The Resnick/Malzberg Dialogues #9: Awards

NOTE: this article first appeared in the pages of SFWA Bulletin 149, Spring, 2001.

MIKE: We toil in a field that gives out awards. Lots of awards. There’s the Hugo and the Nebula. The Sturgeon and the Clarke. The Campbell and the Campbell Memorial. The Locus Award and the Science Fiction Chronicle Poll. The Lambda and the Tiptree. The Clarke and the Tour Eiffel. The Prix Apollo and the Ditmar. The Ignotus and the Seiun. The Rebel and the Phoenix. The Balrog and the Skylark. And if I were getting paid by the word, I could go on and on.

Now, we all agree that they’re not of equal value. My own experiences would put the Hugo at the top, but I realize a case can be made for the Nebula. I think the only truism about awards is that if you stay in the field long enough, you’re eventually going to win one.

You and I have both seen people sweat blood trying to win a major one—and that sweating usually begins sometime after the story is written and published. They contact their friends. They hold up copies of their book at convention panels. They make their book or story available for free to any potential voter. They push it on the convention circuit. They beg their publishers to send copies out to all likely voters.

I don’t know for a fact that it works; in point of fact, I tend to think that it doesn’t. It’s never subtle, not in a field that’s so used to spin, and it’s often off-putting. It can also be expensive.

So here’s the operative question: is it worth it? Which is to say, more explicitly, is an award worth having for anything beyond simple ego gratification? Is any award worth a couple of bucks more on your next contract, or are they all just pretty objects to put on your trophy shelf?

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BARRY: Well and again, as with your all-purpose query some columns back on fee-paying literary agencies (I applauded your disingenuousness which was a lesson in kharma to us all) this is one of those questions. As AA says about drinks to a drunk, one is too many and a thousand aren’t enough. A short response is saying too much and the longer version—well, the longer version can’t wrap the territory. Hardly approaches.

Let me begin by taking issue with your truism that anyone who hangs around long enough in the sense of producing some volume of published work is going, eventually, to win an award. Not so. I won’t embarrass the living—you know who you are out there— but will talk only of the departed; here are some major science fiction writers who never won an award of any kind: Rick Raphael, Robert F. Young, Zenna Henderson, David R. Bunch. Mack Reynolds, I suppose, doesn’t quite qualify; Fred Pohl announced that a Galaxy Magazine poll of the readership for “favorite writer” put him on top in l968. Randall P. Garrett. Tom Godwin. L. Ron Hubbard.

None of these writers seemed to suffer particularly for lack of an award . . . one cannot construct, for example, a career for Robert F. Young which would have been much different if he had won a Hugo in short fiction in the l950’s; certainly Garrett (not really well known today, of course, he died in l987, had been silent since l979) was so prominent in the l960’s that most readers would have been surprised to learn that he hadn’t won an award. It’s possible to get through hundreds of thousands of published words (forget unpublished) and obtain no sanction from the readership base or fellow professionals and to live or for that matter die happily ever after.

Still, awards don’t hurt—I don’t think that there’s anyone around cynical enough and that includes me to attempt an argument that awards are career-damaging. They have their uses, some of them, and even those that don’t can leave the nights a little less cold than they tend to be in northern Wisconsin from November through May. (Or so said the non-award winning crime writer Jack Ritchie in l976; a great short story writer, endlessly admired within the genre, he won only one Edgar, in l982 for the short story “The Absence of Emily,” and celebrated by dying six months later.) “It’s good to be the king,” Mel Brooks tells the court in History of the World, Part I. It’s good to win an award or at least it’s less bad. Ask anyone who’s been through the experience as winner or loser. Mike, you’ve won four Hugos and a Nebula and been on final ballot for each, what, twenty-five times? Which outcome was more fun?

But how about that career sense? Any practical good? For certain writers at certain points of a career, absolutely so; the relationship between Samuel R. Delany’s four Nebulas and one Hugo in the l960’s and his income and prominence was direct. Similarly for Roger Zelazny. Then again, how much practical good was Katherine MacLean afforded by her Nebula in l972 for “The Missing Man” best novella? Ed Bryant and Charles Grant both won two Nebula Awards for short story, Bryant in consecutive years, in the l970’s, and neither of these writers went on to have any significant career in science fiction. (Grant has been fairly prominent in the mystery and horror fields, Bryant similarly has had as very high profile in the field of horror as writer and critic . . . but neither has done much significant work in science fiction in more than twenty years.) I’m sure that in both cases this near-abandonment of science fiction writing was voluntary and self-willed. But how what effect did winning those Nebulas have in terms of retaining them in the field?

