Some Reactions to the 2018 Nebula Award Finalists

Now that about a week has passed since the 2018 Nebula Award finalists have been announced, more reaction posts are coming in. I’ve already linked to some of those as ETAs in my previous Nebula post, but I’m going to post them here again for those who may not have seen them before.

One of the most notable developments is the number of indie works (six altogether in every fiction category except for best novel) on the 2018 Nebula shortlist. Now this isn’t all that astonishing in itself, because SFWA opened up membership to indie authors a few years ago and with more indie members, the number of indie works nominated could also be expected to go up.

What is surprising, however, is that the five of the six indie finalists are very different from the other finalists in style, subgenre, etc… They’re all either military leaning space opera or outright military SF of the “Pew pew” type, which isn’t traditionally something the Nebula electorate tends to go for, though there are exceptions, e.g. Charles E. Gannon and Jack McDevitt who got several nominations for military and action adventure science fiction a few years ago. Furthermore, all six nominated indie authors (one story had two authors) plus one hybrid author are members of a Facebook group for indie authors called 20Booksto50K. In my last Nebula post, I explained a bit about what the group is all about. I’ll just repost the relevant paragraph here rather than repeat the whole thing:

For those who don’t know, 20Booksto50K started out as a Facebook group for business minded indie writers (the name implies that 20 books should bring you an income of 50000 USD), but by now they are also holding regular writers’ conferences. 20Booksto50K is a huge group – I think they have twenty thousand members or something – and because of their business focus, a lot of financially successful indie writers, i.e. the ones also most likely to join SFWA, are members. Plus, many of the early members including the founder were SFF writers, though they’ve since branched out to cover other genres. I’ve never been a member, largely because I don’t do Facebook, but I know some members and have seen videos of their conferences, so I’m familiar with the ideas behind the whole thing, which is basically “write fast, publish fast and create a ‘minimum viable product’ in highly commercial genres”. I’ve also read their manifesto, which may be found here. 20Booksto50K also encourages collaboration between authors and I wouldn’t be surprised the some of the indie anthologies, where the nominated stories were published, grew out of this or similar groups. What is surprising, however, is that several writers affiliated with 20Booksto50K hit the Nebula shortlist this yar, since critical acclaim and awards recognition is not really a main aim of this group. Though I guess they’re happy enough to take the publicity boost it brings.

After I made my Nebula post, Camestros Felapton dug a bit into the 20Booksto50K group and unearthed a “not a slate” reading list and dug up an earlier “not a slate” reading list, which confirms that there was an organised campaign going on. Camestros Felapton has also taken it upon himself to read and review all the Nebula short story finalists, starting with “Interview for the End of the World” by Rhett C. Bruno.

ETA: Camestros Felapton also looks at the role of LMBPN Publishing, Michael Anderle’s publishing company, in this whole kerfuffle.

Some of the more unexpected finalists on this year’s Nebula ballot did not go unnoticed elsewhere either:

At nerds of a feather, Adri Joy and Joe Sherry discuss the 2018 Nebula finalists, compare the shortlist to their predictions and also briefly address the number of indie works on the ballot and the 20Booksto50K connection. And at Dreaming About Other Worlds, Aaron Pound weighs in on the 20Booksto50K not-a-slate issue and how it causes him to question even nominations that were likely come by honestly. Meanwhile, Nicholas Whyte analyses the Goodreads and Library Thing ratings of several Nebula nominees and finds that the 20Booksto50K finalists have a much lower rating count than the traditionally published finalists. There also is a thread at the printSF subreddit about the Nebulas, in which the number of indie finalists comes up and some of the nominated authors weigh in.

Nonetheless, things were fairly quiet for a few days, though there is a lively discussion going on in the comments at Cam’s second Nebula post, largely because two of the indie finalists showed up to point out that the quality of the story should matter more than the publisher name in the front matter (a point I agree with) and that they are writing quality fiction that readers love (again, not something I can really disagree with, because quality is subjective to a certain degree and I’m sure their readers enjoy their stories). However, once regular commenters asked some uncomfortable questions, both authors quickly got huffy. One flounced, the other stuck around to complain about virtue signalling and how no one cared about the quality of his story. Which really is not a good look at all.

