Friday 6 May 2011

Juried Awards vs. Popular Awards

So, I found out recently that the committee of the David Gemmell Legend Awards wanted me to assist them in promoting the award and ensuring as many votes were cast as possible to pick a suitable winner. This got me to thinking about the differences - the pros and cons - of juried awards versus popular awards.

The DGLA are an example of the latter - publishers submit any novels for consideration that they believe fit the remit of the award, these are all listed on a longlist and the public is able to then vote on the one they want to see go forward for the shortlist. I was also made aware (hadn't been up to that point!) that, if the public believes a novel *should* be on the longlist for voting but wasn't put forward by a publisher, then it can be submitted for consideration. After the deadline has passed, that longlist becomes a shortlist, and the vote is then reopened to the public.

Juried awards, on the other hand, involve a small panel of people hand-picked (usually for their expertise and experience - and probably their willingness to be involved) who will read all of the entries into an award, decide on a shortlist themselves and then finally pick their winner. As with popular awards, the entries are submitted by publishers - I don't think, in this case, there is any opportunity to add additional titles if they are felt to be missing.

So.... What is good about a juried award?

As I said before, the panel are deemed to be experts on the subject, or at least knowledgeable enough that they will be able to find a suitable winner. They have been picked to cast their collective eyes over the best of the speculative fiction published in a specific year. Whether true or not, this tends to give an air of gravitas and prestige to an award - the juried awards are recognised and debated and generally thought to be an excellent way of discussing literature. All the juried awards generate great excitement in their respective spheres each year - from the announcement of the shortlist to the eventual winner - and there tends to be national press generated from the result.

The judges will all read through a large number of novels to decide on those they feel represent the spirit of the award - consequently, there does seem to be more credibility, since the judges have looked at the merits (or not) of many books alongside each other. This is unlike the Hugos, say, where a person can still vote in a category even if they have only read one of the nominations - hell, as long as they are a member, they could vote in a category where they haven't read any of the shortlisted works! 

What is bad about a juried award?

Although there is a panel of judges, which takes away an element of this, these type of awards will always be incredibly subjective. It is merely the opinion of six people, or a dozen people. Obviously the fact that a decision has to be reached (without a fist fight!) ensures that a little of this subjectivity is removed - but, honestly, what right do these six people (for example) have to tell the rest of the reading population what the "best" novel is?

Small presses never seem to be as well represented as the larger presses. This might change as a result of Zoo City winning the Arthur Clarke this year, since Angry Robot is a smaller publisher than those who have recently carried away the award - we can only hope, since a number of small presses are producing seriously exciting and boundary-pushing works.

Sometimes subgenres can be sneered at a little by the judges, as in with the Booker Prize and genre fiction - it can be argued that, if an award for excellent literature is ignoring a whole subfield, then how can they possibly be presenting the best work. This year there was both delight and mystification about a YA novel sitting proudly on the ACCA shortlist - Monsters of Men didn't win the prize, but it contained accomplished writing, and good discussion on the nature of warfare. I know some people who declared they would refuse to read this book, simply because it was YA. With a popular award, no subgenre is exempt from being voted on.

And what else is good about a popular award?

Well, democracy apart from anything else. It is the most democratic way of establishing a winner. The quality of that winner can be debated from here to the ends of the earth (did they just manage to enable their fans better than the other representatives? Did the people voting only read the one novel they voted on?) but the system itself is sound. One person, one vote. It's your fault if you moan about the result, but didn't cast a vote, you know?

An argument can be made as to the pool of voters - how many people voted? The DGLA team at Eastercon revealed that this year over 10,000 people had voted on the longlist to create the shortlist. Some people would say that was a decent number, since effort has to be made to make the decision and visit the voting site (and even be aware that it's occurring!) but when you consider the large number of fantasy readers across the world and the international nature of the DGLA (anyone can vote, remember?) it might be argued that this is, in fact, a very small percentage of people.

On the bad side, a popular award is only as good as the publicity it receives. If people are not aware about it happening, or are not stirred to cast their vote, the award will lose credibility. There is the possibility of it being seen as a little meaningless, since the winner is *just* picked by the public.