There are a lot of awards out there, certainly, so many that I was able in early career to win one myself. (Small help, bigger tsouris, since you so kindly ask.) In the l950’s the International Fantasy Award for best novel and the Hugos across the category were certainly the significant awards (they were in fact just about the only awards for writing in the l950’s). The International Fantasy was abandoned in the mid-l950’s and the Hugos were alone until joined by the Nebulas in l965. The two awards were for a long time regarded as roughly equivalent; for a number of reasons—probably unseemly to say this in the SFWA publication but here he goes again—the Nebula has been significantly devaluated in the last decade and most writers privately if not publicly will say that given a choice of one or another for the same work they’d rather have the Hugo.

Sales figures? Neither Hugo nor Nebula other than in the novel category, publishers know (if do not admit) has any effect on sales at all. A Nebula or particularly Hugo for novel is modestly helpful in the years immediately succeeding, can raise sales slightly (and advances considerably). Even in the long category, however, their relevance to sales is significantly overrated.

I’ve been rich and I’ve been poor and rich is better as the late Joe E. Brown said many years ago (that it’s now a cliché makes it no less valid); I’ve won and I’ve lost and it’s better to win. It’s almost always better to win. (I am modestly eliding any comments on the election, people.) John F. Kennedy and his friends always felt that losing the l956 Vice Presidential nomination—in the famous open balloting—to Estes Kefauver was the basis of his national career; he had the prominence of the near-miss and received for the first time but was saved the task of running on a ticket which lost badly,)

He didn’t feel that way at the time, though.

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MIKE: I was kinda sorta hoping for some more specifics in your reply, so I didn’t have to be the first. However . . .

Let’s begin with the cash awards, because as far as I’m concerned they’re ends in themselves. I’ve been fortunate enough to win Spain’s UPC contest for Best Novella (about $8,000 US) and France’s Tour Eiffel Award (about $14,500 US), and when they toss around money like that, you don’t have to ask if it will help your career. You write for a living, so it just did help you in a very meaningful way.

As for the biggies—the Hugo and the Nebula—I’d have to say the Hugo will probably do you a bit more good. Now, neither will increase your word rates because, award winner or first-timer, your short fiction goes to markets with posted rates, and they’re not inclined to change them just because you won an award. I think there was a time, back in the late 1950s and most of the 1960s, when winning a Hugo did add a few thousand dollars onto your next advance . . . but in these days of computer returns, your advance will be predicated only on what your last couple of books sold.

What changed? Well, back in 1958, if you won a Hugo for Best Novel, you were only the 5th person ever to do so. If you won the 1968 Nebula for Best Novelette, you were the third. But move the calendar up to the year 2000, and there are so damned many Hugo and Nebula winners walking the Earth that you almost get the feeling, at a large convention, that they outnumber those who haven’t yet won one. Look at it this way: we give out 8 fiction awards each year—4 Hugos, 4 Nebulas. We’ve been doing so for over 30 years in Nebulas, close to 50 in Hugos. Do the math. Ask yourself whether advertising that a new book is by a Hugo winner has quite the exclusivity you want when you’re promoting an award winner.

I’m sitting here with the current Science Fiction Chronicle (Oct/Nov, 2000) on my desk. I’m going to look at October releases and see just how many Hugo and/or Nebula winners have books (not short stories, just books) out that one month:

Kim Stanley Robinson. Esther Friesner. C. J. Cherryh. Michael Bishop. Jane Yolen. James Morrow. Ursula K. Le Guin. Fred Pohl. Anne McCaffrey. And me.

A fluke month? Let’s look at November:

Joe Haldeman. Charles Sheffield. Anne McCaffrey. George R.R. Martin. Bruce Sterling. Charles L. Grant. Lois McMaster Bujold. Isaac Asimov. Jerry Oltion. Robert A. Heinlein. Lawrence Watt-Evans. Larry Niven. Terry Bisson. Gene Wolfe.

There were also a handful of Campbell winners in the same months’ releases, and a Dick winner, doubtless a Sturgeon winner, even a related Hugo winner (Ben Bova, whose Hugos came for editing) and a Nebula-winning author who edited an anthology (Gardner Dozois, who is also a multiple Hugo winner as an editor.)

