Thoughts on Awards & Nominations in Science Fiction & Fantasy
I started writing this in response to a post in a discussion on The Passive Voice, a blog I read regularly, in which a writer whom I respect noted that one of the drawbacks with indie writing (aka self-publishing) in sf/f is that the work so rarely gets noticed in awards venues, seldom getting nominated or appearing on awards ballots. But my response got so long, I thought to myself, you know, this is really a blog post. And now that I have a blog (!), I should post it there. So here goes.
In terms of whether it’s a disadvantage worth considering (when deciding whether to self-publish novels or submit them to publishers) that indie fiction in sf/f gets little/less attention in the awards process… I think sf/f awards ballots are probably both less important and more accessible than they’re usually given credit for being.
The last time I was nominated for an award in sf/f was 1993, when I won the Campbell (best new sf/f writer). So I have not appeared on an sf/f award ballot for nearly 22 years.
Yet since 1993 (when I had no intention of writing sf/f novels), I’ve released 11 fantasy novels from major houses, and currently have 5 more under contract; have released another 50-60 sf/f short stories, and currently have 5-6 more in production or owed to editors; and I was asked to write a column for the SFWA Bulletin (which I did, 2000-2003), though it was then already 7 years since I had last appeared on an awards ballot.
(I have also done other writing in the past 22 years—such as 2-3 more romance novels and several romance novellas, a nonfiction book, about 10 years of a monthly column for Nink—as well as attending graduate school full-time and then working briefly for a news bureau overseas, etc., etc.; but the above is what I’ve sold in sf/f since my last award nomination.)
Writing has been my full-time living most of the time since 1993 (and for several years before that). I’ve worked regularly/steadily as a writer most of that time, and I’ve been working constantly in sf/f ever since I got literary agents out of my career. (Contrary to the popular mythology surrounding them, my own repeated experience was that literary agents were a genuine impediment to getting book contracts and earning a living.) A key reason (apart from my general inertia and disorganization) that I don’t submit short fiction to magazines and still haven’t self-published any frontlist (though I always intend to do both things!) is that I’m always running to keep up with my sf/f book contracts and my obligations to sf/f editors who’ve commissioned short stories from me.
My work is usually well-reviewed, and I’ve had starred reviews and some of my books have made various Year’s Best lists. But my work never appears on awards ballots and, as far as I know, is never even discussed or considered when people are deciding whom/what to nominate. (I state this as a factual observation, not as a complaint, reproach, or plea for comfort and reassurance.)
Moreover, when I saw the promo materials (aimed at head buyers and distributors) for my first-ever fantasy novel, In Legend Born (Tor Books, 1998), it didn’t mention my Campbell Award, so I pointed this out as an obvious mistake that should be rectified. But the publisher told me, nope, they weren’t putting that anywhere in the promo material, because it was irrelevant and no one cared.
I’ve also learned over the years that I make more substantial book advances than some Hugo, Nebula, Tiptree, etc. winners—though less than others, of course. Because book advances are largely based on sales or anticipated sales, rather than on awards.
So whatever the challenges of publishing indie that ones takes into account… my own experiences ensure that I’m not at all convinced that getting awards and nominations matters that much in a novelist’s career. Not enough, at any rate, to be factored into weighing the decision of whether to self-publish or to submit to publishers.
Which is not to say that awards don’t matter at all. For one thing, who doesn’t enjoy getting such recognition and kudos? Who doesn’t enjoy having a fantastic trophy in their office, as well as a daily reminder, within easy view, that they have published at least one thing that a lot of awards voters thought was the best work of the year in its category? Who doesn’t like subtitling their own name with, “_____ Award winner”? Winning awards is very satisfying, and personal satisfaction rates high in my world view.
Also, in a professional sense, an award is a handy thing. It raises the profile of your name and your work for a while. (For example, I first started thinking in 1994 about writing a fantasy novel because, after I won the 1993 Campbell, people started asking when I was going to write a novel in sf/f. I’d won for my body-of-work of short fiction up until then, and I was writing short fiction in sf/f strictly as an enjoyable sideline, sort of a paying hobby, amidst my book contracts as romance writer Laura Leone, where my career focus had been prior to 1993. But once people started asking, “Now that you’ve won the Campbell, when are you going to write a novel in this genre?” it occurred to me—because nothing slips past me!—that I had a window of opportunity here and should pursue it.)
