Tuesday 22 March 2022

The 25 per cent solution

Over the past few years, several Hugo Award categories have come perilously close to falling off the edge of the ballot.
Worldcon has changed since
the 1960s and 1970s.
(Image via Fanac.org)

What’s striking is that these categories aren’t significantly declining in popularity, but rather, they’re just failing to keep pace with the growth of interest in categories with greater mass appeal. This makes them dangerously close to being punished for the popularity of the big-ticket Hugos such as Best Novel and Best Dramatic Presentation.

Section 3.12.2 of the WSFS Constitution – the document that governs Hugo Awards administration – described one of the circumstances under which an awards category should fail to be presented.

3.12.2: “No Award” shall be given whenever the total number of valid ballots cast for a specific category (excluding those cast for “No Award” in first place) is less than twenty-five per cent (25%) of the total number of final Award ballots received.

Since 2,362 final Award ballots were cast in 2021, if any category received fewer than 591 votes in the
Diana M. Pho was nearly denied her
well-deserved first Hugo for Best
Editor Long Form due to Section 3.12.2.
We are glad that she got it.
(Photo by Rokne & Wakaruk)

final count, then a result of “No Award” would have been declared. Fancast received 632 votes, barely scraping past that 25 per cent threshold. Fanzine (643 votes), Editor – Long Form (667 votes), and Fan Writer (680 votes) were all poised near the abyss. For context, consider that 591 is more votes than any category received in 1963 when this rule was first proposed. Worldcon is growing and needs a way to address category relevance that makes sense for a larger membership.

It’s interesting to note that if just 159 more people had cast ballots for Best Novel without voting for Best Fanzine, then Nerds of a Feather would not have taken home the Hugo Award they so richly deserve. This points out a flaw in the current rules: the slightly more niche categories might end up being punished for the success of the higher-profile award categories.

From a read of fanzines contemporaneous to the creation of this rule, it doesn’t appear that this was what was intended by the rule. At the time, people kvetched about the possibility of categories in which the Hugo winner received 10 or fewer votes. It does not appear that they were worried about categories in which more than 500 people were voting.

Section 3.12.2 has a long and interesting history, with the original version of the rule appearing in the 1964 Constitution, having been added in the wake of concerns over the remarkably small number of voters participating in the 1963 Hugo Awards process. At this time, there was no specific threshold, but rather the rules provided Hugo Administrators the ability to nix a category based on “a marked lack of interest in the category on the part of voters.”

It should be noted that this was added at a time when fewer than 200 people participated in the nominating process, and fewer than 300 people voted on the final ballot. Rules crafted for the circumstances of the 1960s and 1970s do not necessarily work in the context of the 2020s.

Because of missing documents, we cannot pin down exactly when the rule in its current form was codified, but it was either in 1978 or 1979. As far as we can tell, this clarification was based on the work of Ben Yalow. By adding a specific threshold of 25 per cent to the rule, his proposal helped bring clarity to the process, and ensured that categories weren’t dismissed on the whim of any given committee.

“Hugo Administrators have a lot of discretion, but really hate to use it since all it does is get the convention criticized,” Yalow explains. “So giving specific rules, rather than broad general guidelines, keeps administrators out of the line of fire.”
The legendary Ben Yalow, whose
contributions to the WSFS constitution
are innumerable, helped craft
Section 3.12.2 in its current form.
(Photo by Rokne & Wakaruk)

In the late 1970s, this was an important and positive change; and the 25 per cent threshold made sense at that time, but things have changed in 40 years, and this threshold needs to be revised.

Over the course of the 1970s, the Hugos had an average of 800 people voting on the final Hugo ballot; at the time the “no Award presentation” threshold could be assumed to be 200 votes or so. And if a category were to only garner 200 votes, one could understand that this might be a sign that there was a lack of interest.

This rule also comes from a time in which there was far more parity between the number of votes in various categories. In 1980 (the first year that we have full voting statistics on the Hugos for), the category which received the fewest votes was Best Fan Writer. In that year, 884 out of 1,788 Hugo voters voted for Fan Writer, giving that category a participation rate of 49 per cent.

Four decades later, the number of people voting in the Fan Writer category has not substantially changed, but the numbers voting in the prose fiction categories has drastically increased. Thus, the percentage of voters engaged with this category has decreased. This means that these Hugo Award categories are being endangered not due to declining interest in those categories when counted by number of voters, but rather by the enthusiasm and growth of other categories.

Fundamentally, the decision about whether or not the Best Editor - Long Form award is worth running should not be contingent on how many people voted in the Best Dramatic Presentation category.

We would suggest that instead of a percentage threshold to indicate a lack of interest in a category, the WSFS should consider a fixed numerical threshold. Of course, just like the 25 per cent threshold, this would be an arbitrary number, but we feel that it should be set at a level that reflects a continued interest by a significant number of fans; clearly that threshold is higher than 10 people, but we’d argue that it’s also fewer than the 750 people that it might take to pass 25 per cent of a 3,000-voter Hugos that is not inconceivable in the near future. This number should be reviewed, likely every five years or so.

An alternate approach would be to change the result of a sub-25-per-cent participation in a category to a mandatory review of the category by the Hugo Awards Committee of the WSFS, rather than invalidating the work of those who did nominate and participate in the process.

Some Hugo Awards categories have become more well-known in the broader public, which is a fact that should be celebrated. But the Hugo Awards process needs to evolve to adjust to this broader acclaim without penalizing more niche award categories.

While these suggestions create more work for the WSFS Hugo Awards Study Committee, it would be an effort spent serving the mission of Worldcon and help ensure a representative, democratic process based on participation.

To repeat: The fan categories should not be doomed by the success of the prose categories.


