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SF/F Corruption: Part I

Thursday, December 27th, 2012 | Posted by Theo

the-quantum-roseWhy Amazon is Correct to Ban Author Reviews

There is word of a backlash against Amazon’s policy of preventing authors from reviewing certain books on its web site. The Telegraph reports: “Critics suggest this system is flawed because many authors are impartial and are experts on novels.” However, speaking as the first nationally syndicated game review columnist and a longtime professional reviewer for publications such as the St. Paul Pioneer Press, Atlanta Journal/Constitution, Chronicle Features, Computer Gaming World, and Electronic Entertainment, I can assure those who find this policy to be unjustified and unfair that it is absolutely and completely necessary due to the corruption, both professional and ideological, that is rife within the publishing industry in general and the SF/F industry in particular.

The problem isn’t merely one of authors sockpuppeting and heaping praise upon themselves under false identities. I am a member of the SFWA, the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers Association, and I have had the dubious privilege of sitting upon three of its Nebula Award juries in the past. More importantly, I have had access to the SFWA Forum, and its updated list of Nebula Award nominations, for more than ten years. And one of the things that rapidly became obvious to anyone who attempted to participate honestly in the system between 2000 and 2010 was that the Nebula Award is, first and foremost, a means for various small groups of people to shamelessly and dishonestly promote the works of themselves and their friends.

You need not take my word for it. Anyone who is a member of the SFWA can peruse the back issues of the Forum and quickly see exactly what was happening behind the scenes until the 2010 rules changes. No sooner were works from certain authors published than they were immediately recommended for the award by the exact same group of authors who had recommended the author’s previous books. And, in most cases, those recommendations either had been or would be reciprocated by the author whose new work was being recommended, in some cases almost surely unread due to the timing involved concerning the publication date. Because it only took a small number of recommendations — ten, if I recall correctly — to get a work on the initial ballot, this “logrolling” repeatedly put the same names forward for the various Nebula awards at the expense of other, much more deserving authors.

Jason Sanford, who favors the new rules, described the process thusly:

The old Nebula rules encouraged [logrolling] by making it easy to both nominate friends and supporters for the preliminary ballot (by letting members nominate so many stories) and to verify that these people were returning the favor, since all nominations were public.

There is some reason to doubt that the new rules are any better, especially given section 11(b), which states:

Nominations shall be treated as confidential information and only the names of the works and numbers of nominations will be available for viewing by eligable members after the awards ceremony.

This takes the old problem and makes it worse by allowing the logrolling to take place behind closed doors and hidden from public scrutiny; limiting the nominations to five apiece will only serve to concentrate and streamline the incestuous activity. One SFWA member already noted a consequence of the post-2010 rules: “During the final week, I was barraged with pleas via LiveJournal, Twitter, and Facebook to help get stories onto the ballot at a volume far above anything I’ve ever experienced before.”

The past logrolling is why there are so many undeserving Nebula winners in the recent past. Catherine Asaro’s The Quantum Rose, which won the Best Novel award in 2002, is perhaps the most egregious example; Asaro was the SFWA President at the time, a pleasant and popular woman by all accounts, and the author of a book that in no way merited being even mentioned in the same breath as George R.R. Martin’s A Storm of Swords, published in the same year. Asaro won the Best Novel award for what was the sixth book in an entirely forgettable space romance series about strong independent women and the handsome men who find them irresistible… in space. It is worth noting that while George R.R. Martin was nominated for each of the first three books in A Song of Ice and Fire, he never won a Nebula for Best Novel. Other excellent authors who inexplicably failed to win Best Novel awards include Neal Stephenson, Charles Stross, and China Mieville.

