The Hugo Awards

Zauberwort - The EditorialThe Hugo Awards

Let's talk about the Hugo Awards. Horst has brought together a bunch of viewpoints about the Sad Puppy campaign, and the response to it, and we all owe him a huge vote of thanks.

Now to toss some dynamite into the discussion.

The Hugo Awards don't matter. Period.

This doesn't mean I wouldn't take one if nominated. Any time any group decides to honour an author, the author should, if they've got the sense God gave amoebas, be damned happy, and accept. Any time. Being honoured by any group is an indication you are doing something right.

But the entire bunch of folks who've been arguing various points for and against the Sad Puppy campaign don't understand the issues. This isn't their fault. None of those who've made public statements have the training to understand the issues. The only people who might have the training work for the major publishers, and I doubt that they have it either.

I do. I worked as a Major Accounts Sales Representative. My job included:

  1. Handle initial contacts with Fortune 500 Companies
  2. Determine what technologies would be required to meet regulatory requirements
  3. Determine what potential customers would be a good fit for our company
  4. Determine the basics of our marketing messages
  5. Train our sales staff in our marketing messages
  6. Train our sales staff on our technologies
  7. Liaison with regulatory agencies
  8. Work with manufacturing and design on producing and designing product

The skill set I was trained on, and further developed on my own, gives me the skills to evaluate the Science Fiction and Fantasy marketplace. To the best of my knowledge, no one else involved in the Hugo discussion has an equivalent skill set.

So let's take a dive into the market. I've tried to translate the concepts into things people without a sales background would understand. 

The Origin of the Science Fiction and Fantasy Marketplace
Science Fiction and Fantasy did not exist as separate markets prior to the founding of Weird Tales Magazine in 1923. Weird Tales survived for 279 issues, and created an entire new market for writers. Hugo Gernsback was probably thinking of Weird Tales when he founded Amazing Stories in 1926, and created a new market for Science Fiction.

The opening of separate markets, expanded the number of readers, and the number of writers involved. I don't have the time to try and pull publication data myself. Feel free to do so, and publish your findings.


At the same time, there were a number of related publications, things like Doc Savage Magazine, Air Wonder Stories, and the Golden Age of Comics (yes, Superman IS Science Fiction). There was also a range of Science Fiction Fantasy and related works on radio. While most people think only of Orson Wells and his infamous broadcast of 'War of the Worlds', it was only a tiny part of the Science Fiction and Fantasy broadcasts during the Twenties and Thirties.

And of course the first WorldCon was in 1939.

The War Years
The early Forties saw a drop in Science Fiction and Fantasy published due to wartime paper shortages (and the number of writers, editors, and publishers who were in uniform). Even after the war ended, publishing was slow to pick up. In England large parts of London were rubble until the the middle Fifties. Much of France and Germany suffered even worse damage. While Canada and the United States weren't bombed, the massive sudden drop in armament sales, as well as the sudden reduction in the size of the militaries, caused both countries problems.

But the size of the Science Fiction and Fantasy markets grew anyways. Both DC and Marvel (aka Timely) produced War versions of Superhero comics. Paperback reprints of popular works sold well, due to the lower costs.

One of the most amusing anecdotes of the war was about the story 'Deadline' by Cleve Cartmill, published by John W. Campbell in Astounding Science Fiction in 1944. The story, about an atomic bomb, caused the United States Federal Bureau of Investigation to visit Campbell, ordering him to withdraw the issue from circulation. Campbell explained that doing so would draw more attention to the story, and that 'We publish stuff like that all the time.'

Why is that important? Because World War II was the first 'Science Fiction' war, with innovations like radar, jet airplanes, radio navigational aids, computers, and of course atomic weapons.

The War had a negative impact on the growth rate of book and magazine sales, but sales of Science Fiction and Fantasy increased faster than any other genre.

The Fifties
A variety of technological impacts hit the Science Fiction and Fantasy markets. The first original paperback publications occurred in the early Fifties, and the availability of lower cost editions helped sales climb further.

Radio plays also did well. And the television, already thirty years old, finally became inexpensive enough for a mass market to start forming. While Science Fiction and Fantasy worked better on Radio, due to the lack of special effects capability for the visual media, the number of Science Fiction and Fantasy programs from the Fifties is amazing.

The Sixties
Sales of paperback books continued to increase. Unfortunately this impacted magazine sales negatively, cutting into the size of the short fiction market (the same also happened to all other Genre markets).

At the same time, in France the popular comics Asterix the Gaul and Barbarella, and in Germany the incredibly popular pulp booklet series Perry Rhodan showed the international multilingual appeal of Science Fiction and Fantasy.