Specifically for the DGLA I want to discuss, as a con, the fact that fantasy is the genre being dealt with - for good or for ill, fantasy tends to come in series. And this means a situation like 2011's DGLA shortlist - three of the novels from six are the second novel in a series. One is the thirteenth! Only two of those novels can be picked up immediately for people to read if they wished to effectively judge themselves the best of the shortlist. Science fiction produces far more standalone fiction - this year the ACCA had only one novel on the shortlist that required any prior reading (the aforementioned Monsters of Men) which does allow people with a casual interest to pick up most of the shortlist and try it out for themselves.

What's my ultimate conclusion? That both types of awards have pros and cons, and a place in the literary sphere for publicising good literature. Without either award, we might be less aware of all the excellent novels that are available each year for reading. With juried awards, we get to disagree vehemently with the judges' decision! With popular awards, we get to marshal our "gangs" and try to push our favourite to the top of the heap! Both have their place and should be celebrated.

So, with all that said, go vote immediately on the 2011 David Gemmell Legend Awards and know that you're having a democratic effect on the best fantasy novel of the past year. Then come back and debate with me vigorously the merits (or not) of both types of award!


  1. As with popular awards, the entries are submitted by publishers - I don't think, in this case, there is any opportunity to add additional titles if they are felt to be missing.

    I can't think of a single juried award that doesn't have this opportunity.

  2. It depends upon what you want the award to represent, really. An award open to anyone to vote is just rewarding the most popular (and, of course, you're right: there is the question of rewarding authors who happen to be better at engaging with their fanbase). This is fine, as long as you aren't claiming that the award is for the 'best' anything. It's possible that it might be, naturally. But I'm not sure that it's likely.

    The Clarkes, for example, subjective though they may be, are arriving at the decision that the book that wins is the best of a pool honestly, even if you disagree.

  3. This might change as a result of Zoo City winning the Arthur Clarke this year, since Angry Robot is a smaller publisher than those who have recently carried away the award

    I'm not sure I would describe Angry Robot as a small press. They were an imprint of Harper Collins and now they are an imprint of Osprey. They are certainly bigger than PS Publishing who published Song of Time by Ian R. MacLeod which won the Clarke in 2009.

    To be honest, I think it is a bit of a red herring to say that "small presses never seem to be as well represented as the larger presses." It is probably true but why is that meaningful (you would probably expect them to be less represented) and how does it compare to juried awards (I would guess it is probably better)?

  4. Specifically for the DGLA I want to discuss, as a con, the fact that fantasy is the genre being dealt with - for good or for ill, fantasy tends to come in series.

    This is an interesting quirk of fantasy, particularly in terms of the potential for a juried fantasy award to compliment the Arthur C Clarke award. Of course, there already a juried fantasy award, the World Fantasy Award. It is safe to say that there is unlikely to be any cross-over between that award and the DGLA.

    With the Clarke, judges have to discount any previously published work in the series and only judge the novel under discussion. It is fair to say that it is much harder for a work in a series to get on the shortlist. For a series that is essentially a single novel it would be pretty much impossible. This would wipe out swathes of fantasy and pretty much exclude a subgenre (epic fantasy) that a lot of fans think is the heart of the genre. Interesting food for thought.

  5. frankly, I'm not a fan of either juried or popular awards. Both have their downsides, I think both get way more attention than they deserve, and one must understand the details of the process to get into what the bias of the award is for any given year to have a chance at figuring out what the actual meaning of the award is.

    I simply don't have the time nor inclination for that.

    But, I will admit to giving a little more weight to juried awards vs. popular.

  6. I can't see anything good coming from popular awards - other than just another marketing ploy. So a lot of people liked a book. A lot of people like bad books, bad movies, and bad food. Does that make these the "best of the year" among books, movies, and restaurants?

    Of course not, it just makes them popular. Popularity, is not democracy just go ask the ancient Greeks. Nor is it any guarantee of quality.

