Give ‘em the axe!

That’s what Milt Stevens will be asking voters to do at the 2013 Worldcon Business Meeting – delete the Best Fanzine, Best Fan Writer, and Best Fan Artist Hugo categories from the WSFS Constitution.

Stevens shared the text of his motion with readers of the Smofs listserv and justified it by saying these categories are “susceptible to manipulation” because they get fewer voters and are chronically influenced by people campaigning for themselves. He also expressed frustration with fans’ irreconcilable differences over the definition of a fanzine —

Efforts at compromise have failed. One group says that fanzines are words on paper only, and nothing else can be allowed. Another group thinks fanzines and fan writing are anything the voters can imagine and will tolerate no limitations whatsoever. There is wide dissatisfaction with these three awards, and it doesn’t seem likely to go away.

When Milt and I discussed his idea a few months ago, I argued that the implicit message in his motion was not that fanzine fans refuse to let the awards be abused, but that we quit, we’re abdicating our influence over the future of this subset of the Hugos. And other fans, semipros and bloggers who already feel entitled to control the awards will just tell us don’t let the door bang our butts on the way out.

(Yet I’m intrigued how much Milt has in common with Aidan Moher, who makes some of the same criticisms about the Hugo electorate. Of course, Moher wants to give all the fan Hugos to bloggers, so never the twain shall meet…)

I disagree with the proposal to repeal the fan Hugos because I feel our best interests involve keeping fanzines in the mix for these awards. There are still large numbers of fanzines being published and there’s no reason to legislate the irrelevance of this healthy brand of fanac.

It’s also too bad that the debate over the motion will inevitably make fanzine fans look more like jackasses than we already do, having just spent the last two years getting our alleged political allies to help us reconstitute the Best Fanzine category as we supposedly wanted it to look. Something they were happy to do because they had no intention of asking Hugo Administrators to enforce the result the movers, including Rich Lynch, said the rules change was actually supposed to have.

Like it or not, for fanzine fans the Hugos resemble the joke version of the Laws of Thermodynamics — you can’t win, you can’t break even, and you can’t get out of the game. So, since we can’t get out, we should not be abandoning the influence we still have left.

Update 08/01/2013: Corrected which set of natural laws the joke refers to, per comment.

Chicon 7 Votes on Hugo Rules Changes

The Main Business Meeting at Chicon 7 ratified the new Best Fancast category [PDF file], most of the changes to the Semiprozine and Fanzine Hugo categories [PDF file] first passed at Renovation in 2011, the existing Best Graphic Story category — which faced a sunset date — and rejected a motion for new Best Young Adult Fiction category.

The Best Fancast category was passed last year and Chicon 7 exercised its option to place it the 2012 Hugo ballot. Best Fancast recognizes fan podcasts, videos, etc. — and effectively removes them from the fanzine category. Statistics provided to the Business Meeting showed on its trial run this year Best Fancast had participation levels that favorably compared with the fanzine category in terms of nominating vote totals and number of items nominated. The ratification vote sailed through without much comment. The category comes with a sunset provision, so it will come up again for review in a few years.

The redefinition of the Semiprozine and Fanzine categories had to get over a few more hurdles before being ratified, due to fans offering amendments.

Voters agreed to restore the phrase “or the equivalent in other media” that had been struck out of the existing Best Fanzine rules. The cover argument was that keeping the language protected the eligibility of publications done in electronic form, although that has been policy for years — the vast majority of fanzines are now created in digital media and distributed online. What the real effect of keeping “equivalent” in the rule will be is hard for me to say. Rich Lynch said he was comfortable with the outcome because the new requirement for “periodical publication” was retained.

Ben Yalow also convinced the meeting to adjust the new verification rule in the Semiprozine and Fanzine categories. Nominees will now “be required to provide information that they meet the qualification of their category” instead of being “required to confirm…” Yalow felt the original wording implied an unwanted restriction on the powers of the Hugo Administrator.

The meeting also agreed to Rich Lynch’s housekeeping amendment to delete a few surplus words that had been unintentionally passed as part of the motion in 2011.

