In this essay, I want to address the second of the two objective problems with the Hugo Awards that I referred to in my last essay. That problem is the ever-widening distance between the structure of the awards and the reality of the market for fantasy and science fiction.

When the Hugo Award was first launched, in 1953, four awards were established. The distinction between them was based on word count, as follows:

Best short story: Any story up to 7,500 words.
Best novelette: Any story between 7,500 and 17,500 words.
Best novella: Any story between 17,500 and 40,000 words.
Best novel: any story longer than 40,000 words.

A little more than a decade later, in 1966, the newly-founded Science Fiction Writers of America (which later became the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America) launched the Nebula Award, which is considered the other major award in F&SF. The award structure they adopted for written fiction was identical with that of the Hugo; i.e., the same division between three short form and one long form stories, using the same word counts.

At the time, it made perfect sense to structure the awards in this manner, that is to say, heavily in favor of short fiction and with the definition of novel set with a very low word count. The genre of F&SF was predominantly a short form genre, and what (relatively few) novels got published were generally in the word count range of 40,000 to 60,000 words.

Today, that structure is hopelessly outdated. Short form fiction is now a very small part of fantasy and science fiction, whether you measure that in terms of money—where it’s now a tiny percentage of the income authors receive—or in terms of readership. It’s certainly a larger percentage of the readers than it is of income, but it’s not more than 10% and it’s probably closer to 5%.

People who are active in fandom are often surprised to hear this and sometimes think it’s nonsense, but that’s because reading short fiction is much more common in fandom than it is in the general audience for F&SF. There are many more people who only read novels than there are people who read any short fiction at all, much less do something like subscribe to a magazine or regularly read anthologies of short fiction.

Publishers and authors who get regularly published are well aware of this reality. For at least a quarter of a century F&SF as a publishing industry has been entirely focused on novels—and especially on novels which are part of series. It’s that last aspect of modern F&SF that has made the existing structure of both the Hugo and the Nebula awards hopelessly obsolete.

There are very few authors today who can make a living as full-time writers unless they have at least one series to anchor their career. It’s not absolutely impossible but it’s really, really difficult any longer to base a career on stand-alone single-volume novels as was common in the 60s, 70s and into the 80s. And there are many prominent authors today who work solely or almost solely in series or multi-volume stories.

I’ll use myself as an example. As of today, I’ve published forty-eight single-volume novels—i.e. novels which fit between two covers, not as part of a collection—with my forty-ninth coming out in three weeks. My fiftieth novel will appear in January of next year. I’ve also published six other novel-length stories, defining “novel” as anything over 40,000 words, as part of collections.

Of the full-length novels, only two out of the forty-eight were stand-alone. Those are my first novel, Mother of Demons, and one of the novels I wrote with Dave Freer, Slow Train to Arcturus. There’s a third novel, Time Spike, which is in an intermediate category. As a story, it stands alone, but it’s indirectly connected to the 1632 series.

Of the six short novels I’ve written that were published as part of collections, only one of them is a stand-alone. That’s Diamonds Are Forever, which I co-authored with Ryk Spoor and which was published in the collection titled Mountain Magic. The other five are all part of series: three of them in my own 1632 series, one in David Weber’s Honor Harrington series and one in Bill Fawcett’s Clan of the Claw setting.

That’s not at all uncommon, these days. And there are some authors who work exclusively in series or multi-volume stories. Jim Butcher, for instance, has yet to publish a stand-alone novel-length story. To give another example—multiple examples, rather—the big majority of authors working in the sub-genre of paranormal romance work only in series, at least when they work at novel length.

The truth is, there is no financial incentive at all for a modern F&SF author to write anything except series and multi-volume stories. For the good and simple reason long ago enunciated by the bank robber Willie Sutton: “That’s where the money is.”

(Yes, I know that’s an apocryphal legend and he never actually said it. Who cares? A good apocryphal legend takes on a life of its own. For Pete’s sake, accountants have an official “Willie Sutton rule.” We lowlife scribblers can’t use it too? Pfui.)

I have spent a lot of time and felled a lot of electrons debunking the claim of the Sad Puppies that the Hugo Awards today discriminate against popular authors for reasons of political bias. That much of what they say is nonsense, and some of it is blithering nonsense.

