Seasonal Bias in Speculative Fiction Awards Nominations by Douglas F. Dluzen & Christopher Mark Rose

It’s a little dangerous, after selling a story to a professional science fiction or fantasy publi­cation, to start calculating the odds of pulling in an award nomination. The draw is inexorable though – the Nebula Awards, the Hugos, World Fantasy, Locus. It’s the stuff of legends. Through the years, now-familiar SF/F names have stood to accept these awards, held them up to the light and heard that applause. It’s accomplish­ment, acceptance, the esteem of your peers – and a whiff of immortality.

We compiled Nebula, Hugo, World Fantasy, and Locus short story and novella award nominations from the last two decades, and examined if there was a sea­sonal or monthly bias with respect to the likelihood of a story being nominated for one of these awards, assuming an even distribution across the calendar year. We found that stories published in November and December are significantly less likely to be nominated for several of the major speculative fiction awards.

We tabulated yearly final ballot nomination lists and first publication months for each story, as provided by each website and cross-referenced with the Internet Speculative Fiction Database. To be included in our analysis, each story had to have a confirmed first publication date in the calendar year of 1999 or after. Stories were excluded if there was no official first publication month listed – for example, if a story appeared in a quarterly seasonal issue for which no publica­tion month was assigned.

We next calculated the monthly percentage of total nominations for each category for each award. Each award was treated separately, so some works earning multiple nominations are included for each dataset. We combined the monthly percentages into Jan-Feb, March-April, May-June, July-Aug, Sep-Oct, and Nov-Dec to account for the fact that many markets issue bi-monthly instead of monthly. The individual averages for each award were then averaged together and are presented in the violin plots of Figure 1.

Figure 1: Percentages of short story and novella nominations by calendar month. *P<0.05; ***P<0.001

The percentage of short story and novella nominations are highest for works published in the months of September and October and significantly decline in November and December. As well, the months of Sept/Oct were significantly higher than Mar/April and July/Aug (for short stories) and Nov/Dec (for both lengths of works) (Fig. 1). Considering Nov/Dec were so similar for short sto­ries and novellas, we argue there may be a possible seasonal or holiday effect contributing to fewer award nominations for stories being published at the end of the year.

What contributes to this effect? It could be that, as the nomination periods begin at the end of the year, nominators haven’t had enough time to consider stories published in Nov/Dec. Perhaps when authors promote their own works in hopes of nominations, this crowds out attention for more recent works which have shorter windows of time for consideration.

There are some obvious complications and potential confounding variables that may influence these trends. We talked, on and off the record, with several genre magazine editors from both online and print markets, hoping to better understand the results.

Stories published in electronic magazines persist beyond the month in which they first appear, while unsold magazines can be pulped the month or two after release, which may impact how often or when a story is read, especially at the end of the year. As well, eligibility rules have changed for Nebulas, where, prior to 2009, “rolling eligibility” would allow a work to be nominated at any time after its release and not subject to a given year – giving a work considerably more time to be identified as worthy of a nomination.

A recent rule change for Nebula Awards allows any issue published in a calendar year – no matter the cover dates – to be considered for that year’s awards. “This affects Jan/Feb issues,” said Emily Hockaday, managing editor of Asimov’s and Analog. “Our Jan/Feb issues for 2021 would be eligible for the 2020 Nebula Awards…. I worry that these issues and stories may be overlooked, especially since the rule is relatively new.”

Neil Clarke, who edits the online magazine Clarkesworld, was forthright: “I think delivery medium plays more of a role than month. I’ll also point out that the window you are looking at covers three different periods when it comes to that issue. 1999 was largely print magazines and during this phase you have declining subscriptions. By 2011, digital subscriptions (stabilizing the print magazines) and online magazines were a bigger deal. The quantity of online magazines continued to grow and became the dominant source for short fiction (in terms of volume). Now, most of the awards are going to online content, even when there are amazing (and certainly worthy) stories in print. It’s likely that the always available stories (mostly online) don’t mirror the award nomination pattern of the shorter shelf life (print) stories. That also impacts the number of people who read them… which can lead to more nominations.”

These comments inspired us to parse our dataset further. We examined if there were differences in works first published in print or online sources. Figure 2 shows that since 1999, regardless of delivery method, there are still significant declines in award nominations for both categories in Nov/Dec when compared with Sep/Oct. For print stories, this was additionally true for Jan/Feb and Jul/Aug.

