Note: This is part of a series of Review Round-Ups investigating potential Hugo/Nebula Best Novel contenders for 2016. I use the information I gather to help my Hugo and Nebula predictions. See my Review Round-Up Strategy for 2015 post for more info.
Elizabeth Bear’s Karen Memory was one of the first SFF novels of 2015 to gain traction with critics and fans. A steampunk Western set in a fictionalized 19th century Seattle, the book tells the story of a group of prostitutes that have to fight back against a power-mad mind-ray wielding villain. Featuring a large cast of different races, ethnicities, sexual orientations, and gender identities, our rag-tag group of heroes pulls together to lead Seattle to a brighter, more democratic future.
Karen Memory is an interesting combination of genres. The SF/alternative history elements are fairly light; there is some advanced technology, but the driving force behind the book is Karen’s narrative voice. Told in the first person, this is a vivid account of her struggle against the evil Peter Bantle and her development as a person. She falls in love with another woman, learns that she has strength she did not expect, and generally matures into a more powerful person. You’re going to like or dislike Karen Memory largely based on how you feel about Karen and her narrative voice.
Bear has never been nominated for a Nebula before. She is a four-time winner of the Hugo award (as well as the winner of the Campbell Award for Best New Writer). She has two wins for short fiction (“Shoggoths in Bloom” in 2009 and “Tideline” in 2008), and two more shared wins for SF Squeecast podcast (2013 and 2012). Interestingly, Bear has won every time she’s been nominated—that has to be the best win percentage of all time (4 for 4). What you don’t see in that history are any nominations for Best Novel, and Bear has written a ton of them. In 2012, Bear placed 15th in the nominations for Range of Ghosts 56 votes. To get into the mix, she’ll have to at least triple that for 2016 (and, given the rise in Hugo voters, probably even more than that). Does Bear have enough fans? Will Karen Memory be her leap into this category?
On the sales/metrics front, Karen Memory shows some weakness. As of 7/30/15, she has 57 Amazon rankings and 1,117 Goodreads ratings, with scores of 4.4 on Amazon and 3.82 on Goodreads. For a book published in early February, those are on the low side. In contrast, Uprooted by Naomi Novik has 395 Amazon ratings and 9,5000 Goodreads ratings. Karen Memory never made the Publisher’s Weekly Top 25 list. Karen Memory still has plenty of time to sell, but these numbers indicate that the book hasn’t broken out of the SFF core, and I also worry about that relatively low 3.82 Goodreads rating (Uprooted is 4.24 and Sevenes 4.03 for contrast).
What does all of this mean? I think Karen Memory has an outside shot but isn’t a frontrunner for the Hugo. Since Bear has never received a Nebula nomination, I don’t think Karen Memory has much of a chance there. Steampunk is not a sub-genre that has ever done well in the Hugos or Nebulas; looking back over the lists, only Boneshaker by Cherie Priest and Julian Comstock by Robert Charles Wilson strike me as a steampunk works with Hugo Best Novel noms. Throw in the Western motif, and you have a chance to turn off fans who don’t like Westerns or steampunk books.
2015 is also shaping up to be a very competitive Hugo and Nebula year. Many recent winners and nominees are publishing new novels this year: Leckie, Scalzi, Walton, Bacigalupi, and Robinson for recent winners, and then multiple nominees like Stephenson, Jemisin, and Stross. We also have breakout books like Uprooted, and I’m not yet factoring in things like possible Hugo campaigns for what is sure to be the most hotly contested Hugos ever. To receive a nomination in 2015 is going to take huge support; I don’t know if Bear has that. While popular with a segment of progressive SFF fans, does she have enough reach to break out of that bubble? Time will tell.
On to some reviews and info about the book:
This was fairly lightly reviewed in the mainstream. Reviews were generally positive, but no stars for either Publisher’s Weekly or Kirkus; I think that indicates that both outlets saw the audience as limited for this book.
Broadly and positively reviewed by the more mainstream SFF blogs, Karen Memory was praised for its vibrant world and Karen’s unique voice. These blogs liked what the novel did with the steampunk genre, and generally regarded it as an excellent “rollicking” book. A couple called it lighter than some of the more serious SFF books of the year, and that might damage Karen Memory‘s award chances.
Now for the most important people: my fellow WordPress reviewers! That’s a fair number of reviews, but for a book that came out in February (I’m writing this in July), that’s not an overwhelming number. People were largely positive but didn’t necessarily give the book 10 out of 10 or 5 out of 5. That jibes with my sense of Karen Memory: people like it, but they don’t absolutely love it. To score a Hugo or Nebula nomination, you need some truly driven fans.
My sense is that Karen Memory did well with a certain core of the SFF fanbase but that it didn’t break out to the larger circles of SFF readers. That’s due in part to the steampunk/Western nature of the work. Lots of writers are writing those: Red Country by Joe Abercrombie, the Alloy of Law and sequels by Brandon Sanderson, Boneshaker and sequels by Cherie Priest. I’ve read most of those, and they’re interesting but they don’t seem essential.