vonda-n-mcintyre-the-moon-and-the-sunContrast with them some of the authors who did win the awards for Best Novel. In addition to Asaro’s embarrassing award, (she was also nominated for best novella that same year), there is 2012 winner Jo Walton, whose banal Among Others somehow beat out Mieville’s brilliant Embassytown. (Read my Black Gate review of it if you are unfamiliar with it.)  Vonda N. McIntyre’s The Moon and the Sun beat out Martin’s A Game of Thrones, and Nicola Griffith’s Slow River beat out The Diamond Age. If you haven’t heard of these award-winning books despite being a hardcore SF/F reader, there is a reason you haven’t. They aren’t dreadful, but they aren’t particularly good either, their Nebulas notwithstanding. And the fact that Charles Stross couldn’t even make the final ballot for Accelerando or any of his excellent Laundry novels is alone enough to demonstrate what a complete travesty the Nebula Awards have been for more than a decade. Perhaps the new rules will fix the problem; I remain extremely skeptical as I suspect they will actually make the problem worse. Regardless, the need for the change is sufficient to prove at least the past existence of the corruption.

Note that Black Gate itself suffered as a consequence. I recommended several deserving short stories and novellas; they were completely ignored in favor of much lesser stories by the usual small pool of suspects. In most cases, my recommendations were the only ones given to very good stories such as “The Haunting of Cold Harbour” by Todd McAulty.

In light of the subject, I was vastly amused, while writing this post, to learn the name of a reviewer who produced the most helpful five-star review for The Moon and the Sun, which contrasts greatly with the many reviews complaining the book does not live up to the hype:

***** Shimmering lyricism December 11, 1999.  By Catherine Asaro

After discovering this, I checked all 14 of Asaro’s reviews. She has never given less than 5 stars to anyone, and most of the books reviewed are in her genre.

So, the critics are incorrect. Any reasonable examination of the SFWA’s history will conclusively prove that most authors who involve themselves in the reviews process are extremely partial, heavily prejudiced, and grant ratings that are deeply questionable from an objective perspective. Amazon is correct to ban authors from reviewing books published in their genre; indeed, the bookselling giant would be more than justified in banning them from posting any book reviews at all.

And speaking of reviews, I recently finished reading Charles Stross’s The Apocalypse Codex. I will be posting a full review here in the near future.  In summary, I found it to be the best and most ambitious of the four Laundry novels.

78 Comments »

  1. By the way, since Tor publications seem to be particularly up your nose, has it never occured to you that Tor publishes a very long list of authors every year? That Tor has its own heavily traffiked website in which anyone can participate, and which also promotes its authors and titles (compare the interactive activity on Tor.com, which doesn’t only do its own titles and authors and promotion thereof, but is open to much else beside, and the visitor activity on sites like Orbit and Pyr, for instance. DAWs is merely a part of Penguin.)?

    As well, Tor’s authors and other publishing figures attend almost all conventions of every kind.

    And the senior editor, with his wife, maintains a very popular website of their own, Making Light, and have for mumblety years. Authors show up there too — and not only Tor authors.

    One after another your raise these stupid arguments that upon even a slight examination are — well, yes, stupid.

    Yeah, critical acumen all right — you ain’t got. You can’t even do your research.

    Now, watch the froth!

    Comment by C - Foxessa - December 30, 2012 2:39 pm

  2. Theo, you made the accusation that women are corrupting the Neb and dragging it down.

    Correction: have corrupted the Nebula. I’ve got no shortage of rec lists proving it. The same women were always recommending the same authors every chance they got.

    From the perspective of someone who has a trained and experienced critical acumene, you don’t know what good writing is

    Which of these four authors I have praised do you believe is not a very good SF/F writer: Neal Stephenson, Charles Stross, George R.R. Martin (pre-Feast, anyhow), or China Mieville? What author have I incorrectly identified as a good writer in the past? Tanith Lee? Theresa Edgerton? Lois McMaster Bujold? Pat Wrede?

    Again, it is to laugh, that the same people who release and praise sexist and other phobic drivel also believe women are so powerful they have corrupted the holy body of SF/F and its organizations.

    Math is hard, isn’t it, Foxy. 10 nominations is all it took until 2010. Now, who knows?

    while lying about even what you have read and not read — that is something else. And what that is, is sexist. It’s yours, all yours, you did it. Own it, buddy.

