to make clear my approach to administering Hugo nominations. This is based on working with other Hugo Administrators and having been on the Hugo administration sub-committee in 2005. When looking at nominations:

  • 1. first follow the WSFS Constitution as it applies to the Hugos;
  • 2. where the rules aren’t sufficiently clear, be guided by the will of the voters;
  • 3. consider, but not be bound by, rulings by previous administrators;
  • 4. any mistakes I make are my own and not a precedent.

Let’s look at the relevant changes that actually occurred in the WSFS Constitution following the 2009 Business Meeting. Kevin Standlee, the BM chair, has updated the text which is now online at http://www.wsfs.org/bm/rules.html

The clauses which were modified, and relevant to the questions, are now:

3.3.5:  Best Related Work. Any work related to the field of science fiction, fantasy, or fandom, appearing for the first time during the previous calendar year or which has been substantially modified during the previous calendar year, and which is either non-fiction or, if fictional, is noteworthy primarily for aspects other than the fictional text, and which is not eligible in any other category.

3.3.12:  Best Semiprozine. Any generally available non-professional publication devoted to science fiction or fantasy which by the close of the previous calendar year has published four (4) or more issues (or the equivalent in other media), at least one (1) of which appeared in the previous calendar year, and which in the previous calendar year met at least two (2) of the following criteria:
(1) had an average press run of at least one thousand (1000) copies per issue,
(2) paid its contributors and/or staff in other than copies of the publication,
(3) provided at least half the income of any one person,
(4) had at least fifteen percent (15%) of its total space occupied by advertising,
(5) announced itself to be a semiprozine.

3.3.13:  Best Fanzine. Any generally available non-professional publication devoted to science fiction, fantasy, or related subjects which by the close of the previous calendar year has published four (4) or more issues (or the equivalent in other media), at least one (1) of which appeared in the previous calendar year, and which does not qualify as a semiprozine.

The substantive changes were: ‘Best Related Book’ becomes ‘Best Related Work’, and the addition of the phrase ‘(or the equivalent in other media)’ to the Semiprozine and Fanzine categories. These were proposed by the web eligibility sub-committee in 2008 and ratified this year.

When increasing numbers of genre works began appearing online, sometimes exclusively, two Worldcon committees exercised their discretion to add a “Best Website” Hugo category. These were popular categories, and the nominees can be seen here: http://www.thehugoawards.org/hugo-history/  However, in at least one case, the same work appeared in both Best Website and another category, and several nominees were in effect containers for fiction, non-fiction or fannish work eligible in other also categories. There was a concern that the same content could be eligible in multiple categories. This was a trigger for the eventual creation of the subcommittee tasked with looking at web eligibility.

Even before 2009, the rules already permitted fiction, dramatic presentations, and in the last few years, semiprozines and fanzines, to be nominated regardless of media platform. The recent change brought the Related Work category into line and provided some additional clarity to Semiprozine, Fanzine, (and Editor Short Form, which isn’t in the scope of this article). The important thing is the content, not the container or medium or means of delivery.

The answer to the general question about whether genre websites, including blogs, are eligible in principle is clearly yes, since the rules now explicitly permit works published in other media in several categories. The follow-up question is which websites and blogs are eligible in which categories, and are there easy to understand guidelines for nominators?

Under the revised rules, a web-only publication of an individual work, or series of issues of a work, would certainly be eligible as a Fanzine, Semiprozine or Related Work, depending on whether it satisfies the specific category rules. There are hard boundaries between Fanzine and Semiprozine: a work either meets two of the five tests, and is therefore a Semiprozine, or it doesn’t, and so is a Fanzine.  (For instance, a notable fanzine changed category in 2003, when its editor decided to declare it a Semiprozine., and it presumably satisfied at least one other condition for Semiprozine.).  If a work is eligible to be a Fanzine or Semiprozine, then it is not eligible to be a Best Related Work. 

Many genre websites, including blogs, are continuously updated with material, making them difficult to classify as individual works or ‘issues’. ‘Issues’ of a magazine or fanzine have two characteristics: they comprise discrete blocks of new material.  Reference, news, and SF club and convention websites comprise much-changing material. Other sites such as the various online fanzines and magazines are largely containers for individual works. Blogs and some other genre sites are somewhere in between – is each article/blog entry an individual work or issue in its own right or is it the whole that is the work? And how often does an update need to occur to trigger eligibility?

The eligibility criteria in Fanzine and Semiprozine include the condition: ‘which by the close of the previous calendar year has published four (4) or more issues (or the equivalent in other media), at least one (1) of which appeared in the previous calendar year‘. That’s an easy test for works, whether paper or online, which comprise clearly labeled, separate issues, but less easy for continuously updated websites such as blogs or clubs and cons. 

In regard to the requirements of discreteness, WSFS clearly wants electronic media to be included. Blogs are a vital part of the electronic fan writing scene just now. I suspect that ‘issue’ in this context is a proxy for ‘new content’.

I would accept that any content update in the previous calendar year would be sufficient for the last eligibility criterion, but how to assess ‘four or more issues’? One can imagine the extreme case of a blog with four short entries, by a popular genre figure, being eligible in the minds of some nominators, and arguably passing the ‘letter of the law’.