My Take: A new debut in the Review Round-Ups is my microreview of the book. I found Karen Memory perfectly readable but also fairly forgettable. Fun while it lasted, but the book had a rushed feel to it: too many characters who were only on stage for one or two scenes. Aside from Karen herself, no one received much development. I found both the villain and the love interest pretty one-dimensional. I was also expecting a book about prostitutes to be funnier and edgier, and the book was ultimately a pretty safe “heroes win” romp. That might be my fault; I was expecting Cannery Row, and I got something a lot tamer. I also wanted more about the world, including a deeper investigation of how steampunk technology might change the United States. Middle-of-the-pack for me, 6 out of 10.
So, what are Karen Memory‘s chances in 2016? Will people forget this novel when the nomination period finally rolls around, or will positive word-of-mouth drive it to new set of fans? I’ll likely have Karen Memory in the mid-teens for my Hugo and Nebula predictions.
Tomorrow, I’m going to be starting my Review Round-Ups for 2015, closer looks at the major contenders for the 2016 Hugo and Nebula Best Novel awards. I use these Round-Ups to springboard my predictions, and they’re a key aspect of the work I do here at Chaos Horizon.
I start with my 2016 Hugo/Nebula Watchlist, composed of new books by past awards winners and other 2015 novels that are getting significant pre-release buzz. I try to read the major contenders, and then I begin doing research on the books. Here’s what I’m currently looking at when I make predictions:
1. Genre: Certain types of novels are favored by the Hugos and Nebulas: a Hard SF novel has a better chance than an Urban Fantasy, for instance. Young Adult novels rarely make the cut.
2. Place in series: Unless previous novels in the series have been nominated, later volumes rarely receive awards nominations.
3. Previous awards history: This is a big one: the Hugos and the Nebulas love nominating the same people over and over again. Hello, Jack McDevitt.
4. Measurable sales data: I try to look at Goodreads, Amazon, and Publisher’s Weekly to get a sense of how a novel is doing. This is more useful for comparative cases than in terms of absolutes. So if two novels in a similar subgenres, like let’s say The Goblin Emperor and City of Stairs (broadly speaking, both are experimental fantasy novels), the one with more rankings/more sales gets the nod in my prediction. Amazon, Goodreads, and PW all track different audiences, and probably only make sense when utilized together.
5. Critical buzz: I’m currently looking at two different types of critics for 2015: mainstream venues such as the Publisher’s Weekly, NY Times, NPR, Kirkus Reviews, Entertainment Weekly, the Guardian, etc., venues that have huge national exposure and can help boost a novel’s raw readership. However, these mainstream venues don’t necessarily reflect the tastes of Hugo/Nebula voters, so I’m also looking at the SFF-specific websites and blogs: Locus, the B+N SF Blog, Tor, io9, Book Smugglers, Strange Horizons, etc., to take a look at fandom’s reception of the book. I’m currently having trouble figuring out exactly which sites I should look at, so any suggestions of prominent review venues that you think reflect the Hugos/Nebulas would be appreciated.
6. Reader buzz: I look at the rankings from Amazon and Goodreads, and then I check my fellow WordPress bloggers to see how actual readers are thinking about these books. Some books can get great press in the critical realm and fall flat with the general readership, and vice-versa as well.
That’s a fair amount of data to look at. I weigh all of these factors together to come up with my predictions for the shortlists. I try to keep my personal opinions in the background. While it doesn’t make a lot of sense to pretend I don’t have my own opinions, I’m not particularly well correlated to Hugo/Nebula tastes. My three favorite novels from last year were The Three-Body Problem, The Bone Clocks, and Broken Monsters, for instance, which makes me 1 out of 3 with the awards. Better than a coin-flip, but not much.
So we’ll be beginning shortly. Here are some of the books I’ve already read this year and am planning on doing Review Round-Ups of shortly:
Karen Memory, Elizabeth Bear
Touch, Clair North
Seveneves, Neal Stephenson
Uprooted, Naomi Novik
The Water Knife, Paolo Bacigalupi
The Book of Phoenix and Lagoon, Nnedi Okorafor
Aurora, Kim Stanley Robinson
Armada, Ernest Cline
Nemesis Games, James S.A. Corey
We also have major possible nominees like The Dark Forest by Cixin Liu, The Fifth Season by N.K. Jemisin, Ancillary Mercy by Ann Leckie (as sure fire a nominee as any this year), Thunderbird by Jack McDevitt, and then authors with more outside chances like Ken Liu, Kate Elliot, Zen Cho, Brandon Sanderson, Wesley Chu, Gene Wolfe, and Victor Milan. As these books begin to pick up buzz and the 2015 narrative takes shape towards the end of the year, they might join the list above.
Any other books you think have good chances for the 2016 awards? The sooner we know, the sooner we can start reading.
As I finish up my investigation and predictions of the 2015 Best Novel Hugo Award, we need to seriously think about a possible kingmaker scenario. A term borrowed from game theory (which in term borrowed the term from royal politics), Wikipedia gives us a good working definition: “A kingmaker scenario, in a game of three or more players, is an endgame situation where a player unable to win has the capacity to determine which player among others is the winner. Said player is referred to as the kingmaker or spoiler.” I know we shouldn’t trust Wikipedia, but this is a well-established theoretical, and that’s as good an intro as any I could easily find.