    I don't mind if an award is open about it being an award for most popular, or most fans, or most online buzz - but I'd hate to think that in the future, we'd have an even harder time telling this kind of award apart from those which recognized a more considered excellence in the genre.


  7. It's not democracy in the slightest - it's based on who has the biggest fan base, which in turn is based on which books get the most money spent on them by publishers, as Speculative Horizons pointed out so thoroughly last year. It's nothing whatsoever to do with merit.

  8. @David, James made a great post, but to go on a bit of tangent - I wonder if he still feels the same about the Gemmell Award now that he works for a big publisher.

  9. I can understand the case for juried awards having more meaning than popularly voted awards.
    But since the crime novel "The City & the City" managed to get two juried awards (one for science fiction and one for fantasy), I think the case for juries being more meaningful is pretty weak.

    And as long as we see the Hugo award as something prestigious, when it is only voted for by the relatively few member of one convention, I don't think we really have a reason to complain with how an award winner is chosen.

    I don't see a problem with either popularly voted or juried awards as long as it is clear how the winner was picked.

  10. @Weirdmage - I fail to see your point about The City & The City winning two awards. To me that would point to it probably being a pretty good book (somehow I still haven't read it to know for sure). If your complaint is that a book can't be both science fiction and fantasy, then that is a whole other issue that's not relevant to awards.

  11. My website is currently running its own popular award series, the Uni Awards. We had a Movie Edition in February, coinciding with the Oscars, a Literature Edition this month, and a Television/Video Game Edition in August. This is our first year running the Uni Awards, so we're still getting the format and other aspects of it down.

    The nominees for the Literature Unis, for example, come from those books that received a four-and-a-half out of five star rating or higher on B&N's website, or some other definition of merit. There are six main categories: Sci-fi, Fantasy, Genres, Media Tie-In, Graphic Novel, and YA, all with about three to six sub-categories; 24 total. Voters can add nominees if they feel a book or graphic novel was left off the list wrongly, and they're given a month to vote.

    The reason we're doing it this way is because juried awards, such as the Oscars (whose longstanding snubbery of anything sci-fi/fantasy prompted the creation of the Unis in the first place), leads to much greater controversy not only in the selection of the winners and nominees but also in the selection of the judges than any popular contest. Granted, popular contests are swayed by the size of the fanbases, but how else do you define a "best of" winner? The size and loyalty of the fanbase is a fair indicator, I would say; not to mention the fact that fans are even more critical of subsequent books in a series than hired/recruited juries.

    I appreciate all the insights in this post and in the comments. I'd appreciate it more if you could give me your opinion of the nominees and categories (and processes) used in our first Uni Awards.

  12. @ Neth
    I don't agree with it being a good book. But that is OK with me. That I fail to see it actually being SFF, and that classifying it as SFF takes it from mediocre crime to crap SFF ( I have rewieved it on my blog) makes me think juried awards is not necessarily a mark of quality, or even meaningful.
    I was actually surprised that "Kraken" didn't win the Clarke award since them giving TC&TC the award for me gave it a "anything MiƩville publishes" award feel.

    I actually can see no other reason that TC&TC won awards other than 'see, we have meaningless crap that can be classified as "literature"'. I'll stand by TC&TC being crap, and especially if you classify it as SFF to the day I die. I know I'm in a minority (but I got several people agreeing with me privatly, who admitted to giving it a better review than they felt it deserved becaused they were afraid to go against the narrative). But I actually think MiƩville is just the lit.fic. baiting aliby of SFF. -I realise that is not a popular opinion, but I will stick to it until I see evidence otherwise.

  13. The reason we're doing it this way is because juried awards, such as the Oscars

    The Oscars aren't juried. If you are going to spam at least try not to be a retard.

  14. Thanks all for the comments, especially those that correct my misconceptions.

    @Martin - can you please avoid words such as 'retard'? I don't like them addressed to people who have taken the time to come comment on my posts, however bad you think the reply was...

  15. @David

    Doesn't everything you've said translate to "real world" democracy as well?

