The 2018 Dragon Award Nominees and the Rise of the Kindle Unlimited Writing Factories

For the third time in a row, Dragon Con, a big media con in Atlanta, Georgia, has enlivened the dead period just before WorldCon starts and the Hugo winners are announced, by announcing the nominees for the Dragon Awards. You can see the nominees on the official website here and in a less eye-searing design over at File 770, where there’s also some discussion in the comments.

Those of you who’ve followed the saga of the Dragon Awards (see my previous posts on the subject here) know that the award has been troubled from the start three years ago. The Dragons started out with the intention to award the sort of broadly popular works that have a lot of mass appeal, but rarely show up on the Hugo and Nebula shortlists. This is in theory a good idea, except that the actual shortlist and even the winners in the first two years did not really reflect those intentions at all and instead were a mix of the sort of broadly popular works the Dragons claimed to champion and “Who the hell is this?” nominees. For the Dragon Awards have zero voting controls (basically, you can nominate and vote with as many e-mail addresses as you can generate) and even less transparency (so far, they never released any voting and nomination data and according to the rules, it’s not even certain that the finalists or winners are actually the most nominated books), which makes them extremely vulnerable to ballot stuffing. The Sad and Rabid Puppies and their various offshoot groups tried it with varying success, as did other groups like Inkshares, the Red Panda Faction (who do good work and offered an eligibility spreadsheet for the 2018 Dragon Awards) and individual authors with large followings. Camestros Felapton, probably the foremost chronicler of the Dragon Awards, did the work and hunted down various Dragon Award recommendation lists and slates and “Please vote for my book” posts to offer his predictions of the finalists.

So now the preliminaries are out of the way, let’s look at the actual shortlist. Once more, it’s a curious mix of broadly popular works and “What the hell is this?” nominees. It’s also a very white and very male ballot. I count thirteen women out of 50 authors nominated in the fiction category (since several books have multiple authors), that’s 26%, i.e. a little over a fourth of all Dragon nominees in the fiction categories are women. They’re also unevenly distributed: The YA category is five women and one man, while science fiction and fantasy only include one female nominee each and military SF doesn’t have any women at all. I also count between four and six writers of colour (two nominees are immigrants from Iberic peninsula, who are often considered Hispanic in the US, but don’t necessarily self-identify that way), that’s between 8 and 12%. Though I may have missed someone, since I’m not familiar with all the authors.

In the best science fiction novel category, we have Persepolis Rising, the latest Expanse novel by James S.A. Corey and Artemis by Andy Weir, both highly popular works by author with a large following. Sins of Her Father by Mike Kupari is a Baen Book that only briefly surfaced on my radar because of some snark about the cover with its very phallic rocket and huge nozzles. But considering how reliably awful Baen’s cover art is, that doesn’t mean the book is bad. Kupari’s novel was also pushed by Brad Torgersen and Larry Correia. Vera Nazarian is an indie and small press pioneer and past Nebula finalist. Her nominated novel Win seems to be a Hunger Games style YA dystopia, but is clearly popular judging by the number of Amazon reviews. The Mutineer’s Daughter by Chris Kennedy and Thomas A. Mays is military SF from one of the Kindle Unlimited writing factories. It also seems that Chris Kennedy and pals campaigned heavily for the Dragons, since they’ve got several books on the shortlist. It Takes Death to Reach a Star by Gareth Worthington and Stu Jones finally is a novel I’d never heard of. Going by the blurb, it’s a post-apocalyptic novel of the sort that tends to make puppies cry.

The best fantasy shortlist consists of Brandon Sanderson, who of course has a huge fanbase, and several writers I know very little about. Pippa DaCosta is a popular indie author and her nominated book Shoot the Messenger seeems to be in the popular “mages in space” and “reverse harem” subgenres. The Traitor God by Cameron Johnston is an grimdark fantasy novel published by Angry Robot that has somehow flown under my radar, but then this subgenre isn’t rally my thing. Aleron Kong is another popular indie author and his novel The Land: Predators is part of a series in the popular LitRPG genre. A Tempered Warrior by Jon R. Osborne is epic fantasy from Chris Kennedy’s publishing outfit. War Hammer by Shayne Silvers is tough guy urban fantasy by yet another popular indie author, who nonetheless managed to pass completely beneath my radar.

The best young adult/middle grade shortlist, on the other hand, consists solely of highly popular authors and books. It’s also the most female shortlist, featuring five women and one man (which is only to be expected, because YA is heavily female dominated). There is no overlap with the Andre Norton Award or the new YA not-a-Hugo, but then there is very little overlap between the Hugo and Nebula shortlists and the Dragon shortlist in general. Coincidentally, there is also not a single indie book among the nominees in this category.