The Best Graphic Story category needed to be ratified once more at this year’s meeting to stay in the constitution, though of course it has been functioning for several years. We were told 344 nominating votes were cast in the category this year, for 244 distinct items, of which only 9 had 5% of the vote (a minimum eligibility standard). Two fans cited these stats as support for their opposing views, Chris Barkley saying it proved the category’s viability, Kent Bloom saying it showed the pool of Hugo-worthy works is very limited. Phil Foglio spoke in favor of keeping the category — one where he’s won nearly all the Hugos — humorously admitting, “Yes, at the moment we’re dominating, but you know, we’ll die someday…” Despite a lively controversy, the ratification easily passed.

The proposed Best Young Adult Fiction Hugo category aroused more passion. Some in favor argued the Worldcon would stunt its growth by rejecting the category, while opponents noted YA has no real definition and Ben Yalow said, “We don’t give out Hugos for marketing categories, we give Hugos out for works.” Lew Wolkoff contended there really wasn’t enough expertise among Hugo voters because many don’t read YA works unless something especially draws one to their attention. The motion failed 51-67.

Scoring the Proposed ‘Zine Hugo Amendments

What any fan thinks about the Semiprozine Committee’s and Rich Lynch’s proposals to change the fan publishing Hugo rules will inevitably depend on what he or she thought needed to be fixed in the first place.

So I’ll lead into my comments by listing what I believe, with a brief explanation:

  • Audio and video presentations should be ruled out of the fanzine category.

Text-based publications should not be grouped with unrelated items for the same reason we don’t lump novels and dramatic presentations into a single category.

  • Zines that pay contributors, owners or staff, which otherwise qualify in the fanzine category, should compete in the semiprozine category.

I advocate this as a way of creating an enforceable definition of semiprozine.

  • All rules must define the terms they use – professional, nonprofessional, issue, “equivalent in other media.”

The current rules define none of these terms. People cannot be sure what is eligible in the fanzine category, which deters participation.

  • No standard of performance or measurement ought to part of a rule unless the data needed to evaluate it can be easily obtained by the Hugo Administrator.

There must be practical means of enforcing any rules. Fandom neither wants nor rewards activist Hugo Administrators.

I. The Committee’s Report: Did the Semiprozine Committee report deliver? Let’s see.

The majority report proposes four changes.

(1) New criteria for semiprozine:

Amend the sections 3.3.12 and 3.3.13, by replacing them with:

3.3.12: Best Semiprozine. Any generally available non-professional publication devoted to science fiction or 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 in the previous calendar year met at least one (1) of the following criteria:
(1) paid its contributors and/or staff in other than copies of the publication,
(2) was generally available only for paid purchase,

(Cited sections are in the WSFS Constitution.)

The proposed amendment’s most impressive feature is that it discards the antiquated criteria regarding printed copies and advertising space. I’m satisfied the two remaining criteria are the best litmus tests for semiprozines – payment to participants, copies primarily available to purchasers. And these are performance/measurement-based criteria a Hugo Administrator can evaluate from readily-available information.   

Interestingly, the Committee’s proposal eliminates the right an editor currently has to move a zine into semiprozine category by declaration. As a result, Langford’s Ansible would be welcomed back to the fanzine category.

The amendment’s main shortcoming is its failure to define “issue” and “the equivalent in other media.” One virtue of Rich Lynch’s proposal (discussed below) is that its terms are defined.

(2) Best Fanzine modified: The Committee has made neutral changes to the Best Fanzine rule to conform it to the revised semiprozine criteria:

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 in the previous calendar year met neither of the following criteria: 
(1) paid its contributors and/or staff in other than copies of the publication, 
(2) was generally available only for paid purchase,

The old rule excluded anything that qualified as a semiprozine; the new wording serves the same purpose.

Unfortunately, the Committee has done nothing about the eligibility of podcasts and its report explicitly states StarShip Sofa will continue to qualify as a fanzine under its version of the rules.

(3) A definition for “professional publication”: The Committee proposes to put a working definition of “professional publication” back in to the WSFS Constitution. Their intentions are right on target, the rules have been in want of a new definition of “professional” since the old one was erased as a side-effect of other changes.

However, the reason a definition of “professional” is needed is not to keep Asimov’s, Analog and F&SF out of the pastures of fandom. Almost none of the “pro” Hugo categories – for fiction, editing and art – actually includes “professional publication” as a condition of eligibility. Best Professional Artist alone has that requirement.

The real need for defining “professional” is to disqualify ineligible entrants from the semiprozine and fan categories by giving constitutional meaning to the antonym “non-professional publications.”