Kinda dilutes the commercial value of the Hugo and Nebula when you come up with this sort of quantity month in and month out.

So . . . if that’s the case, is any award, other than a cash prize, really worth anything except in terms of ego gratification?

Well, my experience is that you can capitalize on the Hugo. You just can’t do it in the science fiction field in America.

The New York Times, Lord knows why, feels compelled to run the Hugo winners on Sunday or Monday of each year’s Worldcon. Three of the four times I have won Hugos I have been involved in long, intensive, occasionally antagonistic negotiations with movie studios . . . and every time my name appeared as a Hugo winner, they gave in on almost every point of contention within a week. This was not the same studio, mind you, but three different studios for three different Hugos.

What else? Well, after my first Hugo, I was actually paid a dollar a word by a Japanese magazine to write an article about a Hugo winner’s day. (About the same as a Hugo loser’s day: you wake up, you write a bunch of pages, you go to bed.)

I find that being an award winner helps most when you’re trying to sell overseas. All other things being equal (which is to say, incomprehensible—at least to an editor who has a problem speaking or reading English), the Hugo winner (and to a lesser extent, the Nebula winner) has a major advantage over the non-winner. After all, it’s proof (of a very subjective sort, to be sure, but proof nonetheless) that you are a Class Act and a Quality Author. The Hugo also implies that you have a fan following, since it’s voted on by fans—and fans are the people who buy books.

It’s hard to sell a collection, here or abroad . . . but it becomes a bit easier if you can offer a couple of Hugo or Nebula winners that the publisher can brag about on the cover. No one gets rich off a collection, we’re not talking huge money here, we’re talking a minimal sale or no sale at all, and sometimes having an award-winning story will make the difference.

And then there’s the stories themselves. If I win a Hugo, I can count on selling that story again—to reprint anthologies, to foreign markets, to audio and electronic markets—perhaps 12 to 15 times over a 5-to-8-year period. (I’m afraid I can’t speak for a Nebula winner, as mine was also a Hugo winner). I also find that even a Hugo or Nebula nominee will sell from 8 to 12 more times in the next decade.

So I suppose it might even be worth your while to campaign for an award. I hear people complaining about politics and campaigning all the time . . . but since the Hugo and Nebula final ballots are (and remain) secret, I honestly don’t know how you go about politicking, or, more to the point, how you would know if your politicking was having any effect at all. Would you have won anyway? Was your campaigning so off-putting that people voted against a book or story that should have won based just on its quality?

So . . . would you care to draw upon your 30+ years in the field and comment on any of the above?

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BARRY: Campaigning.

That’s another broad area; it cries for generalization and I can do no less than fall into that abyss. The usual stipulation: all generalizations including this one are probably untrue. But some are less untrue than others.

The Nebulas and the Hugos represent a different electorate, somewhat different conditions. The voting base for Hugos in the professional categories now is, I would guess, about a thousand votes, maybe l200. It’s less than half that for the Nebulas. Because the Nebulas have a smaller base it is easier to campaign there than it is for the Hugos. Probably considerably easier because through the SFWA address book and the Internet, any SFWA member can have access to the entire electorate. Not so easy with the Hugos.

In the old days—from, say l965 to l975—the Nebulas drew on a very small voting base indeed. “Twenty votes will get you a Nebula,” was the truism. I don’t know the exact figures for those early years with one exception which has in tribute to Cordwainer Smith burned itself upon my brain: “Final War” was a finalist in the novelette category in l969 and received l2 votes, finishing third. Poul Anderson’s “The Sharing of Flesh” (won the Hugo, incidentally) had l3 votes to finish second. Richard Wilson’s “Mother to the World,” the winner, had l9 votes. A switch of four Wilson votes to me or vice-versa gives me the gonfalon, similarly eight fresh and eager bidders if I can recruit them does the same. That’s not a heck of a lot of people. I don’t know if winning the Nebula that year would have made any difference in the short or long run, yes and no are the answers, I suppose, but I would like to have learned instead of speculated. (I don’t begrudge Richard Wilson the award. Good writer, nice man, difficult final years, died too young and had plenty of literary frustration.)