Then yesterday, Annie Bellet called out 20Booksto50K on Twitter for slating the Nebulas. The Twitter thread starts here. For those who don’t know or remember, Annie Bellet is an indie author who found herself nominated for a Hugo via the Sad/Rabid Puppies slate back in 2015 and was classy enough to withdraw her story from consideration when the way it had gotten nominated became clear, only to find herself attacked by the Puppies who nominated her in the first place. Also on Twitter, Marko Kloos who found himself on the 2015 Sad/Rabid Puppies slate and withdrew weighs in as well and points out that slates are a really bad idea for all involved. So in short, if anybody knows how harmful slates, no matter what you call them, can be, it’s Annie Bellet and Marko Kloos, because they were victims of slating tactics back in 2015.

At File 770, Mike Glyer links to Annie Bellet’s comments as well as to various responses from Marko Kloos, Marshall Ryan Maresca and J.A. Sutherland, all of whom are critical of the behaviour of the 20Booksto50K group. J.A. Sutherland also points out that the 20Booksto50K list started as a simple recommendation and eligibility list, which no one would have had any problems with, and then morphed into something quite different. His comments are not linked at File 770, but Jim C. Hines also weighs in regarding the 20Booksto50K not-a-slate on Twitter.

ETA: World Weaver Press, a small press one of whose books, The Continuum by Wendy Nikel, was on the 20Booksto50K not-a-slate, point out that they have no idea how the book got onto the last and renounce slating tactics.

Mike Glyer also links to responses from 20Booksto50K members, such as Twitter replies by Yudhanjaya Wijeratne, one of the 2018 Nebula finalists affiliated with 20Booksto50K, to Annie Bellet and J.A. Sutherland. Wijeratne seems to have been unaware of the recent history of the SFF field and why slates are considered such a bad thing. Nonetheless, he comes across as rather condescending in his responses to Annie Bellet and others, which does not help his case at all. Annie Bellet also has a follow-up thread pointing out that she does feel for those who ended up on the 20Booksto50K “not a slate” without understanding why that would be viewed as problematic, but that they should maybe do their homework before snapping at people.

ETA: At Bounding into Comics, John F. Trent interviews Richard Fox, author of the Nebula nominated short story “Going Dark”. The interview is mostly about his books and his comic work, but Fox talks a bit about his Nebula nomination and gripes about traditional publishing and sensitivity readers.

Another response Mike Glyer links to is this Facebook post by Michael Cooper a.k.a. M.D. Cooper, which feels very much as if we fell into a time warp. Cooper declares that he feels that there aren’t enough indie books nominated for the Nebula Awards, because after all indie books dominate the SFF charts at Amazon. And if something sells well, it should also be nominated for awards. Besides, he doesn’t understand why people have problems with the “minimal viable product” principle, since pretty much every piece of software is released along the same principles (yeah, but books are not software and besides, I hate getting buggy software which needs constant updates, too). And anyway, what’s wrong with promoting yourself and supporting your friends – after all, traditional publishing does it, too. Besides, those traditional publishing folks are just angry and scared, because indies are taking over the market, and so they behave like elitist gatekeepers. In the comments, you also get people bragging that they only read indie books and stories (well, that’s their choice, though they’re missing a lot of good work), that indie books and stories are fresher and more exciting than traditionally published works (that’s a matter of taste), that the dreaded Social Justice Warriors are striking again. Craig Martelle, who runs the 20Booksto50K group, even threatens those who criticise the group with lawsuits.

We’ve heard all of those points except for the software comparison a hundred times before and we’ve discussed them ad infinitum back at the height of the puppy wars in 2015 and reiterated them several times since. So here is just a short summary:

Just because a book sells a lot of copies does not automatically make it award-worthy. Not to mention that the Kindle store bestseller list is so distorted by KU borrows being treated as sales to be pretty much worthless as a gauge for wider sales. So indies dominating the Amazon charts says very little about the wider market, especially since the traditionally published finalists probably get a significant part of their sales in print and at vendors that are not Amazon.

Besides, the sort of people who nominate and vote for awards, whether it’s SFWA members nominating and voting for the Nebulas or WorldCon members nominating and voting for the Hugos, have different criteria for judging a book than the voracious Kindle Unlimited “whale readers” to use 20Booksto50K jargon (though I have no idea why they used “whale” as an analogy for extremely voracious readers, because while whales are big, they aren’t particularly voracious). Most “whale readers” looks for a good time and a predictable experience. However, award voters/nominator normally look for something beyond merely a good read, when considering what to nominate and vote for. Every voter and nominator has individual criteria, but innovation and putting a new spin on a familiar trope tend to be valued, as does literary quality. And yes, entertainment value plays a role, too – after all, no one reads to be bored. But when faced with the choice between a story that was entertaining, but offered nothing new whatsoever, and one which offers new ideas or does something interesting and new with familiar tropes, most Hugo and Nebula voters will go for the latter. J.A. Sutherland also points this out in this Twitter thread. Hence, “But the book sold a lot of copies and I’m a six or seven figure author” are irrelevant to most Hugo and Nebula nominators.