The Committee’s definition is in this proposal:

Add a new section: 3.Y.Z: A Professional Publication is one which meets at least one of the following two criteria:
(1) it provided at least a quarter the income of any one person or,
(2) was owned or published by any entity which provided at least a quarter the income of any of its staff and/or owner.

The proposed language sounds very precise, which is of little help because in practice the rule will depend on voluntary compliance, being impractical to enforce.

Consider: Semiprozines aspire to commercial success, whether or not they depend on it. If lightning strikes, what then? Charlie Brown once told me he depended on winning the Hugo every year to drive Locus’ subscription sales. That leads me to believe no semiprozine publisher will want to give up the market appeal of a succession of Hugo nominations.

In Charlie Brown’s day the print media criteria were sufficient to classify Locus as a semiprozine. Nobody had to ask him for income information to apply this new one-quarter test, which presumably would lead to Locus being reclassified as a prozine. Can you imagine how Charlie would have answered? Business reasons and privacy motives will keep prospective nominees from cooperating with the enforcement of this rule.

(4) The Hammer? The Committee already anticipated my last criticism with its final proposal:

Add to the end of Section 3.9 (Notification and Acceptance): 
Additionally, each nominee in the categories of Best Fanzine and Best Semi-Prozine shall be required to confirm that they meet the qualifications of their category.

But what will that mean in practice? The rule doesn’t define what prospective nominees will be required to do to confirm eligibility. Does that mean continuing the policy of self-certification with polite “do-you-think-you-are-eligible?” e-mails of the sort this year’s Hugo Administrator sent out? If the plan is to take everybody’s word for it, there’s no need for this rule.

Saul Jaffe’s minority report, appealing for better draftsmanship, is on target. If it is not fairly obvious who is eligible in a category there is a major problem with the Hugo rule, because it will never be cured by enforcement.

II. Rich Lynch’s Amendments

The latest version of Rich Lynch’s proposals I know about are on his LiveJournal:

Proposed WSFS Constitutional Amendments to keep the Fanzine Hugo non-professional and limited to words on paper or video screen.

(Note: strikeouts indicate proposed deletions and underlined text proposed additions.)

3.3.12: Best Semiprozine. Any generally available non-professional periodical 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) one (1) 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) (2) provided at least half the income of any one person,
(4) (3) had at least fifteen percent (15%) of its total space occupied by advertising,
(5) (4) announced itself to be a semiprozine.
Audio and video productions are excluded from this category.

3.3.13 Best Fan Audio or Video Production. Any generally available non-professional audio or video production devoted to science fiction, fantasy, or related subjects which by the close of the previous calendar year has had four (4) or more episodes or podcasts, at least one (1) of which appeared in the previous calendar year.

3.3.13 3.3.14: Best Fanzine. Any generally available non-professional periodical 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. Audio and video productions are excluded from this category, as are publications that pay their contributors and/or staff monetarily.

Lynch’s amendments make changes I support. They

  • Identify semiprozines and fanzines as reading experiences — words on a page (appearing on paper or screen) — by ruling audio and video productions out of the category
  • Define semiprozines and fanzines as periodical publications – appearing in discrete, individual issues (similar to a magazine)
  • Limit eligibility for Best Fanzine to amateur zines by restricting those that pay contributors or staff

Some other features trouble me. His Best Fan Audio or Video Production amendment creates a new category for podcasts, videocasts, etc. – like last year’s winner StarShip Sofa – that would be excluded from the Best Semiprozine and Best Fanzine categories if his changes go through. I think that idea for a new award category should be left to find its own supporters, and not be packaged as though it is a goal of fanzine fans. It rings a false note.

Lynch’s semiprozine definition fails to go far enough, leaving in place outdated print media criteria (average press run), criteria an external observer can’t check (income), or have no practical application for blogs and websites (15% of space occupied by advertising). However, Lynch would argue my last complaint isn’t a problem — he interprets his amendments to rule websites and blogs out of contention in the zine categories.

III. Thinking Out Loud

Rich Lynch has my thanks for advancing the public discussion of these issues with his motions. And they are the only proposals to plainly state that fanzines are text-based and should not be competing with items that resemble dramatic presentations.

While I like several of the Semiprozine Committee’s ideas for changing the semipro and fanzine category definitions, more needs to be done. I’d like to see the “issue” definition problem solved by including Lynch’s chosen word “periodical.”  And I would like to focus the zine categories on text by adding Lynch’s phrase “Audio and video productions are excluded from this category” to the Committee’s semiprozine and fanzine rule proposals.