I asked Ben Yalow to provide some additional background information on the eligibility rules and with his permission I have reproduced some of his key comments. (In one place I generalized a reference to a regular recent nominee):

Historically, there was a two-part test for a paper publication to meet for deciding its eligibility.  The first criterion was whether it was a “this year” work or not — did an issue appear in the appropriate year?  And that test is common to all of the Hugo categories.  But for a web site, or something in some other medium that is continually modified (rather than having a quantized “issue”), the judgment has to be whether there is sufficient new material to trigger eligibility.  And, for that, I would expect the guidance would have to be to follow the will of the voters unless it’s so obviously wrong as to be absurd. For instance  if a blogger had only one post to a sizeable existing blog in a year, then it would probably be considered too minimal an amount to requalify it — but it should probably be something equally absurd to trigger that  administrator action.

The second part — the “four issues” test — should be interpreted based on the parliamentary history of what that was inserted into the Constitution to do.  Although we don’t have minutes for the Business Meeting where that was adopted (Seacon, in 1961), we do know the cause.  Specifically, “Who Killed Science Fiction?” (Earl Kemp’s one-shot) appeared on the ballot, and actually won — and the Business Meeting decided that one-shots shouldn’t be eligible in Fanzine (and it was carried across to Semiprozine when Fanzine got split).  So the “four issues” test — which is easy to administer for things that proclaim themselves as having quantized issues — needs an equivalent test, which is what the wording “(or the equivalent in other media)” tells the administrator to do.  So, for a blog/web site, the question is whether it’s a one-shot item (for example, a blog set up for people to post on at a specific Corflu should be considered a one-shot, and not eligible, even though it has lots of individual posts), or an ongoing item, which is the equivalent to the “four issues” test for continuous-posting media.

I think there is a lot of sense in that, which I would summarise as: a nominee must have substantial original content in the year in question, and that it be more than a flash in the pan, (the Hugo is designed not to be awarded to a one-shot wonder), and therefore had substantial material in prior years.

What guidance is available then, in terms of how much new material triggers eligibility? It is not my role to supplant WSFS and so I can’t give a definitive minimum count of words, and I also can’t declare that the concept of ‘issue’ is meaningless. Some guidance is needed to avoid a situation where a trivially small amount of work is considered sufficient. So I think a useful rule of thumb would be that new material, comparable to the amount of new material in an issue of a typical small fanzine, appeared in the last year, and that substantially more than that appeared overall.  Any blog, or news-site or other website which has new material each year, and which is popular enough to get enough legitimate nominations to get on the ballot, should be able to exceed this.

I hope these are perceived as reasonable suggestions, which will work in combination with the will of the nominators and a certain degree of judgment by the administrator. The Hugos don’t run in a vacuum and most nominators and voters are familiar with the rules and aren’t trying to game the system. 

In summary, unless I feel very certain a work is technically ineligible, (which includes having only a trivial amount of new material), I will accept the will of the nominators. It is therefore up to the electorate to act as the jury on the facts and answer the question: ‘Is this work a fanzine (or semiprozine or Related Work) or not?

I’ve found it useful to think through these questions, and I’m very grateful to Chris Barkley, Paul Dormer, Paul Ewins, Mike Glyer, John Lorentz, Mark Olson, Kevin Standlee, Ben Yalow and others, who took the time to offer opinions and background information. Some things are much clearer to me and others no doubt need further thought. New Hugo rules can take some time to settle down, and sometimes they need to be revised in order to provide more clarity. Some of the people I have talked to have also taken a line that we should be more prescriptive about what a Fanzine is, and that blog writers should only be eligible for Fan Writer. I leave that to those who can make a persuasive case at the WSFS Business Meeting.

I expect that the best guidance will be provided by the actual nominations from fans who genuinely want to celebrate and reward what they think has been best in the genre, which after all is really at the heart of both Worldcon and the Hugos. The members of WSFS are a very large jury, and it’s up to each person to make their own individual decision about whether a work is a fanzine (etc.) or not.

I welcome comments and suggestions.

Vincent Docherty.
wsfs@aussiecon4.org.au

6 thoughts on “Vincent Docherty Discusses
Online Hugo Eligibility

  1. “…and therefore had substantial material in prior years.”

    Therein lies the rub, because the “four-issue” rule for fanzines, as worded, definitely allows fanzines which did not exist before the eligible year. If the first issue came out in September, and three more monthly issues followed before the end of the year, it would be eligible.

    Many of today’s printed fanzines tend to exist on an extremely slow scale, with only a couple issues a year, or sometimes on a conscious annual schedule, but this was rare in 1961 and earlier. (SF Five-Yearly was definitely a quaint idea when it was new.) Fanzines tended to rise to prominence very quickly, and die almost as quickly.

    In the absence of specific evidence as to what the authors of the rule meant, my guess is that what the rule against one-shots was intended to do was not to eliminate the “flash in the pan” short-term wonder, but to select for _a commitment to continuing publication_ with a relatively slim (four issue) requirement of sticking to it.

    I would therefore rule eligible a blog founded even late in the calendar year of eligibility, if it had substantial content posted in that year and not just in the next year. Any such blog capable of getting enough votes to appear on the final ballot clearly has the capacity to become what used to be called a “focal point” of fandom, as fanzines of yore often did very quickly, within a few months.

    - David Bratman, former Hugo Administrator (’93, ’94, ’96: pre-blog days, but wotheheck)

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