Several people, in their commentaries on my recent essay (“Do We Really Have to Keep Feeding Stupid and His Cousin Ignoramus?”), challenged or at least questioned the assertion I’ve made several times in my various essays on the Hugo ruckus that the Hugos (and other major F&SF awards) have drifted away over the past thirty years from the tastes and opinions of the mass audience. It’s a fair question, so I’ll address it in this essay as best I can.
It’s not an easy issue to analyze, though. That’s for the simple reason that popularity is gauged by sales, and there are no publicly available records on the sales of various authors. That’s information which is privately held.
When I published my first essay on the Hugo ruckus a few months ago (“Some comments on the Hugos and other SF awards,” posted here on April 16), a number of people privately expressed their astonishment, or bemusement, or admiration at the amount of work I’d put into it. Or in the case of my publisher, Toni Weisskopf—although she never said a word to me about it—probably exasperation. (“What the hell is he doing writing this stuff instead of novels, dammit?”)
The essay does indeed represent a lot of work, since it’s 7,200 words long. (If word counts don’t mean much to you, that’s the length of two or three chapters in most novels.) But, in fact, I put very little work into it—this year. That’s because most of the essay had been written eight years earlier.
Here’s the history: Back in 2007, I wound up—I can’t remember how it got started—engaging in a long email exchange with Greg Benford over the subject of SF awards. Both of use had gotten a little exasperated over the situation—which is closely tied to the issue of how often different authors get reviewed in major F&SF magazines.
In the course of that discussion, I decided that being exasperated was pointless and that I should actually investigate the matter. Was it really true that the major awards (and major magazine reviews) had very little connection any longer to F&SF authors who were very popular? In my spare time—which is not copious, mind you—I delved into the matter over the next six months or so.
The essay I wound up posting this April is actually half as long as the essay I initially wrote back in 2007. That’s because I cut all the nitty-gritty empirical data I’d compiled to support my analysis because the drastic changes in publishing in the eight years that ensued made the analytical method I’d used obsolete. That doesn’t mean the analysis itself is obsolete, mind you. For reasons I’ll explain later I think nothing much has changed between 2007 and today.
But we’ll get to that. For the moment, I’m posting a chunk of the material I wrote eight years ago. Remember—what follows was written in 2007:
How in the world do you determine who the field’s “popular authors” are in the first place?
That’s a much trickier question than it looks, at first glance. On the one hand, almost anyone who regularly follows fantasy and science fiction has a fairly good sense of who the popular authors are. Or thinks they do, at least. But if you ask them to explain exactly why and on what basis they formed those conclusions, they will fumble for an answer. In the end, their explanation is likely to echo the famous comment by former Supreme Court justice Potter Stewart with regard to pornography, when he said that he found it very hard to define “but I know it when I see it.”
Likewise, most F&SF readers are well aware that authors like Raymond Feist or Mercedes Lackey or David Weber are “very popular.” But most of them would have a hard time explaining exactly why they “know” that.
The first thing we can eliminate as a possible basis for establishing who is and who is nor a popular author is the thing that would actually be the clearest defining criterion: sales themselves.
The problem is obvious. The figures are simply unavailable to the public. Occasionally, an author (or his or her publisher) might disclose that author’s sales, at least for a specific period. But, for the most part, that information is held privately and even then is not held in the same pair of hands. The only central authority you could go to in order to find out the sales of various authors is the Internal Revenue Service—and they won’t tell you. (Nor should they, of course.)
Still, it can be done, although we have to approach the matter indirectly. There’s no way for the audience as a whole or any individual person in it to determine what every author’s sales are. But what they can determine—each and every one of them who is inclined to do so, using very simple tools and methods—is which authors in the field can and do regularly maintain the greatest shelf space in bookstores.
That’s easy to do. Just trot down to your local Barnes & Noble or Borders with a tape measure or yardstick in hand. Then, go down the shelves, and record which authors have a full shelf of books available for sale. Let’s be a bit more precise and specify three feet of books on the shelves, since not all shelves are the same length. The general standard length for bookstore shelves is indeed about three feet—usually 34 or 35 inches, to be precise—but sometimes four foot shelves are used.