We’ll see how it all plays out next week at the 2011 Business Meeting.

Personal Thoughts About the Fan Hugos

I promised I’d return to Aidan Moher’s questions about the fan Hugo nominees:

But don’t even get me started on the Best Fanzine and Best Fan Writer awards. Maybe I’m exposing my ignorance here, but beyond StarShip Sofa, I haven’t heard of a damn one, nor am I familiar with any of the writers. My beef, obviously, is the lack of presence of blogs, bloggers and online writers. Where’re the Nialls (Harrison and Alexander)? Where’s Abigail Nussbaum or Adam Whitehead? No nod for SF Signal? Really?

Really? Are we to assume from Moher’s tone that there’s a consensus about the best work in the field accepted by everyone except the actual Hugo voters?

There’s no consensus – there’s not even a plurality of opinion. Not among fandom at large and not among those dinosaurs the “traditional fanzine fans.”

Look how many different things were nominated in the fan categories this year – 119 fanzines, 225 fan writers. The leading fan writer (whoever that is) appeared only on 22% of the ballots. It was possible to reach the finals in Best Fanzine or Best Fan Artist with support of just 13% of the voters, and in Best Fan Writer with only 9%. Four-fifths of the voters might easily be asking if everyone else really neglected their favorites, but filling in the blank with names Moher never mentioned:

Votes Unique Nominees Range
Low % High %
Best Fanzine 340 119 43 0.13 69 0.20
Best Fan Writer 323 225 30 0.09 70 0.22
Best Fan Artist 176 97 23 0.13 46 0.26

I happen to agree that Moher’s examples are, indeed, excellent. The thing is — there’s a lot of quality work being done, many admired writers, and the voters in the fan categories are passionate about a wide variety of choices. They have such a diversity of interests that there’s no justification for Moher to take on so, as if his examples of the most award-worthy fan writers or fanzines are so superior they’re the only ones anyone should embrace.

The Not So Great Divide: Moher’s complaint about a “lack of presence of blogs, bloggers and online writers” among the nominees appeals to the idea there is divide between people who engage in online fanac and…  uh… come to think of it, who exactly is supposed to be on the other side of that divide?

Everybody uses the Web now. The Cool Kids and the Old Pharts haven’t been divided between pixels and paper for years. Did you notice there were only 14 paper ballots out of 1006 cast?

In hindsight, I believe the separation of various fan communities was not a technological divide but was a byproduct of people’s attempt to define fandom in a way that allowed them to believe they were keeping up with the part that mattered (therefore making it okay to ignore the rest.) Time is finite and interests vary with the individual, few fans have the desire or resources to participate in the full spectrum. That’s a social dynamic at work, not a byproduct of choices in communication technology.

There may be a divide of a different kind at work currently. Aren’t most of Moher’s examples distinguished by their passion for discussing sf & fantasy? Don’t most of the present fan Hugo finalists focus on fandom and social interests rather than discussions of genre literature? In the last culture war between faanish and sercon fans, the former were offended by all those darn book review zines hogging space on the Hugo ballot. I wonder if we haven’t cycled around to a version of this controversy again.

Despite our milieu being called “science fiction fandom” we often underestimate how much a quality discussion of science fiction or life inside the writing business appeals to fans. Would Fred Pohl have won a Best Fan Writer Hugo if every post was about the bheer can tower to the moon or something equally skiffy?

This pendulum swings back and forth as time passes and varies which interest dominates the Hugo ballot.

Legislated Change: When the “Making the Web Eligible” amendments to the Hugo rules took effect in 2010 many fans predicted they would yield a radically different slate of nominees – a prospect filling some with delight and others with dread. Those predictions came true. The winner of the 2010 Best Fanzine Hugo, StarShip Sofa, was a podcast. Three first-timers were up for the Best Fan Writer Hugo, two bloggers, those overnight sensations James Nicoll and Fred Pohl, plus letterhack Lloyd Penney.

Yet in 2011 voters returned some of the old standbys to the final ballot, so it’s not as if an asteroid struck the earth last year and wiped out the dinosaurs.

Why Does It Look This Way? Three factors seem to have moderated the change everyone predicted.

First, the growing participation in the Hugos — a record 1006 Worldcon members cast nominating ballots in 2011 — hasn’t impacted the fan categories. The average voter isn’t interested in fanac and leaves that part of the ballot blank.