But there is a grain of truth lurking beneath their claim, because it is in fact true that there is a quite heavy bias against popular authors in the way the awards are determined—the Nebulas as much the Hugos. That’s not due to anything conscious on anyone’s part, and it’s not due to any sort of deliberate bias or discrimination. It’s simply inherent in the divergence between the reality of the market and the structure of the awards.

When most popular authors work exclusively or almost exclusively in series or multi-volume works like trilogies and quartets (and quintets, and sextets) and 75% of the awards are given out for short fiction, then it is inevitable that most popular authors will never get a Hugo or Nebula award.

It’s not impossible to win a Hugo while working in a series, as Lois McMaster Bujold has demonstrated four times. But Bujold is an outlier for two reasons. First, she is extraordinarily skilled at making each novel in her Vorkosigan series work well on its own. And, second, the series itself is designed to be fairly episodic. Except for the first two volumes and the most recent one, it follows one single character as he passes through his life and has various adventures. In that respect, it’s quite similar to the type of series that dominates the mystery genre.

But many series are not designed that way. Jim Butcher’s Dresden Files series, for instance, began along those lines, but as the series progressed each volume served to expand and deepen the background setting—call it the Dresden Mythology, if you will—as well as depicting a specific adventure. It is extremely difficult by now to gauge any single volume in the series as a stand-alone story.

With my 1632 series, except for the first novel, it’s impossible to do it at all. The series is designed as a series, as a whole, as an increasingly complex and interlocking network of stories. By the end of next month, there will be fifteen novels published in the series, eleven anthologies of short fiction and sixty issues of an electronic magazine—with somewhere around 130 authors participating in the project. How in the world is anyone supposed to gauge any single story in that series in terms of awards as they are currently structured?

David Weber’s Honor Harrington series isn’t quite as much of a web, but it’s awfully close. At the moment, he has three major story lines being developed through the novels, with short fiction anthologies serving to feed directly into the series as well as develop side stories and explore the historical background of the setting. He’s using novels for that purpose also. Story lines are constantly interacting with each other, and there are by now close to a dozen major protagonists. Honor Harrington, who was at the center of all the early novels, is now the first among equals as a character. The novels can’t be gauged the same way the individual novels in Bujold’s Vorkosigan series could be.

There’s a different sort of problem with “series” that are actually single stories with one narrative arch. These are really more like novels than series, but they’re so long they need to be broken up into two or more volumes. The archetypical form of these stories is the well-known trilogy, but they can range anywhere from two volumes to six. In a few cases, even longer.

The individual volumes in such multi-volume works rarely work well as stand-alone novels. A classic example in our field is Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings. It’s normally called a “trilogy” but it’s actually a single novel that was so long it needed to be divided into three volumes. It’s impossible to characterize each of the three volumes as a story in its own right.

The only effective way to bring the Hugo (and Nebula) awards back into line with the real conditions under which authors work is to break up the now-solitary “novel” category and expand it into three or four separate ones. Absent that measure, no amount of “expansion” or “inclusiveness”—no matter how it’s done and for what purpose—will accomplish much of anything. As it stands now, the existing “novel” category in the awards is a cup into which people are trying to pour a barrel’s worth of stories.

What I’m going to do now is present what I believe would be the best structure to replace the existing one, and explain why I think it would be the best. (Not the “ideal” structure because that’s impossible. Any structure will have some defects and drawbacks.)

Having done that, I will work my way backward, so to speak, to show the various modifications and adjustments that could be made. I realize that there are some practical considerations involved in giving out awards, especially for organizations dependent on volunteers for most of the work. And I’m quite sure I’m not fully aware—or plain ignorant—of what some of those practical considerations might be.

I’d recommend replacing the existing four awards with seven, as follows:

Short Story. Anything up to 7,500 words.

Novelette. Between 7,500 and 17,500 words.

Novella. Between 17,400 words and 40,000 words.

Short Novel. Between 40,000 and 80,000 words.

Novel. Any length above 80,000 words so long as it remains within one cover, if it’s a paper edition. If only an electronic edition exists, it cannot exceed 300,000 words (which is pretty much the effective limit of a paper edition).

