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Poking at Awards: Size (and Simplicity) Matters

SemiprozineEvery year the advent of awards season brings out the same perplexed discussions. Is x eligible? What is a y? What does z mean? Can I vote?! (Can I vote for myself?) Is voting the same as nominating? What's the difference between a nomination, a submission, a vote, a longlist, a recommendation, a shortlist, a ballot and a membership?!

Awards have each evolved their own bespoke vocabulary over the years. Their process may seem perfectly clear to them (that is, regular voters), but that still isn't the same thing as being  'simple'. And, in many cases, they make things worse - especially for new voters - with rulebooks that can seem deliberately arcane.

We live in an era of one-click purchasing and physical checkout processes that are 'wave your card until it beeps'. People expect simplicity. An awards process that has bespoke terminology, multiple stages and separate membership documentation gives a voter a lot of opportunities to get confused, misread the directions and/or drop out of the process.

(And that's before we add in the custom reverse-Australian-bucket-pool or jury-voter-hybrid selection system that each award has to feel 'unique'.)

Complexity is pretty tricky to measure outside of proper testing, but I suspect most - if not all - awards would fail most - if not all - tests for user experience.  

For the hell of it - and to find some quantifiable metric - I measured the word counts of various awards' rules. Before anyone starts screaming, I know how dubious this is. But, it does make for a half-decent snapshot of complexity (and user-friendliness). 

I had to make do with the information best available - submissions guidelines, processes, etc. A few awards (Arthur C. Clarke and Philip K. Dick) have anything on their site, so if someone has a process email from them or anything, forward it on, and I'll add them in.

I've cited all the links I used below, so you check / debate my work.

Here are the results:

AwardsI've color-coded them: green for popular vote, red for juried, blue for semi-popular. The DGLA number here is wibbly, as I don't have an actual 'here's how the process works' email, so that number may change. Again, if you've got something better - share.

A popular prize should be the simplest. For better or for worse, popular awards are light on criteria - something I've written about before. How the award works is therefore easy to describe: list. vote. shorter list. vote again. winner. There's no complexity, and popular awards are the easiest to understand and to participate in.

Juried awards are the next simplest: the actual judging is down to a few people, so there's no need to spell it out. For all three of the juried awards above, the word count comes from submissions instructions, including criteria and a 'mission' or goal. The vast bulk of the Man Booker rules, for example, informs publishers how to submit their books. (On bended knee, mostly.)

And then there are the semi-popular awards. Semi-popular awards detail more of the process and the evaluation (unlike juried prizes, they don't take submissions). The bulk of the rules are instead taken up with category definitions (and the semi-popular awards have the most categories), and the qualifications required to vote or nominate. So certainly they have reasons behind their relative complexity. Maybe even good reasons. However, whether or not the rules are justified isn't the question... it is whether or not they're complicated. And for semi-popular awards, there sure are a lot of 'em.

A particularly wordy shout out to the Bram Stoker Awards, who broke the graph. At a stupendous 16,204 words, the Stoker rules would qualify for their "Long Fiction" category alongside other novels.

Sadly, I don't have an absolute conclusion (except that the Stokers are ridiculous). Is it better to leave things vague or be explicit about every last detail? Where's the right balance between having zero criteria and creating a Kafkaesque bureaucracy? Is it better to be vague and watch voters engage in annual arguments over something as broad as "epic fantasy" (DGLA)? Or ultra-specific and have them parse what it means to be a "semi-professional" (Hugo Awards)? My gut feel is the former, because at least they are then talking about books, but I'm not sure. Your take in the comments, please!

Because I couldn't resist, one final set of word counts:




  • DGLA: http://gemmellaward.com/page/how-the-awards-work
  • James Tiptree Jr: http://tiptree.org/award/the-process
  • Shirley Jackson Awards: www.shirleyjacksonawards.org/rules/
  • The Kitschies: http://www.thekitschies.com/submissions.html
  • BSFA: http://www.bsfa.co.uk/bsfa-awards/
  • BFA: http://www.britishfantasysociety.co.uk/the-british-fantasy-awards-constitution-ii/
  • Man Booker: http://www.themanbookerprize.com/entering-the-awards
  • Nebula: http://www.sfwa.org/nebula-awards/rules/
  • Bram Stoker: http://horror.org/awards/rules2014.pdf
  • Hugo Awards: http://www.wsfs.org/bm/const-2014.html#article3
  • WSFS Constitution: http://www.wsfs.org/bm/const-2014.html

(Post word count, including sources: 759)