Having done that, repeat the same process in as many other bookstores as you can get to easily. And then repeat the process again if you travel elsewhere in the country, just to make sure you aren’t running into regional variations.
You can expand the search to include independent and specialty bookstores, but I’d recommend you keep it restricted to B&N and Borders. First, because for good or ill at least 75% of all sales of F&SF nowadays happens in B&N and Borders brick-and-mortar bookstores. (For all the publicity it gets, Amazon sales are still considerably less than 10% of the total.) Secondly, because there is a general consistency to B&N and Borders stock, just because they’re huge chains, and by and large their orders are determined by sales and nothing else—whereas what any independent bookstore might have on the shelves in the way of F&SF is notoriously fickle and subject to the whims of that store’s buyer.
You can also expand your investigation by making it more precise. Instead of just looking for “three-foot authors,” break your search down into more categories:
Authors who can regularly maintain four feet or more of books on the shelves, in most bookstores.
Authors who can regularly maintain three feet of books, in most bookstores.
Authors who can regularly maintain two feet of books, in most bookstores.
You can even extend it to those authors who maintain one foot of books, but what you’ll discover at this point is that you’re running into so many variables that it makes it hard to draw any general conclusions.
The general rule is this:
The more bookshelf space an author maintains, the more consistently they do so in bookstores across the country.
Those authors who maintain three or four feet of bookshelf space are almost always the very same ones, no matter what B&N or Borders bookstore you go into in any town in the country. Once you get down to two feet of shelf space, the situation starts to fluctuate. Some authors will be there very consistently—Robert Asprin or David Drake or Tad Williams, for instance—but others will come and go. And by the time you get down to one foot of shelf space, the fluctuation gets pretty extreme. An author might have eighteen inches of shelf space in one store and only a couple of copies in another. Or even none at all.
As crude as it is and with its inevitable distortions—which I’ll explain in a moment—the great and over-riding advantage of this measure-the-bookshelf-space method of determining the popularity of authors is that it’s objective and can be duplicated by anybody. You don’t have to take my word for it. If you don’t believe the results I’ll be presenting you with in the course of this essay, just grab a tape measure and go check for yourself—and you can do it in any town in the United States or Canada.
That said, there are certain distortions. There is no direct correlation between shelf space and actual sales, although there is obviously a lot of overlap.
Basically, what happens is that authors who are very popular but who don’t (comparatively, at least) write very much, get penalized. Unless a book reaches such phenomenal levels of popularity that bookstores order dozens of copies which they have stacked all over the floor—and that usually only happens for a short stretch of time—even a very popular title is going to have only so many copies on the shelves. The bookstores will usually keep just enough copies to make sure there’s always a copy available to the customers, but no more than that. And since the author only has a relatively small number of books available in the first place, they only wind up with so much shelf space.
On the opposite side, an author who sells very well but doesn’t have what you’d call really stellar sales—but is also very prolific—will have an advantage. Since each book they produce sells well enough that bookstores want to keep at least one or two copies on the shelves, and they often have dozens of titles available, they’ll wind up with a lot of shelf space.
So, to use one specific comparison, in almost any bookstore in the country you will discover that Mercedes Lackey has more shelf space than Robert Jordan. In fact, she usually has more shelf space than any author in our field. Lackey enjoys excellent sales, of course, but she’s never been in the stratosphere when it comes to sales the way that Robert Jordan has. The difference is that Jordan wrote only about a dozen books, and Lackey’s output is many times greater than that.
To a lesser degree, there’s probably also a distortion produced by the specific publishers for any given author. As a rule, the smaller independent presses like Baen Books and DAW will tend to keep an author’s books in print longer than most big corporate houses.
That said, the distortion only goes so far. In the nature of things, an author simply can’t regularly maintain three or four feet of bookshelf space in bookstores all over the country unless they’re very popular. And, on the flip side, even an author who writes very little will have a lot of shelf space if they’re popular enough. An example, as you’ll see in a moment, being J.R.R. Tolkien—who maintains as much shelf space as almost any author, despite the fact that there are only three main titles involved and a few less important ones.
