The Five Per Cent Solution

Last week LoneStarCon3, the 71St World Science Fiction Convention announced the nominees for the 2013 Hugo Awards. As with any awards ballot, it featured some works that I thought were absolutely essential, missed some of my favourites, and added some that were pretty much off my radar, all of which is pretty normal and shouldn’t surprise anyone.

What did seem to draw a lot of attention (I discussed it myself with friends on Twitter at the time) was the Best Short Story category, which featured three nominees instead of the typical five. The reason for this was that section 3.8.5 of the WSFS Constitution requires any nominee to receive at least 5% of the nominations if it is to make the final ballot.

I’m not steeped in the history of the Hugo Awards like my good friends Cheryl Morgan and Kevin Standlee, both of whom have been incredibly generous over the years in providing information on the Awards to the Coode St Podcast, so I asked them for some background.

Kevin let me know that according to the Annotated WSFS Constitution, the rule was adopted in 1980, and was intended to protect against flat distributions of votes (75, 53, 43, 12, 10, 10, 10, 10, 10, 10, …..) which presumably could lead to very large numbers of works appearing on the final ballot (something that I think would attract at least as much criticism as this year’s situation!).

From what I can gather this rule has only very rarely come into effect. The only instance that has been mentioned to me was in 1994 [ETA: As per a note from Kevin in comments below, section 3.8.5 has come into effect twice in the Short Story category, once in 1994 and once in 2011], and it’s quite possible that is the only time.  So, do I think the rule is unreasonable? Do I think a ballot with just three nominees in the Short Story category signals the end times? Is it a terrible ballot? What does it mean?

Well, all sorts of good information is available on the Hugo Awards site which might help us understand things a bit better. One of my own barometers for the health of an award, especially a popular vote award like the Hugo, is how many people are involved. Has involvement increased or decreased? I took a quick look and this is what it showed:

 

Year Valid Nominating Ballots
2008: 483
2009: 639
2010: 864
2011: 1006
2012: 1101
2013: 1343

 

While that doesn’t go back far in time, it does show that more and more people are taking the time to nominate. This is important because you have to pay to nominate (you need to  be either a voting, supporting or attending member of WorldCon) so I think it shows an increase in the number of people who care about the awards and are willing to act. A good thing, and a sign of good health.

But are those nominators interested in the Short Story category? Well, pretty much. Valid nominating ballots received for the category increased from 270 in 2008 to 662 in 2013, which I think is not quite proportional to the overall increase, but is still pretty darned good. I feel comfortable saying more people care about the Hugos and more people care about the Short Story category than they did as recently as 2008.  All good.

Has it become easier to get nominated during that time? Well, in 2008 you needed 15 nominations to make the final ballot and by 2013 you needed 33 nominations, or about twice times as many. Not too shabby, though I always imagine larger numbers must be involved (I think we all do).

How about the total number of stories nominated?  There are no figures for total number of stories nominated, though we do get some indication of this from looking at the final published voting statistics. Conventions typically release information for works that garner a certain number of nominations. The 2012 WorldCon listed 18 short stories, which cut off at those receiving 16 or more nominations. I assume there were a lot more. In 2008 there were 17 listed, cutting off at those receiving 10 nominations. I am going to guess, and it’s only a guess, a lot more short stories received nominations this year, which strikes me as a good thing.

Given all of that, if you share my biases that more voter involvement and more works nominated are a good thing, then I think we can say the awards themselves are in good health. This doesn’t make any judgement on what is nominated. That really is up to the voters, and I agree with them strongly sometimes, and other times I don’t.  Still, good health is good. I’d like to see increased diversity, and I think that is coming over slowly over time. So, yay voters on that.

What about the 5% rule? Is it unreasonable? Honestly, this is a personal judgement and mine is that the 5% solution is about as good a solution to the problem as any. I don’t think anyone would welcome a ballot with eight or ten works on it, and that means the cut-off has to occur somewhere. Is 5% the right point for the cut-off? I don’t have all the data available, but it doesn’t seem unreasonable to me. Yes, we have the lowest number of nominees in the category since 1968, but that’s an artefact of the voting, and the 5% rule seems to have had quite minimal impact since it came into effect in 1980.  So, no I don’t think it’s unreasonable or signals the endtimes.

What about the ballot itself? Is it good? Actually, yes, it’s hella good:

  • “Immersion” by Aliette de Bodard (Clarkesworld, June 2012)
  • “Mantis Wives” by Kij Johnson (Clarkesworld, August 2012)
  • “Mono no Aware” by Ken Liu (The Future is Japanese, VIZ Media LLC)

All three of the nominees are in my Best of the Year this year, so obviously I think they are good! There’s traditional hard SF from Ken Liu, but with a different slant. There’s gender chewiness, literally, from Kij Johnson, and more gender focussed hard SF from Aliette de Bodard. There’s two women and one man. There’s a French writer, an American, and an American of Chinese extraction (I believe. Apologies if that’s wrong Ken). There are two stories published online, and one from an anthology.  So, I think the stories that are on the ballot are good, and pretty diverse really. All in all, in my opinion, it is good.

But there are only three stories! Isn’t that bad? Weren’t there other good stories, and shouldn’t they be here? Why did this happen? Well, it’s a little unfortunate. There were a LOT of stories, thousands, published in 2012. Lots of them were good, and I suspect lots of them were of sufficient quality that they would have made worthy nominees. There could have been even more variety and even more diversity, but the ballot as it stands is fine. I hope there will be more nominees next year, and this brings us to why? Why do I think it happened?

It is my personal suspicion that there are more stories being published in more venues at the moment than ever before. This diversity in publishing is a good thing, opening doors to new writers, new viewpoints, and generally invigorating the field and the awards (see the enormous increase in voter involvement above). It does come at a cost, though. I suspect that with this proliferation of fiction means fewer sets of eyeballs on each story, which in turn makes it harder to get the necessary five percent for a story to make the ballot.  I am also convinced by an argument put to me privately by Cheryl Morgan. Beyond a few very well known indidivuals, many short story writers simply aren’t well known. This could mean that it’s easier for popular writers to meet the 5% requirement, while others publish works that are less widely read.   Either way it comes down to the way that readers = nominations. These are just suspicions, though. I’m eager to see the final voting information, as I said, to see if it casts any further light on the situation. I will say, this can’t be too much of a problem, though. Why? Well, even though the field is changing rapidly, we didn’t need the 5% solution in 2008, 2009, 2010, or 2012. I’m guessing we won’t need it in 2014, though we shall see.

So, after all that, I’m pretty happy with the 2013 ballot, and not just because I’m on it. There are works in every category I would loved to have seen added, but that is always the case, just as there are works I might not have chosen, which is also always the case. I’m content, though, that it fairly reflects the view of the largest group of Hugo voters ever and I don’t think we can ask much more than that.

Note:  Thanks to Kevin Standlee for providing some information used in this post. Special thanks to Cheryl Morgan for her input. Cheryl has her own post on the subject, which I commend to your attention.

2 thoughts on “The Five Per Cent Solution”

  1. Short Story has been affected by the 5% rule in 1994 (David Bratman, co-administrator with the late Seth Goldberg and me, has the full story) and 2011 (4 nominees). The four years that we gave a Hugo for Best Original Artwork included two years where the 5% rule applied, which was one of the reasons we dropped the category (although low nominations was the main reason).

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