    You’re lying now, Foxy. I have never, ever lied about what I read. I did conclude, perhaps improperly, that Walton’s work was banal on the basis of the Amazon reviews. I will be sure to write a full review of it after I read it, and to compare it to Mieville’s Embassytown as well.

    Comment by Theo - December 30, 2012 2:42 pm

  3. Theo,

    If nearly 25% of all Nebs recs since 1986 were from Tor, then this means that just over 75% of the Nebs recs since 1986 were not from Tor. Now, take into account that Tor is the largest SF book publisher in the United States and it’s not too much of a stretch to imagine that a fair number of their books might just earn a Neb rec.

    I bought a red car some years ago. A friend was quick to point out that statistics showed that more red cars get into accidents than any other color. To which I replied, “Maybe there are just more red cars on the road.” To wit, maybe there’s just more Tor books to nominate from, and they must be doing something right re quality and sales for them to be the leading SF book publisher in the country (if not the world).

    Just a thought.

    Comment by Dave T - December 30, 2012 2:46 pm

  4. One after another your raise these stupid arguments that upon even a slight examination are — well, yes, stupid.

    Do you think you are somehow making a contrary case? Foxy, darling, you are underlining mine!

    Do you seriously think Tor’s various and often admirable efforts on behalf of its authors made logrolling on the part or on behalf of its authors LESS likely?

    Look, everyone knows it happened. Many of us know who was involved. Pretending that it was all innocent or that it never happened isn’t possible.

    Comment by Theo - December 30, 2012 2:50 pm

  5. If nearly 25% of all Nebs recs since 1986 were from Tor, then this means that just over 75% of the Nebs recs since 1986 were not from Tor. Now, take into account that Tor is the largest SF book publisher in the United States and it’s not too much of a stretch to imagine that a fair number of their books might just earn a Neb rec.

    Yes, and perhaps if anyone cares enough to defend Tor’s reputation, they can compare percent of the total SF/F market in numbers of books published and total sales to percent of the awards. Or, they can simply look at who all the confirmed logrollers are published by….

    Comment by Theo - December 30, 2012 2:58 pm

  6. they must be doing something right re quality and sales for them to be the leading SF book publisher in the country (if not the world).

    I imagine Goldman Sachs would be interested in this line of defense against corruption… how can we be cheating when we’re so successful?

    Comment by Theo - December 30, 2012 3:00 pm

  7. OK, let me get this straight… *Theo* is complaining about like-minded people promoting each other and themselves ahead of people of more merit?

    So the two Black Gate posts in the last week alone promoting Vox Day’s A Magic Broken ebook are completely coincidental? We are supposed to believe the like-minded posters showing up here to support Theo while hurling insults about alleged left-wing bias in SF have nothing to do with the extreme right-wing WorldNetDaily site he contributed to? And it’s just a lucky accident that Theodore Beale has a Wikipedia article of considerable length and detail while much more established authors in the field have shorter articles or sometimes none at all?

    Comment by zoinkin - December 30, 2012 3:02 pm

  8. John Scalzi, he current President, whom you quote, had nothing to do with the Nebula rules change, which took place when Russell Davis was President. Scalzi, you will note, lost in 2007 and didn’t become President until 2010. The main criticism of the Nebulas over the last twenty years was that rolling eligibility created a system in which older works from previous years could win a Nebula, which made them less relevant. That was the impetus for the rules change.

    For many years, a work that was sent to all voting members by a publisher had an edge, and that might account for some of Tor’s advantage, assuming your figure is correct.

    I would suggest that if you’re going to run for SFWA President, which it appears you are, you focus on more important aspects of SFWA than the Nebula Awards, which are a very small part of its reason for existence.

    Comment by Michael Capobianco - December 30, 2012 3:03 pm

  9. Theo wrote: “I imagine Goldman Sachs would be interested in this line of defense against corruption… how can we be cheating when we’re so successful?”

    Except that Tor isn’t cheating, Theo. Your argument is that Active SFWA members eligible to vote for the Nebs are, by log-rolling and collusion.

