Goodreads Ratings of the 2021 Dragon Award Ballot

2021 Dragon Award trophies. Photo by Sean CW Korsgaard.

The Dragon Awards winners were presented for the sixth time in September 2021. With the award still in its early years, people are continuing to refine their ideas about what it means to win one.

Three main things are known about the award.

First, there is open popular online voting – no convention membership required. A voter must register their name and “primary email address” to participate. Each voter is limited to one nomination per award category, and can vote for only one work per category in the final round. However, the process is not transparent, neither nominating nor final voting statistics have ever been released (apart from the total votes cast).

Second, the Dragon Award instructions encourage writers to campaign (i.e., “it is perfectly acceptable for you to encourage your fans to vote for you”).

Third, the winners get a spectacularly beautiful trophy.

BUT DOES VOTING COUNT? The Dragon Awards are publicized foremost as a people’s choice award. Ironically, given the early watch for signs of vote manipulation through logrolling (you vote for me, I vote for you) or duplicate voting by people controlling multiple email addresses, there are also skeptics who have studied the Dragon Awards rules and questioned whether voting genuinely determines who receives the awards.

Camestros Felapton is among the skeptics: “There is a mismatch between the marketing of the award as a popular vote and the actual rules which give the organisers the capacity to determine the winner how they wish.”

The rules formerly were linked from the voter registration page but are no longer visible anywhere on the Dragon Awards site. An online archive copy from 2016 showed they were obligated to make up the final ballot from “the most popular entries” but that the “selection of winners shall be made by Dragon Con in its sole discretion” —

ONLINE VOTING: One (1) vote in each category is allowed per person. The most popular Entries, as determined by number of nomination submissions during the Nomination Period, will be featured on the Website between 9:00 A.M. ET on August 2, 2016 and 11:59 P.M. ET on September 1, 2016 (hereinafter, “Voting Period”). Voting shall occur in a manner as determined by DRAGON CON.

… SELECTION OF WINNERS: All decisions regarding the voting process and selection of winners shall be made by DRAGON CON in its sole discretion, shall be final, and shall not be subject to challenge or appeal…

In contrast, a statement by the administrators in 2017 that they were looking into changes asked for by authors (a controversy discussed below) affirmed that any changes made would not alter the character of the award: “It will still be the ‘fan’s choice’ award, with fans nominating the works and fans voting on the winners. …Fans still have the final say.”

This article, in making its assessment of what it means to be voted a Dragon Award, assumes that fans do indeed have the final say for the simple reason that analyzing the character of the Dragon Awards is only interesting if we believe the nominees and winners are produced by a large group dynamic, and not a small-group process like juried awards – does anybody want more articles like those explaining the literary leanings of Clarke Award jurors? — or the arbitrary choices of corporate management.

DRUMMING UP SUPPORT. The Dragon Award further distinguishes itself from the Hugos with a Candidate FAQ that tells creators “it is perfectly acceptable for you to encourage your fans to vote for you.” At least, in previous years it was part of the Hugo voting culture to shame anyone who engaged in campaigning for a nomination, marking this statement as another way to separate the Dragons from the Hugos while also leveraging more participation.

Of course, every new year now arrives with a blizzard of award eligibility statements. That particular gate has been smashed for all awards. Rounding up support from fans and fellow writers to get shortlisted for various awards is commonplace. But the Dragons are unique in embracing the practice.

MAKING THE DRAGON BALLOT. The first set of Dragon Awards given in 2016 are remembered for having been captured by Sad Puppies John C. Wright, Larry Correia, Brian Niemeier, and other conservative writers including David Weber, and Nick Cole.

The second set of nominees in 2017 was heavy on Puppies, too, but that was overshadowed by the authors who withdrew their books from contention after the ballot was announced (N.K. Jemisin, Alison Littlewood, — and initially John Scalzi, though he soon reversed his decision).

However, the final ballot for the third set of awards in 2018 had something in common with “that curious incident of the dog in the night-time.” Although both Vox Day and Jon Del Arroz had put out Dragon Awards slates, none of the books they pushed made the ballot. This happened without any public comment from the administrators, but still skeptics wondered if it was a symptom of actions taken behind the scenes under authority of the posted rules.

In 2019 the trend to broader representation continued with more finalists lining up with what fans and critics had pointed to as the best books of the year. Yet the ultimate Dragon-winning Best Science Fiction Novel was not one of the books by Becky Chambers, James S.A. Corey, Dave Hutchinson, Arkady Martine, or Kim Stanley Robinson — the winner was the unheralded novel by Brad Torgersen, lead dog of Sad Puppies 3 in 2015. Several other categories were won by Larry Correia, David Weber, and S.M. Stirling.

