Awards: Head – Desk – Repeat

I wasn’t able to make it to FantasyCon this year, which is a bit of a shame as the weather was superb and the convention was in Brighton. All of the reaction I have seen on Twitter was very complimentary, until last night, when people started posting links to this. Oh dear, another awards train wreck.

Yes, that would be Steve Jones, a man of whom it could be said that he has opinions and is not afraid to voice them. I’ve certainly been on the receiving end — most notably Steve was one of the people least happy with the 2009 World Fantasy Convention. He has “previous” when it comes to slagging off convention committees and the like.

On the other hand, he’s also a very successful and hugely respected editor whose word carries a lot of weight. The fact that it is him casting aspersions on the results of the British Fantasy Awards means that a lot of people will take the issue very seriously. And, of course, it didn’t take me long on Twitter to find someone saying that the BFAs were just like the Hugos, then. *sigh* But given some of this goings on at the Business Meeting this year, who can blame people for thinking that?

Obviously I wasn’t at the award ceremony so I can’t offer much comment one way or the other on what actually went on. The BFS apparently has the whole thing up on YouTube, so if you are interested you can judge for yourselves.

What I can say is that Maura McHugh mentioned the poor quality of the sound while she was tweeting the results live. Also the MC, Sarah Pinborough, tweeted, “All I can say about those awards was it was the longest two hours of my life..shameful.” And if your main hired talent is upset at what went on then you have definitely got something wrong.

What interests me, however, is the process. I want people to have faith in awards, and clearly Steve doesn’t have much faith in what happened here. What could have been done better?

The BFAs are fan-voted awards. I can no longer find the award rules on the BFS site, but I believe that they are open to members of the BFS, and members of the current and previous FantasyCon. The total potential electorate is probably under 1,000, and I’d guess that the number of people actually voting is maybe 200, possibly a lot less. That compares to 2,100 people voting in this year’s Hugos.

Membership of the BFS currently costs £35, which is comparable to the $50 a supporting membership of Worldcon costs. You don’t get anything like the Voter Packet, but the BFS does publish various books that members get for free.

As you can see from the ballot form, the BFAs use first-past-the-post voting on the final ballot rather than the preferential balloting that the Hugos use. This means (as Kevin is fond of pointing out) that the winner in each category (assuming 5 nominees) could have had the support of only about 21% of the voters. People often complain that the system the Hugos uses means that a genuinely daring and different work will never win, because the system always favors works with mass appeal. This is true, but the system also makes it hard for any one special interest group to force a win against the will of the majority. The smaller the group of voters, the more likely it is that a small group of friends can come to dominate the results.

Of course you can reduce the likelihood of this by encouraging more people to participate and vote. Steve seems to think that the BFS didn’t do this very well. Personally I don’t have a huge problem with outlawing voting by paper mail. Of those 2,100 who voted in the Hugos, only 14 voted by paper mail. Possibly the BFS is different. Maybe voting electronically is something that only the “coastal elites” do. I suspect not. What I will say, however, is that catering for those 14 people was not a great deal of work for the Hugo Administrators, and their willingness to do that is good for the public image of the awards. Little differences like that can be important.

As to giving people time and notification, all I can say is that I managed to find out when I needed to vote. I recognize that I’m rather more connected to online buzz than many people.

Steve is unimpressed with the media awards (for film, TV and graphic novel) which he says, “were reintroduced in 2009 in a pathetic attempt to make the awards seem more ‘prestigious’”. I don’t know what was actually said when this decision was made, but as far as I’m concerned such categories are also there to make the awards seem more relevant to younger people, and the wider fan community. They are therefore a means of increasing participation. I appreciate that the winners probably won’t attend the award ceremony, but complaining about that sounds suspiciously like complaining that the winners are “not one of us”. If you want people to respect the award results it is important that they don’t always go to people who attend the convention.

I should note also that Ian Culbard’s graphic novel version of Lovecraft’s At the Mountains of Madness is a very fine work that I voted for both in the BFAs and the Hugos. Its win was one of the highlights of the awards as far as I’m concerned.

The most telling part of Steve’s commentary is this:

Without any proof, I’m not accusing anybody of doing anything underhand. But there is certainly a strong case for the BFS Chairman to have removed himself from the entire process once it became apparent how many of his own titles and those of his partner were on the initial nomination list. This shows a serious lack of judgement by someone in such an important position.

