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.

12 thoughts on “Scoring the Proposed ‘Zine Hugo Amendments

  1. I strongly feel that podcasts like Starship Sofa *Should* be excluded from the Best Fanzine Hugo catagory. A podcast is not a fanzine in the same way that a fanzine is not a podcast. They are two distinct and separate forms and it was and continues to be a gross injustice to pit the two against each other. Starship Sofa and other podcasts may be wonderful things for what they are, but they are not so wonderful that Fandom should allow them to steal the Best Fanzine Hugo away from an actual fanzine. Decades ago the “Best Semi-Prozine” catagory was created specificly so that small press magazines with readerships in the few hundreds wouldn’t have to compete with professional magazines with audiances of (at that time) many thousands. Why have fanzines been denied a similar consideration? The audiances for those free and relatively effortless podcasts vastly overwhelm those for fanzines. Give the pod people their own Hugo catagory if that’s what the Worldcon members want. But stop letting them steal away the traditional fanzine catagory each year. It’s an insult and an attack on the very base of SF Fandom itself.

  2. Curt: the Best Fancast proposal kicks fan-produced podcasts into their own category (and coins the term “Fancast” parallel to “Fanzine”), and I think does so somewhat better than the Lynch proposal does.

  3. Having now heard some of the fanzine and semiprozine nominee podcasts, which the Hugo nominees packet nudged me to do, I find that the difference in media is completely insignificant, not remotely comparable to the way a dramatic production (even an audio one, like Firesign Theatre) differs from a text story, and that I have no trouble whatsoever comparing these fruit (apples) to these other fruit (oranges).

    The only advantage I’d feel from kicking them out of these categories is that it would save me time as a voter, as I can read a text issue in a lot less time than it takes me to listen to a podcast, especially with all the fumpfing around that characterizes their editorial content, and I could just ignore the Best Podcast category, which, if its other entries weren’t as good as these, would be a pretty poor showing.

  4. Maybe I have become too much of a traditionalist in my old(er) age but I agree that podcasts and fanzines should not be in the same category. Of course, this means that I may have to attend my first Worldcon Business Meeting in many a year.

  5. Curt: Cut the demagoguery. The current semiprozine category and the discussions surrounding it are a great example of how “let’s change the rules to change the results” ends up with unintended results. As I hear it “let’s protect small-run ‘zines from the big pros!” was a red herring for “let’s get Locus out of the fanzine category!”

    Podcasts aren’t any more “free and relatively effortless” than pubbing a ‘zine. They just require a different skill set to produce and publish, and it’s a different experience for the listener or watcher. That’s why it makes sense to put them in a separate category, not because it’s an assault on the base of fandom.

    Mike: I just sent an email to Rich with my concerns about his resolution. It does appear to be tailored to serve “traditional” print fanzines with other fanac tacked on as an afterthough. The exclusion of blog and web content in the commentary ignores the existence of web-based (non-PDF) publications that honor the periodical structure by having scheduled columns (and in some cases, even “covers”).

  6. As last year’s winner of the Semiprozine Hugo, I can tell you that winning had very little impact on our readership. I think it overly cynical to assume that the editors or owners of these publications will choose to lie to maintain their place in the category. Most of us want to reach the point of being a professional publication and lying to win Hugos is more likely to work against you. The point of the certification rule was to require that administrator ask the question. I don’t believe they are currently required to do so. I wouldn’t read too much into it. It just formalizes a current practice.

    As for the issue about “issues,” well, you are looking at things from a strictly paper and old media point of view. While there are people (like me) that produce “issues” online, we do so largely out of kindness to people who can’t handle it not being packaged that way (sometimes, we’re those people). I have no problems with magazines (like Lightspeed) that stagger the release of content across a month and then declare that month’s content was an “issue” – they are still magazines. I hit on the whole topic in an editorial I wrote last year. ( I stand by that piece and still believe that something like io9, which doesn’t even pretend to have “issues”, is very much a modern form of magazine. Times are changing and while I respect tradition, sometimes you have to accept the bastard child into the family.

  7. Thank you for your analysis of these proposals. It should help clarify thinking on what is possible to do to help fix what is now a broken category.

    I should mention, though, that my proposed amendment is really aimed at the Fanzine category and not the Semiprozine category. I have no standing in the latter, and the only changes I proposed for Semiprozine were those that are needed because of the proposed changes to the Fanzine category.

  8. To chime in with what Neil Clarke said, I can’t testify to what Charles Brown may have told Mike, but he told me in 1993, upon Locus not winning Best Semiprozine for the first time in the award’s history, that he’d known from past voting statistics that this had been in the cards for some time. He didn’t look terribly unhappy, or at least not more than usual, not being a bubbly guy at the best of times.

    Also worth noting is that he’d actually withdrawn Locus from Best Fanzine (its then category) one year, in 1979. If he depended on the Hugo win for circulation purposes, clearly it was some time after that date that he drew that conclusion.

  9. I realize this is belated of me (I’m afraid I was swamped when this was posted by the hundreds of emails on the actual Semiprozine reform committee), but I’m confused as to how the word “periodical” would exclude blogs, which of course are published in discrete, periodical, form with each post. They’re not streamed continuously; streaming is a different kind of publishing/webcasting/medium from periodically writing a blog post.

    In other words, so far as I can tell, the word “periodical” however intended, doesn’t exclude blogs. How could a blog not be periodical? (Each post has a permalink, as a rule, and most, though not all, blogs time-stamp; a non-dynamic URL is a quite discrete marker.)

    (Would it make a difference to put other numbers on posts, or declare a given subset an “issue”? That would seem weird, but I don’t really grasp the intent here, in any case, not that I feel deeply strongly that blogs are precisely fanzines, either.)

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