A History of the Hugo Award Rules

A Guest Post by Ben Yalow

I’m going to write for a bit about the history of the Hugo rules in the WSFS Constitution, and what I think they mean. But I should make it clear that these are not official rulings of any sort, which only get made by the Business Meeting presiding officer, and the Hugo Administrator. And the Hugo Administrator’s rulings are, in the end, the only ones that count, because the Constitution delegates the final decisions to the Worldcon committee, and the Worldcon committee, in every year since it was permitted to do so, delegates that power to the Hugo Subcommittee. And that delegation must be total; the convention committee doesn’t get to override the decisions by the Hugo Subcommittee.

Section 3.2.11: The Worldcon Committee is responsible for all matters concerning the Awards.

Section 3.12: Exclusions. No member of the current Worldcon Committee or any publications closely connected with a member of the Committee shall be eligible for an Award. However, should the Committee delegate all authority under this Article to a Subcommittee whose decisions are irrevocable by the Worldcon Committee, then this exclusion shall apply to members of the Subcommittee only.

I’m going to try to quote sections of the Constitution for reference. The current version is online along with other rules, and the minutes of last year’s Business Meeting, and a set of videos taken of the meeting for those who want to follow it completely. But be aware that the meetings run for almost ten hours (I think it was probably the longest Business Meeting in history). And, for historical reference, I’d point people to the archive of past Business Meeting minutes.

A Quick Overview of How the Awards Are Structured

I’ve made the assumption that if you’re reading about the Hugo Award rules, you’re probably generally familiar with the overall structure. But, for those who aren’t, here’s a quick summary. The Worldcon (an SF convention that’s been held annually since 1939, except that we skipped 1942-5 during WWII), annually, gives out an award called the Hugo Award for work in the field. The rules for governing the Worldcon are made the by the members of WSFS – but the membership of WSFS is anyone who has an attending or supporting membership in the Worldcon (a supporting membership gives you the right to vote for the Hugos, and the upcoming site, but not to attend). So the membership gets to set its own rules – but is limited by what I consider the most important part of the Constitution:

Section 1.6: Authority. Authority and responsibility for all matters concerning the Worldcon, except those reserved herein to WSFS, shall rest with the Worldcon Committee, which shall act in its own name and not in that of WSFS.

In general, the areas reserved to WSFS are the rules for administering the Hugo Award, selecting the site of the Worldcon two years from now, and holding a Business Meeting which can amend the rules. For the last four decades, amending the Constitution requires a motion to be passed by one year’s meeting, and ratified at the immediately following year’s meeting. Pretty much everything else is up to this year’s committee.

It’s a balance between three bodies, each with its own authority. The WSFS, through the Business Meeting’s power to amend the Constitution (which is binding on the Worldcon committee and the Hugo Subcommittee/Administrator) has the final say, but it’s only through a Constitutional amendment that it can authoritatively change the rules. Otherwise, it has no power over either of the other two bodies. And the Convention committee and the Hugo subcommittee each have their own distinct spheres. The Hugo subcommittee has total control of the balloting – determining what is eligible, counting the votes, etc. – but only by administering the rules in the Constitution, and using judgment only when it’s absolutely necessary, and deferring to the will of the voters and/or creators where it seems possible (“Is this 38,000 word story a Novella or a Novel?”, for example – which usually will end up being put in the category where it gets the most nominations). But it has no control over any of the other aspects of the Hugo Award – in particular, the ceremony is entirely under the control of the Convention committee, where the only responsibility of the Hugo subcommittee is to ensure that the rockets have plaques with the right names on them, and that the envelopes contain the correct nominees on the outside, and the right winners on the inside (and possibly that the tech staff have the right name on the Powerpoint slide with the winner on it, if there is such a presentation).

And, speaking personally now, as a past member of the Hugo subcommittee (most recently at Loncon 3, in 2014), and knowing many of the past administrators as friends, the administrators hate to make judgment calls, because they’re often tricky, and the other viewpoint is often very much supported by a reasonable interpretation of the rules. To pick an example (which, since it was three dozen years ago, is probably not one that will inspire a resurgence of the argument), the 1981 Hugo administrator put Warhoon 28 in the Best Related category. Warhoon 28 was the 28th issue of Warhoon, a long running fanzine, and one that won the 1962 Hugo Award for Best Fanzine, which would seem to mean that the fanzine, Warhoon, was being nominated. But Warhoon 28, unlike all of the other issues of that fanzine, was a special tribute issue to Walter Willis (one of the great fanwriters in history), and collected all of his major fanwriting in a 600+ mimeoed page hardbound book. So the administrator chose to put that issue/book in Best Related, rather than putting that fanzine in Best Fanzine. It was a perfectly reasonable decision – but clearly one where he could have reasonably interpreted the rules differently, and decided on Fanzine. It, like other judgement calls, is not something that an administrator wants to make, since very reasonable arguments can be made as to why the administrator got it wrong.