Best military SF/fantasy is another mixed bag. Former countryman Marko Kloos is a popular military SF author and by all accounts a good guy. Communications Failure by Joe Zieja is part of a series of satirical military SF, which actually seems to do something interesting with this subgenre. A Call to Vengeance by David Weber, Timothy Zahn and Thomas Pope is a prequel to David Weber’s hugely popular Honor Harrington series and therefore not exactly a surprising nominee. And yes, I know that Baen likes collaborations, but three authors for a single book is really pushing it. Jonathan P. Brazee is a popular indie military SF author, was a Nebula finlists this year and is by all accounts a good guy. Finally, we have two more books from two of the big Kindle Unlimited writing factories. Legend by Christopher Woods is another book from Chris Kennedy’s outfit and apparently a prequel of sorts to his Four Horsemen series. Michael Anderle and Craig Martelle are both popular indie SF authors and their nominated book Price of Freedom is part of Anderle’s Kutherian Gambit series. Michael Anderle is also the founder of the 20 books to 50K Facebook group of market-focussed indie SFF writers and finds many of his co-authors there. Coincidentally, this is the only all-male category.

On to best alternate history, which is probably the strangest Dragon Award category, since it’s such a small and peculiar subgenre, whereas big subgenres like epic and urban fantasy have to share a single category. Charles Stross is very popular and clearly a deserving nominee, though not to my taste at all. Though going by the blurb, I’m not sure if his nominated novel Dark State actually is alternate history, since it seems to be near future SF. But then, the Dragons did name a religiously tinged space opera best horror novel once, so odd categorisation is common for this award. D.J. Butler’s Witchy Winter is part of a popular historical fantasy series, though again I wouldn’t really classify this as alternate history. S.M. Stirling is another broadly popular author and actually writes alternate history. Kevin J. Anderson is another very popular author and Uncharted, written with Sarah Hoyt, is an actual alternate history novel. Dream of the Iron Dragon by Robert Kroese was promoted by several of the puppy-adjacent groups/authors like Superversive SF, Happy Frogs and Declan Finn. though mostly in the best science fiction category. The premise is vikings in space, so I guess it would count as alternate history. Minds of Men by Kacey Ezell is another book to come out of Chris Kennedy’s publishing outfit. It also is actually alternate history.

ETA: Paul Weimer and commenter Andrew at File 770 confirm that Dark State is indeed alternate history, so it’s absolutely in the correct category here.

Best media tie-in is a new category for the Dragon Awards and has replaced the apocalyptic/post-apocalyptic category. The finalists are two Star Wars tie-in novels (both by female writers about female characters), two Star Trek Discovery tie-in novels, a Halo tie-in novel and a World of Warcraft tie-in novel. All popular franchises, so it’s not particularly surprising to see them here. Coincidentally, Before the Storm by Christie Golden is also the only finalists from Vox Day’s Dragon Awards slate to make the ballot. And considering how many people play World of Warcraft, I suspect it would have made the ballot with or without Vox.

Oddly enough, best horror is the one category in the Dragon Awards which usually looks most like what it says on the tin, probably because the ballot stuffers don’t particularly care for horror. Even though a religiously tinged space opera won the category in the first year. This year, we have the biggest living name in horror, Stephen King and his son Owen King with Sleeping Beauties. Paul Tremblay is an up and coming horror writer and his The Cabin at the End of the World got quite a bit of buzz. Jonathan Maberry is another very popular horror author. Meddling Kids by Edgar Cantero is an interesting take on Scooby Doo and also got quite a bit of buzz. I’ve never heard of Beneath the Lighthouse by Julianne Lynch. Going by the blurb, it seems to be YA horror. Mark Wandrey, finally, is a frequent co-author of Chris Kennedy’s. His nominated novel A Time to Run seems to be a zombie apocalypse story.

Best comic book is a mix of popular series such as Saga or The Mighty Thor (Is this still the Jane Foster Thor or the restored Thor Odinsson?), popular, if unfinished miniseries such as Mister Miracle and Doomsday Clock and two media tie-in comics. In best graphic novel, we have popular works like Monstress, Paper Girls and Vision, all of whom are/were Hugo finalists in this category. There is also a Brandon Sanderson graphic novel and two works I’m not familiar with at all. Chicago Typewriter is a prohibition era noir tale with supernatural undertones, while Be Prepared by Vera Bresgol looks like the sort of thing that makes puppies cry. Coincidentally, not a single one of Vox Day’s Arkhaven/Alt-Hero comics or any of the other crowdfunded alt-right Comicsgate books managed to get a nomination.

The film and TV categories is full of very popular works with very few surprises. The film category is very Marvel dominated with pretty much every eligible Marvel movie plus Deadpool 2 nominated. Though I’m a bit surprised that Ready Player One managed to garner a nomination, considering how panned it was, but then it probably did appeal to the Dragon Con demographic. No Last Jedi or Solo, which is a bit of a surprise, especially since Last Jedi did well at the box office, in spite of a hate campaign.

I can’t say much about the game categories except that I’ve heard of many of the nominated games, which means that they’re popular. Coincidentally, Azul by two developers from Bremen just won the prestigious Spiel des Jahres award (which is pretty much the biggest award a boardgame can win), while Photosynthesis was a finalist. Though neither of those is even remotely science fiction or fantasy.

