Barkley — So Glad You (Didn’t) Ask: A Column of Unsolicited Opinions — #16

An Amicus Brief for The Dragon Awards

By Chris M. Barkley:

To the Dragon Con Committee,

I am willing to bet that this year’s Dragon Awards ceremony was barely over before the fannish naysayers and provocateurs began to bray that the Dragon Awards went to dismal writers and creators, and thank maker our own awards aren’t tainted like theirs…

What a load of BS.

Well, I want to assure all of you that I do not hold the same opinion as that rabble; I am here to offer some advice, not to slay the Dragon Awards.

And believe me, I KNOW how hard it must have been for your committee to start a set of awards from scratch; selecting categories, setting up a voting system and eligibility rules.

Since 1998, I have been at the forefront of nearly all of the changes to the Hugo Awards categories. I urged the splitting of the Best Dramatic Presentation and Best Editor categories, helped established of the Best Graphic Story category, co-sponsored the Best Fancast category and, over various and numerous objections of the more conservative elements in fandom, spearheaded the effort to recognize Young Adult books in the Hugo Awards ceremony starting next year.

I’m not reeling off these accomplishments as just braggadocio; I just want you to understand that I’ve gone through years of email exchanges, online taunts, face to face arguments, compromises and interminable hours of parliamentary procedures, pointless points, haggling and compromise at numerous Worldcon Business Meetings in order to keep the Hugo Awards fair, honest and relevant.

I admit that even though I have never attended Dragon Con, your convention has several enviable attributes over the Worldcon that I (and others I’m sure) have admired from afar.

You are based in a populous, major metropolitan area. You are not burdened by moving Dragon Con from year to year and your committee is a stable, fixed entity. And most importantly, you have the flexibility to change the structure of your awards on a dime from year to year as needed.  As you may have noted, it took the World Science Fiction Convention’s Business Meeting cabal SEVERAL YEARS of contentious debate before they could effectively block various miscreants from interfering with or gaming the Hugo Awards.

My own personal obsession about awards started when I began watching the Emmys and Academy Awards broadcasts of the late 1960’s and early 70’s. My earliest and most vivid memory was watching the 1972 Oscar show as Liza Minnelli presented Gene Hackman with his Best Actor award and the simple, halting and eloquent speech he gave afterwards.

As the decades have gone by, my interest in the process has deepened; it’s easy to follow most movie, tv and literature award shows and ceremonies, either being streamed or online. I cheer when someone I know or like wins and commiserate when they lose.

(Note to self: Ann Dowd, who won a Best Supporting Actress Emmy Award for The Handmaid’s Tale is a fine actress but there’s no way in hell she was better than Millie Bobby Brown was in Stranger Things. You’ll get over this. Eventually. Just Sayin’… )

Since Dragon Award nomination period is opening up later in next month, I want to offer you the following recommendations:

  • First of all, KEEP THE SINGLE VOTE SYSTEM!

I have a confession to make: I really dislike the Australian ballot system that the World Science Fiction Convention has been using since the mid 1970’s. (For those of you who are unfamiliar with the Australian ballot process, you can see a simplified explanation of how it works here: http://www.chickennation.com/2013/08/18/you-cant-waste-your-vote/)

The Hugo Award voters (and administrators) seem to prefer to rank their preferences but frankly, going through the tabulations and rows of figures every year make my eyes roll around in my skull like a pair of out of control dice. In fact, I try to vote for one nominee on my Hugo ballot if I find a single story or work deserves the honor.

I must say that it is quite refreshing to sit down and actually make a single choice on the Dragon Award ballot for a change. (And yes, I did participate in the voting this year.) The only thing I do regret is that the eligibility period, which runs from July 1st  to June 30th of this year, meant that I had to choose between Arrival, Logan, Rogue One and Wonder Woman for Best SF film on this year’s ballot. But since Arrival had already won the Hugo for Best Dramatic Presentation this year, I was happy to acknowledge Wonder Woman with a vote (and a win) this year. This brings me to my next point:

  • Use the 5% rule to focus choices:

I don’t know what criteria your award administrators use to finalize the number of nominees on the final ballot, but if Dragon Con is going to continue with the single vote system for the foreseeable future, I recommend that they be named on at least five percent of the nominating ballots. The World Science Fiction Society Constitution had a rule until recently:

No nominee shall appear on the final Award ballot if it received fewer nominations than five percent (5%) of the number of ballots listing one or more nominations in that category, except that the first three eligible nominees, including any ties, shall always be listed.