Figure 2. Monthly award nomination rates by delivery method. *P<0.05, **P<0.01.

We also investigated the past (1999-2009) vs. most recent (2010-present) decades. As shown in the top of Figure 3, for short stories, there is no significant drop-off in nomination rates since 2010, which may suggest a more recent ‘level­ing’ of these issues compared with the prior decade. However, the months of Nov/Dec are still the lowest of all the months and Sep/Oct among the highest. For novellas, the months of Sep/Oct are the highest in both decades of analysis, and the difference with Nov/Dec is significantly higher since 2010 (Fig. 3, Bottom).

Figure 3. Monthly short story (top) or novella (bottom) award nomination rates by decade. *P<0.05, **P<0.01

Trevor Quachri, editor of Analog, offered his interpretations: “The simple realities of staying on top of what’s published may also factor into the varying pattern of nominations at different lengths,” he said. “Novellas are each, of course, more of a time commitment to read, but there are also fewer of them overall, industry-wide, so a highly engaged fan (like the sort who nominates) could more easily keep track of them, whereas stay­ing on top of short stories would be a much more daunting task. Thus: short stories drop off over the course of the year as people fall behind, but peak again later, closer to nomination or ‘best of the year’ time, whereas novellas exhibit a consistent ‘rolling recency’ effect.”

Another editor of a print magazine offered sev­eral insights. They pointed out that the cutoff for Nebula Awards nominations is earlier than that of the Hugos and of World Fantasy. Also, some print magazines are often taken off the shelves at news­stands on the first day of the month on the cover (i.e. October print issues are sold in September – no one wants to feel like they are selling stale stock.) Electronic magazines, in contrast, still have their October stories up in October, and beyond.

During the time “before the internet,” this editor reported, their magazine would send Xeroxes of their most competitive stories to Nebula Awards voters, once the nominations had closed. This was a labor-intensive effort that was carried on for many years. Rarely, a story purchased in December might be held to appear in March, if it were thought to have award potential, but in general stories needed to be published as soon as they were bought.

This editor also indicated that a few stories could be put up on the magazine’s website to increase their visibility for award season, but not whole is­sues, because there needed to be something distinct to offer subscribers. But for a truly great story, they contended, the month of appearance wouldn’t mat­ter. Some stories are just destined for greatness.

Not everyone agrees with our assessment and the possibility of an end of year dip in nominations. An­other editor, of an online magazine, rightly pointed out our analysis does not specifically consider the changes in Hugo voting methods and population, the move of Locus to online voting, the change in the total number of Locus nominees, the change in the way World Fantasy juries are selected and handled, and other factors.

This editor suggested that analyzing the years 1999-2020 together would miss the shift of paper digests dominating the ’00s but online magazines dominating the ’10s. (This comment prompted us to partition the data as discussed above.) Our study also ignores (and silently factors in) the results of the Sad Puppy upheavals a few years ago. Finally, this editor raised the question of assessing correla­tion between the Nebula Awards recommendation lists and Nebula Awards nominations, which might be worthy of its own follow-on study.

With limited data availability, it is difficult to address all the outstanding questions related to these potential trends. As well, we are still inter­ested in why Sept/Oct appear to the highest month for nominations. Does this reflect voter behaviors, publishing practices, or nomination rules?

Trevor Quachri suggested one way to confirm this: “It’ll be interesting to see if there’s a bump in November and December stories getting nomi­nations now that Jan/Feb stories are eligible for the previous year or whether it continues to be a relatively overlooked period.”

If not, that would further support the possibil­ity of a monthly bias in story nominations and may offer the industry an opportunity to examine nomination trends. We already know most awards committees are in the midst of important changes to reflect long-standing issues related to inclusivity and eligibility.

The number of submissions for magazines and anthologies has grown steadily over the decades and the number of awards is limited, in spite of all the amazing work being produced by so many bril­liant writers. Sheila Williams, editor for Asimov’s, has watched this trend escalate, and notes that now, “reaching the reader with a story sale is, really, the award.”

Douglas F. Dluzen & Christopher Mark Rose

This report and more like it in the May 2021 issue of Locus.

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