Nebula Nominees Out: Some Initial Data

The SFWA announced this year’s Nebula Best Novel Nominees yesterday. As I predicted, they mirrored the SFWA Recommended Reading list exactly. We did get 7 nominees, which means there was a tie somewhere. Here’s the list:

Raising Caine, Charles E. Gannon (Baen)
The Fifth Season, N.K. Jemisin (Orbit US; Orbit UK)
Ancillary Mercy, Ann Leckie (Orbit US; Orbit UK)
The Grace of Kings, Ken Liu (Saga)
Uprooted, Naomi Novik (Del Rey)
Barsk: The Elephants’ Graveyard, Lawrence M. Schoen (Tor)
Updraft, Fran Wilde (Tor)

Congrats to all the nominees. Now we can turn our attention to predicting the winner. Winning a Nebula is very different than getting nominated; a small group of passionate fans can drive a nomination, but to win you need to build a broader coalition. Voting takes place between March 1st and March 30th according to the SFWA website:

From March 1, 2016, to March 30, 2016, 11:59pm PDT, SFWA’s Active and  Lifetime Active members may vote on the final ballot for the 2015 Nebula Awards (presented in 2016), the Ray Bradbury Award for Outstanding Dramatic Presentation, and the Andre Norton Award for Outstanding Young Adult Science Fiction or Fantasy Book.

That’s not a lot of time to read 6 books, so I think popularity measures are a good place to start. If lots of SFWA voters have already read a book, it stands to reason more people could vote for it. Let’s take a glance at popularity as measured by Goodreads and Amazon # of rankings:

Table #1: Popularity of Nebula Best Novel Nominees by # of Rankings at Amazon and Goodreads

Amazon Goodreads
Uprooted 969 30,650
Grace of Kings 164 2,541
Ancillary Mercy 163 7,425
The Fifth Season 78 3,829
Updraft 58 605
Barsk 35 145
Raising Caine 24 130

I don’t pay too much attention to fine differences but more order of magnitude (10x) issues. It’s clear that Uprooted is far more popular than any other of the Nebula nominees this year. Barsk, which led the SFWA Recommended Reading List and thus has a kind of fronturunner status right now, hasn’t had much expsoure yet. The book came out in December, and I think the question we face is whether Schoen can pick up enough SFWA readers by the end of March to be competitive with Novik. We’ll have to see how the next month goes.

As a final note, you can see in this chart how differently Amazon and Goodreads track books. Grace of Kings does well on Amazon but poorly on Goodreads, for instance. Amazon and Goodreads track different audiences, and neither of those audiences may be particularly well synced with SFWA voters. In fact, I’ve not found a good correlation between these popularity measures and who wins the Nebula. So you can’t simply say Uprooted is popular and Barsk is not; it matters whether or not you’re popular with the SFWA voting audience.

Over at the Heart of Europe, Nicholas Whyte tracks some slightly different data but equally interesting data (Goodreads owners, Library Thing). Check his post out here.

How about book scores? Those are even less predictive of the Nebula; Annihilation won last year with a very low average ranking on Amazon and Goodreads. Still, here’s the data:

Table #2: Popularity of Nebula Best Novel Nominees by Rating at Amazon and Goodreads

Amazon Goodreads
Barsk 4.9 3.91
Raising Caine 4.8 4.17
Updraft 4.7 3.71
The Fifth Season 4.7 4.34
Uprooted 4.5 4.18
Ancillary Mercy 4.3 4.25
Grace of Kings 3.9 3.76

Talk about inconsistent! We’ve got a huge 1 star difference for Barsk and Updraft. Goodreads and Amazon have different suggested scales, so that accounts for some of the difference. What I’d take from this chart is that reader struggled with Grace of Kings, generally liked The Fifth Season, Uprooted, and Ancillary Mercy, and that we don’t have enough rankings on Barsk, Raising Caine, and Updraft to say anything sensible. Like I noted, though, I don’t think these scores have any bearing on the Nebula.

Let’s look at prior Nebula and Hugo history. If you’ve won before, doesn’t that mean you have the fanbase to win again?