The Rules of the Hugo Awards

Now to get to the Hugo rules. In general, the Hugo-specific rules are in current Article 3, although general rules about counting votes, etc., can be found in Article 6, and some stuff scattered elsewhere. But Article 3 is the part that tells what the categories are, and what goes in which category.

For categories that are distinguished by length (Dramatic Presentation, and the fiction categories) the Administrators are given some flexibility in moving a work between categories, so long as the length is close to the boundary (generally, it’s a 20%/5000 word margin). So a 42,000 word story, which would normally go in Novel (the Novel/Novella boundary is 40,000 words) could be put into Novella by the Administrators (who will generally look at where the nominators tended to put it, although they’re not required to). But note that Neil Gaiman’s “Coraline”, which was published in book form, and looked like a children’s novel, was nominated (and won) in Novella, since it was less than 35,000 words, and therefore could not be moved.

The baseline for the current Constitution, and the current set of Hugo categories, was set in the 1976 Business Meeting (in Kansas City, in the same hotel as this upcoming Worldcon). We had ten categories: four fiction categories, differentiated only by length, dramatic presentation, professional editor (which was a recent change at the time, since the category had been professional magazine, but got changed to editor in recognition of the fact that there were fewer magazines, with new SF showing up for the first time in books rather than the magazines, and so we changed it so we could recognize book editors), professional artist, and three fan categories (fanzine, fan artist, fan writer – where fan artist and fan writer were defined as people writing/drawing for fanzines). And professional was simply defined by print run – a professional publication was one with a print run of 10,000 or more. Since the professional magazines, and professionally published books, all had those kinds of print runs, that rule gave the right answer.

As we started to see more non-fiction books about SF, and books of/about SF art, we added a new category, first awarded in 1980, for Best Related Non-Fiction Book. As part of the general trend to recognize electronic works, which don’t necessarily get published in the form of books, it’s now become the Best Related Work category, and so it no longer needs to be a book (or even an e-book). The key thing which distinguishes a work eligible in that category from other categories is in the end of 3.3.4, “…is either non-fiction or, if fictional, is noteworthy primarily for aspects other than the fictional text, and which is not eligible in any other category.

When it became clear that, during the late 70s, we had three fanzines whose circulation was many thousands, while most fanzines were having circulations in the low hundreds (when you’re printing and mailing physical fanzines, and generally they were available for free, there were real limits on circulation, depending on people’s budgets), we split out semiprozines, just to get them out of the fanzine category. And we tweaked the rules somewhat, so that there were more contenders than just the three that we moved out of fanzine; if it were only that, then semiprozine wouldn’t be a viable category. We were starting to see the beginnings of small run fiction magazines, and serious academic small circulation magazines, and the semiprozine rules put those into the new category, so it was a category offering reasonable choices.

As electronic publication for books and magazines, and as blogs and other similar formats became the locations for more of the works in the field, it became clear that “print run” was a poor concept for distinguishing between professional and non-professional works. So we changed it to a pure financial rule:

3.2.10: A Professional Publication is one which meets at least one of the following two criteria:
(1) it provided at least a quarter the income of any one person or,
(2) was owned or published by any entity which provided at least a quarter the income of any of its staff and/or owner.

An important consideration is to note that professional/non-professional refers to a publication, and not a person. A person can be both a professional writer/editor/artist, and a fan writer/artist, or publishing a fanzine. You don’t stop being a fan just because you’re a professional. For example, Terry Carr (who won a Hugo Award for his fanzine in 1959, best fan writer in 1973, and best professional editor in 1985 and 87) was the Fan Guest of Honor at the Worldcon in 1986 (and was thrilled to get that honor – he was a fan until the day he died). If it’s being done for free, then it’s fan work, and the person is eligible in the fan categories. The clearest example was Jack Gaughan, who won both Professional Artist (for his work in the professional magazines) and Fan Artist (for the work he donated for free to fanzines) in the same year – 1967.

Starting with the 2003 awards, we split “Dramatic Presentation”, with the split being primarily by length (a running time of 90 minutes), but with the wording telling the Administrators that TV shows should generally go into BDP-Short, and movies into BDP-Long. The feeling was that TV shows (particularly Buffy, at the time, which was getting lots of nominations, but didn’t appear on the final ballot) were at a disadvantage in the nominating process, since their nominations would be split among lots of different episodes, whereas the movies wouldn’t split them. So that while a single TV show, if you added up all the episodes, would get more than enough nominations to make the ballot, but since you couldn’t add them up, the TV shows never appeared on the ballot.

And later we added Graphic Story, as those works became more significant in the field (and we thought that enough members were interested in them so as to be able to nominate on an informed basis). We also split Editor, based on editing novels and editing shorter works. And we added Fancast, as podcasts became a popular medium.