(This was taken directly from a previous version of the World Science Fiction Convention Constitution.)

Please note that this would allow for the same number nominees IF they meet the five percent rule. The rule also insures that you are putting the most popular things on the ballot and will also give you an indication that a category is not working out well enough to continue on the ballot. If you’re doing this already, great! Also, you might want to list NO AWARD on your ballots as an option for voters.

  • Divide Best SF and Fantasy-Horror film and television categories:

Spread the wealth; with dozens of film and television projects coming out annually, I think you can afford to be more generous in with these categories. I am quite certain that the voters would appreciate it as well. Another major plea; PLEASE list the writer of the film or television episode with each nomination. This is a personal pet peeve of mine; I don’t buy the auteur theory (that the director is the ‘true author” of a work) so unless the director was also the author of the work, it’s just common courtesy to list writers, too. After all, this stuff doesn’t write itself, you know.

  • Establish a Best Artwork Category:

I applaud the number of awards for the creators of comics but I am quite sure that you realize that artists who render book covers, art books and other illustrations and  are a BIG part of the sf and fantasy community. Establishing an award for a body of yearly work would be quite a nice gesture towards them.

  • Special/Life Achievement Awards:

This is a versatile award that can truly express the appreciation of the committee, and by extension, fandom itself, than a special or lifetime achievement award to some of the more notable members of the fantasy and sf community. Also, it might be fun to include the attendees in on the selection as well.

  • Restrict voting to Members Only!

Once upon a time, I thought it might be a great idea for the Hugo Awards to have voting open to the public OR voting with a small fee that was lower than obtaining a supporting membership. I think that the slating efforts of both set of Puppies have put an end to that sort of utopian thinking. Thus, bringing me to my last point:

  • Make the voting process MORE transparent:

Publishing and the nomination and voting results annually and publicly naming a rotating set of administrators would be immensely helpful to Dragon Awards. Starting an award is hard work. Establishing and maintaining high standards of a new award in the modern information age is even harder.

In any event, I wish you all the best of luck with the Dragon Awards and with Dragon Con.

Cheers (or Seinfeld),
Chris B.

34 thoughts on “Barkley — So Glad You (Didn’t) Ask: A Column of Unsolicited Opinions — #16

  1. “I am willing to bet that this year’s Dragon Awards ceremony was barely over before the fannish naysayers and provocateurs began to bray that the Dragon Awards went to dismal writers and creators, and thank maker our own awards aren’t tainted like theirs…”

    Why bet on something that could easily have been proven to be false by a simple check in old comment sections? AFAIK, most people thought there were some dreck among the nominees, but that the winners was a whole different matter.

    You know, if you call something a load of BS, you should not do it about something you haven’t even bothered to verify.

    But I absolutely agree with splitting movies into different categories for SF and Horror and a lifetime award would be great. But the absolute important thing is for members only and to really promote the award for members.

  2. Don’t care about the Dragon awards, but on the Hugos, most of the things you think are bugs are not just features, they are the reasons the award is so prestigious.

  3. Restrict voting to Members Only!

    And make it really easy for members to vote. Hand out paper ballots at the con. / Send out links to ballots with the registration information and con newsletters.

    Using identification by registration number and name rather than email address should solve the multiple-vote problem (if it exists).

  4. @Niall McAuley: No, I’d say the reason the Hugos are prestigious are a gestalt of the following:

    (1) Hugo nominee/finalist/winner is listed on covers of books
    (2) The list of prior nominees and winners
    (3) Nominees regularly turns up to receive the award
    (4) The award is widely publicised, both finalists and winners

    How the award is determined has very little bearing on its status, really. Now, there is a reason why sf-fandom cares deeply about the Hugos, and the way they are determined certainly helps with that, but it has zero bearings for why Tor or DAW writes “Hugo winner” on the cover of the book.

