Tuesday, February 09, 2010

All Votes Are Equal, But, Well, You Know the Rest

This whole thing started in the summer of 2008, when Neil Clarke reported the results of that year's Locus award poll, as published in the July 2008 issue of the magazine, and noted with alarm a retroactive change to the award's vote counting system.  "Non-subscribers outnumbered subscribers by so much," the magazine's writers explained, "that in an attempt to better reflect the Locus magazine readership, we decided to change the counting system, so now subscriber votes count double."  The new weighting system (which was only disclosed in the print version of the magazine) changed the winners of at least two categories and unleashed a flurry of angry and resentful reactions, both for the system itself and for making the change only after the votes had been cast and the results tabulated.

The backlash was not long in coming.  As reported, again, by Clarke, the 2009 Locus poll (which continued the vote-weighting system) saw a dramatic drop in participation, from just over a thousand votes in 2008 to 662 in 2009--a drop attributable directly to a 50% reduction in the number of non-subscribers voting in the poll.  "We inadvertently alienated a lot of the online community last year when we decided to double subscriber points last year--particularly by doing it without notice," the Locus writers admitted.  It also seems likely that the award controversy played a part in Locus's losing the 2009 best semiprozine Hugo to Weird Tales--an award it has failed to win only five times in the twenty six years that the category has existed (prior to 2009, the two most recent losses--to Ansible in 2005 and to Interzone in 1995--were both to UK-based magazines in UK-based conventions).  In light of this reaction, and of their own recognition of it, I expected the Locus staff to quietly roll vote-weighting back in the 2010 poll.  Instead, as the fine print in the recently posted poll page says, they have quietly continued it. 

It should be said, in the strongest possible terms, that my problem with this choice has nothing to do with perceiving it as censorship, or with being angry that Locus isn't interested in the online community's input, or with the belief that they have somehow deprived online voters of their rights.  The question here isn't whether Locus had the right to change the poll's vote-weighting system in favor of its subscribers, which of course it did, but whether in doing so it did the right thing.  There's nothing wrong with wanting the Locus award to reflect the tastes of Locus subscribers.  If the decision had been to close the poll off to non-subscribers entirely, I would have had no complaints.  It would have been disappointing--as Niall Harrison says, "The big selling point of the Locus Awards is, or always has been to me at least, their representativeness, precisely the fact that anyone can vote and that they are thus the best barometer of community-wide opinion that we have."--but most popular vote awards, in and out of genre, limit their voter base in some way--the Nebula awards are voted on by members of SFWA, the Hugos and other convention-based awards by members of the convention--and it would have been entirely valid for the Locus award to follow suit.

That's not what the Locus staffers did.  Instead of politely telling us that we are not welcome in an award that doesn't seek to reflect our tastes, they've made the far more insulting choice of giving us half a vote each--we're welcome, in other words, but not equal.  A slightly cynical reading of this policy would be that Locus wants to hold on the perception that its award is the most open and representative in the field, and to the cachet that comes with that perception, without actually being open and representative, and that its staffers are hoping that by not drawing attention to the vote-weighting policy, it will be quietly forgotten, and eventually accepted as the new status quo.

I don't think that should happen.  With apologies to the authors I would have voted for, and particularly the ones I would have given write-in votes to, I don't plan to vote in this year's Locus award, and if you're not a subscriber, I urge you not to vote either until its administrators agree to give every ballot its equal weight.  I hope that the Locus staffers will take a long, hard look at what they're doing, and make one of two equally valid choices--open the award equally to all voters, or close it off to magazine subscribers only.  But as it stands, I see no reason why we should invest our time and energy helping to legitimize an institution that considers our opinions to be less legitimate than others'.

6 comments:

N. K. Jemisin said...

I'm in full agreement on this. I'm a regular Locus reader, but not a subscriber -- I did subscribe at one point, and had such a problem with missing and mangled copies (this was before the current policy of shipping them with a cover) that I now prefer to just buy them from the newsstand, even though they're more expensive that way. (Fortunately I live in New York, where there are several places that regularly stock Locus.) So I'm a Locus reader, but not a subscriber, and I don't understand why my opinion isn't as valid as that of a subscriber. In fact I thought that was the reason the poll was originally open to non-subscribers -- I thought it was meant to capture the opinions of everyone who buys/reads Locus, not just those who prefer to receive it by mail. Now I see that's not the case at all.

Though I understand that subscribers are the way magazines rate themselves, and they're trying to encourage subscriptions, so I'd be equally content with them limiting voting to subscribers. Just not this hybrid system.

Cheryl said...

I have a more bizarre problem. I'm an occasional Locus contributor, and regular reader, but I'm not a subscriber because Kevin has had a subscription from before we started living together and there seemed to be no sense in ordering two copies for the same house.

Having said that, I don't see any way that Locus could tell from a ballot whether someone is a reader or not. Subscribers are easy to identify; readers are not. So there's no way you can run a poll for everyone who buys/reads Locus. You either run a poll for everyone who is a subscriber, or you run a poll for everyone, even people who never read the magazine and have no intention of doing so. That's the problem that they are trying to solve.

Anonymous said...

I've never felt that solving a problem by creating another problem is much of a solution at all. As pointed out, Locus is trying to have their cake and eat it too. Perhaps they could have two separate polls, one for the "inside proletariat" and the other for the "riff raff". But maybe not phrase it like that.

Martin said...

That's the problem that they are trying to solve.

That isn't a problem; that is two options, either of which they could have picked. As Anonymous says, they could also have picked both. Instead they made a horrible fudge.

Incidently, although I don't favour two seperate polls, this would have been analoguous to the way SF Site works - one for contributors and one for everyone else - which produce different results which differ in interesting ways.

cobrabay said...

A variant on the suggestion by Anonymous would have been to have a separate Subscriber Choice Award, perhaps combining all of the novel categories (SF, Fantasy, YA, New) into a single subscribers choice overall best novel category.

SF Strangelove said...

Put me down for splitting the poll in two, one for subscribers and one for non-subscribers. Report them both. I am in favor of more information not less. I think the differences would be interesting.

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