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Poking at Awards: David Gemmell Legend Awards

I'm halfway through reading and reviewing the shortlists for the David Gemmell Legend Awards. That seems to be going well (and thanks to everyone who's joining in with comments and thoughts). What I wanted to do was create a separate space to discuss the award itself. What do you think works about the Gemmell Awards? What could other awards learn from it? If (when) appointed Supreme Leader of Earth, what would you do to improve on it?

As far as discussing awards goes, this seems a relatively straight-forward one - if this works, we'll move our collective gaze onto other awards.

Ground rules

  • We are starting with the assumption that awards are Good Things. If your stance is that awards suck and accomplish nothing, no matter what, your input isn't all that useful.
  • I'm in no way associated with the DGLA. Nor am I advising it, consulting for it or anything else. I vote, that's it! This is, like the other posts in the 'Poking at Awards' series, simply a discussion around these strange and wonderful institutions in genre fiction.
  • Don't be a dick. As with all things, let's review the content, not the 'author'. The nice people who run the DGLA - or any award - work their asses off, and they do it for love of literature, and they do it knowing full well that they're exposing themselves to criticism. Let's talk about the award and let's do it with empathy for our fellow book-lovers. 

Background and criteria

The David Gemmell Awards seek out the best epic fantasy book of the calendar year. The exact definition of 'epic fantasy' is 'epic fantasy, high fantasy and/or in the tradition of David Gemmell'. The books are submitted by publishers. There's a fee and several copies are required, to be distributed to reviewers. The books all need to have been traditionally published [I believe], but digital-only books are accepted. Although the book must be published in English, publishers and voters come from around the world.

There's a little vetting based on genre, but generally speaking, all the submissions that fit the physical criteria become the 'longlist'. This is then voted on by the public - first down to a shortlist of 5, and finally to a winner. 

There are three categories: best book, best debut and best cover.

I think that covers all the salient points. After the jump - what other awards could learn from the Gemmells and a few crazy (and not so crazy) suggestions...

What's working?

Axe from Rambles Around London Town - 1884 - via British LibraryThe number of participants is fantastic. This year, there were 17,000 voters at the first stage. That's a lot. By contrast, that's 10 times more than the first stage of this year's Hugo Awards. There are differences of course, but the specificity of the DGLA's remit (just epic fantasy) is more than offset by having no-registration, no-fee, online vote. Similarly, the popularity mechanism encourages all possible stakeholders - authors, publishers, and fans - to get involved.

Involvement is reinforced by building a community - this includes distributing copies to reviewers and having a forum... aside from the voters, the DGLA has over 2,000 people signed up as 'members'. They're not currently active, but that's a really nice base to draw on. (That's more than, say Facebook followers for The Kitschies or the Clarke, and a larger membership than the BSFA or BFS).

Despite being the second-best-selling genre of SF/F, epic fantasy is not otherwise well-rewarded. (The best-selling genre of SF/F - YA - has a lot of awards, but none that are explicitly genre awards. We'll get to that in a second.) Most fantasy-focused awards or or awards that cross genres - World Fantasy, Hugos, Nebulas, British Fantasy, The Kitschies - have tended, especially in recent years, towards the literary, which epic fantasy tends not to be. Is epic fantasy 'bad' or overlooked by critics and aspects of fandom? Possibly, but that's another argument. What matters is that the Gemmels are a platform which increases the visibility of the 'best' of epic fantasy.

The DGLA has an international spread - recently that's reflected more in the voters than the books, but, even so, winners have come from Australia, New Zealand, Iceland, and Germany. Epic fantasy is a global genre, and that's reflected in every aspect of the award. 

The trophy is both fun and memorable, and the awards ceremony is consistently impressive. As a celebratory award, the DGLA has an overt commitment to raising the prestige of the epic fantasy genre. An invitation-only event at a respectable venue requiring formal attire and beautiful trophies make the DGLA an occasion. 

What would I change?

Ok, a few ideas - and again, please add your own thoughts in the comments.

My theory is that this award's audience is readers. A lot of what the award does - the glamourous ceremony, for example - rewards authors. But the DGLA ultimately sends the following message to readers: we want you to express your enjoyment of epic fantasy books [by voting].

And that's really good. If your primary audience is readers, a popular vote is a great mechanism, and so is the idea of creating a community around the prize and the genre.

The challenge is that the award is, as noted, currently geared around a single action: "come and vote for your favourite book". That doesn't foster any sort of lingering connection or discussion, and, and - here's the twist - it doesn't give readers new books. What if the DGLA became a place where you find your next epic fantasy book? Where, even if you participate because you love a specific book, you still leave with an idea of what you will read next? In sum, the Gemmells aren't really fostering as much of a sense of community as they could.

