The Nebula Awards are one of the most venerable traditions in science fiction. Voted on by the members of the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America (SFWA), they are seen as the ultimate stamp of peer approval in the industry. If your fellow writers think that your book is top notch, then surely you are entitled to a glow of pride.
Yet in recent years the Nebulas have come under some fairly fierce criticism. There have been accusations of "log-rolling" (people making "I'll vote for you if you vote for me" agreements to get their works on the ballot), and while the Nebula winners have generally been well received, the lists of nominees have often included some works that raised eyebrows. There have been concerns about just how many members of SFWA actually bother to vote (after all, how many writers also read a lot of books, aside from those they are using to research their current novel?). A recent embarrassment was that this year the relatively new Andre Norton Award for Young Adult fiction failed to get a single work onto the Preliminary Ballot. A work only needs 10 recommendations from SFWA members to achieve that status, and YA is hugely popular at the moment. Apparently, however, hardly anyone in SFWA reads it. Given the much publicized internal struggles of SFWA, no one held out much hope of anything changing.
There was much surprise and delight around the blogosphere, therefore, when SFWA President Russell Davis announced a major overhaul of the Nebula rules. As of next year, the Nebulas are going to be quite different, at least internally, but what difference will this make? Let's take a look at the changes.
Much the Same Categories
Superficially, the Nebulas haven't changed much. There are still four main categories—Novels, Novellas, Novelettes and Short Stories—and they still have exactly the same definitions as those categories have in the Hugos. The Norton still exists, with slightly different rules, and the old Script category has been replaced by the new Ray Bradbury Award, which is for a dramatic presentation. The latter change makes sense. Very few people actually read movie scripts, but lots of people see movies in theaters and at home, so a "script" category didn't really work. Under the new system SFWA members will be expected to take acting, special effects and so on into account, rather than have to pretend that they didn't as was the case before.
SFWA has also reserved the right to add more awards, but these, like the Norton and Bradbury, are not Nebulas. It is unclear why this distinction is made. The John W. Campbell Award for Best New Writer, which is voted on alongside the Hugos, is genuinely a separate award—it is owned and sponsored by Dell Magazines (publishers of Analog and Asimov's) and only administered by the World Science Fiction Society (WSFS). The Norton and Bradbury are both owned by SFWA, so there is no obvious reason why they cannot be Nebulas other than some desire by SFWA to distinguish them. Oddly works can be eligible for both the Norton and a Nebula.
Bye-Bye Rolling Eligibility
Eligibility has always been a weakness of the Nebulas. In the past they used a complex system of rolling eligibility over 18 months that was designed to try to give all works a fair shot at winning, regardless of when they were published. The system wasn't as difficult to understand as some people have made out, but it had the unfortunate result of confusing the public. Almost every other award in the SF&F community works on calendar year eligibility. The Nebulas tended to produce nominee lists including some works from the previous year, and others from the year before that, which left people scratching their heads as to what was going on. Also the works being honored tended to have been forgotten about and become unavailable in shops. If an award is to help sell books (and surely that must be one of the purposes of an award) then it should be promoting works that are current.
Some SFWA members are quite upset at losing the extended eligibility, but it is clear from what they write online that they don't really understand what is going on. The most common complaint is that the new system will disadvantage works that are published early in the calendar year because they will have been forgotten about by the voters. Experience from the Hugos suggests quite the opposite: works published early in the year are at an advantage because more people have had time to read them. I even saw one SFWA member complain that publishers would have to alter their schedules in order to give their books the best shot at an award, which shows a touching but entirely misplaced sense of the esteem in which the Nebulas are held by publishers.
The Nebulas have always been restricted to works published in the USA (except for the Norton, and possibly the Bradbury although the rules are unclear on that). In the new rules we discover that the USA now claims dominion over the entire Internet. However, this isn't really a case of American imperialism—it simply recognizes the fact that works published online are available to citizens of the USA, and therefore should be assumed to have been published there.
Preliminary Ballot Also Gone
It is in the process of producing winners that the Nebulas have changed the most. The old system had three stages. Works first needed 10 recommendations to make the Preliminary Ballot. This was then voted on to produce nominees, and the Final Ballot produced the winners. The new system has only two official stages. The recommendation stage has been replaced by an entirely advisory system of recommendation lists (much like those we run at SF Awards Watch). Any work may now be nominated, so there will no longer be the embarrassment of insufficient works making it to the Preliminary Ballot. Of course, unless SFWA publishes the voting figures the way that WSFS does (which they have never done in the past) we won't know how many votes each nominee got. People often complain about how few votes it takes to become a Hugo nominee (17 for a Short Story last year). If the Nebulas can't muster 10 recommendations for a work to get on the preliminary ballot, how many votes will nominees get? Clearly fewer than 10.
