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We need a unified spec-fic award in the UK

The United Kingdom has one credible award for speculative fiction. It’s called the Clarke Award, and it is decided by a panel of experts each year.

In addition we have a splintered field of popular voted awards including those organised by the British Fantasy Society and British Science Fiction Association. These awards carry little weight even within the British SF community, little or none internationally, and absolutely none at all in the big wide world of literature and culture more generally.

Worse yet, the scandalous outcome of this years British Fantasy Awards shows how, at their worst, these awards have become a positive embarrassment to British speculative fiction.

The UK awards began as fan awards. However, as those fan communities have matured, and the internet has mad it much easier to publish and promote new work, those fan communities have become communities of amateur writers and publishers. It’s no surprise then that the awards are now dominated by amateur writers and publishers voting for their own work.

Speculative fiction writing is incredibly rich in the UK, but a splintered field of amateur awards is failing to reflect this richness to the outside world. We need a unified award for spec-fic in the UK, that many fan groups contribute to, which is taken seriously by the SF profession, and the larger world of publishing and culture. British SF is fantastic and creative, and we deserve an award that truly reflects that.

Can this be achieved? What are the barriers and challenges? How can they be overcome? Please let me know your thoughts.

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44 thoughts on “We need a unified spec-fic award in the UK”

  1. Interesting stuff. I applaud the notion and the ambition, but I think the biggest issues of fan awards are:

    1) It can end up as a popularity contest; popularity influenced by sales, influenced by publisher marketing spend, so you’re not necessarily rewarding the author but the ability of a publisher to market an author too.

    2) How can x number of fans have read all the books submitted etc. At least the juried ones such as the Clarkes (or the new Kitchies) mean that a group of people blast through a lot of books and compare and contrast in order to find the best.

    1. Thanks for the thoughts Mark!

      1) Maybe the problem isn’t that it’s a popularity contest, but that not enough people are competing. If we at least merged the BSFA / BFS it might be a popularity contest with enough critical mass to be interesting. Of course, then people who currently get the small ego boost of a win might not be so happy…

      2) Surely the argument is that the awards spur both fans and general readers to read more? I don’t think the current awards achieve that, but a larger award just might.

    2. Those are issues with fan awards but they are issues with all fan awards. This is more about making a better fan award.

      A unifying award is an interesting idea and one I’ve thought about before. It seems like it would be relatively easy to set up an award that pooled a voter base from across British fandom: members of the BSFA and BFS, subscribers to Interzone and SFX, attendees of various conventions, etc. Hopefully, the combination of people with different backgrounds should raise overall interest, avoid logrolling and produce concensus winners.

      Of course, it would require some volunteer labour and buy in from the various bodies but that is all I see that stands in the way.

      1. @martin – engaging SFX, Interzone and also the major publishers would be important I think. Difficult, as so many people seem to think factionally about this stuff. But not impossible.

  2. Sorry Damien, but I don’t believe that the BSFA Award is as irrelevant as you think. It is important to people within the SF community, and it is used by publishers on the covers of books. Nor is it dominated by ‘dominated by amateur writers and publishers voting for their own work’. (And how do you define ‘amateur’ anyway? Someone who gets paid for their work? Or someone who makes a full time living out of their work? The latter seems unsustainable, the former means most BSFA winners I can think of don’t count as amateurs.)

    I don’t see how a ‘super-award’ starting from scratch helps. Who would administer it? Who would pay for it? If you think that in the Internet age “fan communities have become communities of amateur writers and publishers”, I don’t see how any voted-for award would not be subject to the same issues. Much better to work on promoting and if necessary reforming (as I can see the argument for the BFA) the existing awards.

    1. @tonykeen – I’m afraid I just have to disagree Tony. But you are right, without a lead organiser stepping forward to make the award work across the splintered UK fandom, it would struggle. That’s not impossible however.

      1. Hi Damien,

        We can disagree on the significance of the BSFA Award, but your suggestion that it is dominated by amateurs simply isn’t true – in fact, a small-press published novel won the Clarke more recently (Ian R. MacLeod’s Song of Time in 2008) than one won the BSFA Award (not within the last decade, as far as I can tell).

        If we at least merged the BSFA / BFS it might be a popularity contest with enough critical mass to be interesting.

        That, of course, would depend on how many people are in fact voting for both awards.

        I’d also point out that there is already a UK award for speculative fiction that no doubt has far more people voting for it than vote for the BSFA, BFS or Gemmell Awards, even if one assumes no-one is voting in more than one. It’s the SFX Award. I may be wrong, but I don’t think this carries more weight in the British SF Community than the BSFA Award.