I don’t know who was responsible for administering the awards, but if Dave Howe was involved that certainly doesn’t look good. With the Hugos there is a very firm rule that those responsible for administering the awards cannot be eligible for them. It is important that that should be true, and also important that the distinction be made clear because otherwise everyone involved with the convention falls under suspicion.

It is things like this that led me to resign from the Board of the Translation Awards. If I’m going to be busily searching out translated books and promoting them, someone is bound to get suspicious if works I like do well. Of course we have a separate jury, and the Board has no control over their deliberations, but I know what the Internet is like.

For fan-voted awards to be respected these days I think that they need the following:

  • The rules should be posted publicly on the organization’s website
  • It should be made easy for eligible people to vote
  • Those responsible for administering the awards should be clearly identified and ineligible to receive awards

Personally I’d also like to see numbers. People are always complaining about how few people vote in the Hugos, but I doubt that any set of national awards comes close unless voting is open to everyone. If you publish numbers, that puts pressure on to increase participation. It also helps the public know which awards are liable to be hijacked by a small clique.

It may well be that the BFS can clarify some of these issues, and I hope they do. If they can’t, or won’t, it will reflect badly, not only on them, but also on all other fan-voted awards.

For further details (and numbers) see my follow-up post here.

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37 Responses to Awards: Head – Desk – Repeat

  1. Jen says:

    On the awards admin – afaik, Stephen Theaker was it until January when he left, it was then taken over by Kai Savage for a few months who had some personal problems crop up so David Howe had to cover it after that as no one could be found to take on the job.

    • Cheryl says:

      So what you are telling me is that the person who counted the final ballot was also the winner of one award, the publisher of two other winners, and the partner of the winner of two more. If that’s right, I can see why Steve had such a rant.

  2. Del says:

    The British Fantasy awards constitution is here http://www.britishfantasysociety.co.uk/the-british-fantasy-awards-constitution-ii/

    Hope this helps.

    • Cheryl says:

      Thank you. Yes. It looks like I was correct about participation, except that the Recommendation stage is open to anyone, yes?

  3. Mike Glyer says:

    Perhaps even more important is that Jones buried his “I’m not accusing anybody…” at the end, long after he had doused the subjects with gasoline and invited the reader to strike a match.

    • Cheryl says:

      Yes, that would be Steve, though I think he’s probably offering the reader a flamethrower.

      Nevertheless, as per the comments from Jen above, it looks like Dave Howe handed him the barrel of gasoline.

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  5. Steve Cooper says:

    My biggest problem with the BF awards is not who counted them. Yes Ceasers wife and all that, but I think Dave’s reputation would mean too much for him to risk anything.

    My problem was with an earlier part of Steve rant, inclusion. I’m not a member for the BFS, but I was a member of Fantasy Con. But there was nothing on the FantasyCon web site to say I could vote, or a link to vote. I only found out because my partners chap book got through the recommended stage and he (and therfore I) was pushed to it via a link on his publishers web site to the Nomination web page (and even then I had to take a gamble as it asked for your BFS membership number and did not mention FantasyCon membership at all). And I never found a link to the actual voting page.

    I’d really like to see the numbers published as with the Hugos, how many people nominated, and voted and how these split between BFS members and FantasyCon members, would do as a start, without even getting to the number of votes cast for each nominee.

    • Cheryl says:

      I don’t think anyone (except maybe Steve) thinks that the votes were miscounted. My problem with this is that it looks really bad, and therefore gives ammunition to those people who want to suggest conspiracies.

      Thanks for the information on inclusion. I’m a BFS member, so my experience is rather different from yours. Clearly FantasyCon should have been encouraging people to vote, but this year there seems to have been some antagonism between the BFS Committee (led by Dave Howe) and the FantasyCon Committee (of which Steve was a member). This may have contributed to the problem. I’m not sure we can entirely blame the BFS for what FantasyCon did.

      • Steve Cooper says:

        The friction between FC and BFS committees probably did contribute, and I not blame either side.

        But I’ve been a FC member a couple of times now and other than the awards ceremony itself, I’ve not seen nomination/voting in the awards pushed. This was the first time I even knew I was eligible to vote. I’d always thought it was a purely BFS process.

        It probably needs someone to step in and push the awards who’s independent of both the current FC and BFS committees.