Like magazines, radio shows decreased in popularity, with television Science Fiction and Fantasy shows taking up an increased amount of airtime. While the quality of most shows tended to be less than stellar (Mr. Ed, Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea, My Mother the Car are horrid examples), three television shows from the Sixties are still in constant syndication. In order of production date they are:

  • Doctor Who
  • Thunderbirds
  • Star Trek

Curiously those three shows are the ONLY television shows from the Sixties that are still in syndication. None of the shows from the Fifties are in syndication (note that the Warner Brothers cartoons while in constant syndication were not originally produced for television).

In comics, DC had resurrected the Superhero comic in the late Fifties. Of course Superman and Batman had been in continuous publication, but DC introduced new heroes like Aquaman and The Green Lantern, and with the superhero group Justice League of America strong sales showed that there was a good market for superhero comics. 

Marvel (aka Timely) followed suit with the idea that they'd write comics aimed at older audiences. The Fantastic Four was Marvel's first new superhero title, and was a great success. It was followed by a range of other superhero titles. Comics fans from the Sixties tended to rate Marvel higher than DC, because of the great story lines, and the interesting characters.

There's a sales and marketing concept called Reach. The basic idea is that the greater reach your campaign has, the greater chance your product has in the marketplace. This assumes that your product has features and/or benefits that an audience would appreciate.

Consider Volkswagen in North America. At the time the Beetle was released in the United States and Canada (1949), anti-German prejudice was high because of World War II. The original importer sold two cars in the first year, but sales quickly rose, mostly from word of mouth recommendations.

Those 'word of mouth' recommendations gave the Beetle tremendous Reach, far more than a conventional ad campaign would have. Though Volkswagen did engage in mass advertising campaigns once they had a larger North American sales base, that was only possible because of the Reach that satisfied customers gave the brand initially.

In the Sixties, the same thing happened to Science Fiction and Fantasy. The specific reasons are:

  • Marvel's decision to produce comics aimed at a teen to young adult audience, which forced DC and the other smaller comics producers to do the same.
  • Gerry Anderson's decision to produce first, Thunderbirds, and second Captain Scarlet without the generic teen sidekick characters, and with adult plots.
  • Gene Roddenberry's decision to make Star Trek an adult oriented show.
  • Sydney Newman's aim that Doctor Who would be educational. While the Doctor's companions were often young (and attractive - I had a huge crush on Sarah Jane), the show avoided the typical for the time aim at young children, though children adored the show.

Please note that the term 'Adult' means aimed at an audience with adult levels of cognition, not the more recent meaning of 'Sexual Themed'.

Up till the Sixties, most media productions of Science Fiction and Fantasy seemed to be aimed solely at children. The Sixties television series Batman is a good example.

It is really hard for adults to take a genre seriously when it is aimed at children. Even after it was proven that well designed productions aimed at higher age groups were popular and profitable, newer productions often continued to use the kid sidekick (or a functional equivalent - see the little robot in the Eighties production of Buck Rogers), and wondered why no one took them seriously. The original Battlestar Galactica is a good example.

Lots of us who came of age in the Sixties, Seventies, and Eighties were told that we should stop reading/watching that 'Kid Stuff' too many times to count. Curiously, the entire world is now reading/watching that 'Kid Stuff' and loving it.

And that's all because of Reach.

How it Worked

  • Doctor Who and Thunderbirds are British institutions, and popular through much of the English speaking Commonwealth, and translations into other languages in non-English speaking counties abound. 
  • Star Trek is hugely popular through both English and non-English speaking countries.
  • Marvel Comics have been translated into most major languages, as have DC Comics.

In each case, the original group of readers/watchers was small. By 'Word of Mouth' the word about the excellence of each was spread, and the new readers/watchers helped spread the word further, and so on.

This also happened with books and magazines, but to a far more limited extent. In the Sixties a popular Science Fiction and Fantasy novel often sold less than forty thousand copies. A one hour Star Trek television episode could reach forty thousand in New York alone, never mind the rest of the English speaking world. And Star Trek re-runs were constant, which meant many more people saw it. By 1977 it is possible that every adult in the English speaking world had seen at least part of one episode.

While certain books sold very well indeed (Lord of the Rings, Dune, Stranger in a Strange Land), they were the exception, and even those books failed to reach the size of audience that a television/radio production, or a comic could reach. Far more people have read a Spider-Man comic than have read Lord of the Rings.

Then there's the non-English markets. Here are some examples of those.

