Friday, March 1, 2019

Biased Opinion - The Destructiveness of Voting Slates in Book Awards

Voting slates are inherently destructive.

As I noted in my post about the 2019 Nebula Award Nominees, a group called "20booksto50K" posted a very slate-like list of works to support that they kind of unconvincingly asserted was not actually a slate. Consequently, a number of works promoted by that group received Nebula or Andre Norton nominations, specifically Fire Ant by Jonathan P. Brazee, Going Dark by Richard Fox, Interview for the End of the World by Rhett Bruno, A Light in the Dark by A.K. DuBoff, Messenger by Yudhanjaya Wijeratne and R.R. Virdi, and The Rule of Three by Lawrence M. Schoen. Anyone who wants to see the text of the Facebook post announcing the 20booksto50K "not-a-slate" should go see the excellent write-up about it by Camestros Felapton titled The Nebulas & 20booksto50, not-a-nudge-nudge-slate.

Subsequent inquiry has revealed that "20booksto50K" is a group run by (and trademark owned by) LMBPN Publishing, which is owned by Michael Anderle who appears to run the publisher in collaboration with Craig Martelle. This bit of information has pulled the mask back a bit on the "not-a-slate" because it seems to have revealed the intent behind its creation and some clues as to how it was created.

One of the problems of voting slates with respect to book awards is that by their very nature they focus the voting according to the preferences, knowledge, and diligence of those who construct them. Examination of the Sad Puppy slate in 2015 revealed that pretty much every recommendation on the slate was a work by an individual who has a close personal or professional connection to Brad Torgersen, the architect of the slate. The voting bloc that was guided by the Sad Puppy slate was reduced to essentially following the range of knowledge concerning the genre that was known by a single person. The problem presented is that no one person can keep up with the genre as a whole. There are simply too many books, stories, movies, and television shows produced in a given year for any one person to be able to be able to consume a sufficient range to be able to identify all of the good ones. In the case of the 2015 Hugo nominations, Torgersen wasn't even able to keep track of all of the fiction that he thought was good: After the finalists were announced, Torgersen attacked the Hugo electorate for not making Andy Weir's book The Martian a Hugo Finalist, which was ironic because Torgersen had not included the book on his slate, apparently having forgot about it when the time came to put his list together. Slates can prevent even the works that the slate-makers like from getting onto a ballot.

In the case of the 20booksto50K "not-a-slate", there seems to be a common connection among many of the twenty-four authors whose works appear on the list, and that connection mostly runs through LMBPN Publishing. Among the many books LMBPN has produced have been two anthology series: The Expanding Universe series and the BOB's Bar series. Fifteen of the twenty-four authors who appear on the 20booksto50K slate were published in one or more of the books of one or both of those series. For the record, the breakdown is as follows (each author is listed with the anthologies they have stories in):
  • Jonathan Brazee: BOB's Bar 1, BOB's Bar 2, Expanding Universe 3, Expanding Universe 4
  • Lindsay Buroker: BOB's Bar 1, BOB's Bar 2
  • Zen DiPietro: Expanding Universe 3
  • A.K. Duboff: Expanding Universe 2, Expanding Universe 3
  • C.C. Ekeke: Expanding Universe 3
  • Richard Fox: BOB's Bar 1, BOB's Bar 2, Expanding Universe 3
  • J.R. Hundley: Expanding Universe 3
  • Robert Jeshonek: Expanding Universe 3
  • Craig Martelle: BOB's Bar 1, BOB's Bar 2, Expanding Universe 1, Expanding Universe 2, Expanding Universe 3, Expanding Universe 4
  • Kevin McLaughlin: BOB's Bar 1, BOB's Bar 2, Expanding Universe 2, Expanding Universe 3, Expanding Universe 4
  • Terry Mixon: BOB's Bar 1, BOB's Bar 2, Expanding Universe 3, Expanding Universe 4
  • Nathan Mutch: Expanding Universe 4
  • Felix Savage: Expanding Universe 1
  • R.R. Virdi: Expanding Universe 4
  • Yudhanjaya Wijeranthe: Expanding Universe 3, Expanding Universe 4
Basically, one way to increase your chances of getting listed on the "not-a-slate"appears to have been "appear in an LMBPN anthology. It seems telling that of the entire universe of available "indie" fiction, two-thirds of the authors selected for a list of voting recommendations put out by an outlet controlled by LMBPN Publications were authors who had been published by LMBPN Publications. Looking at the construction of the list, it seems as though getting these authors Nebula nominees was essentially a marketing strategy.