Multi-volume Stories. Any length above 80,000 words provided: a) it is divided into at least two volumes in paper editions none of which is shorter than 80,000 words or is more than 300,000 words if it exists only in an electronic edition. And b) it must be a completed work.

A multi-volume story can only be nominated once, as is true with a novel or a piece of short fiction. However, the period of eligibility for nomination would be three years from the publication date of the final volume, not one year.

Series. In order to qualify, a series must have either three volumes in paper editions, none of which can be shorter than 80,000 words or, if it exists only in electronic edition, must be at least 300,000 words long.

A series could be nominated (and win) more than once. But nominations would be subject to the following restrictions. After a series has been nominated, whether it wins or not, it will not be eligible for another nomination until it has accumulated (for lack of a better term) another 300,000 words of text, and at least three years have passed.

There is no period of eligibility for series, provided that not more than five years has elapsed since the publication of at least 80,000 words. (This is to forestall the nomination of series which were discontinued long ago.)

The first three categories, the ones for short fiction, are identical to what exists now. The next two categories simply divide the existing novel category into two categories, distinguishing between “short novel” and “novel.” This is quite straight-forward.
It’s with the final two categories—multi-volume stories and series—that things get more complicated. It would obviously be simpler to reduce this to one category called “series” and leave it that.

The reason I dislike that idea is because, however awkward it might be to make this distinction, it is nevertheless a very real distinction. There is as much difference—quite a bit more, in fact—between a trilogy or quartet that has a single story arch and an ongoing series as there is between a short story and a novelette or a novella. Many authors prefer to work in trilogies and quartets—sometimes expanded to five or six volumes—rather than series properly speaking. (I.e., stories which either have no end at all or require so long to get there that there is no longer anything that could be described as a single story arch.)
The problem with compressing the two categories into one is that, willy-nilly, the more elaborate and long-running series will usually crowd aside the trilogies and quartets. If people feel strongly that seven categories of awards is too many, then there are better ways to compress the categories than to do it at this end. I’ll explain those possibilities later.
To give an idea of how this would work in practice, I will use a hypothetical work called The Whatever Saga.

The first volume of the saga comes out in, let’s say, 2017. We’ll call it Book One. It has a one-year period of eligibility to be nominated for “Best Novel.” And let’s suppose that it does in fact get nominated and even wins.

So. The Whatever Saga has racked up its first Hugo award.

In 2018, Book Two comes out. It also gets nominated and wins the Hugo for Best Novel.

In 2019, Book Three comes out. It does not pick up a nomination for Best Novel but it is now eligible for a Best Series nomination. But the Saga has worn out its welcome a little bit, so it doesn’t get nominated for anything.

In 2020, Book Four comes out. It’s a marvelous volume and gets a lot of people really excited. So it picks up two nominations—one for Best Novel and one for Best Series.
It wins in the Best Series category, but doesn’t win the Best Novel award.

In 2021, Book Five comes out. It doesn’t get nominated for Best Novel and it’s not eligible yet to be nominated again for Best Series.

BUT, it is clear from the story itself—not to mention public statements by the author—that Book Five concludes The Whatever Saga. So it gets nominated for Best Multi-Volume Story.

And wins. But whether it won or lost the Hugo for Best Multi-Volume Story, this is the last time it will ever qualify for an award. A work can’t be nominated more than once in the Multi-Volume Story category, and since no further additions will be made to the story it will never requalify for a series award.

When all is said and done, The Whatever Saga picks up a total of four Hugo Awards: two for Best Novel, one for Best Series, and one for Best Multi-Volume Story.

The likelihood of any story picking up this many awards in three different categories is very low, of course. I just used it to illustrate how the system would work.

The only other major decision that would have to be made is whether or not to include short fiction as part of the material making up multi-volume stories and series. I would strongly urge that short fiction be included, because a number of series—although not very many multi-volume stories—do have short fiction as an important and integral element.

Probably the clearest example of this is my own 1632 series. In addition to the fifteen novels, the series has eleven anthologies (in paper as well as electronic editions) and sixty issues of a magazine. There is some overlap between some of the anthologies and the magazine, but most of the stories in the magazine never get reissued in paper.