Second, veteran fans with somewhat convergent ideas about fanzines still exert leverage on the Hugo nominating process, as I’ll explain.

Third, voters don’t know what “Making the Web Eligible” made eligible that wasn’t before. The amended rules failed to provide clear direction. This vagueness makes newcomers shy away from participating in the fan categories. People only vote when they’re somewhat confident about what they’re supposed to be voting for.

White Space: Hugo Administrator Vincent Docherty’s statistical summary shows that while practically every voter nominated something in the Best Novel category, with 83% participation, the typical ballot otherwise left many of categories completely blank.

2011 Hugos
Total Ballots = 1006 Votes Cast in Category Percentage of All Ballots
Best Novel 833 0.83
Best Novella 407 0.40
Best Novelette 382 0.38
Best Short Story 515 0.51
Best Related Work 375 0.37
Best Graphic Story 287 0.29
BDP, Long Form 510 0.51
BDP, Short Form 394 0.39
Best Editor, Short 425 0.42
Best Editor, Long 300 0.30
Best Pro Artist 406 0.40
Best Semiprozine 368 0.37
Best Fanzine 340 0.34
Best Fan Writer 323 0.32
Best Fan Artist 176 0.17

My interpretation of these statistics is that they show voters nominate in categories where they feel a higher level of confidence in their knowledge about what deserves an award — and skip the rest.

Something else I believe is true, though it can’t be proven with the voting stats, is this:

Most Hugo voters don’t read fanzines.

Most Hugo voters don’t read blogs by fans.

Because most Hugo voters don’t read fan writing, which is what your typical fanzine or fannish blog is filled with. It really makes no difference whether the fan writing is online or what format it’s in.

Most Hugo voters don’t know any names to write down in the fan categories, so most of them don’t nominate in the fan categories.

Ballots Better Than Bullets: That leaves those of us who think we do know something about the subject to thresh things out. And the numbers show in the Best Fanzine category that the people who are sure they know what a fanzine is and have an opinion about what the best ones are, simply by filling out their ballots completely, wield a surprising degree of influence over what makes the final ballot. This can be inferred from the voting statistics.

In every category a great many voters cast “bullet votes” — they write down just one or two selected friends or favorites. Here’s how we know that. Remember, a voter can nominate up to five items in each category. Now look at the Best Novel category:

2011 Hugos
Total Ballots = 1006

Total

Nominations

Average Nominations
Best Novel 833 2657 3.19
Best Novella 407 987 2.43
Best Novelette 382 1014 2.65
Best Short Story 515 1538 2.99
Best Related Work 375 729 1.94
Best Graphic Story 287 660 2.30
BDP, Long Form 510 1283 2.52
BDP, Short Form 394 1036 2.63
Best Editor, Short 425 1105 2.60
Best Editor, Long 300 629 2.10
Best Pro Artist 406 1058 2.61
Best Semiprozine 368 881 2.39
Best Fanzine 340 819 2.41
Best Fan Writer 323 912 2.82
Best Fan Artist 176 462 2.63

Docherty reports voters made 2657 total nominations. Therefore, 2657 divided by 833 ballots equals an average of 3.19 nominations per ballot.

Working through the rest of the ballot there’s surprising consistency — nearly every category averaged 2-3 nominations or less per ballot.

Some voters are filling in four or five slots on their ballots, so that overall low average can only be achieved if a large proportion of the other voters write in just a single nominee – casting bullet votes.

Without looking at the ballots, which isn’t allowed, no one can tell which nominees were helped by bullet voting, and that’s beside the point. My purpose is to show how prevalent bullet votes must be.

I believe we fannish voters continue to have a greater impact for the very reason that we do put something in all five spaces. If, after I fire one of my bullets for File 770, I follow it with another for Challenger (which is a terrific fanzine), give the third to The Drink Tank and so on – that collectively lifts a certain community of fanzines above the background noise. Even a small convergence of this kind influences the outcome.

Why Johnny Can’t Define “Issue”: A few months ago I was happy to get an e-mail from the Hugo Administrator telling me File 770 was nominated. The e-mail also asked me to verify that I was eligible in the category:

We’re delighted to inform you that File 770 has been nominated for a Hugo Award in the category of Best Fanzine. The Best Fanzine category is for any generally available non-professional publication devoted to science fiction, fantasy, or related subjects which by the close of 2010 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.