As far as publishers go, that distinction can’t bear much weight either. As we’ll see in a moment, there are authors published through every major publishing house in the field who maintain a lot of shelf space in bookstores.
Okay, it’s time to start naming names.
There are exactly seven authors today [Note: remember, this was written in 2007] in fantasy and science fiction who, in hundreds of bookstores all across the country, can regularly maintain at least four feet of shelf space for the sale of their books:
- Jim Butcher
- Orson Scott Card
- Raymond Feist
- Mercedes Lackey
- Terry Pratchett
- J.R.R. Tolkien
- David Weber
I should make clear, by the way, that the reason I’m not including such very popular authors as J.K. Rowling or Stephen King or Laurel Hamilton is because they are not usually sold in the F&SF section. It’s the same reason I’m not including authors like Michael Crichton. You have to draw the line around “the field of F&SF” somewhere, and I think the simplest and clearest line is just to accept the judgment of major bookstores on the matter. (Yeah, sure, that’s philosophically crude as all hell—but, whether anyone likes it or not, it corresponds pretty well to practical reality.)
Go into any B&N or Borders bookstore anywhere in the United States and Canada and you will find these same seven fantasy and science fiction authors have at least four feet of shelf space, almost each and every time. You will also discover, in some of those bookstores, that one or two or possibly three authors in the next category (“three-footers”) also have four feet of shelf space. But that’s erratic, whereas it’s not erratic whether these seven authors will be there. They will be, almost always.
From the standpoint of measuring these authors in terms of awards received, of course, we have to start by subtracting J.R.R. Tolkien. He pretty much antedates the awards altogether. (Although he did receive a very belated Hugo nomination in 1966 for “best series ever.” But he was defeated by Asimov’s Foundation trilogy.)
Of the six remaining authors, four of them—Butcher, Feist, Lackey and Weber—have never received a single nomination in their entire careers for any major F&SF award. No Hugo nominations—forget wins, they’ve never even been nominated—no Nebulas, no World Fantasy Awards. Nothing.
Terry Pratchett has been nominated. Exactly twice. Once for the Hugo, once for the Nebula. He didn’t win either time.
With the last figure in the group, of course—Orson Scott Card—we find ourselves in the presence of a major award-winner. Card has been nominated for sixteen Hugo awards and won four times, and he was nominated for a Nebula on nine occasions and won twice. And he was nominated for a World Fantasy Award three times and won it once.
He hasn’t been nominated for a WFC in twenty years, he hasn’t been nominated for a Nebula in eighteen years, and hasn’t been nominated for a Hugo in sixteen years. And he hasn’t won any major award (for a piece of fiction) in twenty years.
This is not because his career ended twenty years ago. To the contrary, Card continues to be one of our field’s active and popular authors. What’s really happened is that the ground shifted out from under him—not as far as the public is concerned, but as far as the in-crowds are concerned. So, what you’re really seeing with Orson Scott Card’s very impressive looking track record is mostly part of the archaeology of our field, not its current situation. As we’ll see in a moment, the situation is even more extreme with Anne McCaffrey and almost as bad with George R.R. Martin.
But first, let’s move on to look at the next category of authors. These are the ones I call “three-footers,” the authors who can regularly maintain a full shelf of books in most bookstores across the country.
There are fourteen of these authors, with a fifteenth now so close to entering their ranks—that’s Tanya Huff—that I think we should include her as well:
- Terry Brooks
- David Eddings
- Eric Flint
- Neil Gaiman
- Terry Goodkind
- Brian Herbert and Kevin Anderson
- Robin Hobb
- Tanya Huff
- Robert Jordan
- George R.R. Martin
- Anne McCaffrey
- L.E. Modesitt, Jr.
- John Ringo
- R.A. Salvatore
- Harry Turtledove
Of those fifteen authors (counting Herbert and Anderson as a single author) eleven of them—that’s almost 75%—have never been nominated for any major award. Again, forget winning. These authors aren’t even on the radar.
Harry Turtledove has gotten some recognition: one WFC nomination; two Nebula nominations; and three Hugo nominations, one of which he won.