Nowadays, I suppose—figures are no longer released or rankings—that forty or fifty first place votes (it’s not clear to me if the Nebulas, like the Hugos, work on the Australian ballot) would win a Nebula, at least in the shorter categories. That still isn’t a heck of a lot of votes and less than that are needed to achieve the preliminary and then the final Nebula ballots in SFWA’s increasingly Byzantine system which I have never fully understood and don’t want to understand. Obviously campaigning under these conditions can work. I’m not saying that every winner or final ballot work has reached that because of campaigning, but I’m not saying that such works haven’t. It’s my inference—I’m just a distant spectator now, folks—that campaigning goes even beyond merit to mark the most significant factor in the entire Nebula process. Of course some voters won’t respond to campaigning at all, a few voters in fact will reflexively disqualify any work with the whiff of self-promotion. And of course campaigning, if everyone does it, can to a certain degree be self-obviating, if everyone’s somebody, then no one’s anybody. (But those who won’t campaign at all are almost certainly excluded.)

The Hugos: larger, more scattered electorate, less compact, more difficult to manipulate now. Again, in the old days, in the l950’s and even the l960’s the Hugos were predicated on relatively few votes, and there are credible rumors—name I no names—that a few of them might have been bought for minor considerations. That’s doubtful now—I think that the Hugos in the professional categories, if not unimpeachable, represent the outcome of a more honest and less biased process than that surrounding any other literary award. Perhaps any award at all. (The Edgars, the National Book Awards, the Pulitzers, all decided by small committees in subterranean fashion, are obviously more manipulable than the Nebulas, let alone the Hugos.)

That’s a relatively long answer to a short but charged question: in sum, campaigning works. Or, in sum, while campaigning for the Nebula is absolutely no guarantee of an award, it is now almost a certainty that no work without campaign has a chance.

(There’s the jury system adding a work in each category and a juried work, apparently, even won recently, the only time in 20 years, but the jury system doesn’t prevent or minimize injustice, it’s what they call a cosmetic reform. And, of course, it’s easier to lobby three or four jury members than a voter base of some 400, isn’t it?)

The latter part of this sermon might then pass on to consider the exact nature of a “campaign” . . . what constitutes this process? outright currying of votes? Sending on a solicited or unsolicited basis copies of the stories at issue? Trading nominations and votes? But other than saying “all of the above and some things not part of the above” I guess I’ll pass.

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MIKE: I suppose if you send every member of SFWA a copy of your new hardcover with a note suggesting they might recommend it for a Nebula if they like it, you’re probably going to get on the ballot. After all, it costs nothing to recommend a book; you can recommend 300 a year if you’ve a mind to . . . and if you recommend a guy who sends you a $26.95 US hardcover that you can trade in to your local bookstore, why, he might send you another next year. (There was a time when the best thing about SFWA, other than the Grievance Committee, was that the membership got free monthly mailings from various mass market publishers . . . enough to more than cover your dues if you re-sold them or traded them in.)

The operative question is this: is it worth $32,340 US (1,200 members times $26.95 US) to be a Nebula nominee? Of course not. Even if you get the book at a 50% author’s discount, is it worth $16,170 US (plus postage; never forget postage) to make the ballot?

I don’t care how great your ego is, and I don’t care how gullible your editor and publisher are, the answer is still a resounding No.

Short fiction? Well, that’s a different ball game. For years the digests sent copies of all nominated stories to the voters; then came the internet, and now Asimov’s and Analog post them on their web page. (I don’t remember if F&SF does.) But that’s all after the fact; no one’s posting every story that was published during the year so the voters can read it for free. So you’re looking at sending out 1,200 copies of a $3.95 US magazine to hopefully make the ballot. Is it worth just under $5,000 US to lose to Connie Willis? (Remember: if you’ve got an outstanding, award-quality story, you don’t need to campaign just to make the ballot.)

So much for campaigning. Now let’s be perfectly honest. We live in a microcosm of writers and editors and fans, and the man or woman with a few Nebulas or Hugos to his or her credit verges upon superstardom.

But walk out the door of the hotel right after you’ve won one of those wonderful awards, and ask the first hundred people you see if they know what a Hugo or a Nebula is.

I guarantee that their answers will make you humble.

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BARRY: Humbling all right. Brings you to heel right away; certainly induces what the counselors call “perspective.” In l983, again, I was on a final ballot; Nebulas were in New York but Doubleday was too cheap or uninformed to pay for a banquet ticket and I had no disposition to spend $50 US to eat bad food and lose. (I can do that at considerably less expense every day of the week.) Hung around the hotel in the afternoon, went to a couple of panels, talked to this friend and that, then took a walk to the car which would take me home. Two blocks from the hotel, the friend who was keeping me company (before himself returning for the banquet) pointed to an attractive woman and said, “Look at her. She doesn’t know you’ve lost a Nebula. She doesn’t even know what a Nebula is. She probably doesn’t even know what science fiction is.” Well, you never know—maybe he was pointing at Cecelia Holland who just happened to be in the territory—but then again you probably do. Worth keeping in mind.