Nebula Noms Nebula Wins Hugo Noms Hugo Wins
Liu (Grace of Kings) 8 1 4 3
Jemisin (The Fifth Season) 4 0 2 0
Schoen (Barsk) 3 0 1 0
Gannon (Raising Caine) 2 0 0 0
Leckie (Ancillary Mercy) 2 1 2 1
Wilde (Updraft) 0 0 0 0
Novik (Uprooted) 0 0 1 0

That’s a lot of prior nominations for Ken Liu. Is he due for another win? It might work the other way—he’s lost 7 Nebulas in a row after his win for “The Paper Menagerie” back in 2012 (that story also won the Hugo and the World Fantasy Award). Do Liu’s fans only have the ability to get nominations but not wins? How about Jemisin (4 losses / 0 wins) or Schoen (3 losses / 0 wins)? Due for a win or just not popular enough with the SFWA voters? Could someone totally fresh to the Nebulas (Novik/Wilde) sneak in? Or will people go with our only prior Best Novel winner with Leckie?

Some other factors to consider: by my reckoning, only Barsk and Uprooted are stand-alone stories, complete in one volume. The other books are part of a series. It’s hard to jump into the middle of a series if you’re unfamiliar with the earlier books, so that’s a strike against Gannon and Leckie. First books in a series do fine in the Nebulas (see Leckie’s win 2 years ago), but there’s also some danger of such a book not feeling “complete.”

In some ways, Wilde’s nomination is a key one. It’s the first time we’ve seen a novel receive both a Nebula Nomination and an Andre Norton nomination (the SFWA YA category). I don’t know what that means for Wilde’s chances in either, but it may signal a loosening of the SFWAs attitude towards YA fiction in the Best Novel category. That could have major implications moving forward.

I’m going to let the Nebula dust settle for a couple weeks before I come back and try to predict the winner of this award.

9 responses to “Nebula Nominees Out: Some Initial Data”

  1. RD says :

    “In some ways, Wilde’s nomination is a key one. It’s the first time we’ve seen a novel receive both a Nebula Nomination and an Andre Norton nomination (the SFWA YA category). I don’t know what that means for Wilde’s chances in either, but it may signal a loosening of the SFWAs attitude towards YA fiction in the Best Novel category.”

    Updraft is actually an adult book that has crossover YA appeal, but it’s marketed as adult by the publisher.

    • chaoshorizon says :

      I think the line is so hard to tell today—for instance, I don’t know what it is about some books that makes them eligible for the Norton, versus some not. I’ve seen Updraft talked about in both ways in different places.

  2. airboy says :

    Congratulations on the accuracy of your forecast!

    Forecasting is only as useful as the accuracy of your predictions (and the value of the decrease in uncertainty). You are doing an excellent job.

    What is sad to me is there is only one book among the nominees that I have any interest in reading. I’ve read the Gannon book. It was OK.

    I looked up everything else on amazon and read the “pro reviews” and a smattering of the reader reviews. Uprooted looks like it could have potential. Everything else – does not seem to be worth my time to pick up.

    Regretfully, the Nebulas continue on their path of being a sign of “don’t bother” to me.

    • chaoshorizon says :

      It’s good I was accurate here—I’ll need that to make up the Hugos, which are going to be near-impossible to predict this year.

      • airboy says :

        I bought Uprooted yesterday. Read 12% or so. It is very well written and quite gripping.

      • chaoshorizon says :

        I really liked the first half of Uprooted; it fell off a little for me towards the end. You can see why, with the mix of fairy tale feel and more modern writing, it was as popular as it was. I’m about 2/3 of the way through Barsk, which has been strange but interesting so far. I’ll have my Review Round-Up of that book up later this week.

  3. airboy says :

    Finished Uprooted. Agree with your observation that the book falls off towards the end. The last 5% tied up the loose ends well.

    To avoid spoilers this is vague – I found the conflict at the tower unbelievable in the responses of the main protagonists.

  4. MadProfessah says :

    I just found a copy of Barsk in my local library (Pasadena/Glendale) so have bumped that up to my TBR pile. Also, on there is Gannon’s 3rd Caine book but I seriously doubt the 3rd book will be as good as the first one was.

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