In a normal Hugo year, it’s hard to be a kingmaker . While it’s easy to boost the #2 choice to the #1 place, you’d have to guess at who would be #1 and #2. It would be very hard to boost a #5 work to #1—but let’s imagine a year where you only have three viable candidates. How hard would it be to boost #3 into the #1 position? That’s exactly what we have in the Best Novel this year: two Puppy candidates, three “regular” candidates, and a tailor-made kingmaker situation.
For the Hugos, you can consider the “players” the supporters of the 5 Hugo nominees and the “endgame” as the final vote. It would appear—and I stress that we don’t know this for sure—that Katherine Addison, Cixin Liu, and Ann Leckie are the only viable players for the 2015 Hugo. Debate that if you will, but I think that the negative reaction to the Sad/Rabid Puppy campaigns and the use of “No Award” make it nearly impossible for Butcher or Anderson to win. I also think “No Award” isn’t viable in the Best Novel category, due to the strong support that Addison, Liu, and Leckie have received.
In a kingmaker scenario, the Butcher/Anderson voters would have the power to choose between Addison, Liu, and Leckie as the winner of Hugo. Even a smaller set of the Butcher/Anderson voters—like the Sad or Rabid Puppies—could operate as kingmaker. Of course, they would have to be organized, have to have sufficient numbers (see below for the estimate), and choose to execute a kingmaker move.
Interestingly, the Hugo voting rules make it incredibly easy to deploy a kingmaker effect. Since the Hugo operate via instant-runoff voting, you just vote for your favorites (even if they don’t have a chance), then vote for who you want to win (your kingmaker effect), and then you leave off anyone you want to lose. The instant-runoff vote will maximize your impact for you. In a first-past-the-post voting system, a kingmaker would have to be more organized (you have to leave off your favorite and vote only as a kingmaker), making it less likely to work.
So, what kind of numbers do we need? The math gets a little tricky, but if we look at the Hugo data from 2011-2014, we can get a rough sense in the main fiction categories. I left off 2010 because that’s the year Mieville and Bacigalupi tied, which messes up the stats a little. Still, that shows how close these votes can be. A single kingmaker voting for Mieville would have pushed the balance!
Here’s the data separating first place from second place, in the final pass of the instant run-off voting:
Throw out Leckie’s domination last year, and you see that in most Hugo years, it would takes only a modest number of organized voters (between 100-200) to boost the #2 novel to the #1 position. As I said before, because of the way Instant Run-Off voting works, all the campaign would need to do is leave that #1 novel off the ballot.
It’s interesting how up and down these numbers are. Sometimes a kingmaker effect is easy, sometimes hard. I’m surprised that Short Story had such large margins of victory in recent years. Also pay careful attention to 2014: that’s the first year we had a big boost in Hugo voting numbers. Since we might double that this year, we could be in a situation in 2015 where margin of victory is so large that no kingmaker effect is possible. Ancillary Justice had a very unusual year last year, though, sweeping all the major awards. We don’t have that kind of dominance in 2015.
With somewhat higher block voting numbers, you could exert more control over the ballot. I took a look at the difference between 2nd and 3rd place in the next to last run-off (that’s what you’d need to boot the #2 work from reaching the final stage). If you add these numbers to the previous chart, that’s a rough estimate of what it might take to get work #3 to win the Hugo. This isn’t 100% accurate (we can’t do that math, or at least I wasn’t able to figure out a way to do that math), but it’s a good eyeball test.
Again, widely variable by year and category, with some remarkably close and others far apart. Still, as a rough estimate, I think it’s revealing. So let’s say you wanted 2312 by Kim Stanley Robinson to beat Redshirts in 2013. It would have taken around (213+6), 219 votes to do so. It would have only taken 213 votes to give Lois McMaster Bujold’s Captain Vorpatril’s Alliance the win.
Would an organized Hugo campaign want to do something like that? I’ll let you decide.
So, what does that mean for this year? Keep in mind that we’re due for perhaps a doubling of the Hugo vote, which could double margin of victory, making a kingmaker effect harder to pull off. Second, the vote between Liu, Addison, and Leckie is a 3-way, not a 5-way battle, and that may further concentrate votes. But . . . I have a feeling we’re in for a close contest, which might offset the increased number of voters.
I’ve previously estimated the Sad/Rabid Puppy campaigns at around 300-400. However, that was only for the nominating stage; we don’t know what that number will be in the final vote. Doubled? 1.5 times higher? What’s the ratio of Sad/Rabid Puppies? Will those groups chose to pull a kingmaker? The Sad Puppies, to the best of my knowledge, have made no move to suggest how their group should vote. The Rabid Puppies, on the other hand, seem to have made just such a move, given Vox Day’s Best Novel post. Note that this is an exact kingmaker play: Leckie is left off the ballot completely. The result will be to push the award to either Liu or Addison if the Rabid Puppy vote is larger than Leckie’s (possible) margin of victory. If Addison were to be in a close race with Liu, this would also give Liu the win (if the Rabid Puppy block size is larger than Addison’s margin of victory). So, that leaves two unknowns: how big is the Rabid Puppy block, and will they stick together? I could make guesses, but I try to avoid sheer guesswork on Chaos Horizon.