By contrast, in 2020 and 2021 not only was the ballot increasingly filled by widely-celebrated titles, the actual winners likewise were recognizably popular writers, such as John Scalzi, Andy Weir and T. Kingfisher (a result several Puppies sourly blamed on Covid.)

The trend away from “clique picks” and toward books that more readers are following is also evident in the declining number of finalists that have microscopic totals of Goodreads ratings from readers. Here’s a year-by-year summary of the Dragon Award book finalists with fewer than 100 ratings as of the time the ballot came out:

  • 2017 – 24
  • 2018 – 11
  • 2019 – 8
  • 2021 – 3

(I didn’t research the numbers in 2020.)

What about the most recent year, 2021? These ratings totals were compiled on September 9 – probably not radically different from what they were when the Dragon Awards nominations closed on July 19.

Winners in BOLDFACE.

1. BEST SCIENCE FICTION NOVEL

RATINGSTITLE
105,306Project Hail Mary by Andy Weir (5/21)
93,436Ready Player Two by Ernest Cline (11/20)
17,749Black Sun by Rebecca Roanhorse (10/20)
8,473A Desolation Called Peace by Arkady Martine (3/21)
7,339The Ministry for the Future by Kim Stanley Robinson (10/20)
1,457Attack Surface by Cory Doctorow (10/20)
1,297Machine by Elizabeth Bear (10/20)

2. BEST FANTASY NOVEL (INCLUDING PARANORMAL)

RATINGSTITLE
357,037The Invisible Life of Addie LaRue by V.E. Schwab (10/20)
74,281Piranesi by Susanna Clarke (9/20)
63,771Rhythm of War by Brandon Sanderson (11/20)
31,656Once and Future Witches by Alix E. Harrow (10/20)
30,169Battle Ground by Jim Butcher (9/20)
1,768Dead Lies Dreaming by Charles Stross (10/20)

3. BEST YOUNG ADULT / MIDDLE GRADE NOVEL

RATINGSTITLE
54,987A Deadly Education by Naomi Novik (9/20)
9,794A Wizard’s Guide to Defensive Baking by T. Kingfisher (7/20)
7,788Elatsoe by Darcie Little Badger (8/20)
1,435The Scapegracers by Hannah Abigail Clarke (9/20)
1,231A Peculiar Peril by Jeff VanderMeer (7/20)
392The Tinderbox: Soldier of Indira by Lou Diamond Phillips (10/20)

4. BEST MILITARY SCIENCE FICTION OR FANTASY NOVEL

RATINGSTITLE
3,307Orders of Battle by Marko Kloos (12/20)
1,321Sentenced to War by J.N. Chaney, Jonathan Brazee (2/21)
1,125Direct Fire by Rick Partlow (7/20)
797Demon in White by Christopher Ruocchio (7/20)
398Fleet Elements by Walter Jon Williams (12/20)
355Gun Runner by Larry Correia, John D. Brown (2/21)

5. BEST ALTERNATE HISTORY NOVEL

RATINGSTITLE
14,686Axiom’s End by Lindsay Ellis (7/20)
4,998The Relentless Moon by Mary Robinette Kowal (7/20)
4,408A Master of Djinn by P. Djèlí Clark (5/21)
3,613The Russian Cage by Charlaine Harris (2/21)
2481637: No Peace Beyond The Line by Eric Flint, Charles Gannon (11/20)
79Daggers in Darkness by S.M. Stirling (3/21)

6. BEST MEDIA TIE-IN NOVEL

RATINGSTITLE
11,886Star Wars: Light of the Jedi by Charles Soule (1/21)
6,614Star Wars: Thrawn Ascendancy by Timothy Zahn (9/20)
1,854Shadows Rising World of Warcraft: Shadowlands by Madeleine Roux (7/20)
778Firefly: Generations by Tim Lebbon (10/20)
503Penitent by Dan Abnett (3/21)
11MacGyver: Meltdown by Eric Kelley, Lee Zlotoff (11/20)

7. BEST HORROR NOVEL

RATINGSTITLE
31,794The Only Good Indians by Stephen Graham Jones (7/20)
14,352Survivor Song by Paul Tremblay (7/20)
9,554The Hollow Places by T. Kingfisher (10/20)
4,171True Story: A Novel by Kate Reed Petty (8/20)
109Synchronicity by Michaelbrent Collings (5/21)
71The Taxidermist’s Lover by Polly Hall (12/20)

2021 OBSERVATIONS. There is only one category in which the winner also had the highest number of Goodreads ratings, which is Andy Weir’s Project Hail Mary.

