Some Reactions to the 2018 Nebula Award Winners and a Post-mortem on the 20Booksto50K Issue

The first reactions to the 2018 Nebula Award winners are pouring in. For my own take, see this post.

Lela E. Buis has a brief post listing the Nebula winners, but in the comments she expresses some concern that Mary Robinette Kowal, whose The Calculating Stars won in the best novel category, was just elected president of the SFWA, which according to Lela is a conflict of interest. I do see the potential issue here. However, Mary Robinette Kowal wasn’t yet president of the SFWA, when the nominations came out. And besides, the SFWA doesn’t seem to have any rules about officers being excluded from the Nebula Awards. In fact, the previous SFWA president Cat Rambo was nominated for a Nebula Award in 2017, while she was president of the SFWA, and graciously withdrew, when it turned out after the nominations came out that the story in question was a few hundred words too short to count as a novelette and would have to be relegated to the short story category, kicking another work off the ballot. Besides, The Calculating Stars is a popular novel, which got a lot of buzz last year, and is a Hugo finalist as well. It’s hardly an unlikely winner.

ETA: Cat Rambo points out that she is still president of the SFWA until June 30, so the alleged conflict of interest isn’t one.

However, the main cause of debate about this year’s Nebula Award finalists was the 20Booksto50K not-a-slate (for more about this, see my posts here, here and here). Therefore, the reactions from members of that group to none of them winning were bound to be interesting.

Luckily, Camestros Felapton has dug up a post by Craig Martelle at the 20Booksto50K Facebook group about the Nebulas and reposted the most relevant bits for those of us who are not 20Booksto50K members. Of course, Craig Martelle was not nominated himself, but he did edit the anthology where one of the nominated stories appeared, so he is at least tangentially involved. Plus, Craig Martelle also runs the 20Booksto50K Facebook group.

Most of Martelle’s post seems to be extolling the virtues of the 20Booksto50K group and the idea behind it which was developed by Martelle’s business partner and occasional collaborator Michael Anderle. For those who don’t know, the basic idea behind 20Booksto50K is  is basically “write fast, publish fast and create a ‘minimum viable product’ in highly commercial genres”. For more information, you can also read their manifesto or watch videos of their conferences. They also have a Wiki with more background information here.

Now I don’t have a problem with either the 20Booksto50K group or their system. I don’t doubt that the group or their conferences help a lot of indie writers. And while their approach to writing and publishing isn’t mine, there are a nuggets of useful information in there.

Alas, the rest of the Martelle’s post engages in same tired “indie versus traditional publishing” rheotric that we’ve been hearing since 2010. “Traditional publishing is slow” – yes, it is, because their model is different, but that doesn’t make it bad. “Awards don’t matter, but whether stories resonate with readers does” – okay, so why are you so desperate to win an award then?

The excerpt from Martelle’s post quoted by Camestros also makes it very clear that Martelle is pretty disgruntled that none of the six 20Booksto50K finalists won. Of course, Martelle claims that he doesn’t want to put down any of the winners, but then he promptly does by implying that the winners aren’t professional enough, because they are not full-time writers. Never mind that SFWA is an organisation for professional writers, so anybody who is a full member is a professional writer by SFWA criteria, whether they are full-time writers or not. And looking at this year’s Nebula winners, Aliette de Bodard and Tomi Adeyemi are full-time writers, as far as I know. Mary Robinette Kowal’s other job is puppeteer, i.e. a career that’s not known for high income or job security. In fact, it’s likely that her writing is subsidising her puppeteering. I have no idea about P. Djèlí Clark and Brooke Bolander nor does it matter. Because plenty of excellent writers had day jobs throughout their career, while others had partners with day jobs. For example, the late Gene Wolfe was an engineer who developed the machine that makes Pringles in his day job. And I hope no one would accuse Gene Wolfe of not being professional enough.

But then there is something of a cult of writing full-time among indie authors. Most indies want to be full-time authors – not that there’s anything wrong with that. Most authors, regardless of publication method, would love to write full time. There is also an obsession with making six figures per year – not that there is anything wrong with that either. Everybody wants to make money. However – and this is where things go wrong – the attitude of wanting to be a full-time writer and make six figures is coupled with dismissing anybody who does not match these criteria as a hobbyist. Quite often, the writers dismissed as hobbyists are told in no uncertain terms, “What you have to say doesn’t matter, because you don’t earn enough. People shouldn’t listen to you.” Sometimes, they’re even told, “Why do you sell your work at all? Why not give it away for free on Wattpad, if money doesn’t matter to you?”