The Hugo is remarkably amenable to kingmaker scenarios. In fact, you could argue kingmaker scenarios are more favorable to block voting groups than outright sweeps, as it allows them to exert more control of the final result. In a sweep, No Award is an option; in a kingmaker scenario, it really isn’t. This is an issue the any proposed changes to the Hugo votes should keep in mind; you could implement a change that makes kingmaker scenarios even easier to set up. The best way to defuse kingmaker scenarios is to have more viable players in the game, but, even then, it’s easy to make sure one player doesn’t win if you control a block vote of any size.
So, in conclusion, in close years and in close categories, a kingmaker effect is remarkably easy to deploy. It is even easier to deploy if a campaign places 1 or 2 of their works on the ballot. In fact, if someone was trying to dominate the Hugos, that’s the situation you would probably want: 2 of your picks on the ballot, 3 other picks, and then you could chose between the three other works to see who would win. You get to make your point with your picks and then shape the outcome of the award. There’s also relatively little risk in deploying it: you don’t hurt your own choices’ chances. On the other hand, we don’t know if the increased number of Hugo voters will make margins of victory so large that kingmaker effect doesn’t come in to play. Stay tuned to Chaos Horizon; I’ll run the numbers when they’re published after the Hugos, and see how things worked out.
No use putting this on any longer! The situation isn’t going to become any clearer or easier. Here’s the official Chaos Horizon mathematical model for the 2015 Hugos:
Ann Leckie, Ancillary Sword: 25.7% chance to win
Cixin Liu, The Three-Body Problem: 22.4% chance to win
Katherine Addison, The Goblin Emperor: 21.1% chance to win
Jim Butcher, Skin Game: 18.1% chance to win
Kevin J. Anderson, The Dark Between the Stars: 12.7% chance to win
Unfortunately, the model depends on the idea that 2015 Hugo voters will vote like the Hugo voters of the past 15 years have voted. Of course, that’s not going to happen this year. Too many new voters have come into the process this year for the model to be reliable. But I’ll get to that in a second. I also didn’t factor in “No Award” sentiment (the model can’t handle that). So think of this as a raw snapshot, that’ll need to be corrected by an analysis of what happened this year.
Leckie emerges as a close winner this year. Ancillary Sword has everything going for it: Leckie has a strong Hugo history (winning last year), it was universally praised by critics, it won the Locus SF vote, it won the British SF award. My model doesn’t currently punish texts for being sequels; if Leckie loses this year, that’s something I’ll factor in for next year.
Cixin Liu does second best, and that’s partly due to Ken Liu’s influence. Ken Liu is a well-known quantity to Hugo voters, and that helps what would otherwise be a debut novel in the formula. Addison is also right in the mix. Think about last year’s prediction, which gave Leckie a 33.6% chance and Stross only 24.9%. Here, the difference is only 4.6%. Keep that in mind as the analysis continues: it’s likely a close year. That makes any potential swing votes (such as Rabid Puppies . . .) incredibly important.
The two Puppy picks, Butcher and Anderson, do not do well in the formula. The formula elevates works with strong Hugo history and works that do well in the current awards season; neither book has those credentials. Even without the “No Award” sentiment floating around the SFF blogosphere, these would have had slim chances. Butcher had a slight chance if the community had decided Dresden as a whole was worthy, but that hasn’t (at least to my ear) been the chatter on SFF websites. Being so late in the series also hurts its odds. Still, Butcher is popular enough to bring in casual fans; if everyone who attends WorldCon votes, he could do surprisingly well.
Here’s what the formula is based on:
Indicator #1: Nominee has previously been nominated for a Hugo award. (73.3%)
Indicator #2: Nominee has previously been nominated for a Nebula award (prior to this year). (73.3%)
Indicator #3: Novel won a same year Nebula award. (87.5%)
Indicator #4: Nominated novel is science fiction. (53.3%)
Indicator #5: The nominated novel wins one of the main Locus Awards categories. (53.3%)
Indicator #6: Nominee places in the Goodreads Choice Awards (100%)
Indicator #7: Nominated for at least one other major award (80%)
Indicator #8: Nominee highly regarded by critics, as judged by Critics Meta-List. (86.7%)
If you want to run down the rabbit hole of how things work, check out my Nebula methodology posts; the Hugo methodology is the same, just with different data.
Let me repeat. THE CHAOS HORIZON MODEL IS NOT RELIABLE FOR 2015. It may still work, but that’d just be luck. Too much has changed in the last six months. The Sad/Rabid Puppy controversy has led to a huge surge in the Supporting Memberships of WorldCon. According to their own webpage, the membership of Sasquan as of June 30, 2015 is:
(there are also other categories like Children I’m not listing)
Over 1200 more members for Sasquan—and Spokane is not the same attraction as London. In fact, the number that really matters here is “Supporting Memberships.” I assume that most new people who bought those bought them for the express purpose of voting in the Hugos. We’re looking at difference of 5410-2768=2642 potential voters! 3587 people voted in the 2015 Hugos; we could be looking at a voter total of over 6000 in 2015.