But, being blunt, six nominations and one win is a pretty screwy record for an author with Turtledove’s popularity, wide range of output, and longevity. Forty or fifty years ago—thirty years ago, for that matter—he would have been nominated at least as often as Gordon Dickson.
Anne McCaffrey has gotten quite a bit of recognition in her career, taken as a whole. She’s been nominated for a Hugo eight times and won once; and nominated for a Nebula on three occasions, of which she won once.
But she hasn’t been nominated for a Nebula in thirty-eight years and hasn’t won in thirty-nine years. And she hasn’t won a Hugo in forty years. The last time she was even nominated for a Hugo was sixteen years ago—and that was her only nomination for any major award in the last quarter of a century.
A quarter of a century, mind you, in which she kept writing and never once lost her popularity with the mass audience. But, as with Orson Scott Card, she long ago lost the favor of the in-crowds.
The situation’s a little better with George R.R. Martin. Martin, of course, has a very impressive track record when it comes to awards. He’s been nominated for a Hugo on seventeen occasions and won four times; nominated for a Nebula thirteen times and won twice; nominated for a WFC nine times and won once.
And, true enough, Martin did pick up some nominations recently, unlike Card or McCaffrey. Several of the novels in his very popular A Song of Ice and Fire series were nominated for Hugos and Nebulas in this century, although none of them won.
Still, even with Martin, most of his award history is now far in the past. Of the many nominations he’s gotten in his career, the great majority date back to the 70s and 80s, and most of them are now a quarter of a century old.
Here’s the truth. Of the twenty-two authors today whom the mass audience regularly encounters whenever they walk into a bookstore looking for fantasy and science fiction, because they are the ones whose sales enable them to maintain at least a full shelf of book space, only one of them—Neil Gaiman—also has an active reputation with the (very small) groups of people who vote for major awards.
And they are very small groups. Not more than a few hundred people in the case of the Hugos and Nebulas, and a small panel of judges in the case of the WFC.
With them, Neil Gaiman’s popularity hasn’t—yet, at least—eroded his welcome. He’s gotten five nominations and two wins for the Hugo; three nominations and two wins for the Nebula; eight nominations and one win for the WFC—and almost all of them came in this century.
But he’s the only one, out of twenty-two. In percentage terms, 4.5% of the total. (Or 4.8%, if we subtract Tolkien.)
There’s no way now to reconstruct exactly what the situation was forty years ago. But I know perfectly well—so does anyone my age (I’m sixty-one) with any familiarity with our genre—that if you’d checked bookstores in the 1960s and 1970s to see how shelf space correlated with awards, you’d have come up with radically different results. Instead of an overlap of less than five percent, you’d have found an overlap of at least sixty or seventy percent.
Nor does the situation get much better if you keep going “down” the list and look at those authors who maintain two feet of bookshelf space. A little bit better, but not much.
Here, you do get more fluctuation in the authors who show up, from one bookstore to the next, than you do with authors who maintain three or four feet of bookshelf space. Still, there are a number of authors who show up very regularly. Nine, in particular:
- Piers Anthony
- Robert Asprin
- Anne Bishop
- David Drake
- David Gemmell
- Charlaine Harris
- Dan Simmons
- S.M. Stirling
- Tad Williams
Of these nine authors, Simmons is the only one with a significant record when it comes to awards. In the course of his career, which has now lasted more than a quarter of a century, Simmons has gotten four Hugo nominations and one win; one Nebula nomination; and six nominations for the WFC of which he won two. And although most of those nominations date back fifteen years or more, at least one of them came in this century. His novel Ilium was nominated for a Hugo award in 2004.
Piers Anthony did pick up a few nominations in the course of his career, although he never won anything: four Hugos and one Nebula. But the last of those nominations came in 1970, almost forty years ago. So, again, we’re just dealing with archeology here.
The only other author in this group of nine who ever got any recognition of any kind in terms of awards was David Drake, and that was about as skimpy as it gets, given that he’s had one of the steadiest and most successful careers in the history of fantasy and science fiction. Drake was never nominated for either a Hugo or a Nebula, but he did receive two nominations for the World Fantasy Award. Both of those nominations, however, came in the 1970s, at the start of his career. Again, something of purely archeological interest.
