How to improve the Hugo Awards

Love or hate the Hugo Awards, it's hard to argue against them being science fiction and fantasy's most prominent honor. Even people who don't read genre literature or follow genre trends have heard of the Hugos. The awards are in many way the public face of literary SF/F. 

Which also explains the irritation when our genre's public face fails to represent the entire range of SF/F fandom. 

Now, don't misunderstand me — there's a lot to love in this year's list of Hugo nominees, such as Ancillary Justice by Ann Leckie (one of the best novels of recent years) and “Selkie Stories Are for Losers” by Sofia Samatar (a fascinating short tale I recommend everyone read). However, there are also a number of nominees who are on the shortlist solely because of logrolling and pleas to "vote for my story."

While I don't like several of the nominees or how they landed on the final ballot, I also understand that these stories became nominees under the rules as they currently exist. However, perhaps this year's controversy will finally cause a critical mass of people to agree that the Hugo Award selection and voting process is in desperate need of updating.

For those who don't know, the Hugos are voted on by World Science Fiction Convention members, meaning those who either attend the convention or purchase a supporting membership. For adults, the price to attend Worldcon is $205 (excluding hotel and travel costs) while a supporting membership, which basically is for voting purposes alone, costs $40. Only people who pay these costs can nominate and vote for the Hugos.

The problem, though, is that those who attend Worldcon or purchase supporting memberships are a tiny, tiny portion of SF/F fandom. Decades ago — when the attendance at Worldcon was far higher — then perhaps Worldcon could be said to represent all of SF/F fandom. But that day has long since passed. 

For example, the Hugo Award website states that only 1595 nominating ballots were received in this year's Best Novel category, while the short fiction categories fared even worse, with only 728 ballots being received in the Best Novelette category.

While that may sound like a lot, it pales compared to how many stories and novels were published last year. And because those 728 votes for best novelette were spread across so many different stories, a particular novelette may have only had to land a few dozen votes to make the final ballot.

Because this threshold to making the ballot is so low, it encourages and rewards vote manipulation by authors, as we've seen this year and many times in the past.

So what can be done?

I've heard a few people call for doing away with the Hugo's membership-based nomination and vote process, but I think this is wrong. The strength of the Hugo Awards rests in the belief that it represents the popular views of SF/F fandom.

I've also heard people laying the blame on people who suggest stories for award consideration, no matter if this is done by authors or readers. But this belief goes against what the Hugos have always stood for. Each year I learn about great stories through the award suggestions from authors and readers. I even make my own list of award-worthy stories. What is SF/F fandom supposed to do instead? Not talk about the stories and novels we like? Not say that such and such a story should be nominated for an award?

No, what is needed is a way to increase the voting access — to again have the Hugos represent and be voted on by a large and inclusive cross-section of fandom.

As I see it, a major reason fewer and fewer people are taking part in the Hugos is that it is expensive to do so. Even purchasing a supporting membership at $40 is a hard sell for most SF/F fans. I suggest creating a new voting membership category for Worldcon and pricing this membership at only $10. The only benefit this membership would receive is nominating and voting for the Hugos. 

Lowering the cost to voting would likely mean more people once again taking part in the Hugos, which would reduce the effectiveness of any particular vote manipulation scheme. And as a bonus the awards would once again represent a true cross-section of SF/F fandom.

There are other tweaks I'd like to see to the Hugo rules — such as getting rid of the 5% rule, which struck yet again this year in the short story category. But lowering the cost of taking part in the Hugos seems like the easiest way to both increase the number of voters and make it harder to manipulate the ballot.