18 April 2015

Self-publishing and SFF Awards

It's SFF awards season!  And very, ah, exciting it's been so far.  Since I published no eligible novels in 2014, this seems like good timing to talk about how self-published books stand in regards to SFF awards.

There are a lot of SFF awards out there, and the good news is that unlike many non-SFF awards, self-published books are eligible for almost all of them!  Very few SF awards restrict entries according to manner of publication, being far more concerned with criteria like year, length, place of publication and, sometimes, theme or content.  You can view a full(ish) list of SFF awards on the Science Fiction Awards Database, broken down into a number of categories.

So can a self-pub win any of these awards?  Well, yes.  Self-published authors have already begun to pop up on nomination lists, and even to win the occasional award.  What are the chances?

To understand that, we need to get into an additional major division for all awards: voted or juried.


Unless you're a well-known figure in the SFF community, or have had a blazing break-out book, a voted award is not an easy bar to hurdle for a self-pub - or, for that matter, the average trade published author.  You're just one of the horde swarming the foothills of Discoverability Mountain, staring hopelessly at the genre's luminaries blazoned in countless reviews across the blogosphere.

The results of voted awards can vary wildly each year, because different groups of people are nominating the books.  Some are open to anyone with an internet connection who knows about the award (such as the Locus Award) and some are only open to a restricted group, such as the Norton Award (SFWA members).  Some combine a limited nomination field with an open voting pool (eg. the Gemmell Award).  One of the absolute biggest is the Goodreads Awards, which merely has SFF categories, rather than being dedicated to the genre, and is weighted heavily toward those books that are already the most-shelved.

Of the 'core' SFF awards, the best-known voted award is the Hugo, which is an endlessly confusing award run by a new set of people every year (each year a different group of people hold a World Science Fiction and Fantasy Convention (WorldCon), and a combination of attendees and supporters of that individual convention, and the previous convention, can nominate).

There are some people who go to almost every one of these conventions, and some who go to the occasional one (I've been to four).  A solid percentage of WorldCon participants are industry professionals (authors, publishers), who are positively overwhelmed by the flood of books released each year.

Frankly, for many voted awards, most SFF books published each year will not have been read by more than one or two voters (if any).  On the flip side, for many of these awards the nominating pool is relatively small (particularly in some of the short fiction categories), so if your work happens to be known and liked by a group of voters, there's always a chance.


Juried awards, like the World Fantasy Award, invert this system. The judges read all the work submitted.  Who wins will depend entirely on the particular tastes of the judging panel, and that could just as easily be a self-published work as a trade published work.

Technically.  There are still several hurdles for self-pubs with juried awards.

Cost of entry is big factor.  Most legitimate awards have no entry fee or only a small entry fee, but many still require or prefer physical copies to be mailed to various parts of the world.  Looking at the addresses on the World Fantasy Award list, it would cost me (in Australia, one of the most expensive places to mail things from) a couple of hundred dollars to send physical copies.  While I see that the WFA has opened up to e-submissions, the hard copy is apparently preferred.

Which leads into the second point - perception of your book.  Will the judges seriously read/consider self-pubs?

As the occasional wins of self-pubs on juried awards show, the answer is yes.  Oh, sure, you may get the occasional judge who is actively negative toward self-pubs, but it appears to me that most people who get on award juries make a solid attempt to work their way through the entries and judge without fear or favour.

At the same time, I'm not going to pretend that judges aren't human.  A person who has been hearing buzz about a particular book all year, who has read multiple trusted reviewers claiming that X book is award-worthy - they'd have to be a paragon to pay exactly the same amount of attention to a self-published book by some author whose name they don't recognise.  They are almost certainly going to spend more time on the highly-lauded book, while the unknown will need to "prove worthy" of a full read, and prove it straight out of the gate.

Because this is a numbers game.  I don't have the stats on how many books get entered in the World Fantasy Awards each year, but it would be a rare judge who could wade through them all.  And every year, more books are published.  Can any judging panel realistically give all entries a fair shot?

The YA-oriented Cybils Awards uses one possible solution to this very problem.  Instead of one overwhelmed jury labouring through hundreds of books, two stages of juries are formed.  Stage one involves multiple juries reading an allocation of the eligible books and passing a set number along to the stage two jury, who chooses the finalists.

But are overwhelmed judging panels the biggest barrier to self-pubs winning juried awards?

Here's an interesting statistic about the Kitchies.  198 submissions.  8 self-published.  I read that, and then read it again in wonder.  Only 8 self-published authors entered the Kitchies?  I mean, I know it's a relatively new award, but it seems there were 190 non-self-published works entered.  What the heck's going on there?  Where's the tsunami?