  • Barbarella: Produced for V Magazine in France from 1962 to 1964. Series was unique for the time, featuring a robot prostitute, an 'orgasmotron', and some really nifty art work. It has been reprinted several times, including a run in Paris Match during the early seventies (my high school library had a Paris Match subscription).
  • Asterix the Gaul: With thirty-five books to date, and translated into more than a hundred languages (including English), the Asterix series is possibly the most popular French comic ever.
  • Tintin: Another French language comic, it ran from 1929 to 1986, and competes with Asterix as to which is the most popular comic in that language. There are twenty-four books in the series.
  • Perry Rhodan: A German 'pulp' Science Fiction series, with more 2,800 instalments in the main series, 900 instalments in the Atlan series, 400 'Planet' novels, comic strips, a movie (which is so terrible no one talks about it), audio plays, encyclopedias, and a variety of collectables. Over One Billion copies of the books have been sold, making it the most popular Science Fiction series ever in print, far surpassing the sales of Star Trek and Star Wars novels combined.
  • Manga: A Japanese art form, Manga are illustrated stories covering a wide range of genres, including Science Fiction and Fantasy. They are read by all ages, and the more popular works are often translated to other languages including English. Manga sales make up a huge part of Japanese publishing.
  • Anime: Anime, or animated films are very popular in Japan. Like Manga, they cover a wide range of genres, but SF&F is well represented. Popular works are translated to many languages, including English.

The above list is not meant to be exhaustive, but illustrative.

How Reach Played Out
Up until the Fifties, the dominant form factor for Science Fiction and Fantasy was the written word. While various other forms existed, they had relatively little impact (Orson Wells' War of the Worlds radio broadcast being an exception).

At some point, that changed. Kristine Katherine Rusch believes that the change occurred with the release of the first Star Wars movie. She is wrong. The change occurred over ten years earlier. In England the probable date was 1964, with both Doctor Who and Thunderbirds being extremely popular. In Canada it is probably a year later, since Canadian stations often ran a year behind on broadcasting British TV shows. In the United States, it was 1966 with Star Trek.

Remember I mentioned above that almost every adult in the English speaking world had probably see at least part of a Star Trek episode by 1977? That's because the original Star Trek opened up viewers imagination, laying the ground for the success of Star Wars, which was released in 1977.

What Star Wars did was show definitively that the change had occurred. I know people who went to see Star Wars who claimed they hated Science Fiction. But they loved Star Wars, and the reason they were open to seeing it was that they'd seen Star Trek, or Thunderbirds, or Doctor Who...

The change happened because the majority of people interested in Science Fiction and Fantasy were no longer following the written form. Many may not even have known that the written form existed, or if they did, still considered it Kid Stuff. Children’s books.

At the same time, there has been a considerable cross-fertilization. Many fans who originally found Science Fiction and Fantasy in video format, later found the written form, and happily follow both, often branching out into comics or manga. Many people who originally found the written form happily follow the video form as well.

But the majority of people interested in the various versions of the Genre are no longer readers of the written only form (as compared to the various graphics arts versions such as comics). Thus, an award that only covers the printed word only form, and only a portion of it, is not relevant to most fans.

Note that I'm mainly interested, for this article at least, in English language countries. The Hugo Awards have never had much impact on Science Fiction and Fantasy in non-English language speaking countries.

When an award is supposed to represent the best of a particular genre, and it is unknown to the vast majority of the consumers of works in that genre, you have a problem. This problem is partly caused by the lack of outreach by Fandom as a whole. Fans have been ineffective at introducing new readers to the market.

Many new readers have come into the market, but that's because they found the Genre through other forms, such as television, or the Romance Genre (see the popularity of the Paranormal Romance field for example), or from novels written over a hundred years ago. For a child reading the works of Robert Louis Stevenson who likes the setting, Fantasy is the closest thing he or she will find. The same is true for a reader of Horace Walpole's The Castle of Otranto, or for someone reading Dante Alighieri's Divine Comedy.

But many of those readers will be unaware of the Hugo Awards, and even if they do become aware of them, the books and stories which have been winning since the late Sixties, are often not what they would find relevant to their interests.

Voting for the Hugos
Part of the problem is the limited voter pool for the Hugo Awards. Since you have to have a WorldCon membership to vote, and the VAST MAJORITY OF ATTENDEES STILL DON'T VOTE, the Hugo Awards are selected by a very small, non-representative sample of Fandom. 

