Self-Published Books vs. Literary Awards: In Response to Linda Nagata


I’m a little late to the party, but Linda Nagata kindly rebutted my original post on the logistical issues of literary awards as a rationale for the rejection of self-published books from the consideration lists.  Here, I’d like to respond to some of her arguments.

First, I’ll say that I don’t disagree with most of what Nagata has to say.  As an author who has traveled in both publishing camps, she of course understands the issue on a different level, and thus has valid points to make about the value of literary awards to SPed authors, etc.  My main point of contention surrounds this quote:

The way I see it, there are two main purposes to a literary award: (1) to bring attention to specific books and authors, and by so doing (2) to shape the genre. Whether (1) & (2) come to pass or not, neither purpose is harmed or diminished by consideration of a self-published work.

This may be an issue of wording, but I don’t consider these two components as the purposes of literary awards.  While the “shaping the genre” is certainly an effect of an award, to some extent, it is also a somewhat ambitious concept to apply to an extremely focused practice, particularly since “shaping,” as I see it, is organic rather than artificial.  We shape the genre by our reading choices and what we talk about as a community, not by recognizing works as “good” by a set of disparate, cross-purpose standards — as all awards invariably are.  Awards certainly cross over with the trend-setters and shaping works, but I find it hard to imagine the genre shaped purposefully by awards as opposed to by side effect.  This is particularly true of populist awards, which certainly suggest some potential for shaping, but which themselves are fickle, shifting, and disparate in form.  What the public likes one year will not match what they like the next, and in the long course of time, what they liked in 1987 may have been forgotten in 2007.  Curated awards suffer from a separate issue, which I’d simply call the limits of critical focus.  (This is a somewhat truncated explanation, so I hope the reader will forgive me here.)

The first of Nagata’s points is, of course, related.  For me, awards are not there to bring attention to works, but rather to recognize works that fit within a certain paradigm based on that paradigm’s criteria.  This is where the wording comes in, as I see something different between “recognizing” and “bring attention to.”  The first denotes the idea that this work deserves attention because it meets certain criteria, while the second seems to have a more directed shaping effect — i.e., here’s a work you should talk about.  Recognition, however, is about achievement.  In curated awards, it’s an acknowledgement that your work successfully fulfilled the award’s criteria, and is thus noteworthy.  In populist awards, it’s the public’s acknowledgement of the same, but with less stringent and often impossibly variable standards.

I suspect Nagata and I don’t actually disagree here, though.  Basically, I see the literary award as contingent upon its established criteria, however nebulous, and the process of applying that criteria necessarily specifies texts and author.  For example, the Nebulas only recognize science fiction and fantasy works from authors who are members of the SFWA; from there, the awards themselves only recognize what that small community determines is “the best,” which itself isn’t a hard set criteria we can accurately describe, since it is entirely subjective.  As such, narrowing by publication method is just another set of arbitrary criteria.

The other thing I should mention here concerns the idea that the awards we have in our community are naturally open to SPed works.  While it is true that most (or all) of the awards are open to SPed works based on its given criteria for selection, there are few examples of such works appearing on lists from authors who themselves have not at one point, especially recently, had their work published traditionally.  This distinction may seem trivial, but I think it is important to recognize how our community applies validity to a given work.  In many respects, our community still does not look highly upon authors who have been published primarily on their own; it is far more forgiving when that author has a traditional publishing career either before or after the publication of an SPed work.  That’s something we’ll see change in the future — possibly when SFWA raises its pro payment rate for magazines to $0.25/word (ha) — but probably not after some form of mass culling or shift within self-publishing.

On that last sentence, I’d like to expand something I’d said before on the nature of the SPed world.  Nagata doesn’t address at length my contention about the quality of SPed works (not that she needed to, mind), but she does say the following:  “[That SPed works are more commonly bad in comparison to TPed works] is still a common assumption, so credibility is extremely important for a writer who chooses to publish her own work.”  I concur that recognition via an award is certainly good for any author, particularly since, as Nagata discusses briefly in her post, awards can have a measurable impact on one’s career.  However, Nagata’s track record is one that is fairly unique in the SP world.  In comparison to the sea of SPers, most of them are not also traditionally published and award winners.  Nagata, as it turns out, has won awards in the past — the Locus for best first novel[2] (The Bohr Maker) and the Nebula for best novella (Goddesses)(woot) — and she has most certainly had a decent career as a traditionally published writer of short and long fiction, though of late she has been primarily of the other stripe.  I don’t bring this up to discount her argument, nor to poke mean fingers at her career or anything (a considerably one, actually), but rather to point out that while she has made a value judgment on the matter of SPing, one which has led her to self-publish her work (good work, mind), she has also seen things from the other side.  She has taken a unique pathway, and one even more unique based on the shape of her career.

In other words, Nagata has a track record.  Previous fans of her work, and new fans, can look back at what she has published before in various places and say “well, look at that, she’s got all this going for her.”  As a reader, I can assess her career and her previous work and limit my concerns that I might waste my money on a really shitty book.  This isn’t a promise, of course, but I see the purchase of entertainment products as a sort of low-level form of gambling.  This is something that, as I only briefly suggested in the last essay, I can also apply to an established traditional publisher like Tor.  Sure, I’ve read some Tor books I really didn’t like.  But I’ve also read some incredible books from them, so a debut author with Tor is likely to get my attention simply on the basis of being with Tor.  That’s not unlike why I would give Nagata attention (and why I said:  she SPed The Red:  First Light, but we interviewed her because she’s Linda friggin Nagata).  It just makes it easier on me.  I don’t have to think twice.  And I imagine a lot of readers who don’t appreciate the SP world are like me, though probably less so than I imagine.  It’s an experiential apprehension, if you will.