  5. Karl-Johan Norén: the reason the Hugos are prestigious are a gestalt of the following: (1) Hugo nominee/finalist/winner is listed on covers of books… there is a reason why sf-fandom cares deeply about the Hugos, and the way they are determined certainly helps with that, but it has zero bearings for why Tor or DAW writes “Hugo winner” on the cover of the book.

    The reason it gets put on books is because it’s prestigious. While seeing it on books may now help increase the idea of the Hugos being prestigious, that didn’t start until around 15 years after the award was established — and publishers started putting it on book covers because the award was considered prestigious.

  6. First of all, KEEP THE SINGLE VOTE SYSTEM!

    Because nothing makes an award seem credible like having nominees with the support of 18% of the voters win.

    The single vote system in a five or six way race ensures that on a regular basis, you will have a winner that most people didn’t vote for, and there is a strong possibility that you will have winners that the majority of voters actively dislike.

  7. it took the World Science Fiction Convention’s Business Meeting cabal SEVERAL YEARS of contentious debate before they could effectively block various miscreants from interfering with or gaming the Hugo Awards

    This is the first time I have heard two described as “SEVERAL”.

  8. Thoughts:

    Artwork award: Are artworks widely enough recognised to be included in an award which aims at mass participation?

    Dividing films and TV: Yeah, why not? It wouldn’t work in the Hugos because of the problem of deciding on which side many things lie (though this probably isn’t as intense with films and TV as it is with books), but in a system with more authoritarian administrators that needn’t be a problem.

    Members only: I think almost everyone here agrees it would be a more effective awards process if they did that, but I fear that ‘everyone can participate’ is the distinctive selling point of the Dragons, so they are unlikely to give it up.

    Single vote: Yes, this makes perfect sense in the kind of award this is. It isn’t an election, in which we are trying to choose a representative (in which case a winner supported by only 18% of the voters would be a bad idea): it’s a contest, to find who is most popular. If I get 1848 votes and you get 1846 votes, I have won the popularity contest, just as the person who reaches the finishing tape first has won a race, even if the runner-up is just half a second behind them. The Dragons are based on a model of fandom in which one is a fan of a particular author, series etc., the aim is not to find the work with the widest acceptability, but the work with the most fans.

  9. I have other suggestions for the success of the Dragon Awards:

    1. shorten that nomination period…why burden your voters with having to make so may choices?

    2. Don’t open up the process or ever share the data – people don’t like getting confirmation of their beliefs

    3. Reduce the number of categories – make it easier on your administrators. One category – “The Best” – once the winner is announced, everyone can figure out what the best means

    4. don’t publicize it

    5. If you really want to improve that award, don’t offer it anymore.

  10. Following on from which: Yes, the Hugos are prestigious because of the list of past nominees and winners. But where does that list come from? I take it that it exists at east in part because there is a process which encourages people to consider and compare the whole field, rather than just vote for the thing they are a fan of, and which favours the things with the broadest appeal. A process which just counts fans is perfectly reasonable in itself, and there’s nothing wrong with having an award which works like that, but I don’t think it will ever have the same prestige.

  11. It’s good to see more constructive criticism of the process for the Dragon Awards. I believe that the above list should be in the opposite order because procedural suggestions only can be effected if the process becomes more transparent. Members only voting would make the Awards truly representative of the Dragon Con itself.

    As for the results of the Dragon Awards this year, I thought that increased participation gave results that more or less reflected the choices of a large group of fans rather than any small segment, which is moving towards the STATED goal of the Dragon Awards in their section on The Process:
    “Have you ever wanted to tell fellow fans when you’ve read a great new book or comic, play an awesome new game, or see an exhilarating movie? The Dragon Awards are your chance to share your opinions with, and see the recommendations of, tens of thousands of other fans everywhere!”
    If the Dragon Awards end up with winners based on the voting of “tens of thousands” of fans, then like this year, I’d be content with most winners. If the nomination voting also had those kind of numbers of fans participating, then I’d expect we’d see results more like the end of year awards on Goodreads.

