In August fans are scheduled to decide the fate of the Best Semiprozine Hugo at the Worldcon Business Meeting. Last year voters approved an amendment eliminating the category, a change subject to ratification at Montreal. If passed a second time, the category will be dropped.
Should it stay? Should it go? I’ve honestly been having a hard time deciding. Now having spent many hours looking over the arguments I’ve come to the conclusion that the Best Semiprozine category ought to go.
The rules define a semiprozine as one that meets at least two 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.
Internet technology has put zine publishing on a much different economic footing than the days (not so long ago) when paper issues predominated. A person can choose a far less expensive strategy to distribute work and be spared the necessity of creating a large commercial enterprise in order to survive.
The way pros market their writing has been radically changed by the ability to create online communities of fans and customers. One result is that the amount of free nonfiction about the field available from pro writers has greatly increased. How logical is it to compartmentalize directly compensated writing as semipro, when the other also has the commercial motive of establishing a writer’s brand and stimulating sales?
Finally, a little discussed but very significant change to the Best Fanzine category is likely to be ratified at the same Business Meeting. As I read it, blogs and some websites will become eligible in the fanzine category. Wouldn’t it be absurd to preserve a category for the benefit of a few paper semipro fanzines if other issue-based fanzines must compete with blogs having thousands of readers?
In essence, times have changed and done away with many of the reasons for keeping the semiprozine category.
No Reservation Required: The category was created 25 years ago by fans concerned that the Best Fanzine Hugo category had become dominated by commercially-motivated, professionally-printed, high-circulation zines like Locus, Science Fiction Review/The Alien Critic, Algol/Starship, and Science Fiction Chronicle. Such zines were moved into the new Best Semiprozine category in 1984. And I’m hardly ungrateful – that’s the reason mimeographed, hand-collated File 770 won its first Best Fanzine Hugo in 1984.
But with the dawning of the Age of the Internet a strange reversal occurred, and I wonder to what extent Ben Yalow and Chris Barkley (who submitted the original motion) were spurred to action by the slate of Best Semiprozine nominees for 2006: Ansible, Emerald City, Interzone, Locus, New York Review of Science Fiction.
Locus won again, of course.
However, nominees Ansible and Emerald City would have been eligible to compete in the Best Fanzine category (and had done so formerly) barring their editors’ unilateral declaration that these were semiprozines (one of the eligibility definitions provided by the rules). Consider that just three of several dozen semiprozines proved capable of outpolling amateur publications in order to make the final ballot.
It’s as if in 2006 the voters were already exercising an implicit veto over the continued existence of this Hugo category.
Drawing a Circle Around Locus: The rules change eliminates the Hugo for semiprozines while preserving the list of semiprozine criteria in the simultaneously amended definition of Best Fanzine. So Locus (and semiprozines generally) won’t drop back into contention with other fanzines after the rules are changed. No doubt that’s a politically necessary feature to get the change passed by long-time fans at the Business Meeting who won’t have forgotten the original purpose of the semiprozine category.
On the other hand, consider how trivial some of the criteria now are, compared with their importance 25 years ago.
One of the formerly important attributes of Locus that made its way into the Best Semiprozine definition was “an average press run of more than 1000 copies per issue” (Locus far exceeded that, of course). A zine needed to become an engine of commerce in order to pay its printer for thousands of expensively-published paper copies, and buy postage for mailing them. Now the ease of distributing material to many readers through the internet allows the option printing no copies, using instead PDFs or other kinds of electronic text files. Press runs aren’t a limiting factor when Hugo voters can see many eligible works online.
Paying for material can also be a defining feature of a semiprozine. The amateur ideal has hung around the discussion since the original Hugo award for Best Amateur Magazine, later renamed Best Fanzine. Yet paying contributors has never legally ruled a fanzine ineligible for the Best Fanzine category provided that’s the only one of the five semiprozine criteria it satisfies. That’s proven by 2009 nominee Electric Velocipede, which pays for material.
Another cherished assumption about the categories in which pro writers should properly compete has already been tested to destruction in the Best Fan Writer Hugo category. The kind of writing that once filled Science Fiction Review and Algol/Starship – bought and paid for – now is available for free from literally hundreds of pros in venues that don’t possess a single attribute of semiprozines as defined by the Hugo rules.
Internet distribution levels the playing field. Fanzines can pay writers and remain fanzines. Pro writers market their work by giving away to fans what we used to have to buy. We may believe we can infer the commercial or noncommercial motives behind various types of published writing and art, but awards categories based on our guesses about people’s intent are arbitrary and inconsistent. “Semipro” is no longer a helpful boundary definition, which makes it hard to justify continuing any category it defines.
Til Semiprozines Have Faces: Some object that Locus has virtually monopolized the category, winning 21 times in 25 years. One of the paradoxes of fan psychology is how we set up “best of the year” awards, then become impatient unless they’re won by someone new every year.
I consider Locus to have gone beyond consistent excellence over the past four decades — it’s also achieved ever-increasing quality during that time. I’d say something has been lost when an award causes people who might otherwise marvel at its phenomenal achievement to curse Locus for not obligingly going out of business and leaving room for someone else to win. In short, my opinion about the change has nothing to do with how many times Locus has won.