    Because Tor has an active and successful marketing and networking strategy doesn’t make them evil, just successful at what they do. Other SF book publishers can operate the same way if they deem it is in their interest.

    Comment by Dave T - December 30, 2012 3:12 pm

  10. I would suggest that if you’re going to run for SFWA President, which it appears you are, you focus on more important aspects of SFWA than the Nebula Awards, which are a very small part of its reason for existence.

    Never fear. The Nebulas are the least of it. This was simply a little throwaway post concerning something I happened to observe a while back.

    Comment by Theo - December 30, 2012 3:14 pm

  11. > As for despicable behavior, James, you would certainly know all about that, wouldn’t you?

    Theo,

    I’ve stayed out of this debate because, as BG’s publisher, I carry a heavy stick even when I don’t wish to. I thought you had an interesting point to make in your original post, and have tried to be tolerant of the language in the comments, even as it has gotten nastier.

    But the above comment crossed a line. I’m very close to asking Michael Penkas, our website editor, to shut down this conversation and have the post deleted.

    Please don’t allow your comments to reach that level of personal attack again.

    Comment by John ONeill - December 30, 2012 3:15 pm

  12. Because Tor has an active and successful marketing and networking strategy doesn’t make them evil, just successful at what they do. Other SF book publishers can operate the same way if they deem it is in their interest.

    True. The real question is, is it good for SF/F and the SFWA to be a little Tor pond, run by Tor authors for the benefit of themselves, and by extension, Tor Books?

    Perhaps it is. But I don’t think that is a foregone conclusion.

    Comment by Theo - December 30, 2012 3:22 pm

  13. Please don’t allow your comments to reach that level of personal attack again.

    As you say. In fact, I think I’ve said more than enough here and will cease commenting on this post.

    Comment by Theo - December 30, 2012 3:28 pm

  14. Please refrain from employing profanity or personal attacks on this comment board. Neither is necessary in this discussion.

    Just a friendly reminder from the website editor.

    Comment by MichaelPenkas - December 30, 2012 3:34 pm

  15. “We are supposed to believe the like-minded posters showing up here to support Theo while hurling insults about alleged left-wing bias in SF have nothing to do with the extreme right-wing WorldNetDaily site he contributed to?”

    As someone else stated above, WND readers are more concerned about what evil, evil Obama will do, and how the ever holy Republicans can regain a House majority, rather than anything to do with nerd literature. Even most of Vox’s blog regulars look down on the whole of WND as fairly neo-con content if I remember correctly.

    “And it’s just a lucky accident that Theodore Beale has a Wikipedia article of considerable length and detail while much more established authors in the field have shorter articles or sometimes none at all?”

    Since Wikipodium’s never been a place for one’s detractors to write a skewed or caricature-by-omission biography. I’d think you’d have a stronger case if you’d stated that most of his Wiki page has been written or edited by the Scalzi or Pharyngula crowd at one point or another since its inception.

    In fact, looking at it now, there’s a grand total of two or three dispersed sentences on the Wiki page that even mention his fiction background or his books.

    Comment by kh123 - December 30, 2012 5:01 pm

  16. Yes, kh123, Theo certainly has been more successful at self-promoting his non-fiction endeavors than his fiction.

    Not that being a WorldNetDaily writer is any great prize, but how selective do you think they were in picking who wrote for them when his father was a major shareholder and a member of the board? It’s also probably not a coincidence that some video games he worked on were primarily distributed as bundles with hardware purchases when his father’s investments were also in that area. (It’s much easier to have higher distribution numbers when the software comes free with some other product that people actually *want* to spend money on.)

    Would the people who didn’t get to be WorldNetDaily writers (assuming any were turned down) be justified in complaining about nepotism? Seems to me that’s worse than just the networking he was complaining about.

    Of course Theo’s hypocrisy doesn’t excuse any favoritism in the selection of Nebula award winners. Certainly it’s likely there has been some there, just as there is with most awards to varying degrees. But the proof Theo provides for it is laughably nonexistent, and it has only limited relevance to the situation on Amazon.

