Nebula/Hugo Convergence 2010-2014: A Chaos Horizon Report

Time for a quick study on Hugo/Nebula convergence. The Nebula nominations came out about a week ago: how much will those nominations impact the Hugos?

In recent years, quite a bit. Ever since the Nebulas shifted their rules around in 2009 (moving from rolling eligibility to calendar year eligibility; see below), the Nebula Best Novel winner usually goes on to win the Hugo Best Novel. Since 2010, this has happened 4 out of 5 times (with Ancillary Justice, Among Others, Blackout/All Clear, and The Windup Girl, although Bacigalupi did tie with Mieville). That’s a whopping 80% convergence rate. Will that continue? Do the Nebulas and Hugos always converge? How much of a problem is such a tight correspondence between the two awards?

The Hugos have always influenced the Nebulas, and vice versa. The two awards have a tendency to duplicate each other, and there’s a variety of reasons for that: the voting pools aren’t mutually exclusive (many SFWA members attend WorldCon, for instance), the two voting pools are influenced by the same set of factors (reviews, critical and popular buzz, etc.), and the two voting pools have similar tastes in SFF. Think of how much attention a shortlist brings to those novels. Once a book shows up on the Nebula or Hugo slates, plenty of readers (and voters) pick it up. In the nearly 50 years when both the Hugo and Nebula has been given, the same novel has won the award 23 out of 49 times, for a robust 47% convergence. As we’ll see below, this has varied greatly by decade: in some decades (the 1970s, the 2010s) the winner are basically identical. In other decades, such as the 1990s, there’s only a 20% overlap.

All of this is made more complex by which award goes first. Historically, the Hugo used to go first, often awarding books a Hugo some six months before the Nebula was award. Thanks to the Science Fiction Awards Database, we can find out that Paladin of Souls received its Hugo on September 4, 2004; Bujold’s novel received its Nebula on April 30, 2005. Did six months post-Hugo hype seal the Nebula win for Bujold?

Bujold benefitted from the strange and now defunct Nebula rule of rolling eligibility. The Locus Index to SF Awards gave us some insight on how the Nebula used to be out of sync with the Hugo:

The Nebulas’ 12-month eligibility period has the effect of delaying recognition of many works until nearly 2 years after publication, and throws Nebula results out of synch with other awards (Hugo, Locus) voted in a given calendar year. (NOTE – this issue will pass with new voting rules announced in early 2009; see above.)

The rule change went through in early 2009:

SFWA has announced significant rules changes for the Nebula Awards process, eliminating rolling eligibility and limiting nominations to work published during a given calendar year (i.e., only works published in 2009 will be eligible for the 2010 awards), as well as eliminating jury additions. The changes are effective as of January 2009 and “except as explicitly stated, will have no impact on works published in 2008 or the Nebula Awards process currently underway.”

Since 2009, eligibility has been straightened out: Hugo and Nebula eligibility basically follow the same rules, and now it is the Nebula that goes first. The Nebula tends to announce a slate in late February, and then gives the award in early May. The Hugo announced a slate in mid April, and then awards in late August/early September, although those dates change very year.

Tl;dr: while it used to be the Hugos that influenced the Nebula, but, since 2010, it is now the Nebulas that influence the Hugos. We know that Nebula slates tend to come out while Hugo slate voting is still going on. This means that Hugo voters have a chance to wait until the Nebulas announce their nominations, and then adjust/supplement their voting as they wish. This year, there were about 3 weeks between the Nebula announcement and the close of Hugo voting: were WorldCon voters scrambling to read Annihilation and The Three-Body Problem in that gap? Remember, even a slight influence on WorldCon voters can drastically change the final slate.

But how much? Let’s take a look at the data from 2010-2014, or the post-rule change era. That’s not a huge data set, but the results are telling.

Chart 1: Hugo/Nebula Convergence in the Best Novel Categories, 2010-2014
Convergence Chart 1

This chart shows how many of the Nebula nominations showed up on the Hugo ballot a few weeks later. You can see the it makes for around 40% on average. Don’t get fooled by the 2014 data: Neil Gaiman’s The Ocean at the End of the Lane made both the Nebula and Hugo slate, but Gaiman declined his Hugo nomination. If we factored him in, we’d be staring at that same 40% across the board.

40% isn’t that jarring, since that only means 2 out of the 5 Hugo nominees. If we consider the overlap between reading audiences, critical and popular acclaim, etc., that doesn’t seem too far out of line.

It’s the last column that catches my eye: 4/5 joint winners, or 80% joint winners in the last 5 years. Only John Scalzi managed to eek out a win over Kim Stanley Robinson, otherwise we’d be batting 100%. We should also keep in mind the tie between The City and the City and The Windup Girl in 2010.

Nonetheless, my research shows that the single biggest indicator of winning a Hugo from 2010-2014 is whether or not you won the Nebula that year. Is this a timeline issue: does the Nebula winner get such a signal boost on the internet in May that everyone reads it in time for the Hugo in August? Or are the Hugo/Nebula voting pools converging to the point that their tastes are almost the same? Were the four joint-winners in the 2010s so clearly the best novels of the year that all of this is moot? Or is this simply a statistical anomaly?

I’m keeping close eye on this trend. If Annihilation sweeps the Nebula and Hugos this year, the SFF world might need to take step back and ask if we want the two “biggest” awards in the field to move in lockstep. This has happened in the past. Let’s take a look at the trends of Hugo/Nebula convergence by decade in the field:

Convergence Decade Chart

That’s an odd chart for you: the 1960s (only 4 years, though) had 25% joint winners, the 1970s jumped to 80%, we declined through the 1980s (50%) and the 1990s (20%), stayed basically flat in the 2000s (30%), and then jumped back up to 80% in the 2010s. Why so much agreement in the 1970s and 2010s with so much disagreement in the 1990s and 2000s? The single biggest thing that changed from the 2000s to the 2010s were the Nebula rules: is that the sole cause of present day convergence?

I don’t have a lot of conclusions to draw for you today. I think convergence is a very interesting (and complex) phenomenon, and I’m not sure how I feel about it. Should the Hugos and Nebulas go to different books? Should they only converge for books of unusual and universal acclaim? In terms of my own predictions, I expect the trend of convergence to continue: I think 2-3 of this year’s Nebula nominees will be on the Hugo ballot. If I had to guess, I’d bet that this year’s Nebula winner will also take the Hugo. Given this data, you’d be foolish to do anything else.

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