As has become traditional, the Hugo award administrators have published the Hugo voters packet, which includes ebook copies of many of the nominated works and samplers from many of the nominated people. This includes myself and the other nominees in the best fan writer category (as well as Strange Horizons, nominated in the best semiprozine category). I was a little mortified to discover that while the contributions by my fellow fan writer nominees ran to less than twenty pages, mine was more than twice as long, but I guess that won't come as a surprise to anyone who reads this blog. (For those of you who are curious, the posts I selected for inclusion in the voter packet are my reviews of Look to Windward by Iain M. Banks, the first season of Elementary, Star Trek Into Darkness, and A Stranger in Olondria by Sofia Samatar.)
If you're a member of LonCon 3, you can download the voter packet here with your membership number and PIN (which you should have received by email; if not, contact the award administrators at the email address on the voter packet page).
The voter packet caused a bit of a stir this year when Orbit, the publishers of three of the nominated novels (Parasite by Mira Grant, Ancillary Justice by Ann Leckie, and Neptune's Brood by Charles Stross) announced that they would not be including full copies of their nominated novels, but only excerpts. It's easy to understand Orbit's reasoning. Though there's a lot of debate about the effect that a Hugo nomination has on a novel's sales, the Worldcon membership is precisely the demographic that you'd expect to seek out your novel because of a nomination. This year's Worldcon is on track to be the biggest in years, and in addition, the nomination of the Wheel of Time series (and publisher Tor's announcement that they will include all fourteen novels in the series in the voter packet) has caused a surge in supporting memberships--according to some accounts, over a thousand new members in the month since the nominations were announced. It's hard to blame Orbit for choosing not to give away novels that they might have a reasonable expectation of selling, especially given that so many pundits have already declared the best novel race over and Wheel of Time the winner.
Nevertheless, the decision was greeted with exasperation and not a little ire--some of it from proponents of ebook publishing, who argue, perhaps quite rightly, that Orbit is being shortsighted, and that giving away books creates sales in the long run (both Grant and Leckie's books have sequels coming out later this year); and some simply from readers who expected to see Parasite, Ancillary Justice, and Neptune's Brood in their voter packets and now feel cheated. Industry insiders have wasted little time in dubbing this latter group "entitled" (see, for example, this post from John Scalzi, who first came up with the idea for the voter packer several years ago and administered it himself before it was taken over by the Hugo award team), but this strikes me as massively unfair. The fact is that, rightly or wrongly, the conversation around the voter packet has for years been taking it as a given that all nominated works will be included, and creating that expectation in voters and potential voters. People who encourage others to buy supporting memberships in Worldcon (and to use them to vote for specific nominees) have been doing so with the argument that "you pay $50 and get five novels plus a lot of other stuff." They might have been giving out misleading information, but I don't remember anyone with a huge megaphone hurrying to correct them.
Orbit's decision feels like a good excuse to have a conversation about the voter packet and the effect it's had on the award. We've spent a lot of time this Hugo season, both before and after the nominees' announcement, talking about the changes that the award has been going through, the increasing effect of campaigning on the final shortlists and the growing balkanization of the voter base. The role that the voter packet has played in this process can't really be overstated--it has made it much easier to galvanize the fans of a particular author of blogger, people who may not necessarily have any interest in the Hugos or the field as a whole, into buying supporting Worldcon memberships. Possibly as a result of this, or simply because people like free stuff, the perception of the voter packet has shifted. The original--and very laudable--idea was a way of evening the playing field, letting little-known authors stand alongside big names, and giving the less popular categories a platform that might encourage more voters to participate in them. But from a method of creating a more informed electorate, the voter packet has come to be seen as a goody bag. Does anyone think that the thousand new Worldcon members who joined after the nominations were announced did so because of a genuine interest in the award? A sizable percentage of them, at least, probably did so in order to get free ebook copies of the entire Wheel of Time series for a mere $50.
We've already seen one effect of this in Orbit's choice to keep their full novels off the voter packet. Another potential side effect was identified on the Coode Street Podcast. According to the Hugo rules, to hand out an award in any particular category, it must have received at least 25% of the total number of voting ballots. In other words, if 2000 people send in Hugo ballots, but fewer than 500 of them vote in, say, the fanzine category, no fanzine Hugo will be awarded. This is usually not a problem--last year, even the least popular categories (fanzine, fan writer, and fan artist) came in at well over 40% of ballots. But this year, with the huge influx of supporting memberships, we could very well see a situation where a large number of ballots vote solely in the best novel and other big categories, and where some of the smaller categories are starved out.
In the immediate future, what this means is that those of us who care about the Hugo as an award for the whole field should feel an extra urgency about using the voter packet as it was intended, and voting in as many categories as possible. In the long term, it would be nice if we could finally have a proper conversation about the Hugos and what's been happening to them, one that acknowledges that there is a difference between the interests of any single nominee and potential nominee, and the interests of the award and the field as a whole. I'm already seeing more and more people talking about the unintended but deleterious effect of the voter packet (see Patrick Nielsen Hayden just this morning on twitter), and while that's not the full extent of the problem, it does feel like a good start.