    I’ve also argued for more awards to more accurately reflect the Track system at Dragon Con such as an Urban Fantasy and Anime/Manga Awards, and a special/lifetime achievement award would be a welcome addition. I also argued for some other changes in my post after Dragon Con about what kind of feedback to give on the post-Con survey.

  12. Because nothing makes an award seem credible like having nominees with the support of 18% of the voters win.

    Coincidentally, Obelisk Gate got 18.2% of the first place votes in the first round. Meanwhile, All The Birds In The Sky got 18.3% in the first round and received more votes in each successive round right up until there was a two-way run-off in the sixth pass.

    So Obelisk Gate could be seen as the winner of the “not really my first choice” award. (In my case I changed my ballot two days before voting closed and switched Obelisk Gate with ATBITS to put ATBITS in the first position. I found the sub-text of making more of an effort to listen to those with whom one disagrees to be a more worthy message in an equally well-told story. FWIW)

    Every voting system has its advantages and disadvantages. The Dragon Awards use what they see as most fitting with their award objectives. WorldCon uses a one that they see most fitting for their award objectives. I’m not going to criticize either choice.

    Regards,
    Dann

  13. I’d certainly like to see a much longer period between the final ballot and voting being closed. There’s no way to really read through all the things on the final ballot that you’re not familiar with.

  14. Dann: So Obelisk Gate could be seen as the winner of the “not really my first choice” award.

    No, that’s not what the Hugo results mean. What they mean is that Obelisk Gate was the one out of the 5 novels which had the highest positive consensus amongst the Hugo voters.

  15. Every voting system has its advantages and disadvantages.

    The advantage of a simple system like the Dragon Awards one vote per voter (ignoring the ballot stuffing issue of identifying voters) is that a simpleton can understand it.

  16. Single vote and first-past-the-post is such an awful voting system; especially for any attempt to reach agreement among a diverse voting population in a diverse field. (But then I’m a mathematician and voting systems are something I’ve studied. I took to “Australian” ballot (as used in the Hugos) instantly when I was in college and wrote one of the first computer programs to count such ballots (not used for the Hugos ever), and helped introduce “approval” and other voting systems at my local SF club, and helped develop and test EPH.) So we’re going to end up disagreeing on that.

    Briefly — what’s wrong with single vote is it makes the voter guess what other people will do (in practice it makes them rely on polls that report what other people say they will do) and vote tactically rather than simply voting for what they think is best. Ranked-choice / STV / IRV / Australian (all close enough to be lumped together in my brain) allow you to vote quickly, simply, and independently, without having to guess what other people are doing.

  17. @JJ: Exactly – prestige feeds into more prestige. And remember that when the Hugos started out, there were hardly any awards within the science fiction field, and the publishers were generally much smaller too. Generally, it takes at least ten years before anyone outside the most involved people even start to take notice of an award.

    Right now, the only award that can overtake the Hugos in prestige are the Nebulas, because it is the only one which is put onto the covers of books as well.

    That doesn’t say one shouldn’t do the Dragon Awards, but if the idea is to replace the Hugos, then one has entirely the wrong goal.

  18. @David Weingart

    I’d certainly like to see a much longer period between the final ballot and voting being closed. There’s no way to really read through all the things on the final ballot that you’re not familiar with.

    I agree. After going through the Hugo nominees, I just didn’t have enough time to make it through the Dragon nominees. This year was also complicated by the fact that I wanted to read the great conclusion to de Castelle’s Great Coats series. That auto downloaded in the closing days of the Hugo voting.

    [FWIW, the series is worthy of a series nom next year. But I wouldn’t put the final book in the novel category. It was very good, but not quite as good as the rest of the series.]

    @JJ

    No, that’s not what the Hugo results mean.