To do this, the DGLA could:

a) broaden its definition of epic fantasy

Create a new category for self-published books. It'd be good PR, but, more importantly, it would ensure that the award is reaching a huge (and fast-growing) corner of the epic fantasy market. This also settles the problem of books like Anthony Ryan's Blood Song, which was self-published and traditionally-published in different years. Over time, the self-published category could be dissolved and the books pointed towards the 'best novel' and 'best debut' categories. Or not. 

Get YA in. And tons of it. YA brings in more publishers, more authors, more readers and so much more diversity (in every way). Plus, trying to draw a line between 'epic fantasy' and 'YA' is, as far as I can tell, impossible. Most fantasy readers, myself included, cut our readin' teeth on books like Terry Brooks, JRR Tolkien, Terry Pratchett, David Eddings, Raymond Feist... books that are packaged and sold for both adult and young adult audiences. (Here's a discussion last year surrounding eventual Morningstar winner, Malice, and why it is both YA and adult, and better for it.) This is why I wouldn't put YA into its own category - it's an almost impossible distinction to make.

Finally, even if it weren't impossible to distinguish 'young adult' from 'adult' fantasy, epic fantasy's heartland is, was, and always will be adolescents and teenagers. We should encourage young readers, not tell them that the books they love aren't worthy of awards.

b) promote the consideration (pre-voting) process

Add more time before opening to votes. This is a little thing, but could mean a lot. If you announce the longlist and open for voting the same day, that sends the message that voters needn't review and compare the field. Why not announce the longlists a month early? It isn't like publishers don't know what titles they're publishing in the December of the previous year. This would also give the DGLA a month to get cover art and content, line up reviewers and add a bit of countdown 'fanfare' to the opening of the vote.

Similarly, after announcing the shortlist, have at least two more weeks before opening to the final vote. Encourage people to read as many of the books as possible, and not just to rush to the site and vote for their favourite. 

Get people talking about epic fantasy. The DGLA already creates content with author and artist interviews, but what if it was even more broad? Ask previous winners and finalists what they're reading, and what they think about epic fantasy. What does last year's winner, John Gwynne, think about this year's Morningstar shortlist? What books would he recommend, and why? Ditto - booksellers, editors, fans, artists, movie stars, critics... Get a conversation going. This is especially key during the stages before people cast their votes (see above).

Move the community. What if the DGLA partnered up with an online platform that already had an active community? Fantasy Faction? Westeros? SFX? Reddit's r/fantasy? All places that have active and moderated forums for the discussion of epic and commercial fantasy. Having 2,000 registered people (and another 17,000+ voters) is one hell of a calling card. With online communities, there's a lot of inertia - but that works both ways. It is hard to generate a conversation from scratch, but it is easy to find someplace where folks are talking and get them talking more

c) reinforce its mission of finding 'excellence in epic fantasy' - both to raise its own profile as an award, and to ensure that readers are getting the best possible recommendations.

Create the shortlist by a combination of popular and juried selections. This is a slightly kneejerk response: we tend to associate 'critical excellence' with juried, rather than popular prizes. But this isn't quite as extreme as it sounds, and I wouldn't ever want to lose the DGLA's heritage as a popular vote. What about something like having four voted books on each shortlist, then another two added by a jury [from the list of submissions, I suppose]? Then have the winner chosen entirely by popular vote?

The jury can be composed of, well, anyone, really - they'd need to understand the prize's populist taste and love of fantasy, but their role would be to focus on 'excellence' - to add a pair of books that they think were great but were otherwise missed out by voters or overshadowed. (I'd suggest a jury of three to pick two books, that way they have to discuss and agree with one another.) And, however obvious the juried picks may be, I'd still suggest that they're not marked as such - that way all the books are on an equal footing for the final round.

Change the categories entirely. I'm not sold on this one, honestly - but there's something interesting in the idea of changing 'best novel' and 'best debut' to three different categories: 'series', 'start' and 'standalone' (those are categories, not proposed final wording!). 'Series': any book in a series - volume 2+. 'Start': the first book in a projected series, whether from a debut author or not. 'Standalone': a book that's not part of a series, full-stop.

This may be a better reflection of how readers choose, discuss and compare books within this particular genre. Plus, that way we'd avoid the conflation of individual titles and mid-series titles and voters can better compare like with like. Granted, this raises a lot of questions (Black Library books?! Joe Abercrombie's Red Country?!) But that could be part of the fun. Worth thinking about, at least!

Your turn - what could other awards learn from the DGLA? What are your suggestions for the DGLA? Remember, be thoughtful. We've never had to moderate the comments in the past, and I really don't want to start now.