Chaos Horizon works by the premise that WorldCon voters will vote in the ways they have in the past. Since we may have over 2500 new voters, we have no data on how they’ll vote. Are they here just to vote against the Puppies? What does that mean for Liu, Leckie, and Addison? I suspect this might help Leckie since she won last year; it’s easy to vote for the familiar. But maybe these new voters will drift towards Addison, or Liu. There is no way to tell at this point.
The situation grows even murkier when we factor in two additional unknowns. We don’t know whether these 2500 new members are here to vote for or against the Sad/Rabid Puppy slates. The huge controversy will bring in passionate voters on both sides: but what will the ratio be? In the nomination stage, I estimated about 300-400 Sad/Rabid Puppy supporters, or about 15% of the whole. Of these 2500 new voters, will that ratio hold? Will it be 10% Puppy/90% Anti-Puppy? 20% Puppy/40% Neutral/40% Anti-Puppy?
Let me answer as honestly as I can: I don’t know what the ratios will be. I look forward to seeing the final numbers, but any guesses at this point are simply guesses.
We also have to consider another possibility, the so-called “Kingmaker Scenario.” In a closely divided election (i.e. if Leckie, Liu, and Addison are within a few hundred votes of each other), any unified block vote can swing the balance in one direction or the other. If all the Rabid puppies, for instance, vote Cixin Liu ahead of Ann Leckie, that might be enough to push Liu to a win.
There hasn’t been much discussion of the Kingmaker scenario online yet (or I haven’t see it; if you know of some good articles please link them in the comments), but this may be where the Sad and Rabid Puppies have their greatest influence on the 2015 Hugos. While categories swept by the Puppies will likely result in “No Award,” a category like the Best Novel could be more decisively influenced. Let’s say the non-Puppy voters give Ann Leckie a 300 vote win over Cixin Liu, but 400 Rabid Puppy voters vote Liu over Leckie. Liu would end up winning in that scenario.
To understand whether or not a Kingmaker scenario is in play, we’ll have to explore a couple things over the next few days. We’ll have to look at “Average Margin of Victory” in the 2011-2014 Hugos to get a sense of how wide the final vote count is. Then we’ll have to consider whether or not either the Sad Puppies or the Rabid Puppies have enough influence/organization to overcome that gap. My initial thought is that the Sad Puppies do not have the influence or numbers, but that the Rabid Puppies might. That’s a lot of “ifs,” and it will make this already unpredictable Hugo season the most unpredictable one on record.
San Diego Comic Con is raging this weekend, and we’re getting new trailers for a variety of upcoming Science Fiction and Fantasy shows. Hollywood is highly imitative, and networks are now chasing that sweet Game of Thrones money. What does that all mean?
It means that, for the next 18 months or so, we’re going to have a ridiculous number of television shows that adapt major SFF novels. The list of adaptations is impressive: The Man in the High Castle (Amazon, Fall 2015), The Expanse (SyFy, December 2015), The Shannara Chronicles (MTV, January 2015), The Magicians (SyFy 2016), American Gods (Starz, 2016?), Ghost Brigades (SyFy, 2016?, based on John Scalzi’s Old Man’s War novels), Childhood’s End (SyFy miniseries, December 2015). Throw in the recent aired Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell BBC Miniseries, and that means we now have a host of Hugo-awarded and Hugo-nominated series hitting the airwaves.
This is a big change for Hollywood. After years of adapting comic books and young adult SF novels, they’re turning their attention to more traditional science Fiction and fantasy novels. Will they be as successful? If some of these series catch on, look for more series to follow. And since even the most unsuccessful TV series still brings in millions of viewers—and millions of potential readers—the next 18 months have a real chance to completely transform SFF fandom. Of course, everything could fail horribly and nothing might change, but I don’t think that’ll happen.
These series could potentially have a huge impact on the Hugos. If The Expanse is a big hit, I full expect the James S.A. Corey novels to climb back into the Hugo mix. Even as earlier as next year, we could see a nomination for Nemesis Games.
Keep your eye on these developments: we could be in for the SFF’s biggest year ever in 2016, and I haven’t even talked about the upcoming movie adaptations of The Martian and Ready Player One.
I’ll leave you with some trailers:
The Shannara Chronicles:
Man in the High Castle:
All of them look intriguing—except for the hat and the haircut of the main character in The Expanse. I’m still blown away that we have more than 5 upcoming TV series based on SFF novels I’ve read. I never thought I’d see the day.
Hard to believe that half of 2015 has already slipped by. The Hugo controversy has really sucked some attention away from 2015 novels, and a lot of SFF readers are really only beginning to get into their 2015 reading. Still, we’ve seen several novels published are likely to have major impact come the 2016 awards season. Urpooted by Naomi Novik looks to be this year’s The Goblin Emperor. Seveneves by Neal Stephenson has made some real noise, and Kim Stanley Robinson, a perennial Hugo and Nebula favorite, just published Aurora.