    Which makes sense only if my one comment is stripped of the context of the rest of that comment.

    Regards,
    Dann

  19. Dann: Which makes sense only if my one comment is stripped of the context of the rest of that comment.

    Nope, even with the full context, your statement about Obelisk Gate is untrue.

  20. @David Weingart
    Patrick Henry, in an email to Alison Littlewood after she decided to withdraw, said that the original purpose of the Dragon Awards was:
    “The original purpose of the Dragon Awards was not so much as awards but as a quality reading list. The cost of reading current material has been rising steadily for years. Library budgets are not adequate to have all, or even a decent collection of the type of materials that Dragon Con fans enjoy.”

    So there you have it.

  21. I’m not fan of the Australian ballot, but my fave of late is Point-Allocation voting, where you simply give a 0-to-10 score to each nominee. You might find two books great and give each a 10, and the rest 0s, or you might find them all kinda meh and give them all 2s, or any other number of ways to allocate. I like the flexibility it gives voters.

  22. Although contentious debate can be frustrating, and I’ve been through more than my fair share of it within organizations, it has the advantage of testing the strengths and weaknesses of those ideas, weeding out bad ideas and strengthening better ideas. I thought it made sense to take time to discuss the revisions to the voting process, despite the fact that some participating were not doing so in good faith, because it meant that the full implications of the changes could be understood and absorbed by the people participating. I suspect that the Dragon Awards could benefit from some of that process, even if it was a network of committees.

  23. Single vote: Yes, this makes perfect sense in the kind of award this is. It isn’t an election, in which we are trying to choose a representative (in which case a winner supported by only 18% of the voters would be a bad idea): it’s a contest, to find who is most popular. If I get 1848 votes and you get 1846 votes, I have won the popularity contest, just as the person who reaches the finishing tape first has won a race, even if the runner-up is just half a second behind them.

    Sure, if you don’t care how the results are perceived, that seems fine. The problem is, with the system the Dragon Awards use, it is inevitable that there will frequently be winners that the majority of the voters hate, but that have just enough support to edge out their competition and eke out a “win”. How enthused do you think people will be to participate after that?

  24. The original purpose of the Dragon Awards was not so much as awards but as a quality reading list.

    Sure, he said that, more than a year after the award was created. It was an attempt to revise history. The notion that it was created as some kind of “reading list” is a retcon, and a disingenuous one at that.

  25. My biggest objection to first-past-the-post in a more-than-two-candidate election is that it is quite likely to return a “winner” that is disliked by a super-majority of the electorate.

  26. You know, Chris, if you dislike the bother of ranking candidates in the Hugo voting system, you can always just vote for your first choice and leave the rest blank. That’s a perfectly valid and legitimate way to vote, if that’s what you want to do.

    And if reading the detailed voting results gives you a headache, don’t read them. Just look at the list of winners, if that’s all you want to see.

  27. I’m not sure Average Jane Fan knows or cares how most of the sf/f awards get to their results, to be honest. I would be very surprised if that factored into an award’s overall reputation, since I’m pretty sure the main thing there is ‘consistently good results’ that make fans want to keep checking it out because the last thing they read that was associated the award was good. Now, arguably, FPTP isn’t the best way to achieve that, but if it did produce consistently good results (like, oh, say, the Hugo finalist list right up until EPH was a thing, and oh look there wasn’t a strong movement to change from FPTP until it produced bad finalists) I doubt a significant number of people are going to dismiss the award because of the voting system.

  28. I had assumed while reading this that Chris wrote it with tongue firmly in cheek, but no one else seems to think so. Hmm!

  29. Aaron:

    it took the World Science Fiction Convention’s Business Meeting cabal SEVERAL YEARS of contentious debate before they could effectively block various miscreants from interfering with or gaming the Hugo Awards

    This is the first time I have heard two described as “SEVERAL”.

    Also “the World Science Fiction Convention’s Business Meeting cabal…”

    For a small secret group, that cabal is clearly doing it wrong!

    @Lenore Jones,
    I think you’re on to something there!

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