    I think it's very fair to say that popular awards have a lot less to do with merit than juried ones (to say they have nothing to do with merit seems a gross exaggeration). But so long as it's one person one vote, they are most definitely democratic.

  16. very interesting reading, thanks folks

    @Weirdmage Ok, I'll bite, what's a lit.fic baiting aliby exactly? Sounds fascinating

    i have to say you're entirely welcome to your opinions and tastes with regard TC&TC and even the Clarke Award - it's not my job to persuade you otherwise - but all you seem to be saying is that your tastes are different from other people and i cant help but find your comments with regard to some imaginary narrative and some undefined 'them' presumably me giving all our awards to China automatically rather insulting. Hey ho, i guess you're not a fan

  17. I can't really offer any cohesive opinion, more a series of observations and questions.

    I feel a bit alienated by the shortlist for the Legend award.

    Firstly, not one of the books on the shortlist is by a British author. Four are by American authors, the other two by a French author and a German author.

    Yet the award is organised and presented in the UK, and presented in the name of a British fantasy author?

    I wonder whether the UK genre community, and indeed the British press, might be more interested and excited by an award that was more UK orientated. I certainly would be!

    Secondly, I feel alienated because these titles are sequels in existing series, which is a quirk of fantasy novels. But it doesn't give me an easy way in. I wonder if the award might benefit from minimising sequels, or putting them in a secondary category, so new material can shine through in the primary award, rather than in a secondary debut award?

  18. More thoughts...

    There are no real instructions for the general public on how to vote. Just "best fantasy novel". How do you define "best"? I get a sense of real quality from the Clarke Award shortlist because the panel pick thoughtful novels with literary depth to them.

    What you're going to get from asking the general public, is a gauge of how well the books have sold, which is a shallow criteria. I think the artwork in particular suffers massively for that. What DGLA need to do is try to eliminate some of that bias.

    Is the award purely limited to Tolkienesque epic high fantasy novels? What about more modern takes on fantasy, weird fiction, magic realism, urban fantasy, YA fantasy, and so on? It would make for a more engaging shortlist.

    The fact that you can vote anonymously on the internet leaves the award open to major abuse. These kind of polls are relying purely on trust that people aren't just going back and clicking on their preferred author again and again. The website would at least benefit from some sort of membership sign up linked to the voting system so that members can only vote once.

    People can vote even though they haven't read the books, or may have just read one of the books. Popular authors can send flying monkeys to vote for them, over potentially less popular authors with better books. I wonder whether surveying the voters to find out how many of the books they've actually read prior to allowing them to vote would shed light on the voting patterns.

    I wonder whether the DGLA would benefit from at least one tier of judges or reviewers - perhaps to form the shortlist, with the public/membership choosing the winner? Or vice versa?

    I wonder if it would help if rather than buying a ticket to the awards, you bought a membership which allowed you to vote, and which gave you entry to the award ceremony? This would certainly stop any duplicate voting and flying monkeys.

    Final thoughts - they definitely shouldn't have any more awards. Three is more than enough. More awards will just further lower the percieved quality of the award. The names for the awards are confusing and would better be described as just "best artwork", "best debut", etc.

  19. It occurs to me that there is a significant difference between the 'popular awards' that the best seller lists constitute and the 'popular awards' that something like the DGLA represents. The DGLA is not a simple sub-sampling of the 'electorate' in the best-seller lists. The DGLA electorate comprises fans, people who can be bothered to vote, people who discover it exists by circulating in the blog-o-sphere. These people may well as a group spend far more time thinking about fantasy writing, discussing fantasy authors etc than the average buyer of a fantasy book.

    This point doesn't obviate the complaints and observations made upthread and elsewhere, but perhaps it softens them. In essense the voters in the DGLA are a jury, a large jury, selected from the wider readership by the fact they care enough to get involved.

  20. They're certainly not "popular". Unless, of course, you think the of the Academy as an at large voting body and not a jury. I tend to think of any vote taken by the public at large as a popular vote, while an award granted by a select, exclusive body to be in the same category as juried awards. Perhaps there should be a third category: awards granted by exclusive membership popular vote.