        Now didn’t you do something like that for the Hugos :)

        • Cheryl says:

          No, I think that was Vincent. ;-)

        • Tony Keen says:

          Let’s be clear about this – if Fantasycon members are not being told that they are entitled to vote in the BFAs, that is as much the fault of the Fantasycon committees as it of the BFS. It is the former that control communications with their members.

          • Hi Cheryl, long time reader, first time commenter (I think).

            I asked FantasyCon 2011 in October 2010 if they would include a note regarding the recommendations for the awards in their registration confirmations, so there was certainly no deliberate attempt to exclude attendees from the awards process at that stage.

            That recommendations were open was announced on the BFS forum all the way back in September 2010.

            If it seemed to Stephen Jones that the recommendations period was truncated, I think it’s probably down to production issues with the publications.

            The awards information – including my address for postal recommendations – would have appeared in Prism, which would normally have been sent out to members in early December.

            But because the publications were rolled into a hardback that took a lot longer to print, that information didn’t get posted out to members until mid-January, only a few weeks before recommendations closed.

          • Just dug out the FantasyCon 2010 convention booklet, and there was a half-page advert in there telling attendees that they were eligible to vote in the 2011 awards, saying to look out for information on the BFS website, as well as a sentence saying the same thing on the page listing the 2010 nominees.

  6. Tony Keen says:

    Personally I feel that the BFS comes out of this rather better than Stephen Jones, whose rant verges on the libellous. It’s no good saying “I’m not accusing anybody of doing anything underhand” when he’s spend several paragraphs and the title of his blog post insinuating exactly that. And a lot of what he throws into his rant, such as his disdain for media awards, is irrelevant to his main point.

    I would say that the thing David Howe did wrong was not removing Telos from the nominations for best publisher. I agree that the administrator of an award should not be eligible to receive that award. It is perhaps unwise that a publisher like Howe should be the administrator of the awards – on the other hand, it appears that he stepped into this role as an emergency stop-gap, and one of the roles of a Chair is to do things like that. I don’t think that it would be fair to other people published by Telos, or to Sam Stone, to remove them from the shortlists in these circumstances.

    And I don’t think it matters that much to Jones that Howe was actually in the administrator’s role – I think he would still have alleged a fix with those results even if someone else had been the awards administrator. He says ” there is certainly a strong case for the BFS Chairman to have removed himself from the entire process once it became apparent how many of his own titles and those of his partner were on the initial nomination list” (emphasis mine). he seems to be suggesting that, as long as David Howe is Chair of the BFS, neither he nor any work published by Telos not any work written by Sam Stone should be eligible for a British Fantasy Award. That isn’t a workable situation.

    We have an analogous situation in the BSFA. Ian Whates is Chair (though not Awards Administrator). Ian is, of course, also publisher of Newcon Press, and a writer and editor. The rules are clear. The Administrator is not eligible for an award. No work published under the aegis of the BSFA is eligible. But works published by Newcon Press or edited by Ian or written by Ian outside those restrictions are eligible. If one tried to exclude the Chair, or any other committee members, or members of the Board of Trustees, what would happen is that writers, editors and publishers would cease to be involved in the running of the BSFA. And excluding the partners of those people would just make matters worse. Organisations like these, as you know, draw from a limited pool of volunteers, and we can’t afford to cut large sections of them out. That’s a fast way to destroy the organisation.

    • Tony Keen says:

      I also think that some of the other elements of this suggest that the more distant relationship between the BSFA and the Eastercons that has prevailed since the 1960s is definitely better than the closer links between the BFS and Fantasycon.

      • Cheryl says:

        Would that still work if the Eastercon committee was feuding with the BSFA? Because that’s the sort of problem we seem to have here.

        • Tony Keen says:

          I’m not sure that a feud like this would develop under the more distant relationship that the BSFA and Eastercon have. Eastercon is not the BSFA’s convention, and except in areas directly relating to the Awards, the BSFA has no right to tell the Eastercon what to do. The BFS, as far as I can tell, feels that Fantasycon is theirs, and that they exert control over it, to the degree of being able to decide who gets to bid to run it. This seems to me to be a source of a lot of the arguments.

    • Cheryl says:

      I tend to leave Steve to speak for himself. He normally manages to find his mouth with his foot fairly quickly.