On the best-seller front, the “biggest” SF novel of the year comes out next week (July 14th): Ernest Cline’s Armada. Cline’s last book, Ready Player One (2011), was a huge success. Three years later, it’s still hovering near the top of the Publisher’s Weekly (PW) SF charts. This week, it was #4, behind The Martian, Jurassic Park, and Station Eleven. Seveneves clicks in at #5, meaning Ready Player One is still selling better than every 2015 SF novel.
Cline gets quite a bit of online criticism; his book is seen as the epitome of “mainstream” or “popcorn” SF, and many outlets are eager to trash Cline’s popularity. For instance, Slate killed Armada in their recent review—but reviews aren’t going to affect sales. When you’re as popular as Cline, you’re almost like E.L. James, insulated from negative press.
Ready Player One was largely ignored by the SFF awards circuit. It picked up a Campbell nomination (interesting to note that the Campbell was the only nomination The Martian received). Selling too many copies almost seems to hurt your awards chances, and this gives us a good space to take a closer look at some more Publisher’s Weekly numbers.
At Chaos Horizon, I had high hopes that sales numbers would correlate to awards chances. So far, I haven’t been able to find a sensible connection. See my previous posts on Publisher’s Weekly and Bookscan for some info.
Thanks to an online friend, we’ve dug even deeper into the Publisher’s Weekly archive to see if any correlation exists. Remember, Publisher’s Weekly publishes weekly (duh!) bestseller lists. For Hardcover fiction, they include weekly and cumulative sales numbers. While books come and go on the list fairly quickly, this allows us a snapshot of the high-water-mark of a book’s popularity. It’s not perfect data, but it’s the data we have.
My initial hypothesis was that “more sales = more votes”; the more people that have read a book, the better it will do in a voted award. By combing through the data, here’s what we’ve got in terms of Hugo nominated books making the PW Bestseller list at some time during the year (we only have access to data for 2012, 2013, 2014, and 2015 sales):
2013 Hugo Nominees/Bookscan Bestsellers – 2312, Redshirts, Captain Vorpatril’s Alliance
2014 Hugo Nominees/Bookscan Bestsellers – The Ocean at the End of the Lane (declined), The Wheel of Time
2015 Hugo Nominees/Bookscan Bestsellers – Skin Game
Now, that doesn’t mean other works didn’t sell well: they just sold more slowly, to the point that they never poked their head into “Bestseller” territory. It’s also interesting to note that in the past 2 years, two of those bestsellers made the Hugos only because of explicit campaigns: The Wheel of Time and Skin Game.
As such, making the PW weekly Bestseller list doesn’t seem to correlate to Hugo chances. That’s an odd conclusion to make, and something we’ll keep our eye on. I think this shows that the mainstream audience and the Hugo voting audience are becoming increasingly distinct; one does not follow the other.
Let’s look at who has popped up onto the PW Bestseller week so far for 2015. I’ve stuck mostly to novels, although I threw Trigger Warning by Neil Gaiman onto the list. I’m also only including 2015 published novels. I’m going to give you the following info: publishing date, the last date they showed up on the PW list, and the cumulative books sold for 2015. So, like this:
Title, Author, publishing date, date on PW list, cumulative books sold in 2015, highest rank on PW list
Finder’s Keepers, Stephen King, June 2015, 7-13-15, 174,307, #1
Sevenves, Neal Stephenson, May 2015, 6-29-15, 32,041, #5
The Darkling Child, Terry Brooks, June 2015, 6-22-15, 3,804, #17
The Invasion of the Tearling, Erika Johansen, June 2015, 6-22-15, 3,051, #23
Nemesis Games, James S.A. Corey, June 2015, 6-15-15, 2,394, #24
The Water Knife, Paolo Bacigalupi, May 2015, 6-15-15, 5,304, #19
A God in Ruins, Kate Atkinson, May 2015, 6-08-15, 20,020, #9
The Scarlet Gospels, Clive Barker, May 2015, 6-01-015, 6,340, #9
Lots of the Sith: Star Wars, Paul Kemp, April 2015, 5-25-15, 12,450, #8
Day Shift, Charlaine Harris, May 2015, 5-18-15, 3,817, #18
The Buried Giant, Kazuo Ishiguro, March 2015, 4-27-15, 43,323, #5
The Skull Throne, Peter V. Brett, March 2015, 4-13-15, 3,947, #14
Saint Odd, Dean R. Koontz, January 2015, 3-30-15, 78,344, #1
Trigger Warnings: Short Fictions, Neil Gaiman, February 2015, 3-23-15, 32,113, #5
Heir to the Jedi: Star Wars, Kevin Hearne, March 2015, 3-23-15, 7,432, #13
Vision in Silver, Anne Bishop, March 2015, 3-16-15, 2,635, #21
Blood Infernal, James Rollins and Rebecca Cantrell, 3-02-15, February 2015, 7,444, #13
Agenda 21: Into the Shadows, Glenn Beck, January 2015, 2-25-15, 23,666, #9
The Mime Order, Samantha Shannon, January 2015, 2-09-15, 2,486, #18
The Last American Vampire, Seth Grahame-Smith, January 2015, 2-02-15, 4,042, #25
The Empty Throne, Bernard Cornwell, January 2015, 1-26-15, 8,592, #12
Golden Son, Pierce Brown, January 2015, 1-19-15, 5,188, #14
Remember, these numbers don’t include all of the marketplace (some presses and independent bookstores don’t report numbers), and e-books aren’t included in “Hardcover” numbers. These numbers might represent 50% of the total sold for that week, and even less of the whole they’ll sell.