I have no idea if any of this sneering against supposed hobbyists is going on at 20Booksto50K, because I’ve never been a member of that group, since I don’t do Facebook. But I’ve been self-publishing since 2011 and I have been visiting self-publishing blogs and forums for almost as long. And during that time, I’ve seen countless writers, many of them good writers, driven away by this whole “If you’re not earning enough, you’re a hobbyist and nothing you have to say matters” attitude.

There is also a troubling undertone of “If you don’t publish X book per year regardless of your life circumstances, you’re lazy” in Martelle’s post. I don’t know if that’s what he meant to say, because elsewhere the 20Booksto50K people have said that their group is open to anybody, whether you write a book per month or a book per year. But that’s how the sentence, “If you can’t motivate yourself to write when you’re supposed to be writing, then maybe a full-time author gig isn’t for you” comes across to me. As if a lack of full-time writer status was inevitably due to a lack of motivation. And once again, this attitude isn’t exactly uncommon in indie circles.

Finally, framing the 2018 Nebula Awards as an “indie versus traditional” issue is wrong. The SFWA has been admitting indie writers for a couple of years now and there have been several indie published works nominated in recent years, starting with The Red: First Light by Linda Nagata in 2014. Besides, it’s not as if the winners in the fiction categories were all published by Big 5 publishers. Aliette de Bodard, winner in the novella category is a hybrid author and her winning novella was published by Subterranean, which is a small press. And the winner in the short story category first appeared in Fireside, a Kickstarter funded small press magazine. And in fact, all SFF magazines except for Tor.com, Analog and Asimov’s are small press magazines. Nor are all of the 20Booksto50K finalists pure indies either. Lawrence M. Schoen is a hybrid author and his nominated novelette was published in a magazine called Future Science Fiction Digest, which is affiliated with a Chinese outreach group called the Future Affairs Administration. Yudhanjaya Wijeratne is a hybrid author as well and his nominated novellette “Messenger”, co-written with R.R. Virdi, appeared in an anthology published by Michael Anderle’s LMBPN Publishing, another small press.

So the problem with the 20Booksto50K list was not that many, if not all, works on that list were indie published. The problem was that their list crossed the line from pure reading and recommendation list into the grey area of slates. And logrolling, tit for tat nominating and slating are traditionally frowned upon in the SFF world. The Dragon Awards are okay with that sort of thing, but most other awards are not. And just in case you’re wondering what is and isn’t considered acceptable in campaigning for an award, Jim C. Hines has a handy primer here. Considering how promotion focussed the 20Booksto50K group is, maybe they really had no idea that anything beyond a reading and recommendation list is frowned upon at the Nebulas and the Hugos for that matter. However, they do know now.

Also – and this might have been another point of confusion – the Nebula Awards and the Hugos are not just a cool sticker or a cool banner you can plaster on your cover. They’re not promotional awards, but viewed as as a measure of quality and a way to determine the best the genre has to offer. Whether they actually succeed at that or not is a matter for debate, though overall the Hugos and Nebulas have a pretty good track record of identifying great science fiction and fantasy, the occasional They’d Rather Be Right misstep notwithstanding. And therefore, a lot of fans use the Hugo and Nebula shortlists as a guide to find books, stories and authors to read.

Now quality is largely subjective anyway and definitely not dependent on the manner of publishing. There are great indie book and bad trad pub books as well as vice versa. However, quite a few people felt that the finalists from the 20Booksto50K list were not up to the standards they expect from a Nebula finalist. And yes, I know that several of the 20Booksto50K finalists are bestselling indie authors and more power to them. But selling a lot of copies does not necessarily make a book award-worthy. Though contrary to what certain people claim, most Hugo and Nebula nominated novels and novellas do sell pretty well and the Andre Norton Award winner Children of Blood and Bone was number 1 on the New York Times children’s and juvenile fiction bestseller list.

I recently came across a series of posts by an indie science fiction author called Tim C. Taylor, who is both a member of the 20Booksto50K group and SFWA, but was not on the Nebula shortlist. The posts shed some light both on the 20Booksto50K approach to short fiction and why the stories from the 20Booksto50K finalists were not what Nebula voters are looking for, even though they may be popular elsewhere.