Moreover, getting on ballots regularly raises the profile of your name, in general, which is very handy. Name recognition is a key thing the writer strives for, so that editors will read the work quickly and eagerly (rather than let it gather dust in some remote corner of the office for two years), and so that readers will buy the work—nay, pre-order it!
And having said that, the good news is that there’s no reason indie novelists in sf/f can’t successfully pursue name-recognition-through-awards without a traditional book publisher in their careers, since most award categories in sf/f aren’t actually for novels, after all.
For example, the talented Kameron Hurley, whose sf/f novels are currently published by Angry Robot, won two 2014 Hugos, one for Best Fan Writer and the other for Best Related Work; both of those awards are for material that originated on her blog (some of it subsequently republished elsewhere). My friend Jim C. Hines, a popular novelist published by DAW Books, won his 2012 Hugo for Best Fan Writer, based on material on his blog. If you look through the Hugos history, you’ll see various other such examples.
Nor do you need traditionally published novels to attract nominations for your “other” work. Ted Chiang’s name appears on the Hugo and/or Nebula ballots almost every time he writes something—and he has never written a novel. Ken Liu, whose first novel will be released in April 2015, has previously won the Hugo, the Nebula, and the World Fantasy Awards with his short fiction. There are regularly nominees in the short story, novelette, and novella slots on all of those awards ballots who haven’t published novels, just as there are winners in the related works and fan writing categories every year in the Hugos. And a writer who gets on those ballots can just as easily put “Nebula finalist” or “Hugo nominee” (or winner) on her indie-published novels as a traditional publisher can.
Yes, award-winning short fiction in sf/f is still still usually published by traditional or semi-traditional venues (as per the above examples), rather self-published. If your goal with a story is to get awards attention, then submitting to sf/f fiction magazines is a strategy you should seriously consider. This is business, not ideology, so you should always match your strategy for a given project to your goals for it, rather than burying your goals in unthinking loyalty to The One True Way of releasing your work. Anyhow, the good news there is that the exclusive digital license with most sf/f markets for short fiction is reasonably brief, compared to the decades-long exclusive digital license that major book publishers still present as “non-negotiable” in their contracts.
(For people wondering where these short fiction markets are, check out my Writer’s Resources Page, which includes links to sites with market listings. Or review recent finalist ballots for the major sf/f awards and take note of which publications regularly have stories on those ballots.)
And, of course, if a work of short fiction doesn’t sell after being submitted to every viable market, you can (a) revisit the markets that have changed editors since you got your rejection, or (b) self-publish it, which is an option that didn’t exist in the Jurassic era when I won the Campbell. Whether you do that, or self-publish your short fiction from the get-go, indie release is not a graveyard-of-certain-obscurity anymore in terms of awards, though you’ll presumably have to campaign even harder than a traditionally published short fiction writer does (and let’s not be coy–many people do indeed campaign for nominations and awards in sf/f).
Also, while others may disagree, I feel that I see a significant (not predictable, overwhelming, or universal; but significant) corollary each year between writers who get on sf/f awards ballots and writers who’ve made themselves very noticeable in the sf/f community through high-profile blogging, Tweeting, and social media, and/or many con appearances, and/or SFWA service.
So I think an indie writer who wanted to raise the profile of her books through awards/nominations would be sensible to employ a strategy of submitting regularly to the sf/f magazines whose contents appear often on the awards ballots while simultaneously writing a blog where she works shrewdly on attracting a large blog audience (note: this requires more than ranting at people to go read your blog), Tweeting effectively, writing a lot of “related works” and “fan writing” material, and perhaps serving in a prominent, visible SFWA volunteer role. It’s an exhausting prescription (which is why I haven’t tried it), but I really do think that if a person’s fiction is good, then her chances of appearing on sf/f awards ballots within 2-3 years, if she maintained that schedule, would be strong, due to having attracted some name recognition, through various means, among people engaged in the sf/f world and likely to participate in nominating works for awards—which is a small, targetable community, after all.
Finally, keep in mind that lots of people read sf/f who don’t attend sf/f cons, read no sf/f blogs or newsgroups, and pay little-or-no attention to sf/f awards. That’s why writers who’ve never been nominated for an sf/f award (or who, like me, haven’t been nominated for anything in over 20 years) can have decent writing careers.