But, you see, where trade published work is concerned, it's often not the author entering the work.  It's the publisher.  Over and over again I've seen self-pub authors (and, heck, creators of all stripes) talk themselves out of entering or drawing notice to their award-eligible work because to do so looks arrogant.  When you're a self-pub author, well aware of the stereotype of the deluded self-pubbed writer unable to judge the quality of their own work, do you really want to be so tacky-embarrassing as to put your own name into the hat?

I personally had the chutzpah to enter the Australian version of the WFA, the Aurealis Awards (and I've made the finals list a few times).  But there are a lot of awards out there.  Take the Tiptree Award, which recognises "science fiction or fantasy that explores and expands the roles of women and men for work by both women and men".

The last book I released featured a highly competent woman suffering from a variation of imposter syndrome, who falls in love with her country's Crown Princess.  Although the country is relatively egalitarian, I deliberately set out in that book to break down gender roles and expectations, starting simply by showing the majority of people in positions of power as female.  I am always exploring the role of women in my novels.  I usually write egalitarian worlds. Sometimes they're binormative worlds.  You'd think I'd be throwing myself at that award.  Yet I've never put my work forward for consideration for the Tiptree.

Because?  I guess I ran short of "FIGJAM".  How many other self-publishers are doing the same thing?

Does it matter?  In the grand scheme of things, awards are an ego-boost, with very few awards making a noticeable difference in sales.  But since making the finalist list a few times in the Aurealis Awards, I've seen the resulting reviews of my work that start "I don't usually read self-pub work, but...".  And award lists (when they're not melting down the internet) are fun - I like talking about SFF, and I'm not going to pretend I don't like my work being talked about.

One thing all the dramas in awards over the last few weeks have made clear is that, in this broad, diverse and fragmented community, if there's a book you want to see on award lists, talk about it, nominate it, enter it, put it out there.

Awards are part of the literary experience.  You may never win one.  You may think yourself a hack.  You may think that you won't be considered fairly.  But don't count yourself out at the start - become part of the discussion.


  1. I couldn't agree more. Self-pubbed authors have started at the back of the pack in terms of visibility, but it's only a matter of time before the existence of an award shortlist dominated by self-published works is unremarkable. A good contender is a good contender.

    I don't have a good feel for the Tiptrees, so I can't comment on how Pyramids would have gone as a contender there.

    I shall certainly be nominating it for a Ditmar next year (and voting for it if I qualify to do so, which will depend on whether I can get to Brisbane at Easter time). I do think that if you don't nominate it at least for an Aurealis Award next year I shall be quite cross. Remind me if you are feeling skint to stump up the nomination fee!

    1. The nomination fee for the Aurealis is considerably cheaper than the cost of sending the physical books to the judges! It's so good they've switched to ebooks.

  2. For the WFA, would it reduce expense at all to ship a single parcel of books to the States and have them broken out and reshipped from there? I very much enjoyed Pyramids and I'd like to see it get more attention. I'm really wishing I'd read it before going to Minicon, so I could have slipped copies into the bags of some of the authors there who you list as being on your bookshelf (Bujold in particular I think would appreciate it).

    1. I think that would actually be more expensive. :) Usually, when I'm sending physical copies of my books, I have them sent directly from Amazon (infinitely cheaper), but the WFA requirement to have a particular disclaimer in their address would probably cause complications.

  3. When I was on the Cybils panel, it was overwhelming how many entries there were and there were definitely a lot of self-pubs. It is basically impossible to read every single entry so we tried to have at least 2-3 of the panelists read each entry with the idea that if it was notable enough, whoever read it would mention it in the discussion threads and then more of the panelists would read it. It is very organized and spreadsheets are involved:) I definitely read a few books or large portions of books that I never would've picked up or even taken a second glance at had it not been for the Cybils and while I could'nt/didn't finish anywhere near all of them, every single one I didn't keep to read I donated to a high school classroom. Hey, any chance at a reader for a book, you know?

    I've been following the Hugo drama this year and oh how I wish the nomination process worked in a different way. One person with so many nominations is just so disappointing, no matter who it is.

    If you ever need physical copies sent out in the US, let me know if I can help! Our media mail is ridiculously cheap and I have free Amazon 2-day shipping:)

    1. Thanks Flannery - shipping in the US is actually remarkably cheap for me too. I send direct from Amazon.

      The increasing huge number of books eligible and entered in judged awards makes the Cybils process a very sensible one. And book numbers are, presumably, only going to increase. I'm sure the Aurealis is already having some technical challenges, and that's only Australian books!

  4. I heard about your book "Pyramids of London" during a Hugo discussion of better books than the ones currently nominated and had to try it. I absolutely loved it. Just want to say you do have friends talking up your books and I am grateful for finding a good author to read.

    1. Thank you! That's really nice to hear - I'm glad you enjoyed it!

      (Though Pyramids isn't eligible for this year's awards - it's a next year book. This year's nominated books are...kinda skewed. It will be interesting to see which books and stories are 'next in line' under that slate.)


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