oh god am i really going to write about the hugos again


Okay. I am. A little bit, but only to float an idea.

Eric Flint (possibly aiming for a fan writing Hugo himself) wrote a long post called The Divergence between Popularity and Awards in Fantasy and Science Fiction, in which he argues that the award-winners of Ye Dayes of Olde (before the mid 80’s, I guess) were also the best sellers in the genre, but for the last 25+ years, that hasn’t been true.

He comes at this argument through an odd, winding route, attempting to magically divine the top sellers by seeing how many feet of books are modeled[1] on the shelves, using pre-Amazon measurements he took at B&N and Borders. (Kids, Borders was once a big chain bookstore.)

Which… fine. Let’s just pretend that this is a good measure of sales. Assuming that the big sellers of today are no longer necessarily getting the awards, why not?

Let’s put aside the idea that there’s some sort of left-wing cabal handing them out to their friends, because that idea is dumb. Let’s also put aside the idea that the standards for the awards are especially literary. To quote Abigail Nussbaum:

The truth is—and this is something that we’ve all lost sight of this year—no matter how much the puppies like to pretend otherwise, the Hugo is not a progressive, literary, elitist award. It’s a sentimental, middle-of-the-road, populist one.[2]

I basically agree with her, although I don’t feel the urge to “walk away in disgust” and am in no way disappointed. The Hugos are what they are, and I think that’s fine for the people voting for them.

But here’s my suggestion, tentatively offered: what if the Hugo voters/nominators aren’t the one’s who’ve changed these last few decades? I mean, sure, some folks age out, new folks come in, so they aren’t the same individuals. But what if they’re the same sort of novelty-seeking reader, preferring clever, flattering books to pretty much everything else?

Because that would mean that the bulk of the readership now are the sorts of readers who don’t care about fandom or voting for Awards. Who have maybe sampled a few award-winners and found them not to their taste. They’re the people who came into the genre through Sword of Shannara, because it was the first fantasy to hit the NYTimes list, through STAR WARS and dozens of other action/adventure-with-ray-guns movies that sold millions of tickets, through D&D novels like Dragonlance, or through shoot-em-up video games.

Maybe the award hasn’t changed very much, but the readership now suddenly includes huge masses of people who are looking for Hollywood-style entertainment, with exaggerated movie characterization and a huge third act full of Big Confrontation.

Obviously, some Hugo voters enjoy that sort of thing, too. If they didn’t, GUARDIANS OF THE GALAXY wouldn’t have won this year. They may not think R.A. Salvatore’s work deserves an award, but they’ll read it and enjoy it. But the few thousand people involved in the Hugos are not enough to fill out the readership of someone like Jim Butcher or Robin Hobb. That’s a whole other group.

Flint’s post seems to suggest that the awards seem to have moved away from the influential big sellers, and he’s not sure why[3]. I would say that science fiction and fantasy have become large markets with a readership that’s less insular. It has more “casuals” to steal a gaming term. Those are the people who are blowing up the sales of the books at the “basic entertainment” end of the spectrum.

That’s a good thing.

It might seem funny at this point for me to say, once again, that I’m not all that interested in the Hugo Awards. I’m really not, although I’m very interested in selling large numbers of books [4]. The divergence between what sells in large numbers and what wins popular awards is an interesting data point.

[1] Modeling: When bookstores make a special effort to always have an author’s books on the shelf. A copy of The Two Towers sells, and a new one is ordered instantly. That’s a good place for an author to be.

[2] I found her writeup in this io9 summary of Hugo articles.

[3] Do the people who give out the Edgars worry that the books winning awards aren’t on the bestseller lists?

[4] Check out my books. I’ve got sample chapters for you and everything.