    Comment by zoinkin - December 30, 2012 6:32 pm

  17. “It’s much easier to have higher distribution numbers when the software comes free with some other product that people actually *want* to spend money on.”

    You’d have a case if the unspecified games or developments you mentioned won “Best Of” in competitions touted as being impartially selective and a true measure of the game/item’s worth; an even better case if you can show those professionally close to him chaired such.

    But if you can provide sales figures for the stand-alone vs bundle, or Vox stating that any of these bundles was “Best Selling Game/Technology of the Year”, as well as whatever potential WND columnists were denied because of his being chosen based on his lineage, I’m all ears. You can even wait to do it in an upcoming Part II installment if you’d like – truth doesn’t have an expiration date – and I won’t even call you a hypocrite or liar in the meanwhile.

    As is, what you’re describing in the game bundle scenario is called – wait for it – business. It’s aim is to recoup costs and make a profit, to push product, to create incentive for customers to buy, unashamedly or otherwise. Business and the market are, by their very nature, unfair (especially to competition), based on their concern for the bottom line.

    Now, if that’s what the Nebula Awards are all about, then at least it should be stated upfront; that way, there wouldn’t be any issues with creative votes being swayed by commercial concerns, whether it’s intraprofessional quid-pro-quo or (the more likely) publisher purse strings influencing the voter decision to pedestal-place a Warhol as a Rembrandt. Who knows, we may even get a Tor or Pyr bundle book one year – two stories in one binding! – with two authors winning the Nebula for their outstanding efforts in making a ground breaking back-to-back selkie/space tryst classic.

    You seem to agree to some extent that some of the above is the case with the Amazon situation; we’ll just have to refrain from any Pavlovian outbursts of “sexiss” and wait to see if the evidence will bare this out with the SFWA as well.

    Comment by kh123 - December 30, 2012 7:21 pm

  18. Is it just barely possible that the reason a big, successful SF publishing company gets 25% of the awards in the genre is that it publishes 25% of the award-worthy books in the genre?

    And even, perhaps, chooses to select only the better manuscripts to publish? And invests some of its income into editing those texts toward better condition for reading before printing them?

    No, no, what am I thinking, that would be a *business* model!

    Comment by Pyre - January 2, 2013 6:24 am

  19. Looking back at the February issue of LOCUS, and limiting our search to just hardcovers, as the bulk of original fiction submitted to award systems used to come from that format: out of some 202 novels published, 68 of them were by Tor (34%). No other publisher comes even close. However, when you throw in the trade paperback category, Tor only represents 8% from that format category. Taken together, it amounts to 85 titles out of 418 or 20%. So this is suggestive that Tor produces a lot of output compared to other publishers, which is a good thing, and that if we pair it up with the awards results, that a lot of its books are award-worthy. To test this, if we take a look at the World Fantasy Awards, as an example, from 1998-2012, Tor got 15 nominations from a total of 84 nominations, or 18%. 2 won. For the Nebs, Tor got 16 for the same time period, out of 80. (20%.) 2 won. For the Hugo Award, which is more of a popularity-driven system, it’s some 20 out of 77, or 26%. 5 won.

    There’s no real surprises here. Tor gets the nominations and the wins because it produces the highest amount of award-worthy material, moreso than most publishers. I’m not too sure what other conclusion anyone would derive from this.

    Comment by Sean Wallace - January 2, 2013 8:59 am

  20. Theo also conveniently ignores several factors, in his calculations, from 1986 to 2012. The publishing industry is in constant flux. A lot of publishers come and go. So, looking at this historically, it’s a little harder to even compare nominations and wins, as a lot of its competitors have vanished, either by folding or mergers. The closest example might be Bantam Spectra, with 18 nominations out of 154, or 12%. Which is awesome considering its much smaller output, compared to Tor. The other closest example might be Ace Books, with 10%.

