Monday, August 18, 2014

Tor and the 2014 Hugo Awards

by John Popham

The 2014 Hugo Awards were held yesterday at the World Science Fiction Convention, hosted this year by Loncon3, the London Science Fiction Convention.  I walked away from this year's ceremony with three main observations: 

First, Ancillary Justice, Ann Leckie's first novel, picked up a well-deserved win for best novel. Ancillary is thoughtful, well written and a good story well told in the best tradition of Science Fiction.  Ms. Leckie's novel pretty much ran the table for awards in its category this year.  Ancillary Justice won the Arthur C. Clarke award (for Science Fiction first published in the United Kingdom), the Nebula Award from the Science Fiction Writers of America (SFWA) and the Locus award for best first novel. Taken together, this represents a rare consensus across the Science Fiction/Fantasy community with regard to the quality of Ann Leckie's work.

Second, Game of Thrones, 'The Rains of Castamere' won the Hugo for Best Dramatic Presentation, Short Form. During the presentation (which was broadcast on UStream TV) there was a bit of snarking on Twitter that at least it didn't go to Dr. Who.  This puzzled fellow blogger Amanda Rutter from England, who asked whether there was some backlash behind the sniping at the beloved BBC series.

The answer is that the good Doctor has been dominating this category for the last ten years.  In fact on this year's ballot alone the Time Lord occupied three of the six final nominations for the category, with two episodes from the show itself (The Day of the Doctor and In the Name of the Doctor) and one comedic send-up of the show (The Five(ish) Doctors Reboot).  While Game of Thrones has won this category two years running (winning with Game of Thrones, 'Blackwater' in 2013), Doctor Who has not had fewer than two nominations in the category since 2005.  From 2006 to 2012 the good Doctor pretty much owned Best Dramatic Presentation, Short Form, losing only once; in 2009 (the year of the great television writers' strike) to Joss Whedon's Dr. Horribles' Sing Along Blog.  

I enjoy Doctor Who very much.  However, it would be wise for the Hugo Awards to limit final nominations for shows in an episode format to one episode.  Allowing a single television show, however popular, to occupy multiple slots on the final nomination ballot presents a myopic view of the state of the art.  There's a lot of excellent Science Fiction and Fantasy being produced in short form these days that are well regarded by fandom, but looking at the Hugo ballot the last few years, one would think that weren't the case.  Limiting final nominees by a single franchise would present a more expansive view of what fandom is watching.

Finally, you'll recall I pointed out earlier this year that Tor Books is very far ahead of the other Science Fiction and Fantasy imprints when it comes to proactive outreach to the fan community.  Their website, Tor.com, does more than merely flog it's latest offerings and broadcast marketing-chum onto the web.  Tor maintains a family of bloggers whose writings inform opinion for much of Science Fiction and Fantasy fandom.  It publishes short stories, novellettes and novellas and has the resources needed to ensure good quality both in terms of the fiction acquired and the editing and presentation of that fiction on its web site.   The authors, bloggers and editors in the Tor community know each other and each others' work.  Fans who visit and read the Tor website know them as well. 

And you can see the pay-off on Tor's community building strategy in this year's Hugo Awards.  Tor authors won the Hugo's in the short story, novella and novelette categories.  Ellen Datlow, a Tor editor, won the Hugo for Best Editor, Short Form.  Aidan Moher, whose A Dribble of Ink won the Hugo for Best Fanzine is a former member of the Tor.com blogger community.   This doesn't mean Tor expects its community to vote in lock-step, but that Tor understands that people in a community tend to look kindly on works by their peers within that community and that translates into both votes and vote recommendations.

Of course winning Hugos in the shorter fiction forms doesn't automatically translate to revenue for Tor.  However, it goes a long way toward reinforcing the image of the Tor brand and the Tor community as a center of quality in Science Fiction and Fantasy fandom.  It creates pride and shared accomplishment within the Tor community - a sense of 'Look what we did'.  So, when Tor promotes books to that community, readers and writers therein are much more likely to consider reading those books and then going on to generate positive social media buzz for those books they enjoy.  

What I find fascinating is that none of Tor's competitors seem minded to repeat Tor's success in this area.  While Tor's website has become an internet destination for SF&F fandom, Orbit, Del Rey, Harper Voyager, Angry Robot, DAW, AceRoc and the rest of the Science Fiction and Fantasy imprints, all seem flat-footed and crude when it comes to their presence on the web.  Their websites and social media broadcasts announce their presence and push product, but little more.  While they seem to view social media as mere digital billboards for peddling their imprints, Tor is integrating themselves into the fan's Science Fiction and Fantasy experience.

So props go to Tor this Hugo season. Congratulations, and well done.  As for the rest of the SF&F imprints, you might want to slip out of your bow-ties and eye-shades, get off the sidelines and into the game. 

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