The remaining six authors, two-thirds of the group, have never received any nominations for any major award in our field. And while it could be argued that Anne Bishop is still relatively early in her career, the same certainly can’t be said for the other five. And even Bishop has been a published author for well over a decade.
Two of these authors, in fact, no longer have careers at all. Both Bob Asprin and David Gemmell died recently—after, in the case of Asprin, a career that lasted thirty years and, in the case of Gemmell, a career that lasted twenty years. In both cases, quite successful careers.
Steve Stirling and Tad Williams have also been around for a long time. Stirling has been a published professional author for about a quarter of a century, most of that period working as a full time writer and quite a popular one. The same is true of Williams.
Before I break off my analysis of this group of “two-footers,” I need to discuss one important author who is something of an oddball because he’s one of the small number of authors who simply doesn’t fit well into this method of gauging popularity by the crude measure of bookshelf space.
That’s Neal Stephenson. The reason Stephenson is something of an oddball as far as shelf space is concerned is because he writes comparatively little, but what he does write tends to be very popular. So—as may be true with a few other authors, like Ursula LeGuin and Lois McMaster Bujold—it’s a little hard to correlate his popularity by using the method of measuring bookshelf space. Stephenson’s space will vary widely, from one bookstore to another, unlike most authors as popular as he is.
So, just to make sure we’re maintaining a proper balance, let’s include him in this group. Stephenson does occasionally get nominated for awards. He’s gotten two nominations and one win for the Hugo, and one nomination for the Nebula. All three nominations came within the past twelve years, too, so this is not archaeology.
All right. Let’s summarize the situation.
Including Neal Stephenson in this last group, and subtracting Tolkien, we’re looking at a total of thirty-one currently active authors. (Or, in the case of Asprin and Gemmell, authors who were active until very recently.) All thirty-one of these authors can regularly maintain at least two feet of bookshelf space in most bookstores in the country, and two-thirds of them can maintain three feet or more. And…
They’re the only ones who can. Other authors may be quite popular—that’s just impossible to determine directly—but, for whatever reason, they can’t maintain the same shelf space.
Of those thirty-one authors:
Only one of them gets nominated for awards regularly and frequently in the modern era: Neil Gaiman.
Only two of them—George R.R. Martin and Neal Stephenson—also get some nominations in the modern era. Martin’s very impressive record, however, is now mostly twenty years old or more.
Only two others have gotten any sort of award recognition in recent times—Harry Turtledove and Dan Simmons—and that’s not much.
Two others, Anne McCaffrey and Orson Scott Card (especially Card) have very impressive career records, but those awards are now far back in the past.
And a couple of others have picked up a few awards, also far back in the past: David Drake and Piers Anthony.
The big majority, however, about 70% of them, have never gotten nominated—forget winning—for any major award in our field. This, despite the fact that almost no author in this group has a career that is less than ten years old. John Ringo and Jim Butcher are the two “youngest” authors in the group, measured in terms of length of career. (Not necessarily age, of course.) Both of them were first published in 2000, less than a decade ago.
The next “youngest,” depending on exactly how you look at it, is either me or Anne Bishop. Both of us first got published professionally in the mid-90s. To put it another way, both of us have been around for about fifteen years.
The point is, that with the possible exception of two of the authors, there are no spring chickens here. All of us except Ringo and Butcher have now had careers spanning well over a decade, and in the case of most of the authors, two or three decades—or even four or five decades, in some cases.
[Note by EF: what followed here was included in my essay published in April, 2015. I will resume with a section that I eliminated from the 4/15 essay:]
[T]he World Fantasy Award, which was supposedly set up a third of a century ago to counter-balance the presumed bias of the Hugo and the Nebula against fantasy, has an even worse track record than the Hugo and the Nebula when it comes to giving any recognition to popular fantasy authors.
Consider the following—there is no other way to put it—ludicrous situation.