      2. Amateur or Professional isn’t defined by who publishes you. Making great work makes you professional. Getting your friends to vote for your book makes you an amateur. SF fandom, unfortunately, to often defines itself as amateur, even writers from major imprints…

  3. I don’t think we need a unified award – each award has its own view and distinctive voice.

    Apologies for the terrible analogy, but they’re a bit like newspapers. Each paper has its own slant, tone & editorial policy – and there’s nothing wrong with reading more than one. In fact, I’d encourage it.

    (Although I hasten to add that only one award has tentacles… clearly that’s the most important metric of them all.)

  4. i think fan awards have their merits but issues can and will arise. It depends how the voting is done, look at the David Gemmell Legend Award. The first year everyone expected Joe Abercrombie or Brandon Sanderson to win but it went to Sapkowski, but publishers are still putting their books forward. I think a balance needs to be found between jury and fan voting but whichever way an award goes people will complain. Damned if you do etc.

  5. I agree with Jared. There’s not only room for more than one award there should be more than one. That there’s factions in the BFS kinda demonstrates the impossibilty of joining existing bodies. The current issue is more about politics and power than David Howe getting it wrong, which I think he did. But the shit that was flung at the awards wasn’t flung because it needed to be (which maybe it was) but because someone had the power to make people listen – and that, to me, was a missuse of that power in this instance.

    1. Hi Terry,

      Thanks for commenting. All your comments are correct. The only problem is that still leaves us with a field of awards that no one beyond a few small cliques is interested in. Not a good situation. We can have as many awards as we want, but without profile they serve no purpose.

  6. In my view there should be an award where you don’t need to be a member of a society/organistion to vote for your choice. I think SFX have something like this for their annual awards and I enjoy seeing the winner there more than I do the BSFA/BFS/Clarke. I may very well be in the minority, but as a fan I’d like something that can be widely voted for.

  7. “It’s no surprise then that the awards are now dominated by amateur writers and publishers voting for their own work.”

    I have to say I take particular objection to this remark in relation to the BSFA Awards, which are absolutely not dominated by amateur writers and publishers voting for their own work. If you’re going to make sweeping claims like this you should provide evidence. Take a look at the record of the BSFA Award (http://www.locusmag.com/SFAwards/Db/Bsfa.html) and show me where it is dominated by amateur writers or publishers. Indeed one of the concerns I’ve had over the years is how difficult, especially in the novel category, it is for small publishers to get on the shortlist.

    The BSFA Award rules now don’t allow people to nominate their own work and ask them not ot vote for it (though it’s a secret ballot so we can’t actually stop them if they make it onto the shortlist).

    The BSFA might be a relatively small organisation but we take the independence and the quality of our award very seriously and you shouldn’t make accusations you can’t support with evidence.

    That said, I don’t disagree that there’s room for other awards, with different catchments. I’ve long thought there should be a juried fantasy equivalent to the Clarke’s, for example.

  8. If you want to lump sf and fantasy into the same award, then we may as well give up on sf right now. Fantasy outsells it seven to one, so the chances of a sf novel ever making such a shortlist are remote. That would be like merging the Man Booker and the WH Smith Thumping Good Read Award.

    OTOH, I second Martin’s suggestion of a juried award for fantasy.

    1. Er, the Hugos and Nebulas are still the biggest two awards and they lump together fantasy and SF as does the BSFA Award and many others. The sky hasn’t fallen. The comparison to Booker/WHSMiths just seems like weird anti-fantasy prejudice.

      1. Science fiction and fantasy are two very different modes of fiction. The fact that they’re marketed together, and there’s a great deal of crossover in readership/fandom, doesn’t make them the same thing at all. One reason I dislike the term “speculative fiction” is because it tries to insist apples and oranges are all oranges.

      2. It’s not a fact either. The BSFA Award and BFA, for example, draw from two different, if overlapping slightly, pools of voters, and the shortlists and winners they pick reflect that. One big “speculative fiction” award would lose that, and it would be to both genres’ detriment.

        The Hugo, which is for both sf and fantasy, grew out of sf fandom and the pool of voters is still dominated by them. Perhaps that’s because sf had a coherent fandom but fantasy did not. But then fantasy was considered a subset of sf in those days.

  9. I’ll agree the concept of a unified award is an interesting one, Gareth, and applaud the suggestion. However, as has been mentioned by others, I would like you to justify the comment about the awards being ‘dominated by amateur writers and publishers’ as far as the BSFA Awards are concerned. Just looking at the past five or six years’ winners, for example, I’d be curious to know which out of Ian McDonald, Aliette de Bodard, China Mieville, Ian Watson, Ken McLeod, Ted Chiang, Jon Courtenay Grimwood and Kelly Link you consider to be amateurs.