    Comment by Sean Wallace - January 2, 2013 9:18 am

  21. […] there is an odd blog post on Black Gate entitled “SFF Corruption” in which a blogger is accusing Jo Walton and a few other […]

    Pingback by Sale announcement, and a short note on “Among Others” | RoseLemberg.net - January 2, 2013 11:29 am

  22. “The Quantum Rose won the Nebula Award for best novel on April 27, 2002. Catherine Asaro was not an officer of SFWA at the time. She was VP of SFWA from July 1, 2002 to June 30, 2003 and President of SFWA from July 1, 2003 to June 30, 2005.”

    Theo’s accusation (that Asaro used her SFWA Presidency to win the Nebula) remains plausible if you allow for time travel.

    One impossible assumption’s allowed in science fiction, isn’t it?

    Comment by Pyre - January 2, 2013 3:31 pm

  23. Heh. Just dropping back in here because somebody pointed out the funniest bit of the whole comment thread.

    “There are cliques who stick together (as in most organizations), and some of them even go so far as to purposely avoid voting for certain types of SF they don’t like (i.e. the perceived Analog _stereotypical_ story, for but one example). ”

    Oh.
    My.
    God.

    People are ACTIVELY NOT VOTING FOR THINGS THEY DISLIKE! HOLD THE FRONT PAGE! HOW DEEP DOES THIS CORRUPTION GO?!?!

    I myself will henceforth, in order to be scrupulously fair, only ever vote for things I don’t like, so I can’t be accused of corruption.

    Comment by tchernabyelo - January 2, 2013 3:34 pm

  24. So, of these shocking accusations:Catherine Asano, “the most egregious example… was the SFWA President at the time” — no, she wasn’t until over a year later; and wasn’t even VP until over two months after getting a Nebula.The next example of “logrolling” listed was Jo Walton, who has never been a member of SFWA, thus could not have engaged in the insider-(vote)-trading alleged.Walton’s book was presumably unworthy of the honor because “banal” in Theo’s opinion; but surprise! Theo had never read that book — so on what basis did he judge it unworthy, given that it also won the Hugo? And how many other works has he reviewed without reading them first?Tor Books’ 25% Nebula-winning rate, far from being shady or symptomatic of corruption, is roughly proportional to its market share of quality SF, as Sean Wallace showed with his survey of sundry award nomination stats.
    The accusations at this moment appear to be shreds clinging to the tacks on the bulletin board.

    Comment by Pyre - January 3, 2013 3:48 am

  25. Well, now I know that the unordered-list [ul] feature doesn’t work here….

    Comment by Pyre - January 3, 2013 3:56 am

  26. So, of these shocking accusations:Catherine Asano, “the most egregious example… was the SFWA President at the time” — no, she wasn’t until over a year later; and wasn’t even VP until over two months after getting a Nebula.

    Actually, Mr. Capobianco was just spinning the facts again. From The SF Site:

    SFWA Elections

    The results of the SFWA officer elections were announced on April 27 at the SFWA Business Meeting in Kansas City, MO. Sharon Lee defeated incumbent Norman Spinrad for the Presidency. Two other authors received write-in votes. Catherine Asaro defeated Lee Martindale for the Vice-Presidency, again with two other (different) authors receiving write-in votes. Chuck Rothman (treasurer) and ElizaBeth Gilligan (Secretary) both ran unopposed. Because of the closeness of the race for Eastern Regional Director, the election committee has decided re-balloting will take place in that race.

    Nebula Awards

    Only hours after being named Vice President of SFWA, Catherine Asaro was honored with a Nebula for her novel The Quantum Rose (Tor).

    The point isn’t that Asaro somehow abused her position. I have never said that, nor do I have any idea how she could even have done so. The point is that the award in 2002 was a simple popularity contest which led to a mediocre and undeserving novel winning the award for Best Novel.

    Comment by Theo - January 17, 2013 11:38 am

  27. A question for all of you who have commented here. How many of you genuinely believe that The Quantum Rose was the best SF/F novel published in its year of eligibility?

    Come on, now, don’t be shy….

    Comment by Theo - January 17, 2013 11:40 am

  28. […] SFF Corruption Part I […]

    Pingback by Black Gate » Blog Archive » The Top 50 Black Gate Posts in December - January 30, 2013 2:04 pm


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