WorldCon attendance runs about 10,000 people. Hugo voting is usually about 10% of WorldCon attendance, or about 1,000 people. The exact number of people who buy a Science Fiction or Fantasy book (not including graphic novels and comics) isn’t known. It’s far more than 1,000 people though. Odds are that the number is closer to 1,000,000 people who buy more than one book per year, in the English language markets (United Kingdom, Canada, Australia, New Zealand, and the United States - countries with a total population of about 450,000,000 people).

One possible solution would be to open up voting. Get thousands more people involved. That is one thing that the Sad Puppies have tried to do. The basic idea is commendable, however their suggested method will not work. It may appear to work, in that a few more people may vote, but it doesn't reach the hundreds of thousands of people who know little if anything about the Hugo Awards, but love Science Fiction and Fantasy. The Sad Puppies are barking up the wrong tree.

The Hugo Loyalists (sorry, that's the best term I can come up with for them), are in denial. The works which have won in recent years are works that the vast majority of New Fandom has no interest in. They disagree with the Sad Puppies - as far as the Hugo Loyalists are concerned everything is fine. What they don't seem to realize is that they've locked themselves inside a prison cell, and tossed the key out the window.

As for myself, I've been thinking about the problem for a while now, and I've been unable to come up with any solution that seems feasible. Part of the problem is that the Hugo Awards are tied to WorldCon, and every WorldCon is run by a different set of people, in a different city, and often in different countries. Any change would have to have buy-in from all of the WorldCons committees which have won bids, and getting unanimity would be difficult.

Another solution would be to start a new award, however that would entail getting buy-in from authors, publishers, self-publishers, readers, etc., and would involve an even larger series of problems. Say you decided to use a web based voting system. And someone on the ballot is friends with a hacking group, like the team that worked the Ashley Madison hack...

There are no doubt thousands of possibilities. We need an award which represents Fandom as a whole better than the Hugo Awards do. Suggestions anyone?


Wayne Borean

Tags: Science Fiction and Fantasy, Hugo Awards


#1 Ted Ung 2015-09-01 21:12
I prefer messy democracy with all its faults. My personal objection is promting "affirmative action", "reparations" nomination and voting. I was told a system under discussion limits the number of nominations from any person to three, keeping five as the number nominated per category. The idea seems to be that no group of nominators, agreed and democratic as they might be, could fill all the slots. Since, as I recall, the number of nominating ballots was fewer than 1,900 for any Hugo or Campbell category. It is perfectly possible for for dedicated fans to tell their pals, "We checked out several of groups of umpty works; we recommend some of you select three from one group or another." If it were not that any system can be defeated of its purpose, then "one more law" would fix everything. Regards, Ted
#2 Seth 2015-09-02 02:43
There is a 4/6 proposal (Ted Ung suggested 3/5). It won't stop bloc-nominating slates, the blocs just need to be a bit bigger (50% for 4/6, 67% for 3/5).

A proposal (which also passed this year and is up for ratification next year) called 'E Pluribus Hugo' would fix that problem, limiting the power of bloc nominations to approximately the percentage of nominators in the bloc.
#3 Wayne Borean 2015-09-04 18:40
Kate Paulk has said that she'd like to see 10,000 people nominating and voting. While this would be a good idea, what we really need is 100,000 people nominating and voting.

You can read Kate's words here:

#4 Joshua Kronengold 2015-09-14 18:48
Wayne: Ok, you start out spending a long time establishing your credentials, and the fact that you've spent a bunch of time studying SF as a field. All well and good.

And then you jump to talking about the Hugos, and it's like all that careful knowledge and research has gone out the window. Suddenly it's all unsourced assertions, bogus statistics, and irrelevant claims. It's like all the carefulness you have about the field earlier is just in there to let you spout things out of your ass and not get called on it. So what is it?


1. The Hugos, are not, and have never been a popularity award. Any argument that rests on the assumption that an award is only relevant if it represents "the public" is on unsolid ground.

2. While only 10% (still a huge number) of the membership of the Worldcon [note, membership, not attendence] nominate for the Hugos, more like a third of the membership or more votes. This is a huge number in terms of being representative of the membership. And the fact that (unlike this year, where nominations were way out of alignment with the voters) the voters usually have no problem picking winners indicates that the nominations are usually not particularly far out of step with the voters.

3. The value of the Hugos is not, and has never been that it represents the reading public. For that, you just need to count dollar signs; it's not hard. Instead, it represents a number of things:

a. For core literary fandom (ie, those who go to literary cons and consider themselves part of literary fandom) it represents the ability to give out an award to things they like.

b. For potential recipients of the award in fandom, it represents the appreciation of their peers.

c. For potential recipients of the award who care about status, it represents status -- among those who care about the Hugo awards [note: A lot more people care about the Hugo awards than are members of Worldcon-going fandom, particularly in a given year]. This may also be a matter of political force, if that status also means being paid more attention to.

d. For people who are getting monetary rewards, it represents potentially more money [if, in fact, the Hugo tends to translate out to an uptick in sales].