    1. @IanWhates – I think the BSFA awards are significantly more professional. But hand on heart, can you honestly look at recent years results and not see a number of nominees and winners who are there because they’re nice people who’ve been on the scene a long time? This stuff happens, it’s not a mortal sin, but at the same time it’s no good for making an award credible outside the field.

  10. One Award to rule them all, One Award to find them,
    One Award to bring them all and in the darkness bind them
    In Leicester where the Shadows lie.

    Seriously, you are not going to be able to stop fans creating awards. Just like most other things, awards have an ecosystem. Those that are well run garner respect, those that are not get ignored. By all means create a new award if you want, but you’ll need to work hard to get it noticed, regardless of where it is forged.

    1. @Cheryl – nice poem! But seriously, this isn’t middle Earth. It’s a few thousand SF fans, writers etc who would benefit from some profile. Fans can make as many awards as they want, that’s not the problem. We need one award that actually does what any industry award should, which is represent the industry to the wider world it needs to engage with.

  11. As the admin for the BSFA Awards, I was lucky to have the invaluable insight of my predecessor when I began. I’ve learned a lot since then too. I’ve got ideas that with time and energy I can hopefully put into improvement, and it’s an ongoing process that wil only stop when I do. If I get things wrong, I hope I’m approachable enough for people to at least tell me – or warn me, preferably. The nominations for the BSFA awards have been open for less than 2 weeks, and I’ve already been getting helpful emails and insightful questions from members – not just nominations themselves.

    This is because people do really care, Damien. The BSFA membership are sending in more and more nominations each year, and with the helpful discussions that go on outside of the BSFA too, I’ve noticed an effect… with some very considered nominations being made. I do notice friends nominating friends, yes, but how I counteract this is by making sure there is utter transparency. I’ve put the early nominations up onthe forum already, so people can check them out. Other committee members have helped here too, by vetting the site to make sure links and updates are obvious to the casual clicker.

    The only thing I can’t really do, is start a discussion about a particular book or books, because it is important to remain impartial when you are in charge. But other people are most welcome to and I won’t mind giving them a mention (let me know your BSFA awards discussions at awards@bsfa.co.uk – this one will go up later).

    I think Jared and Ian make very good points about the flavour of the awards being particular. Not quite populist vanilla, the novels shortlist this year did reflect the juried Clarke Award’s choice quite remarkably. And the Clarkes are fantastic aren’t they? They do what they do, they have the glamour and kudos. But we have the fans too, and a lot more of them are finding their voices and getting their book choices over to us. I would worry that a combined award would drown that flavour out with something uncomplementary (like horror? Tsk! Naughty me).

    It is more difficult these days to read widely and read well, despite technological innovations like Kindle as it just means there’s more guff to plough through, but I strongly believe that the BSFA awards are about getting people to do just that. Not vote for their mates, who they probably haven’t even read!

    For this reason, I am grateful to all those who are bothered enough to discuss the awards.

  12. A super award would certainly help to clean things up and distance the current British Fantasy Award from the BFS committee.

    The science fiction community is far less nepotistic and governed much more by the fan base – which the BSFA encourage to stay involved, unlike the BFS, which is far more insular. The BSFA award is also run in a much more professional way, and less prone to the influence of cliques due to the larger, and more diverse background of its voters.

    My concern is that a super award could still become dominated by the horror small press due to the amount of influence they have, and their habit of backslapping. This community exists because of a mutual demand of the kind of horror which doesn’t get published that much in the mainstream these days. And it is a tight-knit community – I suspect the response from this community would have been much less rabid had the award been won by an insider with a work of similar quality (because, yes, despite being the chair’s missus, Sam has never been welcomed into the BFS by the dominant clique).

    Much gossip exists about the rivalry and animosity between the two societies, so I’m not sure how it would work in practice. Aside from an admirable mediating element who always attend both conventions, there are a lot of individuals who choose to polarise themselves and consider the other society a rival or enemy. As the award would have to be presented at either one convention, or the other, I suspect any attempt to negotiate between the two groups would result in failure.

    I’d be tempted to go in the other direction. Part of me thinks the BFS should just split into two societies – a horror society, and a fantasy society. This would allow the formation of an award specifically for fantasy fiction that is not dominated by horror writers.