So what’s the verdict? The good news is that the Sad and Rabid Puppies and their offshoots have very little presence on the Dragon shortlist this year and indeed Camestros Felapton declares a preemptive no award for the Rabid Puppies. Sarah Hoyt is the only Sad Puppy I see and since she’s nominated for a book co-authored with Kevin J. Anderson, I suspect that the puppies didn’t have a whole lot to do with this nomination. Robert Kroese is puppy adjacent and was promoted by various puppy offshoot groups. Mike Kupari was promoted by Brad Torgersen and Larry Correia, though I have no idea if he is a puppy himself. At any rate, I don’t recall ever coming across his name in that context. The wording on the website of Chris Kennedy’s publishing company declares that they focus on fun and message-free science fiction and fantasy, which sounds very puppy-like. Ironically, the very first book on the website is a dystopian science fiction novel set in a Chinese occupied Seattle, which may be fun to some people, but sure as hell isn’t message free. Two of Chris Kennedy’s authors were on the puppy Hugo slates (Thomas A. Mays who withdrew and Jason Cordova who didn’t) and I also recall seeing his and Mark Wandrey’s books promoted at the Castalia House blog, when it was still active. Nonetheless, I’m not sure if Kennedy and friends are puppy-adjacent or just fellow travellers who happen to write the sort of thing puppies like.

ETA: Taking a look at the puppy camp, at Superversive SF, Declan Finn seems mostly happy about the Dragon nominations for Robert Kroese, Chris Kennedy and friends as well as for various Baen authors and Brandon Sanderson and expresses his disinterest in categories like best media tie-in or best comic book, where none of his favourites was nominated. And Richard Paolinelli admits that none of his nominations made the cut, which gives him a worse hit rate than me (I got four, in YA, media tie-in, comic and film), and shares which nominees he will be voting for. All links go to archive.org.

So the various puppy groups aren’t much of a problem for the Dragon Awards this year. Instead, we’re seeing the rise of the Kindle Unlimited writing factories in the Dragon Awards, namely extremely prolific indie authors (Aleron Kong, Pippa DaCosta) and author collectives (Chris Kennedy’s and Michael Anderle’s groups). These people are very talented self-promoters who adhere to the so-called “write to market” maxim and managed to rise to the top of the Amazon charts in their respective categories via a combination of a high ad budget, an eager fanbase and the artificial rank inflation due to Kindle Unlimited, where a borrow counts as much as a sale. These are clearly very popular authors and they write in subgenres that are popular among the Kindle Unlimited crowd such as military SF, LitRPG, reverse harem, mages and vikings in space, etc… A lot of these authors write in shared worlds, e.g. the various Chris Kennedy books seem to be part of one or more shared worlds, ditto for the Michael Anderle and Craig Martelle collaboration. Nonetheless, these books and authors are often little known outside the Kindle Unlimited eco-system and their little subgenre niche, which contributes to the “Who the hell are these people?” feeling that several of the finalists elicit. And I’m probably more familiar with the big names of indie SFF than many others and have indeed featured books by some of these authors in my new release round-ups before.

The 2018 Dragon Awards shortlist does resemble the subcategory besteller lists in Amazon’s Kindle store, which does go a step towards the stated aim of rewarding popular works. Though the Kindle charts are distorted by Kindle Unlimited and also by all sorts of promotional tactics ranging from the perfectly acceptable such as buying advertising (including at Amazon, so writers are actually paying Amazon to promote their books) via things like employing ghostwriters to put out more books to shady tactics such as clickfarms, pageread manipulation, etc… And indeed, it is notable that two SFF authors associated with big Kindle Unlimited writing factories have had their accounts closed by Amazon in the last month, though neither of them is on the Dragon shortlist.

So does this shortlist really reflect what is popular among a broad swath of the SFF readership or just which authors are good at promoting themselves to the top of the Kindle charts? It seems to me as if the Dragons have traded one problem (ballot stuffing by SFF’s rightwing puppies) for another (Kindle Unlimited writing factories that warp the Amazon charts and the indie SFF market in general). And while there is little overlap between the Dragon shortlist and the Hugo and Nebula shortlists, there is also little overlap between the Dragon shortlist and indie book awards like the e-Festival of Words Best of the Independent e-Book Awards. Finally, the Dragon shortlist still tends very much towards white and male nominees, but then popular vote awards often tend towards white dude nominees – also see the David Gemmell Legend Awards.

ETA: Mike Glyer has hunted down the number of Goodreads reviews for the Dragon Award nominees and also remarks upon the total lack of overlap both with the Hugo and Nebula finalists and Vox Day’s and Jon Del Arroz’s Happy Frogs slates.

Of course, being nominated for an award doesn’t necessarily mean winning. And so it will be very interesting to see which books actually win.

ETA: Some of our canine friends seem to have taken exception to me calling some Dragon nominees the output of Kindle Unlimited writing factories. Folks, hard as it may be for you to imagine, I wasn’t talking about any of you. None of you is even remotely prolific enough to be a writing factory.

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