One zine, no matter how great, isn’t sufficient justification for a Hugo category, however. Even two or three top semiprozines, adding in the frequently-nominated New York Review of SF and Interzone, are not enough. Some have argued there are too few strong semiprozines to support a Hugo category.
I suspect advocates of the rules change considered the fiction semiprozines immaterial to the debate until Neil Clarke, Publisher/Editor of Clarkesworld Magazine, refused to let the Best Semiprozine Hugo category go down without a fight.
Clarke’s Save the Semiprozine rallied vocal opposition to the change, and 32 semiprozines have identified themselves on the site. They’re a volatile group, some having suspended publication or gone out of business since the beginning of this campaign. That still leaves the population larger than I believed: others may have been surprised, too.
When there was a Best Professional Magazine Hugo category, the universe of prozines sometimes shrank to 10 (1967) or even 6 (1972) as titles fell victim to downturns in the economy. (Source: the Wikipedia entry on science fiction magazines.) Yet there was never a call to abolish the category due to there being too few potential nominees. Perhaps that’s not a very strong argument against the Best Semiprozine category, either.
Pro Arguments: Save the Semiprozine has also opened channels of communication for people to hear the semiprozine editors’ own arguments in favor of keeping the award.
John Klima said it is a rush to be nominated, and that the award recognizes hard work. David G. Hartwell wrote:
We are opposed to that abolition for several reasons: we cannot honorably compete in any other category; we derive great personal satisfaction from our nominations; and most of our competitors in the category feel the same way.
That is not an inconsiderable argument. It’s very gratifying to witness a friend’s pleasure in winning a Hugo. People voted to divide the Best Editor category into Long Form and Short Form partly so that David Hartwell and Patrick Nielsen Hayden and other noted novel editors would share some of the glory going to magazine editors every single year. (As it turned out, Hartwell’s first Hugo win occurred just before the division took effect.)
New York Review of Science Fiction is the kind of classic sercon publication that the creators of the Best Semiprozine category expected to dominate it. However, as shown at Save the Semiprozine, nonfiction semiprozines are very much in the minority. And that “great personal satisfaction” has been denied to fiction zines for the most part.
There have never been more than two semipro fiction zines nominated in any year. Just six different fiction zine titles made the Hugo ballot from 1999-2008.
(Interestingly, only two titles nominated during that timespan are still published, Interzone and Lady Churchill’s Rosebud Wristlet. Absolute Magnitude, Helix, Speculations, and The Third Alternative are gone.)
Despite the odds against semipro fiction zines ever winning, their editors are very reluctant to see the category killed off.
If anyone harbors a prejudice against fiction semiprozines, assuming they’re filled with stuff that “real” prozines would pass over, be aware that’s seldom the case. Over the years, some of these zines have had award-nominated stories. A couple have sold “best of” collections to major sf publishers, like Del Rey. Many of the zines listed at Save the Semiprozine pay competitive rates to beginning writers.
One editor believes a Hugo is needed to reward what these semiprozines are doing for the sf field.
Wendy S. Delmater of Abyss & Apex argued that the Best Semiprozine Hugo should continue in recognition of services like:
(1) We are talent scouts for the pro magazines. A&A is a good market for new writers – 25% of our stories are first-ever publications for our authors.
(2) Other semiprozines give similar things to the community: a place to move up the publication ladder, a niche that might appeal to a broader audience, and-especially in the case of review zines-a place for the community to interact.
When I looked at the wordage rates offered to beginning writers by semiprozines and prozines, I was surprised to see they often aren’t that far apart, by no means the great chasm I expected. The competition to develop a successful magazine involves more than money, it requires a lot of other skills and personal intangibles, too. Exactly the spectrum of abilities already recognized in this Hugo category:
3.3.8: Best Editor Short Form. The editor of at least four (4) anthologies, collections or magazine issues primarily devoted to science fiction and / or fantasy, at least one of which was published in the previous calendar year.
The present rule is not limited to editors of printed publications. It isn’t restricted to professional publications. Fiction semiprozine editors are already eligible for the award as presently defined. There will still be a Hugo recognizing their services if the Best Semiprozine category is eliminated.
Eliminating the category is consistent with the long-term trend to recognize individual people. That’s why Best Prozine was superseded by Best Editor, because fans wanted to honor a person, not a title or corporate entity.
Calling the Question: There seems to me little need for a Best Semiprozine Hugo. The five hallowed criteria have diminished meaning, due to the advent of the internet, and because we are not trying to enforce a strict amateur/pro divide.
The semiprozine editors’ arguments that we need to keep their category because (1) it’s a rush to be nominated and (2) it rewards hard work aren’t very persuasive. If that was all it took to get Hugo categories added, there’d be a Best Filk Hugo and many more.
Semiprozines help uncover literary and artistic talent, and for that the editors are eligible in another category, Best Editor: Short Form.
That’s why it makes sense to me to ratify the rules change.