  13. Going back to the original question, it kind of depends who “we” are and whether we’re all the same “we” and if the unified spec-fic award we need serves all of us, even those who might not be a part of “we”. As Cheryl Morgan said, there’ll always be some branch of fandom which decides to have its own awards outside of any unified award. Which is probably as it should be.

    1. @DavidBarnett – Who is the we in any industry award. It will never be entirely clear. But you’ll know when you are getting close because both the industry and the wider world will acknowledge the awards value. That isn’t the case at the moment.

  14. Awards are the only ‘official’ recognition that an author to say they’ve done a very good job. On the down side they can be divisive, as it says this book is better than the others. Which is why Donna’s post about having an award, which is not only fair, but seen to be fair is so important.
    If there is controversy about any award, then more than likely something’s gone wrong with choosing the winner. Yes there have been times when I would have preferred to have seen another book with the BSFA award. But it has more to do with my personal likes and dislikes of the subject that was written about, rather than the quality or the deservedness of the winner.
    I for one would prefer NOT to have a combined award. Why? Because there is IMHO such a difference between fantasy and science fiction. Fantasy is more about fable and morals. Science fiction is more about why if such and such were the case.

  15. In order for an award to be taken seriously, it has to have critical cachet. In other words, if it picks the best, the winner had better damn well be the best. A popular vote award is always going to pick the most popular book, and so will be dominated by the top sellers in either genre. Which renders the entire thing useless as an arbiter of genre quality.

      1. Agreed it doesn’t have to be popular vote, but I’d be surprised if a popular vote one managed to gain critical cachet. Stephenie Meyer only has to be shortlisted once and…

  16. Actually, rather than trying to unify all the already existing voted awards, which the various bodies are unlikely ever to go for (why on earth should SFX be interested when they have their own award that suits their purposes perfectly well?), perhaps what is needed is The Guardian Award for Best Speculative Fiction Novel?

  17. As an American, I guess I am in the minority but I see that the Clarke and BSFA awards have as much import to my reading as the Hugos and Nebulas – I read everything nominated for all those awards. And to tell the truth I usually agree more with the BSFA awards than almost any of the others. Create another award – no problem, but from this side of the Atlantic – I find your two major SF awards very useful. (I don’t read all-fantasy awards as I like SF better And while I tend to enjoy the ones I do read there is a limit to anyone’s reading time.

    Bob Blough

  18. Just a quick one on this to add that while I’ve not yet been convinced we need another genre award, whether it’s the one ring suggested here or the SF mistress awards that have been discussed previously or any other variant, but I am more than happy to offer support and advice to anyone looking to take up the challenge.

    Maybe the speculative genres need more evangelists and advocates than extra awards right now?

    1. I’m definitely not asking for a new award. But while I know it would be difficult for a variety of reasons, a joint award between BFS, BFSA and a sponsor like SFX would have a great deal more value, IMHO.

      And yes, evangelism is always needed.

  19. This is all very interesting but I’m still not seeing much of a discussion of what “professional” means. [To me] Professional means professional in outloook, attitude and approach. It seems (from what I’ve read) that the BSF awards were not professional. But why would merging the BSF and BSFA guarantee “professionalism”? That just doesn’t follow.

    If we’re looking for critical cachet (I think Ian Sales says this) then how do we define it?

    Do we define it in terms of books sold – in which case the Meyers and Browns of the world are going to dominate. You just can’t argue with the marketing clout which is brought to bear on authors like this.

    Or do we define i by something more nebulous? Judge it by a group of interested appropriately qualified judges that takes submissions.

    Or is it a Hybrid approach?

    Are we looking to find the highest grade of “art” within our field?

    I’m not sure what the right answer is.

    It also seems fairly self evident that the factors that determine the cachet of an award are more complex than the notional clout of the gongs (cough cough… Oscars…). A new award has to work against those factors if it is goin to establish itself. Unless its reputation is completely trashed a re-thought award would probably stand more chance of being taken seriously.

    @Damien specifically.

    Did you not dismiss the Hugos recently? And aren’t the Hugos the sort of merged award you’re looking for?

    1. The strongest argument I’ve seen now relating to the BFS and it’s awards is the need for it as an organisation to define its mandate. That mandate might be any one of those you’ve mentioned, but without a clear idea of what it’s trying to achieve its just going to continue to flounder.

      The problem I’m starting to think is that the natural mandate fan organisations once filled has been negated by the Internet. The BFS and BFSA used to be the only way UK fans could network. Now they’ve become relatively insignificant compared to the communication happening daily through Twitter, blogs etc etc. My criticism (as opposed to dismissal) of the Hugos was the same. These organisations and awards are assuming a lot more about their centrality and importance to the community than is be necessarily the case.

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