The recent results with Game of Thrones, and the Wheel of Time, bring up the question of the serialization rule:

3.2.4: Works appearing in a series are eligible as individual works, but the series as a whole is not eligible. However, a work appearing in a number of parts shall be eligible for the year of the final part.

This rule has been a part of the Constitution since the beginning. It comes from the fact that most SF used to be first published in magazines (books were much rarer), and novel-length works were too long to be published in a single issue (three and four part serializations of novels were quite common). So the question is, when is the work eligible, and the decision was that if a work was really a single serialized work, then it was eligible when the final part appeared. The problem is determining when a work really is a single work, and when it’s a series. And the policy that Administrators have generally followed is to ask the creators, “Is this one work, or is it a series.”, and go with whatever the creator decides. However, once the decision has been made, it’s irrevocable, so if a creator decides that a part of a work can be nominated, then it indicates that it’s a series, with the individual parts eligible, and not a serialized work, with the entire work eligible. So that Game of Thrones Season 1 was determined, by its creators, to be a single work. But, in later years, the creators decided that the full seasons were not a single work, and that therefore individual episodes, and not a season were eligible.

About the Two-Phase Selection Process

I’d also like to say a few things about the two-phase selection mechanism. Right now, people who are members (as of Jan 31 of the appropriate year) of the current Worldcon, or the immediately preceding or following one, are eligible to nominate. However, only the current year’s members are eligible to vote once the final ballot appears, and they only need to be members by the time they vote.

In the current set of rules, the finalists are determined by simply adding up the individual nominations from each member (each of whom can make up to five unranked nominations), and the five works (plus ties) receiving the highest number of nominations appear on the final ballot. This has the simple result that the works with the most people who want them on the final ballot are the ones that appear there.

Once the final ballot goes out, a different voting scheme is used to determine the final winner. The votes are ranked (unlike the unranked nominations), with a ranking from 1 (the individual voter’s highest choice) to wherever the voter stops caring about preferences among the remaining choices. The winner must win with a majority. If no candidate receives a majority on the first ballot, then the least popular choice (the one with the fewest first place votes) is eliminated, and its votes distributed to the second place choices on ballots that have them. And the process is repeated, as necessary, until a work receives a majority (or a tie, in which case multiple works receive the award). What this tends to mean, except when a choice is so overwhelmingly popular that redistribution is unnecessary, is that the choice that is least unpopular tends to win, since unpopular works tend not to get the second, third, etc. place votes redistributed to them, so they fall off, even if they got the most first place votes. If a choice is initially preferred by a majority, then no redistribution happens, so my general description is unnecessary. To pick a recent, uncontroversial choice, of the 1058 voters in the BDP-Short category for the 1939 Retros, the Orson Wells broadcast of War of the Worlds had 813 first place votes, and no redistribution was necessary.

View The Retro results for 1939, with complete breakdowns

And the formal explanation of how the elimination procedure is done can be found in

Section 6.4: Tallying of Votes. Votes shall first be tallied by the voter’s first choices. If no majority is then obtained, the candidate who places last in the initial tallying shall be eliminated and the ballots listing it as first choice shall be redistributed on the basis of those ballots’ second choices. This process shall be repeated until a majority-vote winner is obtained. If two or more candidates are tied for elimination during this process, the candidate that received fewer first-place votes shall be eliminated. If they are still tied, all the tied candidates shall be eliminated together.

And section 3.11.1 says that if you get a tie at the end, then everybody gets a Hugo Award.

Amendments Up for Consideration

One final note is that there are two amendments concerning the nominations process which received first passage last year at the Sasquan Business Meeting, and which will be up for ratification at MidAmericon. The simple one to explain is called “4 and 6”. Under the current rules, each person can make up to five unranked nominations, and the five (plus ties) works receiving the most nominations become the finalists. This proposal changes the maximum number of nominations a person can make to four, and has six slots on the final ballot. The discussion on that appears on pages 23-25, 78-82, and 128-129 of the minutes.

The more complicated one to explain is called “E Pluribus Hugo”, and I’m not even going to try to explain it, since a minimal explanation would double the size of this. The proposal, which appears on pages 25-35 of the minutes (with an explanation of how it works by the proponents), and the debate, on pages 35-36, 73-78, and 129-134 really needs to be read in order to understand it, and the arguments raised for and against it. Read those minutes here.

I realize that, by reading the minutes, people can determine my feelings about both proposals (and why I feel that way), since I participated in the debate on both. However, in this article, I’m trying to be a disinterested source of information about the rules, and not a partisan. So I’m not going to debate those in this forum – I’ve made my opinions and reasoning public already and the volume of discussion on those proposals can get very large.

I hope this helps bring a historical perspective of how the rules are structured, and why/how they are interpreted.