The Hugo and Nebula Awards and Repeat Nominees, Part 4

We trundle along—now we’re up to looking at the way “repeaters” impact winning the Nebula Award. Parts 1 and Parts 2 discussed how the Nebula ballot is centralized: not as much as the Hugo, but still in a substantial way. Roughly speaking, 50% of the Nebula nominees have already received a Nebula nomination for Best Novel. Do these “repeaters” stand a better chance of winning?

In the case of the Nebula, the answer is a resounding yes. In the 2001-2014 period, 6 winners had already won the Nebula Award for Best Novel: Bear, Bujold, Haldeman, Le Guin, Willis, and Robinson. That’s a robust 43%; in contrast, the Hugo had 27% repeat winners from 2001-2014.

An additional 3 winners had previously been on the Best Novel ballot: Asaro, McDevitt, and Walton. So, all told, 9 out of 14 (64%) of the winners had previously appeared on the Nebula Best Novel ballot. When we consider the 50%/50% split of the slate, that means there is a substantial bias towards past winners and nominees.

2 more winners, Gaiman and Bacigalupi, had previously appeared on other parts of the Nebula ballot. There were only 3 “rookies” who won in their first time appearing on the ballot: Moon, Chabon, and Leckie. Let’s look at this visually:

Nebula Winners

Compared to the Hugo chart from Part 3, this shows more centralization towards repeaters. That’s an interesting reversal: it’s easier to get on the Nebula slate as a rookie than the Hugo, but it’s easier to win the Hugo as a rookie than the Nebula. Perhaps this reflects the different make-up of the voting groups: the SFWA is made up of authors, and probably more likely to vote for “one of their own.” Remember, we’re talking about statistical bias here, not absolute numbers. Even if only 5% of the voting pool is swayed by familiarity, that can have a substantial impact on winning.

One thing you see in the Nebula that you don’t see as often in the Hugo is the “lifetime achievement win.” Let’s isolate Ursula K. Le Guin’s 2009 win for Powers. Le Guin’s credentials are untouchable; she’s likely one of the 10 most influential SFF writers of all time, and has made essential contributions to both Science Fiction (the Hainish cycle) and Fantasy (Earthsea). Before Powers, Le Guin had won an impressive 5 Hugos and 5 Nebulas. All of that said, Powers doesn’t make much sense as a Nebula winner. It’s the third volume of a Young Adult series; historically, sequels and Young Adult books haven’t done very well in the Nebulas. I don’t think many readers would identify Powers as a “central” or “essential” Le Guin novel; if I was recommending Le Guin books to read, this might end up near the bottom. If, for some god-forskaen reason, you haven’t read any Le Guin, start with Left Hand of Darkness. So why did Powers win?

We can’t know for sure, but I suspect this was a way of honoring Le Guin’s whole career. Even though she had already won 3 Best Novel Nebulas, the SFWA voters figured she needed another. A number of literary awards work this way. The Pulitzer Prize has actually done this quite a bit, periodically giving an author an award at the end of their career as an acknowledgement of all the great writing they’ve done. William Faullkner—my favorite author, for the record—has two Pulitzer Prizes for lesser novels, A Fable and The Reivers, while his best novels went unrecognized.

Although the SFWA gives a Grandmaster award, which Le Guin won in 2003, the Powers Nebula might be just another way of honoring a long and distinguished career. I think Haldeman’s win for The Accidental Time Machine also falls into this “lifetime achievement award” category. While Bear, Robinson, and Willis all won for stronger novels, I think there was also a little “sentimental” bump to their wins. Even a small bump can greatly change the outcome.

Part of these Chaos Reports is simply gathering information for future predictions. While I don’t think the Nebula always goes to an author for their career, it does happen sometimes. I wouldn’t be stunned to see this happen again in the next 5 or 10 years. Who would be a likely lifetime sentimental winner? George R. R. Martin? No matter the actual quality of A Dream of Spring, I think it’ll stand a good chance of winning. Could Vandermeer get a “career” boost this year for Annihilation?

That speculation aside, let’s look at whether getting lots of nominations correlates to wins:

Table 4: Number of Wins for Best Novel Nebula Award for Repeat Nominees, 2001-2014
Nebula Repeat Winners

Not much to be learned here. There are several writers—Jemisin, Hopkinson, Mieville—who got 3 nominations but haven’t managed a win yet. Writers with only 2 nominations actually did better. Thus, you can’t necessarily correlate the number of nominations to number of wins. McDevitt is the true testimony to this: 9 nominations, 1 win. That works out to an 11.1% win percentage. The baseline chance of winning a Nebula, assuming no bias—i.e. just drawing one of the six names from a hat—is 16.7%, so McDevitt actually did worse than that.

So, to sum up: the Nebula slate is less centralized than the Hugo slate, with more of a tendency to nominate a wider array of authors. Still, that doesn’t translate to those “rookie” authors having a solid chance of winning. Instead, the Nebula award more often goes to the “repeaters,” particularly past winners. To think about that numerically, the Nebula slate is roughly 50%/50% prior nominees/new nominees. However, the breakdown for winning the Nebula is 65%/35%. In contrast, the Hugo was roughly 67%/33% for nominees, and 67%/33% for winners. One of those is proportional (the Hugo), the other is not. The plot thickens!

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