There also is one category where the winner had the dead last number of Goodreads ratings, which is Gun Runner by Larry Correia and John D. Brown.

GETTING ON THE BALLOT. When you look at the wildly disparate numbers of ratings of books that only have in common that they made the Dragon Awards final ballot, although it isn’t hard to imagine why books that have many Goodreads ratings would turn out to be finalists it is not so easy to explain how books with comparatively few ratings did it.

The first thought that might come to mind is “Wow, some of these writers must be awfully effective at rounding up votes!” Or have we just been conditioned by the hype that so many people are voting that the number would sound good rolling off the tongue of Carl Sagan? (Remember “billions and billions”?)

If we stop being dazzled by that illusion, we can also consider a second possibility — that there are finalists with low numbers of Goodreads ratings because it only takes a trivial number of votes to get on the bottom rungs of the ballot.

The Dragon Awards don’t release their voting statistics, however, it may help envision this possibility by looking at the performance of Hugo Awards nominees. (Note: I haven’t forgotten that the Hugo finalists are now determined by EPH scores, but those don’t enter into this discussion of participation levels.) From the past five years in the Hugo’s Best Novel category, here are (1) the nominating votes received by the lowest finalist, and (2) the number received by the last title on the longlist (usually 15th place).

HUGOS

  • 2021 132 / TBA
    • 2020 195 / 54
    • 2019 203 / 60
    • 2018 128 / 81
    • 2017  166 / 85

When you reflect on the dropoff from the lowest Hugo finalist to fifteenth place (or in 2020 sixteenth place, because one finalist withdrew), then consider that the Dragon Awards collectively had 43 books on the 2021 ballot, it would not be surprising if the books at the end of the Dragon’s long tail also had a small number of supporters.

WHAT DOES IT MEAN TO WIN THE DRAGON AWARD? Many awards can be regarded as popularity contests, even those where voting is restricted to guild members, but unlike the Dragon Awards, the Hugo, Nebula, Bram Stoker, and Locus Awards voters have weeks or months to read and vote for their favorite finalists. The implication is that voters are making an informed choice among the competitors.

In 2021 the Dragon Award ballot was distributed on August 11 and closed September 4 – a span of 24 days. With 43 finalists in seven categories for text novels there’s no expectation that people will read and compare the finalists.

The timing and mechanics of Dragon Awards final voting also emphasize rallying around one favorite work in a category, given that a person can only vote for one finalist in each category. The winner needs to receive a plurality of the votes – it doesn’t need to be the favorite of a majority.  (Which resembles how the Hugos worked in the early Sixties.)

That paves the way to buy the theory that the Dragon Awards represent a competition between the most enthusiastic fan bases. But Goodreads ratings are not a consistent predictor of what is going to show up on the final ballot or win. Neither have slate-makers (JDA, Vox Day, even Declan Finn) been able to dictate the ballot. What do you think is the key to understanding who wins this award?

5 thoughts on “Goodreads Ratings of the 2021 Dragon Award Ballot

  1. Re. “I didn’t research the numbers in 2020”, I captured the state of all of that year’s finalists at the end of August last year – which I believe was in the period between the announcements of the nominees and winners – and these can be found in chart form here.

    Re. the number of nominees with less than 100 GR ratings at that time, the various categories had:

    Alt-History: 3 (with another just squeaking over with 107 ratings)

    Mil-SF&F: 1

    Everything else: all nominees had more than 100 ratings on Goodreads

    (FWIW, These charts won’t be updated beyond last year’s awards, due to GR removing access to their API without any sort of advance warning.)

  2. All this kremlinology of the Dragon awards seems vaguely QAnon to me. Why is it so important to know exactly how they’re given? If DragonCon wants to keep the full details to themselves, that’s their business. You could just make yourself a File770 award voted on the same way, and then you could be as public about it as you like. It’s basically an online poll. How hard can it be?

  3. Why is it so important to know exactly how they’re given?

    The answer is right in the first paragraph of the article:

    people are continuing to refine their ideas about what it means to win one.

  4. Interesting analysis!

    There has never been anything “illegal” about eligible candidates publicly campaigning for Hugo nominations, but for those who are seasoned participants in the process, it is considered poor form. Self-campaigning should be unnecessary. If a candidate’s work is really any good, their critics and fans would create the buzz for them. It becomes more of an award of personality than a value of quality when fans are nominating on request.

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