In his first post, Tim C. Taylor takes a look at the traditional and the indie market for short fiction and anthologies and points out that the traditional path to succeed in SFF was to start out with short fiction and then graduate to novels, though some writers like Ted Chiang stick with short fiction, because they prefer the short form. Meanwhile, most of the indie-only SFF writers who debuted in the past few years started with novels or novellas and eventually branched out into short fiction, often without having much experience with the form, either as a reader or a writer.

In his second post, Tim C. Taylor goes a bit into the controversy that erupted, when the 20Booksto50K not-a-slate came to light, though he largely refrains from taking sides. Unlike Craig Martelle and others, he does not frame the conflict as an indie versus traditional publishing conflict. Instead, he frames it as an insiders versus outsider issue. Again, this doesn’t really fit, even though part of the problem was that most of the 20Booksto50K folks were “outsiders” in the sense of being unfamiliar with the culture surrounding SFF awards and what is and is not considered acceptable. However, I certainly don’t consider myself an “insider” and I’m pretty sure neither does Camestros Felapton. Neither of us are SFWA members. As for Annie Bellet, Marko Kloos and J.A. Sutherland, who also spoke out against the not-a-slate, all three of them are newish authors and indies or hybrids.

As for Taylor’s claim that what he calls “old publishing” is unaware of “new publishing” and vice versa, there is a kernel of truth in that. For while the 20Booksto50K folks may be dominating various SFF subgenre bestseller lists in the US Kindle store, they are not all that well known outside the Kindle Unlimited eco-system. Besides, hardcore SFF fans normally get their book recommendations from elsewhere than the Amazon bestseller lists and short fiction readers tend to read the magazines and use sites like Quick Sip Reviews or Rocket Stack Rank for recommendations rather than buy an anthology full of authors and stories they’ve never heard of, edited by someone they’ve never heard of either, just because it’s 99 cents in the Kindle store. So there certainly was a “Who the hell are these people?” reaction in some quarters. But then, a lot of indie SFF authors rarely look beyond the top 100 of whatever subgenre they are writing in either and are not all that familiar with what is going on in the wider SFF world. In fact, one of the problems with several of the 20Booksto50K finalists was that the stories simply weren’t very original, but basically a retread of decades old ideas, which offered little to nothing new. Not that you cannot write a story about an idea that has been done before, you absolutely can and every hoary old idea is new to someone somewhere. But hardcore SFF readers in general and Hugo and Nebula voters in particular value originality and new ideas. Their taste in SFF is quite different from that of the Kindle Unlimited “whale readers” to whom many of the 20Booksto50K folks cater.

Besides, it wasn’t as if no one knew who the indie finalists were. In fact, I only became curious, because I recognised several of the names and knew that these authors don’t write the sort of thing that Nebula voters normally go for. And Camestros has the dubious distinction of being the premier chronicler of the Dragon Awards, so he’ll certainly recognise the names of indie authors that frequently pop up there. I strongly suspect that most of the others who spoke out against the 20Booksto50K not-a-slate knew who those authors were as well, if only because their books probably sit in each other’s also-boughts in the Kindle store.

Another point that Taylor briefly covers is that the short fiction written by commercially minded indie authors like the 20Booksto50K folks is written for a completely different purpose than the short fiction found in SFF magazines. Indie short stories are usually either intended as a so-called “reader magnet” to give away for free to entice people to sign up for the author’s mailing list and read the rest of the author’s works or to be included in indie SFF anthologies, where again they will hopefully entice readers to buy the rest of the author’s books. In short, many, though far from all (e.g. I write short fiction, because I enjoy it and self-publish, because I don’t write what the magazines want, and I’m not the only one), indie SFF short stories are basically ads for the rest of the author’s catalogue. A lot of these stories are taster stories that tie in with a series of novels.

Not that there’s anything wrong with that. I’ve had stories in indie anthologies myself and Baptism of Fire, which first appeared in the SFF anthology The Guardian, edited by Alasdair Shaw, is a taster story of sorts for my In Love and War space opera romance series, and is stylistically closer to the sort of “pew pew” military SF that does well in the Kindle store than the rest of the series. The Silencer story Fact or Fiction started out as another taster story intended for an anthology which took so long to come together that I eventually pulled it and published it myself. So there’s nothing wrong with taster stories per se and you do find them in traditional magazines on occasion, e.g. Tor.com publishes taster stories for novel and novella series and anthologies on occasion and they do it for much the same reason that indie SFF writers do, to advertise the novel or series or anthology in question. You find them elsewhere as well, for example there recently was a Murderbot taster story published as part of Wired‘s “The Future of Work” series.