I tried to include everything of evenly vaguely genre interest. It’s amazing how well Koontz and King sell, absolutely dwarfing everyone else on the list (particularly King). Also note that just because a book never makes the overall top #25 doesn’t mean it’s not selling well. It just means it’s selling more slowly, and more through word-of-mouth than in the big publicity burst that gets you up here. Still, if you’re not in the Top #25, you’re probably selling fewer than 3,000 hard copies a week.
So, what do we learn? Most SFF books only make brief appearances in the bottom part of the list, popping up somewhere between #15-#25 and selling 2,500-5,000 or so books that week. King and Koontz, obviously more associated with horror, do better than anything from SFF.
In terms of SFF, a few books stand out. Seveneves has done very well, but not as well as The Buried Giant. Ishiguro tapped into the mainstream market; although the books was not particularly well received, it’ll be interesting to see if people remember it come award season. Kate Atkinson is doing well at the borderlands of SFF, but is thought of as more mainstream/romance than straight SFF. Nemesis Games and The Water Knife appeared briefly but both have a shot to show up in the Hugo. I thought Golden Son, which showed up for only one week, would have done better. From a sales perspective, it’s not the next The Hunger Games or Divergent. It’s interesting (and unepexcted) to see how well Glenn Beck did his dystopic novel. Ayn Rand still has plenty of fans.
As a point of comparison, PW has Grey by E.L. James selling 750,000 copies in three weeks.
I’ll continue to check in with the PW numbers to see if any SFF novels break out over the next few months.
It’s been a while since I’ve updated my master list of 2015 SFF Awards to see who has the most nominations and wins. A couple major awards have been announced in the past month, including the Campbell Memorial (to Claire North’s The First Fifteen Lives of Henry August) and the Locus Awards (SF to Ann Leckie’s Ancillary Sword and Fantasy to Katherine Addison’s The Goblin Emperor). Leckie’s win for Ancillary Sword makes her the only two-time winner this year (she also grabbed the British Science Fiction Award).
The World Fantasy Nominees for 2015 were also recently announced. Here’s the Novel category:
Katherine Addison, The Goblin Emperor (Tor Books)
Robert Jackson Bennett, City of Stairs (Broadway Books/Jo Fletcher Books)
David Mitchell, The Bone Clocks (Random House/Sceptre UK)
Jeff VanderMeer, Area X: The Southern Reach Trilogy (Farrar, Straus and Giroux Originals)
Jo Walton, My Real Children (Tor Books US/Corsair UK)
A strong list, even if I’m not quite sure some of these are actually fantasy. The WFA tends to tip over to the Weird fiction side of things, so that accounts for Area X and The Bone Clocks. I suspect Addison is the likely winner here, although this is a juried (not popular vote) award. If Addison wins the Hugo, they might choose to go in a different direction.
So, where does that leave us? You can see my full list here: 2015 Awards Meta-List. I’m tacking 15 major awards. Let’s focus on the Top 8, everyone who received at least 3 different award nominations:
EDIT: A couple clean ups to the list. One of the commentators caught that I’d miscounted Nina Allan’s The Race, and I had VanderMeer down for the Hugo nom instead of the Campbell nom. Thanks everyone for double-checking!
1. The Three-Body Problem, Cixin Liu: 5 nominations, 0 wins (Hugo, Nebula, Campbell, Locus SF, Prometheus)
2. Ancillary Sword, Ann Leckie: 4 nominations, 2 wins (Hugo, Nebula, BSFA, Locus SF, with wins in the BSFA and Locus SF)
3. Annihilation/Area X, Jeff VanderMeer: 4 nominations, 1 win (Campbell, Nebula, Locus SF, World Fantasy, with a win in the Nebula)
4. The Goblin Emperor, Katherine Addison: 4 nominations, 1 win (Hugo, Nebula, Locus Fantasy, World Fantasy, with a win in the Locus Fantasy)
5. Memory of Water, Emmi Itaranta: 3 nominations, 0 wins (Clarke, Tiptree, Philip K. Dick)
5. Europe in Autumn, David Hutchinson: 3 nominations, 0 wins (Clarke, BSFA, Campbell)
5. The First Fifteen Lives of Harry August, Claire North: 3 nominations, 1 win (Clarke, BSFA, Campbell, with a win in the Campbell)
5. Lagoon, Nnedi Okorafor: 3 nominations, 0 wins (BSFA, Tiptree, Kitschies)
5. The Peripheral, William Gibson: 3 nominations, 0 wins (Campbell, Locus SF, Kitschies)
5. The Race, Nina Allan: 3 nominations, 0 wins (British SF, Campbell, Kitschies)
For all the love lavished on Station Eleven by Emily Mandel, it managed only two nominations (for the Clarke and Campbell), although it did win the Clarke. Not a bad haul. City of Stairs has a real shot at a British Fantasy nomination, and could join the group above with 3, adding to its Locus Fantasy and World Fantasy nominations.
