Thoughts on the Hugo Voter’s Packet

When the idea of asking publishers and authors to supply WSFS members voting for the final ballot of the annual Hugo Awards with free copies of the nominated works was first proposed, I thought it was an excellent idea.

I seem to recall that at the time, those of us concerned with things like the survival of Worldcon, the continued prestige of the Hugo Awards, the perpetuation of fannish culture, were primarily focused on a single roadblock to greater participation in the awards:

“I can’t read everything and therefore I will not vote”

Right there, in case you weren’t paying attention, is an expression of the nobility of fans.  Wanting to participate in the awards in the proper way – by reading and evaluating all of the nominees – often led to lack of participation, because the job could not be done properly.  Do it right, or don’t do it at all.  (Letting the perfect be the enemy of good enough, but that’s really a different story.)

I think Scalzi was SFWA President at the time, which made it pretty easy to poll those most likely to be affected by a freebie voter pack (authors and publishers) and the idea was very well received during its first couple of years as being a very elegant solution to a major participation roadblock.  That it was effective seems to have been borne out by the increase in voter participation over the past several years.

However, a few cracks have begun to appear (along with the major disruption of the slates this year) and I wonder if the voter packet hasn’t outlived its usefulness.

Participation by authors and publishers was always presented as being voluntary on their part.  Largely unspoken was the implied strong-arming:  if you didn’t provide copies of a nominated work, you were likely insuring that the work in question would not win.

Last year, commentary regarding the publishers that chose not to participate in the packet pretty much follow those lines – not to mention edging over into public castigation of the publishing house itself.  (Bad, bad publisher for not giving us free stuff.)

What follows on those coattails is pretty obvious:  a growing sense of entitlement on the part of voters – a trap I myself fell into this year.  I’d fully intended to read Cixin Lius’ The Three Body Problem (having been assured by no one less than its translator that it was worth the read) but the buzz made it so obvious that the novel would be on the final ballot that I chose to wait to get my free copy.  And then of course the puppies shit the bed, and the first uncensored thought that popped into my head was “dammit, now I’m going to have to buy that novel!”.

Of course things have shifted again and Three Body is back on the ballot, so I will be getting a free copy (presumably), but in order to punish myself for those uncensored thoughts, I’m going to be buying a copy today.  (I sure hope I like it….spending good money on a flyer like that….when I coulda gotten it for free….)

I find it odd that I do not have the same sense of entitlement regarding review copies that are or are not supplied to me for free by publishers looking to get a marketing push.  Sometimes stuff just arrives in the mail (hey!  yay!  Free Book!) and sometimes I write to the author or editor or publicist or publisher and request a copy.  Sometimes I get one (hey!  yay!  Free Book!) and sometimes I don’t even get a courtesy brush off, but I don’t even think about booing.

Maybe I feel entitled to the Hugo Packet because I spent forty or fifty bucks on a Supporting Membership (or more for an attending membership)?  But there ought to be a disconnect there because a Supporting Membership is not a discount book program.  It’s supporting the convention, of which the Hugo Awards are but one part.  It’s for supporting the people who have been working on the convention for probably the past three or four YEARS.  It’s supposed to be my way of saying:  I can’t be there in person this year, but I believe in what you folks are doing and want to see it continue, so here’s some money.

I am positive beyond any shred of doubt that I am not the only Hugo Voter who has had this creeping sense of entitlement grow upon them over the past several years.

And then of course there’s that doggy poo sitting right in the middle of the bed this year.  Several thousand copies of works that were gamed onto the final ballot are no doubt going to be distributed – not only to give readers a chance to evaluate them, but also (and probably primarily) so that the publisher can claim “Hugo Nominated – X Thousands of Copies in Print!!!”

Which we all know is complete marketing drivel and nowhere near as great as it sounds if one knows the back story, but that promotion isn’t going to be presented to people who know the back story.  It will be presented to people who buy things based on branding and marketing hype.

There are other arguments as well:  the associated cost of providing copies of a novel (even in electronic format) to thousands in a market that likely would have purchased the work to begin with is taking a double whammy to the bottom line (for the publisher).  Maybe the trickle down will make it economically viable, but I think the jury is still well out on that one.

And lets not forget future possibilities that could grown from this concept – especially when married to slates.  Do we really want the publishing end of the field to turn into a self-destructive free distribution model (nominate me – here’s my story for free!)?

I’m rapidly coming to the conclusion that the Hugo Voter’s packet needs to be re-worked at the least or possibly eliminated entirely.  I think its served its purpose (encouraging greater voter participation) and I think that other canine-related pressures will continue to encourage further voter participation.  I think it would be a bad thing to create the expectation on voters parts that they’re entitled to a bunch of free fiction every year (hey – how come I’m not getting movie DVDs too?) and we certainly don’t need any of the consequences of the inevitable mission creep.

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