Or Patricia Cadigan, who was around at the Baltimore World Convention in l983 where I lost in my category and collected Richard Geis’s l2th or l5th Hugo in his. I carried the Geis trophy on a long, solemn walk around Baltimore Harbor after the ceremony, thinking of this and that. “How much do you think I could get, cash money, for this Hugo from anyone strolling the Harbor at this hour?” I asked. “Try twenty-five cents,” Patricia said. “If you offer to carry it home for them.”

So all right, everything is relative and as you might confirm, Mike, most of the population of Kenya or Zaire aren’t concerned with Nebulas and maybe one out of ten thousand could tell you what an Oscar is, let alone a National Book Award. “Drink is good, it musters indifference,” that master of perspective, Dr. Johnson said. While we’re on the subject I might as well note in passing and conclusion that the extended eligibility rule, now extant for about a decade or a little more, has in my opinion severely discredited the Nebulas. Best of the year? “Well, uh, it was the best in the last two years.” But last year’s winner was also published within the two-year limit. “Well, it’s one of the two best stories of the last two years. Or maybe the best of the year before last.” There is no “best of the year” thanks to the extended eligibility and this change—which came from some members exploiting an obscure loophole permitting the withdrawal of a story or novel if a “better version” would subsequently be published—has done the award little good. (I don’t think that X or Y or Z who have won through the use of this give a damn nor should they.)

Richer is better than poorer, sure. But the awards process often seems designed to create little but pain (always more losers than winners) and make competitors of colleagues, sometimes bitterly. But this is where we are and it’s not going to go away; where it all ends knows God as Woolcott Gibbs pointed out. (And where did Woolcott Gibbs end?)

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MIKE: Time for an attempt at a summing-up, I suppose.

First, I don’t think a truly bad story or novel has ever won a Hugo or Nebula. I’m less convinced as you move to the plethora of minor awards.

Second, most people don’t know it, but more people vote for most of the Hugo categories than for most of the Oscar categories. Winning an Oscar gets you a few million dollars and a ton of prestige; winning a Hugo certainly ought to get you a free drink from your editor, though I can testify that it frequently doesn’t.

Third, we have so many lesser awards that I doubt anyone can name them all. I have one that *nobody* has ever heard of: the Golden Pagoda Award, which comes not from Beijing but from Oklahoma. I’ve got another nonentity of an award called the Alexander, and an equally obscure one called the Bookworm. I hope they impress foreign editors, because I’ve never quite had the nerve to add them to my credentials when pushing a project in this country. (Probably I just don’t want to deal with a mystified “Huh”?)

But good or bad, major or minor, awards are here to stay. And here comes the crux of it: I think they’re a good thing, especially for writers who don’t regularly earn out, let alone hit the bestseller lists (and that probably includes a third to half of the award winners.) If you can’t convince your publisher that you’re going to make him rich, awards will at least go a long way toward convincing him that your name, while it may never top the bestseller list, will bring prestige to his list.

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About my counterpart: Barry N. Malzberg‘s Beyond Apollo was in 1973 the winner of the first John W. Campbell Memorial Award for the best science-fiction novel of the year; he twice won the LOCUS Award for nonfiction books of critical history and commentary on science fiction. Several short works have been final-listed for the Nebula and Hugo and Engines of the Night and Breakfast in the Ruins, the nonfiction works, were on the Hugo final ballot for Best Related Nonfiction as is his collaborative book with Mike Resnick, The Business of Science Fiction. He was sole judge of the 1980 Writers Digest Short Story Contest.

About Mike

According to Locus, I am the all-time leading award winner, living or dead, for short fiction. I have won 5 Hugos (from a record 37 nominations), a Nebula, and other major awards in the USA, France, Japan, Spain, Croatia, Catalonia, and Poland. I'm and author of 74 novels, over 260 stories, and 3 screenplays, and the editor of 42 anthologies. My work has been translated into 27 languages. I am currently the editor of the Stellar Guild line of books, and Galaxy's Edge magazine.
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