The World Fantasy Award was launched in 1975. In the third of a century that has followed, the award has never so much as nominated the following fantasy authors:
- Terry Brooks
- Jim Butcher
- David Eddings
- Raymond Feist
- Terry Goodkind
- Robin Hobb
- Robert Jordan
- Mercedes Lackey
- R.A. Salvatore
Granted, Robin Hobb—when she was still writing as Megan Lindholm—got one nomination for a Hugo and three nominations for a Nebula. (Three of the four coming almost twenty years ago.) Granted also that Jim Butcher’s career is still comparatively new. But the point is that as soon as Lindholm became a major factor in shaping fantasy as Robin Hobb, she stopped getting any nominations.
Consider the above list, and then ask yourself a question:
What other authors, in the modern era, have done as much to shape the field of fantasy?
You’ll be able to name a few. But no matter how much you try to slide around it, you will be unable to avoid the simple objective fact that—at least as far as the millions of paying customers who sustain the field in the first place are concerned—those authors listed above have formed the field’s center of gravity for the past quarter of a century.
And yet not one of them has ever even been nominated for the award which claims to be the award specifically set aside to honor fantasy writing.
Okay, back to the modern world—meaning today, August 30, 2015. I will add to the above, by the way, that Terry Pratchett got only one nomination for the World Fantasy Award in his entire career—and that came back in 1991. He didn’t win.
Yes, yes, he was eventually given a World Fantasy Award for Lifetime Achievement in 2010, a few years before he died. But everyone knew perfectly well that was a very belated recognition that the award had screwed up for decades. That included Pratchett himself, whose letter of acceptance was blisteringly sarcastic—and ended with him insisting that the presenter of the letter give his signature as Sir Terry Pratchett. Thereby reminding the audience at the award presentation (I was there myself, as it happens)—rubbing their noses in it, rather—that the queen of England had figured out the reality before they had.
So, by then, had eight universities in the UK and Ireland, with two more to follow before his death (one of them in Australia).
Compare Pratchett’s immense popularity, a career that spanned four decades, a knighthood and honorary doctorates from ten—count ‘em, ten—universities to the awards he got from the F&SF community. Those came to the following:
Hugo: two nominations, one declined, no wins.
Nebula: two nominations, no wins.
WFA: one nomination, no wins.
Yes, yes, there was also the Word Fantasy Award for Lifetime Achievement, but I am no more impressed by that than he was. They might as well have just called it the Oops, We Really Goofed Award.
Five nominations, total, from the three major F&SF awards, with no award actually given to him—and ten honorary doctorates and a knighthood. That, in a nutshell, captures the problem with the awards in the modern era. Even academicians and the queen of England have a better grasp of what really matters than it seems the people who vote for awards do.
There’s a reason for this, and it goes back to the issues I discussed in one of my earlier essays. (“TRYING TO KEEP LITERARY AWARDS FROM FAVORING LITERARY CRITERIA IS AN EXERCISE IN FUTILITY. GET OVER IT.” Posted on June 16, 2014.) It is almost inevitable that as time passes, any sort of literary or artistic award will drift in the direction of contemplating the glory of trees rather than those of the forest. As the saying goes, they lose sight of the forest for the trees.
What does that mean, really? What it means is that literature—and F&SF is part of literature; the division into “genres” has no objective significance beyond marketing concerns—has many aspect to it. Some are what you might call purely literary, others are intertwined with a society’s culture taken as a whole.
I can perhaps best illustrate what I mean by recounting an anecdote from my impetuous youth. When I was a sophomore in college I got into a wrangle with one of my English literature professors. I advanced the proposition in a term paper that Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes stories were now an integral part of English literature.
My professor disagreed very strongly. “How can you say that?” he demanded. The characters in the stories are one-dimensional, he argued. Furthermore, the issues taken up rarely if ever involve anything that really concerns—here, you could hear the capital letters—The Tragedy of the Human Condition. The stories are nothing but popular fiction aimed to titillate the masses.
I didn’t particularly disagree with any of the specific points he made. It is in fact true that the characters in the Sherlock Holmes stories are pretty one-dimensional. (Okay, call them two-dimensional if we include Holmes’ addiction to cocaine.) It is also true that the thematic issues the stories deal with are not particularly profound. And it is certainly true that the stories are popular fiction.