I included a three-year period before a series could requalify for a nomination because if I didn’t series which have multiple authors and incorporate short fiction, like the 1632 series, would requalify every year if that was left simply to word count. I don’t want series that generate a lot of short fiction to gain an additional advantage, but I do feel that short fiction should be included. It’s too early to know for sure, but I think that as time passes we’re going to see a lot of short fiction being incorporated into series. And there will be some series that are mostly composed of short fiction. A current example of that is Larry Niven’s Man-Kzin Wars series, which now has over a dozen volumes, few of which consist of full-length novels.

The above proposal is what I think would work best. But if, for whatever reason, a lot of people feel strongly that seven award categories is too many, I would recommend the following modifications. Modification A would result in a six categories of awards; Modification B would result in five; and Modification C would retain four categories—the same number that exists now, although not the same categories.

MODIFICATION A

This modification would keep the Short Novel, Novel, Multi-Volume Story and Series categories as they are above. The adjustment would come by compressing the other three categories down to two, as follows:

Short Story. Anything up to 15,000 words.

Novella. Anything between 15,000 and 40,000 words.

In other words, the novelette category would be eliminated altogether. Frankly—and I say this having written several of them—I’ve come to conclude that the novelette is something of a bastard category anyway. It’s defined in the Oxford dictionary as follows:
“chiefly derogatory: A short novel, typically one that is light and romantic or sentimental in character.”

Other dictionaries define it as “a novel that is regarded as being slight, trivial, or sentimental” [Free Dictionary] and “a short novel that is often about romantic relationships and is usually not very serious” [Cambridge Dictionary].

The definition in Webster’s is more terse: “a brief novel or long short story.”

The point is there is nothing sacrosanct about the novelette. I wasn’t there at the inception of the Hugo in 1953—hell, I was only six years old—so I don’t know what the thinking was behind creating the category in the first place. I suspect it was mostly arbitrary, and was motivated by a desire to create three categories of short fiction in order to spread the awards around as much as possible.

That would have been a reasonable enough motive, at the time. But it doesn’t really hold much sway any longer.

There is, however, a definite difference between a short story and a novella, and that would be retained.

MODIFICATION B

Five categories would be created, as follows:

Short story. Anything up to 17,500 words.

Novella/Short novel. Anything from 17,500 to 60,000 words.

Novel. Anything longer than 60,000 words contained in one volume (if paper) and not more than 300,000 words (if purely electronic).

Multi-volume Story. Any completed story above 80,000 words provided it is divided into at least two volumes in paper editions none of which is shorter than 80,000 words or is more than 300,000 words if it exists only in an electronic edition.

Series. In order to qualify, a series must have either three volumes in paper editions, none of which can be shorter than 80,000 words or, if it exists only in electronic edition, must be at least 300,000 words long.

This retains three awards for long form fiction and one award for short fiction, with a fifth award (Novella/Short Novel) being more or less divided between the two. Keep in mind that this still retains 30% of the awards for short fiction (1.5 out of 5), which is a far higher percentage than short fiction represents in the real world.

MODIFICATION C

Four categories would be retained, but the proportions between short and long form fiction would be reversed.

Short Fiction. Anything up to 30,000 words.

Short Novel. Anything between 30,000 and 60,000 words.

Novel. Anything longer than 60,000 words contained in one volume (if paper) and not more than 300,000 words (if purely electronic).

Series. Anything longer than 60,000 words contained in two or more volumes (if paper) and at least 400,000 words (if purely electronic).

Not surprisingly, I think the modifications get worse as the number of award categories get compressed. But this is the way I would do it, if it’s felt to be necessary.

All right, enough on this subject. In my next and hopefully final essay if nobody ticks me off too much or something new doesn’t get raised, I will address the third of the three factors underlying the problems with the Hugo. This is the only one that is basically subjective in nature. Simplifying somewhat, it’s the tendency of people voting for literary awards to be somewhat biased—it might be better to say, more oriented toward—emphasizing what can be called “literary” considerations more than the mass audience does.

As I will show, this is not so much a “problem” as an inevitability. You can consider it as a problem, of course, but you are no more likely to “fix” it than you are to “fix” the tides or the 23½ degree inclination of the Earth’s axis with respect to the plane of its orbit.

 

(for the other posts on the Hugo controversy, visit the Hugo Controversy category.)