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February, 2009 : Feature:

All Change at the Nebulas

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 The Norton still exists, with slightly different rules, and the old Script category has been replaced by the new Ray Bradbury Award, which is for a dramatic presentation.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.

Copyright © 2009, Cheryl Morgan. All Rights Reserved.

About Cheryl Morgan

Cheryl Morgan is co-editor (with Kevin Standlee) of SF Awards Watch, a web site dedicated to reporting on and studying awards in the science fiction and fantasy industry. Cheryl has been nominated for several Hugo Awards, winning one in 2004. Her personal blog can be found at Cheryl is also the non-fiction editor for Clarkesworld Magazine.


Feb 5, 04:34 by IROSF
"All Change at the Nebulas"
Feb 5, 16:00 by Lois Tilton
As I recall, from my days in SFWA, the change to rolling eligibility came from complaints by authors published late in the year, not early, as it was believed that people would not have had time to read the works by the ballot deadline.

As for the reason that the Norton etc are not Nebula Awards, I believe that this, too, has to do with the notorious SFWA bylaws, in which there are explicit rules which must be followed to add a new Nebula category, such as requiring a vote of the membership. The Norton Award, of which I strongly disapprove, was established by fiat of the SFWA Board without a vote.
Feb 5, 19:54 by Cheryl Morgan
Thanks for the insider view, Lois. Would you mind sharing the reasons why you dislike the Norton so much?
Feb 5, 21:36 by Lois Tilton
Precisely because of what happened with the nominations this year.

SFWAns just do not read in this category. SFWAns increasingly do not read in the field, for that matter, as far as the Neb recs seem to reflect. So why should SFWA give an award, to be voted on by the membership, when the membership hasn't read the candidates?

The Nebula is meant to be a peer award, from writers to writers. Making it a jury-nominated award defeats that purpose. This is one reason I'm glad they don't call the damn thing a Nebula. Still, people will think of it as a Nebula, as they always have.

I haven't seen the new rules myself, so I don't know if they've retained the No Award option.* I hope so. But SFWAns always seem to feel that, if there's an award going, someone ought to get it.

*Apparently not. How Like Them.
Feb 6, 02:50 by Gordon Van Gelder
Do you have any evidence to back up the notion that ANALOG readers would rather "chew off a leg than vote for a woman"? It seems to me that ANALOG readers have supported various woman writers (particularly Lois Bujold and Catherine Asaro) over the years. I can't think of anything recently that suggests to me that ANALOG readers wouldn't welcome a female editor as long as she remained true to ANALOG's basic vision. Have I missed something?

---Gordon V.G.
Feb 6, 22:56 by Cheryl Morgan

The redistributon of Stan's votes benefited you much more than Ellen (82 votes to 43). Other redistributions more balanced. Obviously we can't know what the voters were thinking, but we can speculate.
Feb 6, 23:00 by Cheryl Morgan

SFWAns increasingly do not read in the field, for that matter, as far as the Neb recs seem to reflect.

That, I think, is one of the biggest issues that SFWA has to address. There are very good reasons why it is true, and it makes an award voted on by your peers a difficult thing to make work.
Feb 7, 03:14 by Lois Tilton
I was advocating scrapping the award for years.

Best way ever to get out of elected office in SFWA: run on a platform of abolishing the Nebs.

Feb 8, 14:50 by David Bartell
I don't think the speculation about leg chewing is fair. Sure, the sex of the editors is a glaring difference, but there are many others. The thought process during vote ranking does not necessarily track with the convoluted vote counting, which is not really "redistributing", is it? In other words, they don't take Stan's votes and dole them out to other editors, do they?

I think the characterization of "least unpopular" is close to the mark though. For this and other reasons, I welcome the changes to the process. It is regrettable that stories published late in the cycle may suffer, but that may be the lesser evil. One could also argue that early stories suffer from short memories.
Feb 8, 23:52 by Cheryl Morgan
David: What else are the voters likely to think? The correct way to vote in a preferential ballot is to select who you want to win and then to think "if that person wasn't on the ballot, who would I want to win now?" That's exactly what redistribution does. So if people are not thinking that then they probably don't understand how the system works.

But of course you are right, there could be other explanations. For example, Ellen is primarily know for horror, and many people don't like that sort of fiction. It just seemed odd that only Analog readers felt that way.
Feb 9, 01:58 by David Bartell
I guess I for one was guilty of not understanding the system when I voted. (Not that it would have mattered.) I skimmed over the rules, and didn't quite grasp it in the way you describe, which is my own fault, of course. Or maybe I just don't recall clearly. Your brief explanation is clear and succinct.

Analog toes the hard SF line, for the most part, probably because many of its readers have that preference. So it's not surprising that they would show less interest in someone with differing tastes. I don't quite see how that translates into votes for GVG, though. Next least unpopular? Least offensive non-hard SF? Fond memories of F&SF of yesteryear? Gender bias? It is interesting.
Feb 11, 06:50 by Zachary Spector
This article makes me want to avoid paying attention to the Nebulas. What award do you suggest I pay attention to instead? Assuming there are really any options other than that and the Hugos...
Feb 13, 21:48 by Cheryl Morgan

I can't really say without more information. What about the Nebulas do you not like? What would you like to see in an award? There are lots of them - we've cataloged a large number at SF Awards Watch - so there might be something to your taste.
Feb 20, 21:10 by Bruce Bethke
As someone who was on the SFWA Board of Directors at the time the rolling eligibility rule was voted in: what Lois said. It was put in to mollify the writers who were complaining that works published late in the year got short shrift, and it was a P.I.A. to administer.

If the members of SFWA would spend half the time writing that they do whining about the organization's rules, they'd be a lot further along in their careers.

"I was nominated for the Nebula many times, but ultimately, I got the Dick."

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