For all these categories, the value of the Hugo rests not in it mapping to overall poularity, but in the Hugo having a track record in picking winners -- ie, works that stand the test of time. This doesn't come from works that everyone likes in a given year getting a Hugo -- it comes from people seeing the "Hugo winner" note plastered on stories and novels and authors they respect, and thereby accreting that respect to the award. The Hugo will lose value when it no longer can boast that association; which means it neesd to start picking losers (or nothing at all) on an ongoing basis for that to happen.

What it doesn't rest on is a mapping to overall popularity. It never has, it never will, and frankly, your assertion (at the end of your piece) is shit. In order to say anything worth reading, you have to discuss something someone -else- is saying; not making a straw man of your own divising and then knocking it down. For instance, you could:

Show that Hugo-award winning works (and/or authors of works) don't get an uptick in popularity after winning, or maybe even being nominated for a Hugo.

Show that the percieved status effects of winning a Hugo are illusory.

Knocking down my a and b is more or less impossible, but if you can find a way to try, feel free.

But measuring the Hugos based entirely on a criteria that its creators, voters, nominators, and administrators have never thoughts was important -- and that, in fact, has only been raised by attackers who were complaining that it wasn't met, renders your entire piece specious and suspect.
#5 Deirdre M Murphy 2015-09-14 21:18
If I look at your comments in terms of how big and commercialized Worldcons are, as opposed to how big they could be (look at Dragon Con or the Comicons), or about fandom in general, your comments on reach are very interesting and deserve further thought. In my mind, it raises the question, 'As a community, are we limiting our longevity as well as our size by not reaching out to include more people?' (Though that question ignores the issues inherent in maintaining the community's nature and culture as it grows huge.)

I note that in many of your comments, you are equating "fandom" with "all consumers of science fiction and fantasy", and that has never been the case. Fandom has always been a specific community within that larger group. The larger group does, of course, have commonality in having a shared interest, but it does not have the other hallmarks of a community. Similarly, you could say I am a Cubs fan in that I grew up in Chicago and hope they'll win. But I do not go to games, watch them on TV, go to tailgaters, track the players, or talk about their season. I am not truly a part of the community that centers on the Cubs. And that's OK. I feel no need to go into that community and tell them the way they're having fun is no good or argue with them about who's the best Cub or Cub fan. I don't tell them their way of being a fan is wrong. They have their fandom(s), and I have mine.

As long as I have been a fan, there have been other speculative fiction-related fandoms; Trekkies, Treckers, SCA (role-playing the Middle Ages "as they should have been" takes SCA out of the pure reenactment category and into something very like alternate history), Gamers, and so on. There has also been a lot of overlap in the communities--some people are fans and SCA, others are only one or the other.

Don't get me wrong, I find your marketing analysis interesting, but neither fandom nor the Hugos are about marketing. They weren't created to sell a product (though getting a fan award is a kind of word-of-mouth, and writers and publishers would be fools not to recognize that).

Oh--and if you're talking in terms of changing mundane society, of course Star Trek and Dr. Who came first. But if you're looking at changes in the community called simply fandom, Kristine Kathryn Rusch is correct that it was Star Wars that created a sea change. The Star Trek and Dr. Who fans of the time were happy to have their own conventions and communities; with Star Wars, a huge influx of people found fandom who hadn't read the classics and some of whom weren't even interested in reading them. It was very strange and scary to many of the fans at the time, who had to hide the fact that they read that "kid stuff" from most of the world or face ridicule, to have all these people who weren't afraid to be openly fans coming to the same conventions.

But mostly, for all of this chatter I've been sharing, the part you start with--that of course an author would accept and appreciate an award given by whatever community of fans wanted to honor them--that's what seems most true here. Fandom is a group of people who got togther years ago as a community and decided to give an award for the science ficion _they_ liked best every year. Not the one that made the most money, not the one that changed the larger culture the most, and not (necessarily) the one that had the best space ships. And that is a wonderful thing.

If someone else wants a different award, and is willing to do the work to create and maintain it, more power to them. But this award has belonged to this community for decades. It is wrong for someone to try to steal it or destroy it just because they don't like the books we like.

It's like coming across a group of kids playing ball. You don't get to steal or destroy the ball just because you'd rather play a different game.

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