As a side note, there appears to be another connection: A publisher named Sci-Fi Bridge. Sci-Fi Bridge appears to specialize in putting out anthologies, and several of the authors that appeared on the 20booksto50K "not-a-slate" also appeared in one of the handful of anthologies published by sci-Fi bridge. Specifically, the following authors appeared in Sci-Fi Bridge anthologies: Jason Anspach, Rachel Aukes, Rhett Bruno, Lindsay Buroker, Zen DiPietro, Robert Jeshonek, Craig Martelle, and Felix Savage. As one can see, there is a lot of crossover here, as well as a couple of new names. Ten of the twenty-four authors who appear on the "not-a-slate" had works in a Sci-Fi Bridge anthology, including four who did not appear in an LMBPN anthology. The prime connection here appears to be Craig Martelle, who is listed as the editor for the Expanding Universe anthology series and also a crossover with Sci-Fi Bridge. Basically, the second best way to get your name on the "not-a-slate" appears to have been "have a story in a Sci-Fi Bridge anthology.

Someone, somewhere, has obviously told "indie" authors that getting an award for your book is a great marketing strategy. I've been reviewing books for several years, and have been handed literally dozens of review copies written by "indie" authors that prominently proclaim that they were a finalist for the USA Best Book Award, or the International Book Award, or the Moonbeam Awards, or the Axiom Award, or the Pinnacle Book Achievement Award, and so on and so forth. If you haven't heard of these awards before, there's a reason: Most of them aren't really awards. Mostly, they are part of an ecosystem that has grown up alongside publishing to try to bleed money from self-published authors by charging them money to enter their work in the award pool and then, usually, simply calling everyone who pays the fee a "finalist" (often so the company running the competition can sell a certificate or sticker to those entered). The authors then turn around and make the fact that one of their books has been a "finalist" for a book award part of their marketing efforts.

The reality is that slapping an award on the cover of your book (or the fact that you won an award at some point in the past) is generally a terrible marketing strategy. No one actually cares about any of these awards, because no one has ever heard of them, or if they have heard of them, they know that they are basically worthless. Every time I get a review copy of a book that trumpets the fact that the book or the author won some obscure award from an award mill, I roll my eyes a bit.

The Nebula Award, on the other hand, is a fairly well-known and prestigious award in speculative fiction. Putting the fact that the author has won a Nebula Award on a book cover has some cachet with speculative fiction fans, so it would seem natural that a group steeped in the idea that securing book awards as a marketing method would want to secure Nebula Awards. Alongside the sexism, racism, and ideologically driven culture war bullshit of the Sad Puppy campaigns aimed at securing Hugo Awards for the slate members, there seems to have been some tiny part that was intended to secure a presence on the Hug ballot as a marketing tool. The paradox inherent in the idea of trying to game awards in order to get oneself onto the ballot and possibly get an award is that as soon as an award like the Nebula becomes known to be susceptible to such marketing-driven manipulation, its value as a marketing tool will drop precipitously.1 Trying to turn an award into a marketing tool serves to destroy the usefulness of the award for that purpose.

The base fact is that voting slates in book awards destroy almost everything they touch, including their proponent's own goals. Using a slate to secure nominations for an award in order to enhance your reputation will probably serve to irreparably damage your reputation. The Sad Puppies thought that getting on the Hugo ballot would get a lot of people to read their work and impress them. What actually happened was the most damaging thing that could have happened to the Puppies: People read their work and judged them accordingly. Using a slate to manipulate your way onto an awards ballot can serve to block works that you would really have liked to have on the ballot. The slate put forward by Brad Torgersen served to block a book that Torgersen thought should have gotten a Hugo nod. Using a slate to manipulate your way onto an award ballot in order to use that nomination as a marketing tool will destroy that award as a useful marketing tool. If the 20booksto50K "not-a-slate" became a regular thing, it would destroy the reputation of the Nebula Award and make it useless for marketing purposes. And these are just examples of the damage that slates do to slate makers.

Simply put: Slates wreak terrible damage to everyone and everything around them, even their creators.

1 Right now, I would suggest that the Dragon Awards are in danger of fading into complete irrelevance due to these sorts of market-driven campaigns. Granted, the Dragon Awards seem to encourage this type of activity, but that doesn't make their presence any less damaging to the usefulness that readers will attach to Dragon Award nominations and wins.

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