Can you confirm this requirement and do you accept the nomination in this category?

Easy for me to answer that affirmatively, I had a paper issue out last year. All the other finalists had distinct issues, too.

Were any of the prospective nominees blog creators, who read this paragraph and decided their work didn’t qualify and declined the nomination? I doubt it. Nobody on the verge of making the final ballot will think, “I’ve made 200 blog posts but I’m not sure if that’s the equivalent of four issues, so I’d better turn down this nomination.”

But I do suspect that Hugo voters are deterred from nominating things that don’t come in easily-definable issues. Maybe they should be. Last year John Scalzi, seconded by Cheryl Morgan, advanced the idea that their blogs were not fanzines or related works, setting an example to the effect that bloggers should be recognized only in the Best Fan Writer category.

No way of really deciding who’s right – the authors of “Making the Web Eligible” failed to say what “the equivalent in other media” is. And because fans shy away from voting in categories unless they’re confident in their knowledge, don’t you suppose the lack of an explicit definition chills participation?

Vincent Docherty, Hugo Administrator for 2010 and again in 2011, provided helpful guidance last year that made it clear the voters collectively would have the most say about what qualifies:

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?

Of course the rules change was nicknamed “Making the Web Eligible” for a reason – the movers did not intend that only things looking like paper magazines would be allowed into contention as fanzines, otherwise they need not have changed the rules.

Last year the three online non-magazine publications receiving the most nominations for Best Fanzine, besides winner StarShip Sofa, were SF Signal (17), Australian Speculative Fiction in Focus (13), and The Way the Future Blogs (11). They may make it yet.

Conclusion: I hate to say it, but the infinite audience of the internet mostly avoids reading our fascinating verbiage, whether it appears on a hip happening blog or in a bilious old PDF file at eFanzines. Everybody wishes they drew like Scalzi at Whatever. Most are lucky to draw like Glyer at File 770. Enormous numbers of people online have an interest in sf – it’s mainstream now. How many are engaged in fannish activities like fan writing, con running, publishing, etc. How many are connected to the Worldcon community whose members vote on the Hugos?

We have fannish communities with varied interests and tastes and while it’s typical of the age to assume the other side is biased and corrupt, in fact it’s everyone’s privilege to like what they like. The prospects with the most support will make the final ballot, which is how the Hugos are designed to work.

(P.S. I note that SF Awards Watch has done its own exploration of the voting stats in “A New Hugo Award Podcast”. If this post was inspired by their work I’d happily admit it, but it’s not.)

Update 05/23/2011: Fixed one table — thanks to Mike K. Discovered I had copied another test calculation which isn’t discussed in this post. 

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

The Future of the Best Fanzine Hugo

The proposal to eliminate the Best Semiprozine Hugo has gotten so much attention it’s been easy to overlook the major surgery that the Best Fanzine category will undergo if the final product of the “Making the Web Eligible” motion, the language shown in underline, is ratified at the 2009 Worldcon Business Meeting:

3.3.12: 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.

Before you suspect me of being only a guy with a paper zine trying to deny the electronic future, let me say that I actually agree that internet publications – such as blogs and websites — need to be brought into the Hugo Awards.

The problem is introducing the “making the web eligible” changes without any attempt to define new criteria that will align commercially-motivated internet publications in another category.

I worry about fanzines and fannish websites/blogs being shut out of competition by a combination of trade publications and mass-media-promotion websites. If the voters in the Business Meeting intend a laissez-faire approach, I suppose the chips will fall where they may. But having made a point of preserving existing semipro critiera in the other major rule changes they may be open to a suggestion.

Look into the future. You’re at the 2010 Worldcon in Australia attending the Hugo ceremonies. Someone is announcing the five nominees for the Best Fanzine Hugo. But which of these three lists are they reading?

List A:

Argentus
Banana Wings
Challenger
The Drink Tank
File 770

List B:

eFanzines
Locus Online
SF Site
SF Signal
Whatever

List C:

io9
SyFy.com
SCI FI Wire
SF Universe
Tor.com

The rules are being changed to make paperzines share the glory, so List A, a rerun of this year’s slate of nominees, is unlikely.

List B is a realistic possibility. I’m impressed that eFanzines already dominates its category in the FAAn Awards. The others are just a few examples of online publications that have a lot of fan support.

