2015 Hugo Prediction: Profile of a Nominee, Part 1

To go along with my Too Early 2015 Hugo Prediction, it’s probably a good idea to have a conversation of what makes a novel a potential Hugo candidate. I see two main factors, although I’d love to hear what other readers think:

1. Front-End (initial attention): Since the Hugo is, by its very definition, a popularity contest (voted on by fans, in this case the attendees of the WorldCon), a Hugo novel has to be popular. On a practical level, this means the novel needs to get in front of a lot of readers: more readers mean more potential voters.

We can think of this factor as being about pre-release and early-release buzz. What novels are hyped in the internet and traditional media? Which novels are effectively marketed? Which authors have a significant pre-existing fanbase, thus resulting in many readers? Who hits the New York Times bestseller list? Is plot/content appealing to a large audience? Does it have a good cover?

For instance, take last year’s most buzzed about novel (before release, that is), Neil Gaiman’s The Ocean at the End of the Lane. The hype was inescapable; hundreds of thousands read the novel. Despite the short length and somewhat lukewarm reviews, Gaiman scored both Nebula and Hugo nods (although he declined the Hugo nomination). Given the nature of the marketing campaign, Gaiman’s sterling reputation, Ocean was almost guaranteed award nominations before it was even published.

However, pre-release buzz is not enough to guarantee a Hugo nomination. This has to be followed with:

2. Back-End (positive reception): Readers have to actually like the book. A great marketing campaign can sell bunches of novels, but do readers actually respond? This is where reviews come in, but more than that: rankings on Amazon and GoodReads, placement on year end lists, and the general feel as to whether the novel is “important and major” or “fun but minor.” Does the book keep selling, or does it quickly hit the best-seller list and then vanish? Does it start to win awards?

Last year’s winner, Ann Leckie’s Ancillary Justice, had only a fraction of the initial hype that Gaiman did. However, the back-end of her book was huge: she gained more and more buzz as the year went-on, to the point where the clamor became deafening. She showed up universally across year-end lists, and picked up nomination after nomination. When she finally swept the Nebula and the Hugo, it should have come as no surprise.

So what does all this mean? That an initial Hugo Slate Prediction can only take in the “Front-End” for most of these books, as the “Back-End” has yet to happen. This makes any prediction in August inherently shaky, but fun to think about.

None of the above is analysis of the content (or quality) of a Hugo nominee. Does that matter? Are there any defining characteristics of a Hugo winner? Stay tuned for that post.

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