A couple observations: it has been a very evenly divided year. No one has really dominated the 15 awards I’m keeping track of. Last year, Ancillary Justice had 8 nominations and 5 wins; Ancillary Sword has only managed half of that. 2015 is a year without a consensus “best novel” in the field; that’s something that has been overlooked in all the furor that’s gone down over this year’s awards. It’s going to be a toss up as to whether Leckie or Addison wins the year. If Leckie wins her second Hugo, that’ll give her the edge, but Addison still has a chance to win the Hugo, and then go on to sweep the British Fantasy and World Fantasy awards.
Of the top 9, we’re seeing an increased influence of European fiction: both Europe in Autumn and Lagoon had their biggest impact and readerships outside the United States. Don’t forget Memory of Water, translated from the Finnish, which joins The Three-Body Problem as highly nominated novels in translation. Fully half this list represents world science fiction and fantasy, an intriguing change from previous years. I haven’t read Memory of Water or Europe in Autumn yet, but this list is tempting me to pick them up.
So, what do you think? Does this collated list better reflect the true state of the SFF field than any individual award?
My copy of Locus Magazine arrived today, and with it some interesting insights on how the Hugo nominees did in those awards. While not a perfect match to the Hugos, the Locus are the closest thing going: a popular vote by SFF “insiders” to determine the best novel of the year. The Locus splits Fantasy off from Science Fiction, which makes the award have a very different feel, and Locus voters tend to be more receptive to sequels. Locus also doubles the weight of subscribers versus non-subscriber, meaning the most involved fans get the most say. If you’re so into SFF that you have a subscription to Locus, you’re definitely not casual.
Locus has posted the finalists and winners here. For our purposes, the key categories are the two Best Novels. Here’s the order of the top 5 placement, taken from the print edition of Locus. Don’t worry, I won’t share all the data; buy Locus if you want the full details!
SCIENCE FICTION NOVEL
1. Ancillary Sword, Ann Leckie (Orbit US; Orbit UK)
2. The Three-Body Problem, Cixin Liu (Tor)
3. Annihilation/Authority/Acceptance, Jeff VanderMeer (FSG Originals; Fourth Estate; HarperCollins Canada)
4. The Peripheral, William Gibson (Putnam; Viking UK)
5. Lock In, John Scalzi (Tor; Gollancz)
1. The Goblin Emperor, Katherine Addison (Tor)
2. City of Stairs, Robert Jackson Bennett (Broadway; Jo Fletcher)
3. The Magician’s Land, Lev Grossman (Viking; Arrow 2015)
4. Steles of the Sky, Elizabeth Bear (Tor)
5. The Mirror Empire, Kameron Hurley (Angry Robot US)
You’ll notice that the Top 2 from the SF and the Top 1 from F make up 3/5 of the Hugo Best Novel ballot. Neither the Jim Butcher nor the Kevin J. Anderson made the Top 28 SF novels or the Top 21 fantasy novels. If you were going by Locus vote counts alone, VanderMeer and Gibson would have been next in line for nominations. Since Hugo voters have ignored Gibson since 1994 (seriously, no nominations since 1994), the 5th spot would have been a toss up between Scalzi and Bennett. Given Scalzi’s past Hugo performance, you might lean in that direction, although we’ll find out when the full nomination stats are released.
If we go deeper into the details, let’s look at the number of votes for each of our Hugo Nominees. They use something called the “Carr system,” which gives 8 points for a 1st place voice, 7 for a 2nd place vote, 6 for a 3rd place vote, 5 for a 4th place vote, and 4 for a 5th place vote, with no points after that. This tries to balance preference with sane math: instead of a 1st place vote counting 5 times as much as a 5th place vote, it only counts twice as much. So it goes.
Ancillary Sword, Ann Leckie: 2818 pts, 321 vts, 107 1sts
The Goblin Emperor, Katherine Addison: 2556 pts, 285 vts, 126 1sts
The Three-Body Problem, Cixin Liu, 1869 pts, 223 vts, 58 1sts
First thing to notice: it looks like Leckie and Addison have separated themselves from Liu. Those 58 1st place votes for Liu is lower than books like The Peripheral or City of Stairs received, and about half as much as the Leckie or Addison. Since the Hugo ballot ranks by preference, this might spell trouble for his chances. This would echo what I’ve seen online as well: the Addison and the Leckie seem to inspire more passion in readers than the Liu. Is it an issue of translation, Liu’s unique and somewhat strange approach to character and plot, or simply the difficulty of relating to Chinese (rather than American) SFF? Who knows?
Everything about this year’s Hugos—as we’ll delve into this week—is pointing to a very close race between Leckie and Addison. If you look just at the Locus, Leckie has broader support (she’s probably better known due to last year’s wins), but Addison had more 1st place votes. All of that will play out in interesting ways in the Hugos, once we factor in the new voters, this year’s controversies, and the difficulty Leckie will have in repeating as a Hugo winner.
The Locus Award results factor heavily into my Hugo prediction. I’m going to be building that prediction this week, so stay tuned!