Wildly popular fiction, in fact. Which—this was the key, so far as I was concerned—had managed to retain that popularity for a century, with no sign that it was fading. (Nor did it. I got into this argument in 1966—forty years or so before the very popular Sherlock Holmes movies starring Edward Downey, Jr. and the equally popular TV series starring Benedict Cumberbatch came out.)
And that, I argued, was ultimately what really mattered. Has a part of literature—no matter how limited it may be—become embedded in a society’s culture? If so, then it’s literature. Period.
If I’d left it at that, I probably would have suffered no penalty. My professor, despite his strong disagreement with my thesis, allowed that the essay was well-written and coherently argued. I’m sure his pen was poised to give me an “A” or at the very least a “B.”
Alas, I was a sophomore. My lip curled up in the way only nineteen-year-olds can manage a particularly insufferable sneer, and I added that so far as I could determine, my professor’s definition of “literature” seemed to be whatever author of the past was obscure enough in the modern world to make a suitable topic for a doctoral dissertation.
And… I got a C-minus in the course. I should have kept my mouth shut, I suppose, except…
It was such a nifty turn of phrase. Already I was clearly fated to become a scribbler.
To go back to the issue at hand, this is the inevitable tug-of-war that affects any literary or artistic award. Do we lean toward the tree or toward the forest? Do we focus on the way a story is written, or on the story itself?
That’s a simplistic way of putting it, granted, but it does capture the heart of the matter. What usually happens over time is that awards given out by a group of people who are a small sub-set of the mass audience for that particular form of literature or art tend to lean in the direction of contemplating the trees.
There’s nothing wrong with that, in and of itself. You just need to understand the phenomenon, not take it personally—and above all, not to characterize it as the product of foul play.
And that was the Original Sin, as it were, of the Sad Puppies. (The Rabid Puppies are a different phenomenon altogether.) As it happens, I agree with the sense the Sad Puppies have that the Hugo and other F&SF awards are skewed against purely story-telling skills.
They are. I’m sorry if some people don’t like to hear that, but there’s no other way you can explain the fact that—as of 2007; I’ll deal with today’s reality in a moment—only one (Neil Gaiman) of the thirty authors who dominated the shelf space in bookstores all over North America regularly got nominated for awards since the turn of the century.
The problem came with what the Sad Puppies did next. First, they insisted that Someone Must Be To Blame—when the phenomenon mostly involves objective factors. Secondly, being themselves mostly right wing in their political views, they jumped to the conclusion—based on the flimsiest evidence; mostly that some people had been nasty to Larry Correia on some panels at the Reno Worldcon—that the bias against their fiction in the awards was due to political persecution.
Neither proposition can stand up to scrutiny, as I have now demonstrated repeatedly in the course of these essays.
All right, so much for the past. What about today? Is the analysis I made based on comparing bookshelf space still valid?
I believe it is, although I can’t prove it. That’s because of several factors:
First, the economic crisis in 2008 hammered the publishing industry in general. Publishing is normally rather impervious to the business cycle, but the 2008 crisis was so big it did have a major impact. All across the country, the bookshelf space enjoyed by most authors declined unless they were extremely popular.
Secondly, one of the two giant bookstore chains went out of business (Borders).
But, finally and most importantly, after 2007 the publishing industry began shifting more and more toward electronic publishing. To use myself as an example, more than 50% of the royalties from my latest novels comes from electronic sales.
Electronic sales are all but invisible to the public. And by the way, don’t think you can use Amazon sales rankings to determine anything. Unless you reach the stratosphere of sales rankings in the top few hundred titles, they don’t mean very much. Most of the fluctuation amounts to statistical noise.
That said, however, none of the developments in the publishing industry since 2007 should have changed much when it comes to the relative popularity of authors. If anything, in fact, the shift has probably been in the direction of a still greater chasm between popularity and awards. That’s because those authors who have been able to carve out very successful careers based on electronic self-publication—Amanda Hocking and Hugh Howey, to name two—are completely off the radar so far as the awards are concerned.