      You are absolutely right about the volunteer issue. That’s why it is important to have a small group that administers the awards (perhaps only one person, though that’s prone to exactly the sort of drop-out issue that the BFS had) that is walled off from everyone so that people can get on with the job of running the society and the convention without suggestions of impropriety. I’m pleased to see that the BSFA has that sort of system in place.

      • Tony Keen says:

        The BSFA is not immune from such criticisms though – I have heard mutterings about the amount of Newcon Press material that gets nominated in the short fiction category (which I think is more to do with Ian’s role as a major UK publisher of short fiction than his role in the BSFA).

        I think some reform of the BFAs is inevitable after this – as you say, an STV vote rather than FPTP would have probably mean the issue never arising (and I think the BFS could do worse than adopt the BSFA’s procedures wholesale). But I wouldn’t like to see a system adopted where any committee member and all their family and all their works are deemed ineligible.

        On the dropout issue, whilst I understand why David Howe stepped in, I think in hindsight he should have realised that he could not carry out the role without there being a conflict of interest. I would also like to know how long he was in the role – the longer he held it, the less impressive it looks that he did not find a replacement.

        • Cheryl says:

          From Jen above: “Stephen Theaker was it until January when he left, it was then taken over by Kai Savage for a few months who had some personal problems crop up so David Howe had to cover it after that.” So it sounds like several months.

  7. Mike Glyer had a rather interesting take on the rant, in particular that complaining the votes were fixed and then bitching about the taste of the voters undermines one if not both of the arguments. If it’s fixed, the voters tastes do not matter, and if the voters chose then it’s not fixed.

    Tony Lee had his own little blow-up over the assertion that he was selected to present only because he’s a friend of Howe’s (I think he’s a relevant presenter, but there are possibly more than he might have considered). I declined to draw a parallel between this and his “shenanigans” rant after the Hugos.

    • Tony Keen says:

      I think Jones starts off by trying to imply that he can’t really believe that this is what people voted for, therefore there must have been a fix – but yes, the rant ends with him saying that if this is what the BFS members are going to vote for then professionals should have nothing to do with it, which is a silly way to end when he’s begun by complaining that the BFAs are no longer democratic.

      One of the odder things in the rant is the implication that selecting presenters from the Guests of Honour is a bad thing. I suspect this isn’t what he wanted to imply, but it’s a product of the incoherence of the rant.

  8. Andrew Porter says:

    Odd that Tony Keen says of Jones, “Stephen Jones, whose rant verges on the libellous”, when he himself says Jones is guilty of “incoherence”. Now who is saying libellous things?

    • Peter Coleborn says:

      Saying something is incoherent isn’t libellous in itself, is it? That just describes the impression a reader gets from a certain argument, surely.

      Now if one said so-and-so was writing in a drunken rage, that would be libellous.

    • Cheryl says:

      There have, I believe, been attempts to bring libel suits over book reviews, but if any of them were successful I suspect that the defendant would have had to do something far more serious than label the author’s writing “incoherent”. Heck, I’d have been jailed long ago if you could claim libel for such a comment.

      Steve, on the other hand, used words such as “con” and “fix” to suggest that the BF Awards had been improperly administered, and only saved himself by weaseling out at the end with the comment about not accusing anyone of wrongdoing. I think he skated very close to committing libel.

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  10. Peter Coleborn says:

    Some very well reasoned arguments. I’ll pinch them for the BFS committee to mull over, OK.

    • Cheryl says:

      Certainly. Kevin and I have a fair amount of awards, both from his involvement with the WSFS Constitution and our work running SF Awards Watch. We’d be happy to offer further advice if you folks are interested.

  11. Debbie says:

    I’d just like to add that much of the BFS committee is/was made up of people who have given their time for more than 20 years. Not always because they wanted to – but because nobody else volunteered or was prepared to help, and they wanted to keep the society running.

    • Cheryl says:

      And one reason I’d never volunteer to be on the committee is the near certainty that at some point I’d have a very unpleasant run-in with Steve Jones.

  12. Patrick Marcel says:

    I was registered as a member for FantasyCon, and not a BFS member, and I received an email from the organizers, sometime during the summer if I remember right, asking me to vote for the BFS Awards. Which I did.

    I suppose I’m not the only registered member to have received such a reminder. It took me all of 5 minutes, so it didn’t require too demanding an effort.

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