And that’s the real problem for me:  quality and effective consumer evaluation.  There are certainly a lot of great things going on in the SPed world.  I’ve read some amazing SPed books, mostly by chance or word of mouth, but the field is so overwhelmed with people hoping they’ll be the next super rich SPer that it becomes nearly impossible to survey the field in any meaningful sense.  I can’t effectively make those consumer evaluations because assessing the quality of a given work becomes nearly impossible.  What is this author’s track record?  I don’t know, because this is their first book.  How do I know they got their book edited?  I don’t.  How do I know the words inside are better than the cheap cover on the outside?  I don’t.  How do I know they treated the writing process like a professional?  I don’t.  The gambles pile gets larger and larger…

In any case, that’s the last I’ll say on that (for now).


[1]:  correction:  all works are considered; the voting/nominations are specific to SFWA members — thanks to Linda Nagata.
[2]:  this originally said “best novel,” which is incorrect; thanks to Linda Nagata for the correction.

About the Author:

Shaun Duke is an aspiring writer, a reviewer, and an academic. He is currently an Assistant Professor of Digital Rhetoric and Writing at Bemidji State University. He received his PhD in English from the University of Florida and studies science fiction, postcolonialism, digital fan cultures, and digital rhetoric.

5 thoughts on “Self-Published Books vs. Literary Awards: In Response to Linda Nagata

  1. Thanks Shaun! An interesting exchange.

    Two minor corrections, though: my Locus award was for best first novel, not best novel. And, while it's true that only SFWA members vote on the Nebula awards, you do not have to be a SFWA member for your work to be considered. "All works first published in English, in the United States, during the calendar year, in the genres of science fiction, fantasy, or a related fiction genre are eligible for the Nebula Awards® in their respective categories."

  2. I'd argue that your definition of awards causing the effects of visibility and shaping of the genre vs. these being the actual motivations of awards, is a step toward the naive vs. a step toward the cynical. It would be purely cynical to believe that awards are purely political and commercial tools of the industry (which can easily include the hardcore fan base, which mostly consists of up-and-comers, hobbyists, loyalists, and wannabes, people who do partake in the politics and commercial concerns of the industry). But I think to ascribe zero political or commercial motivation to the practice of awards leans toward the dewy-eyed.

    I have much more experience with the film industry than the publishing world, but awards on the film side veer toward the hyper-political. Who is selected to select is political, which films are even in the running to BE selected is essentially a marketing ploy that runs for months. This includes smaller award events as well – the people are less powerful from a broader industry standpoint, but internal politics and commercial influence nevertheless play a significant part even then, just all contained to a different corner/group of people. Awards, festivals, etc. – they're all playing the game of relevancy, importance, because it all boils down to, frankly, financing for themselves as well.

    Especially for awards that have long been institutionalized, there's no escaping the human factors that inevitably take charge there. The awards want to remain relevant, they want publishers to care about them, they want to be noticed by the industry, they want to feel as though they have influence, and the surest way to accomplish all these things is to focus on the narrow wedge of material that either large or most-talked out publishers are offering.

    From a commercial standpoint, I think SPers will begin to get more attention when publishers begin to use awards as a way to discover the SPed works that they want to strike deals with, much like that deal that WOOL got last year (I'm not saying WOOL got this deal due to an award, I'm just thinking that this is the likely kind of deal that will emerge from awards taking on SPed material to a greater degree). When the non-SP commercial world finds a way to capitalize on awards and SP inclusion, that's when the shift will truly begin. That's my prediction. Until this occurs, awards won't find any benefit in SP inclusion. They won't gain enough new members, followers, recognition, or industry respect simply for being open-minded. And in this way, awards are very much about drawing attention to specific works, though in a quid pro quo way as it's also about drawing attention to the awards themselves. And defining the genre, too, because awards will follow publishers' lead on this, and in that sense they cement established thinking from the top down.

  3. Regardless of popular opinion or how many people agree or disagree, an award still boils down to one person's opinion of an artistic work. How do you judge art? It is always 100% subjective based on the judges background, experience and even their emotional state of mind.

    An award is generally "used" as a marketing tool to give social proof to the value and quality of a piece of work. Did you agree with the Academy Awards? How about the Miss Universe Pageant.

    An award's best use is marketing, plain and simple

    • Your first sentence is demonstrably false. I'm sure there's a relevant award somewhere which bases its decisions on the opinions of one individual, but I've yet to hear of such an literary award. Most awards have either a jury of individuals who make the selection process (often with some guiding award-specific rubric) OR open nominations and/or submissions either to the general public or some subset of a specific community (such as the Hugos, whose lists are nominated and voted on only those who register to do so). So, in fact, it doesn't come down to a single person's opinion of an artistic work, but the aggregate of opinions within a invariably differentiated body of "voters."

      As to the question about how one "judges art": I think this is an irrelevant question, as it implies that there is either no way *to* judge art OR there is a single or small set of methods for doing so. Evaluation of art is, as you note, subjective, but I don't see that is a real problem here.

      As to your second paragraph: this is also false. While writers might use awards as a marketing tool, awards in general are not inherently market-oriented. Their goals are rarely "to sell product" but to "recognize works" in some way, shape, or form. And since awards are quite varied in their approaches, each one is, relatively speaking, unique in its evaluative structure, meaning that what one award says about a field will differ from another, and each will have equal value (positive of negative). The marketing, however, comes later. Publishers use awards to sell books, but the awards themselves are not part of that process. That's a third party use.

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