Under the new system, 6 works in each category will go forward to the Final Ballot (more if there is a tie in the number of nominations). That's one more than previously, and also one more than the Hugos. The old system also had a collection of juries whose job it was to find works that had been unaccountably overlooked by the voters and add them to the Final Ballot. This was designed to protect against embarrassments if a really popular and critically acclaimed work didn't get nominated. It remains to be seen whether the absence of the juries will be noticed. However, the Norton jury has been kept, and it is still allowed to add up to 3 works to the final ballot. Clearly SFWA still doesn't trust its members to read YA books.
Also Disappearing: Preferential Balloting
Possibly the biggest change to the actual award rules is that SFWA has done away with preferential balloting. Under the old rules, the Final Ballot required voters to rank the nominees in order, just like in the Hugos. The new rules are one-member-one-vote, with victory going to the work with the most votes. This could have a very significant effect on the Nebulas. Preferential voting, such as the Nebulas used to use and the Hugos still do, favors the nominee that is the least unpopular. Simple majority voting favors the nominee that is the most popular. Those two things are by no means the same.
To understand the difference, consider last year's Best Editor (Short Form) Hugo. Ellen Datlow had the most first preference votes (130), followed by Stanley Schmidt (128), Sheila Williams (106), Gordon Van Gelder (98) and Jonathan Strahan (85). Under the new Nebula rules, Ellen would have won, even though she had only 23% of the total vote. But the Hugos use preferential voting, and the by time all of the various eliminations and re-distributions of votes were completed Gordon emerged the winner. The common interpretation of this is that Ellen has a lot of enthusiastic fans, but also a lot of people don't like her work that much, whereas Gordon has fewer outright admirers but a larger contingent of people who generally approve of what he does. (A less generous but possibly more accurate interpretation is that many Analog readers would rather chew off a leg than vote for a woman, because it was only when Stan Schmidt's votes were redistributed that Gordon leapt ahead.)
Why has SFWA done this? They haven't said anything publicly, but one reason might be to give different sub-genres a fair crack at the prize. As I have explained, the Hugos tend to produce winners that have the least enemies among the nominees. This has worked to the disadvantage of writers such as China Miéville and George RR Martin, because WSFS always has a largish anti-fantasy lobby. The same problem should not affect the revised Nebulas, although of course it may well mean that the Nebula winners turn out to be works that a lot of people object to. Indeed, if opinion is fairly equally divided between all 6 nominees, it will be possible to win with around 17% of the vote.
Some Internal Changes
A significant internal change has been made as well. From now on all recommendations and ballots will be anonymous. It will no longer be easy for SFWA members to make log-rolling deals because there will be no way of knowing if the other person will keep his/her side of the bargain.
Another potentially large change, but one that only SFWA members will notice, is a change in the rules regarding who can vote. Previously only "Active" members of members of SFWA could vote. To be an "Active" member you didn't have to be active, but you did have to be a proven successful writer, having sold a novel or three shorter works. Nominations will now be opened up to "Associate" members—people who have only sold one short work. The SFWA management wants Associates to be allowed to vote on the final ballot as well, but this requires a change to the by-laws and therefore could still be blocked by crusty conservatives in the membership. The idea here appears to be to widen the electorate and therefore get more people nominating (because of that less than 10 votes to be nominated problem). However, Affiliate members are still not allowed to vote. Affiliates are people like editors, agents and critics—people who actually do read widely in the field every year and might be expected to know what they were doing when selecting good works. SFWA's class society is still pretty firmly entrenched.
The Blogosphere Approves
What will all of this mean for the Nebulas? It is hard to say regarding the winners. I don't know, for example, how many Associate members SFWA has, or how their participation might affect voting. But what is clear is that the process is now much easier for people outside SFWA to understand. Hopefully that will mean more confidence in the awards. If SFWA continues to pick good winners, and can avoid picking too many unexpected nominees, then the reputation of the awards should rise as a result. The good news for SFWA's management is that just about everyone who has blogged about the changes has welcomed them—even John Scalzi who is by no means shy about venting his frustration when SFWA does something stupid. It is, I think, an auspicious start.