Also, unlike the Dragons, the Hugos and the Nebulas are not promotional awards, but are considered a guide to notable works in the field. A lot of people use the Locus and Nebula recommended reading lists as well as the Hugo and Nebula shortlists as guides to find books and stories to read. Hugo and Nebula shortlists are discussed and analysed and reviewed and any unexpected finalist – a book/author many fans have never heard of or a genre/subgenre that normally doesn’t get nominated – gets an extra dose of attention. Also, we’re talking of people here who do data analysis for fun. Unusual patterns will be noticed and investigated, because that’s what SFF fans do.

As for “But traditionally published authors do it, too, and what about all those recommendation lists on the internet?”, the SFF community traditionally views self-promotion and canvassing for awards as tres gauche. The Dragon Awards encourage canvassing for votes, but other genre awards don’t. Now the Nebulas apparently had a problem with logrolling and tit for tat votes in the past, but rule changes in 2009/2010 fixed that problem, as these posts from John Scalzi and Jason Sanford explain. In the Hugos it has always been taboo and Hugo voters tend to react to any hint of manipulation with a swift “no award”, whether it’s the Scientologists or the Sad and Rabid Puppies doing it. As for self-promotion, back in 2013, there was a huge debate if eligibility posts, which are pretty much standard by now, were not a step too far.  And many of the recommendation lists and sites you see now such as the Hugo Spreadsheet of Doom, the Hugo Wikia or Rocket Stack Rank came about as a direct result of the Sad and Rabid Puppy campaigns. Also, the wound left by the Puppy Wars of 2014-2017 is still raw, so reactions to any hint of slating are stronger than they might have been before 2015.

As a rule of thumb, “here is what I did last year that’s eligible, check it out” or “here are some great novels, stories, films, etc… I loved” or crowdsourced lists of eligible works are okay. It becomes problematic when a list tells people what to vote for, either directly or implied, rather than just encourage them to check something out and vote for what they love, when a list only has as many items as there are finalist slots (this was a huge part of the problem with the puppy slates) or when there is some kind of political intent involved, whether it’s “Promote conservative SFF”, “Promote leftwing SFF”, “Vote indie”, “Vote publisher X”, “Promote LGBT SFF”, etc… The 20Booksto50K list is definitely in a grey area here, because while it apparently started out as a simply recommendation and eligiblity list, the asterisks and the “Promote indies” message are problematic. It’s not against the rules, but then what the Puppies did wasn’t against the rules either.

ETA: If you want another view, Jim C. Hines has posted a handy overview about how to get nominated for a Hugo or Nebula Award and what is and isn’t okay.

As for claiming that those who criticise the 20Booksto50K list are traditional gatekeepers who hate indies – oh please! Annie Bellet is an indie writer, a very successful one at that, and she is one of those who worked to open SFWA for indies. Marko Kloos started out as an indie, before he was picked up by 47North. J.A. Sutherland is an indie writer. Camestros Felapton is an indie writer or rather his cat is. I am an indie writer and have been promoting indie books here and at the Speculative Fiction Showcase and the Indie Crime Scene for years. Accusing us of hating indies is just flat out ridiculous.

As for the whole “indie versus traditional” rhetoric, honestly, that debate is so 2012. The stigma against self-publishing has long since evaporated. Can’t we move on and accept that indies, traditionally published authors and hybrids are all part of the same genre? The Nebulas aren’t hostile to indie works – the 2014 Best Novel finalist The Red: First Light by Linda Nagata was self-published, at a time when SFWA wasn’t even open to indie writers yet. The Hugos aren’t hostile to indie works  – the novelette “In Sea-Salt Tears” by Seanan McGuire in 2013 was the first self-published finalist and there have been several since.

Besides, most people were initially willing to give 20Booksto50K the benefit of a doubt. The reaction was mostly along the lines of, “Well, they’re new and don’t know the culture and etiquette. They’ll learn and maybe some of the stories are good.” But the huffy responses from some 20Booksto50K Nebula finalists and other members of the group (Lawsuits? Really?) have destroyed a lot of good will, not just towards this group, but also towards indie writers in general. And I really doubt that was the intent.

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