Granted, there’s also been movement that goes in the other direction. John Scalzi’s rise to prominence as a popular author, for instance, mostly postdates 2007, as did all but one of his Hugo nominations. And while Charles Stross started picking up nominations for Hugos as early as 2002, I don’t think his popularity started matching that until quite a bit later. I may be wrong about that, of course. I haven’t asked Charlie because it’s none of my damn business. But I think I’m right.
Still, no matter what shifts there might have been in either direction on the part of some authors, I see no reason to think that there’s been any sort of profound transformation of the reality as of 2007, when it comes to the match-up (or lack thereof) between sales and awards.
Keep in mind, furthermore, that my investigations based on measuring shelf space in bookstores focused almost entirely on novels—whereas the major F&SF awards are primarily oriented toward short fiction. That is a large part of what causes the disconnection between any given author’s popularity and her or his prominence when it comes to awards. For that small subset of the F&SF audience which does follow the awards, an author who wins a lot of Hugos or Nebulas or WFAs looms very large in their personal pantheon of who’s important and who isn’t. But unless those authors are winning awards for novels, they will be all but invisible to the mass audience because the market is oriented almost entirely toward novels.
People have an inevitable tendency to assume that authors who really matter to them also matter to many other people. Sometimes that’s true, but even when it is the reality tends to get exaggerated. That’s why I took the time, some years ago, to crosscheck my own assumptions against objective reality. As it happened, in that instance I discovered my assumptions were by and large valid. But the reason I expended the effort was because experience has taught me that you always need to do that. It’s the same reason I try never to criticize someone for saying or doing something unless I’ve double-checked to make sure my memory is accurate.
A lot of times it isn’t. There’s a natural tendency—I have it just as much as anyone else—to lapse into paraphrasing based on a predisposition. Thus someone knows—without bothering to double-check—that because someone else is a dirty rotten leftist (or rightist, or libertarian, or Mormon, or Catholic, or Scientologist—fill in the bête noire of your choice) they undoubtedly said or did X, Y or Z. But when and if they go to cross-check themselves, they often find they can’t actually substantiate the charge.
It’s the same way with things like assessing which authors are very popular and which ones aren’t. If people don’t take the time to double-check their assumptions, they’re very likely to misgauge the reality. That’s especially true because we’re dealing with a continuum here. It’s not as if the world is divided between Bestselling Authors and Can’t-Sell-Anything Auteurs. Any number of authors who win a lot of awards sell quite well. But it’s just a fact that most of them don’t have the kind of sales that dominate the genre when it comes to popularity.
I apologize for the length of this essay, but the questions and objections raised to my assertion that there’s a big difference (with some overlap) between what the mass audience thinks and what the much smaller awards-voting crowd thinks is an important and valid one. And so I thought it was necessary to take the time to address the matter thoroughly and explain the source of my claim.
One more thing needs to be said. The biggest problem in all of this is that way, way too many people—authors and awards-bestowers alike—have a view of this issue which… ah…
I’m trying to figure out a polite way of saying they have their heads up their asses…
Okay, I’ll say it this way. The problem is that way too many people approach this issue subjectively and emotionally rather than using their brains. With some authors, regardless of what they say in public, there’s a nasty little imp somewhere deep in the inner recesses of their scribbler’s soul that chitters at them that if they’re not winning awards there’s either something wrong with them or they’re being robbed by miscreants. Or, if they don’t sell particularly well but do get recognition when it comes to awards, there’s a peevish little gremlin whining that they’re not selling well either because somebody—publisher, agent, editor, whoever except it’s not them—is not doing their job or it’s because the reading public are a pack of morons.
Everybody needs to take a deep breath and relax. There are many factors that affect any author’s career and shape how well they sell and how often they get nominated for awards. Some of these factors are under an author’s control, but a lot of them aren’t. And, finally, there’s an inescapable element of chance involved in all of this.
The only intelligent thing for an author to do is, first, not take anything that happens (for good or ill) personally; secondly, try to build your career based on your strengths rather than fretting over your weaknesses.
And, thirdly, always remember that in the final analysis there are only two awards that really matter:
Are you enjoying yourself?
Are people still reading something of yours fifty years after you died?
You’ll never know the answer to that second question, of course. All the more reason to center your career and your life on the first one.