Everything depends on what Worldcon members vote to put on the final ballot. One smof is fond of quoting the axiom Vox populi, vox dei. A Hugo Administrator would need nerves of iron to rule out List C if voters ranked these pro sites in the top five. So if this list isn’t anyone’s ideal, more concrete rules would help.

The change throws a great burden on the Hugo Administrator without providing much guidance. Controversy always stalks the awards to some extent, a prospect that deters most administrators from any action not required by a black letter rule. The probable outcome is that voters will be the ones deciding the categories where internet nominees belong. 

The 2008 Business Meeting minutes say very little about the scope of the change or how to administer it. When somebody questioned the Chair whether blogs would belong in Best Fanzine or Best Related Works (amended from “Best Related Book” by the same legislation), the Chair said that would be up to the Hugo administrator. But on what terms? The minutes are silent.

Voters have the semiprozine criteria for paid material and more-than-half-of-one’s-support to filter some things out of the fanzine category. Unfortunately, those aren’t good tools for the work.

Consider: Is Locus Online semipro? It repeats some material the magazine presumably paid for. Does it fulfill any of the other criteria? There’s advertising, but mainly at the top of the landing page – so, far less than 15% of the site’s overall space. There’s no way of determining if Locus Online provides more than one-half of anyone’s support (or any support at all) without them announcing it, but how likely is that when editor Mark Kelly has day job in aerospace? Very possibly Locus Online is not semipro as the Hugo rules define the term, even though one of its goals is to steer business to the magazine.

Next, consider Whatever. It’s popular with tens of thousands of readers. Most fanzines and fannish blogs have about one percent of that readership. Otherwise, they have in common a devotion to sf and fandom in their own way. Whatever carries no advertising and pays nobody to write, to my knowledge. Instead of drawing a distinction between Whatever and other publications I’m practically delivering a sound-alike for the “If you prick me, do I not bleed?” speech from “The Merchant of Venice.” Where should it compete?

A lot of the other high-traffic sites are easier to classify. Poke around and you eventually find a reference to the top editor having been hired away from a big-name pop culture magazine. Click on the “advertising” link and you’ll be taken to a corporate webpage declaring that millions of people read its spectrum of special-interest sites. But will this circumstantial evidence be enough to empower a Hugo Administrator to disqualify something as a fanzine?

What does the future hold? As you can see, a lot is riding on the work fans will do at this year’s Business Meeting.

P.S. One other thing bothers me about the soon-to-be-ratified rule change. Why haven’t the knowledgeable fans who proposed it given the category a new name in order to avoid the clumsy anachronism of calling virtually every form of two-dimensional fanac a fanzine, as the rule will effectively do?

Thank You So Much!

My deepest thanks go out to everybody who supported File 770 for the Best Fanzine Hugo. It’s very much an honor to win, and a pleasure to know fans like what they’re reading in the zine and here online.

And it was great to experience that moment together with my wife, Diana. I’d have loved for her book to win, too, but we have been very happy to hear from people here at Denvention who came up to tell her how much they enjoyed it.

Challenger #28 Online

Guy H. Lillian III has posted a new issue of Challenger, his Hugo-nominated fanzine. It’s a tremendous zine, with outstanding articles by Resnick, Benford, Toni Weisskopf, James Bacon, and Joseph Green.

My contribution is “Flashman at Klendathu.” Guy invited me to pay tribute to George Macdonald Fraser, author of the popular series of Flashman historical novels, who had recently passed away. As a fan’s imagination is prone to do, mine wandered from the stack of books Fraser had actually written to the novels we now would never see – such as the oft-hinted adventure that would explain how Flashman ended up fighting on both sides of the American Civil War. I knew I’d miss Fraser’s sharp wit and his gift for deflating pretensions about the glory of war. The free association set in motion by those thoughts at last made me wonder what Starship Troopers would have taught about military life if it had been Flashman telling the story instead of Johnny Rico. “Flashman at Klendathu” fills in that blank. (And the Charlie Williams illo is perfect!)

A final word: The Challenger website has announced a contest for the best-designed favicon, the little image that appears next to the URL address line in your web browser (if the site has one loaded.) Entries should be sent to challzine@gmail.com by the deadline, which somewhat arbitrarily is before “The next issue of Challzine — or December 31, 2008 — whichever comes first.” Entries will be displayed in the next issue and voted upon by the readers.