But because taster stories are intended as advertisements for novels or series, they often don’t stand alone very well. And this was a large part of the problem with the 20Booksto50K Nebula finalists, because of six finalists, two were taster stories, two more were parts of series and only two truly stood alone. That’s also the reason why taster stories, even though they occasionally show up in traditional short fiction venues, rarely make awards ballots. There are exceptions such as Mary Robinette Kowal’s novelette “The Lady Astronaut of Mars”, which won the hugo Award for best novelette in 2014 and from which this year’s Nebula winning novel The Calculating Stars sprang. But then, “The Lady Astronaut of Mars” was the seed from which the subsequent series grew and not an add-on, an afterthought.

In his final post, Tim C. Taylor discusses the criteria by which he judged the Nebula finalists as a first time voter. So this whole kerfuffle at least had one good effect, namely that people who normally don’t vote for the Nebulas were motivated to do so. Just as the Sad and Rabid Puppies mess had the effect that a lot of people became Hugo voters specifically because of the puppies and then stuck around.

My personal criteria for judging Hugo and Retro Hugo finalists in the fiction categories are a bit fuzzier:

  • Did I enjoy this story/novelette/novella/novel/series?
  • What impact did the story have on me? Did it make me laugh, cry, think, etc…
  • Does this story have anything new to say or is it just a variation of something I’ve seen dozens of times before? Is there anything particularly innovative here? For the Retro Hugos I have to amend this to, “Was this a new idea when the story was written?”
  • Do I care about the characters and what happens to them?
  • Does the plot make sense? Are there plotholes and glaring errors that destroy my suspension of disbelief? Occasionally, you also get a story that doesn’t have a plot, which I tolerate for short stories, but not for longer texts. For some reason, the Retro Hugo ballot regularly has plotless or almost plotless wonders in the Best novel category of all things.
  • Is the story memorable? Because with the Hugos, I inevitably find that there is at least one story on the ballot that simply isn’t memorable. It’s usually not the worst story (because the bad ones are memorable) and it might be perfectly okay, while I’m reading it, but by the time it comes to ranking the finalists, I will have forgotten what that story was all about. Last year, there was a Hugo novella finalist where I knew exactly what the cover looked like (and it was a great cover), but couldn’t have told you what the actual story was about without looking it up.
  • Do I like the writing style? Now you normally don’t have glaring technical issues like spelling or grammer mistakes with stories that make it to the Hugo or Nebula ballot, but some authors have a style and voice that simply doesn’t work for me. Humor that isn’t funny to me also falls in this category.
  • Are there any problematic messages, whether intended or unintended, in this story? For example, there was a Hugo and Nebula finalist last year, which had the (likely unintentional) message that it’s a women’s job to take care of everybody, that wanting some time for yourself is bad and selfish and inevitably leads to terrible things happening and that disabled people are such a terrible burden that they suck the energy out of their families and caregivers. Now I’m pretty sure that’s not the message the author wanted to convey, but it was hugely problematic anyway.
  • Is there anything about the author that makes me reluctant to vote for this person? This came up a lot during the puppy years, because some of the authors nominated via the puppy slates were also really horrible people. At the time, this didn’t cause much of a conflict in voting for me, because the stories in question were bad as well. But I’ve run into this issue a few times since, where I dislike an author/creator as a person, but do like the work in question. For example, I don’t like Charlie Brooker, but did like the two Black Mirror episodes nominated in 2017 and 2018. In the end, I ranked both episodes pretty highly, because dramatic presentations are a team effort anyway and my issues with Charlie Brooker (I heartily disagree with his TV reviews) did not outweigh the quality of the work.
  • Is this nominated in the right category or is it misclassified? This normally isn’t a problem with the fiction categories, because the boundaries are clearly defined. It does, however, pop up in other categories (Best related work, mainly, but also best fanwriter and the Campbell Award) and I have no awarded Hugo finalists because I felt they were nominated in the wrong category.

Now that was a long and somewhat meandering post. To finish it up, here is a fictionalised take on the whole issue by the incomparable Ingvar entitled “Trigger Snowflake and the Metamorphic Rock”.

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