  1. Fascinating. Thank you for this analysis.

  2. Today I learned that 1963, the year you cite as a nadir of participation in Hugo voting, was the year that Philip K. Dick received his sole Hugo Award (for The Man in the High Castle), and he never received a Nebula.

    1. Paraphrasing my tweets on this subject, I think we should celebrate the fact that the Hugo Awards recognize incontrovertibly niche works as a strength of the award, and not a weakness.

      Of course there are relatively few fanzine readers compared to readers of science fiction novels and watchers of science fiction movies and TV programs. Worldcon may have literally started as a convention of people who knew each other through fanzines, but as our genre has become mainstream we should recognize that SF/F is a big tent and welcome participation by as many SF/F consumers (including those who come from historically underrepresented groups) as possible. Some of these will become the fan writers and fancasters of tomorrow, maintaining the health of the ecosystem, but we should expect fan writing and fancasting to remain a niche activity while striving to have a broad and inclusive Worldcon membership.

      So it is okay with me if the percentage of members voting in the fan categories continues to drop and I would argue it is no unequivocal sign of bad health. I want Worldcon to welcome people who read Network Effect without insisting they listen to The Coode Street Podcast first. I want informed voters to keep feeding me fanzine and fancast recommendations without feeling pressured to vote in categories where I feel unqualified.

      I would support the proposal sketched out by Kris V-M on Twitter to amend the qualification threshold to 25% of voters or N votes, whichever is fewer, where N=200 (Kris V-M's suggestion, which strikes me as low) or perhaps something in the 300-500 range. I wouldn't stress out over lowering the percentage parameter to something like 15 or 20%. Engaged voters trumps rate of participation in my mind.

      On the flipside, mere rates of participation in a category should not preclude reconsideration of the category if the sense of the membership is that it is outmoded.

  3. Thinking back to the era when I first became aware of the Hugos as a potential voter, one of the things that stood in the way of me voting for Best Novel at that time (mid '80s) was that publishing schedules sometimes meant that only the hardcover version of a novel was available at the time of voting. That was a serious budgetary bar for me at the time. Now, not only are ebook versions available at release, but the hard and soft cover versions are more likely to be released in tandem rather than with significant delay. Add in the greater accessibility of short fiction in electronic format these days, and I think it goes part way to motivating a proportionately larger voter activity. Whereas the dynamics that inhibit voting for fan categories (long tail, lack of a central channel for awareness) and for the editorial categories (lack of visibility) have not significantly been affected by the rise of the internet. Well, ok, the *existence* of fancast is affected by the rise of the internet, but I think my theory holds.

  4. Maybe quite controversial question: Do the smaller categories really matter for anyone except the people nominated? Couldn't it be good for the Hugos to grow the big awards and let the smaller ones fall off? I mean if even the members don't really care one way or the other for those smaller categories does it make sense to have them, spent time and resources on them? That's a question many organizations have to ask themselves when they grow...

  5. I definitely do associate this issue with the general tension the Hugo Awards have, between being a popular award on the one hand, and recognizing specialty niches on the other.

    This issue keeps coming up when new categories are proposed, from Best YA to Best Translated to Retro Hugos -- yes, the category is important and worthy of recognition, but each time there is concern whether the Hugo voting body is going to yield good and worthy results. When the number of voters invested in one category is a few hundred, but there are a thousand "popular" voters, whose interest lies in other categories, happy to toss a vote to a popular name, the result can be a very disappointing and hidebound category, especially over time.

    I don't have a firm opinion on the 25% rule, and my previous paragraph isn't a criticism of any specific Hugo or Not-A-Hugo category! But I do think that in discussing the 25% rule, it's important to acknowledge the way the Hugo categories have been gradually both multiplying and splintering -- there are the Very Big Categories that get ballots in the thousands, and at the other end there are the categories that are smaller by an order of magnitude. It's not just the raw numbers that bother me -- being smaller by an order of magnitude means these categories are easily overwhelmed or overwritten by any influence or attention from the larger voting body. It also definitely reflects a sense of there being "important" categories vs. "unimportant" ones, or maybe "niche inside baseball" ones. Which is maybe better than the "unimportant" ones not receiving any recognition at all, but it's definitely an aspect I'm not thrilled with.

    I think there's a balance to be struck here. Without pointing fingers at anything specific (and goodness knows, I have my pet categories too), I think we also need a better sense of when something *shouldn't* be a category; of when low participation *is* an actual problem. And I do think that's more complicated than "as long as a few hundred people are voting, the category is fine."

    (Wish I had some actual proposals. What I have is a deep and abiding regret that after the Dublin Worldcon, I nosed into the committee on Hugo categories, and then was promptly swamped by Real Life and then by March 2020, aggh.)

  6. Thanks for this. IN recent years, the nominations and voting between fiction (particularly Novel) and other categories (the fan categories, and Editors) has become rather stark.

  7. I know I'm in the minority, but we need to eliminate the 25% rule, as well as the low-end limitations for all the award category. If we as a community value a thing (and I think as a community we value Fan Work, even if we don't vote for them) then we should award that category no matter what.

  8. Thanks for this well thought out and helpful post and subsequent discussion. The HASC is aware of this issue and considering it, although we have not reached any conclusions yet other than that this is important.

  9. So is somebody going to make a motion at the actual Business Meeting? I'm no drama llama, but I'll grit my teeth and attend if this is to be voted on in Chicago.

    1. Yes. I've seen some discussion about this. I believe that someone is planning to make a motion suggesting a change to this section of the WSFS constitution.

  10. How about an "or" option? 20% OR 100 votes? I'm also hesitant to vote on things like best editor or fan artist because I'm not sure how to judge it. Haven't found a lot of analysis or reviews on these subjects either.