“14 ways I’m thinking about the future of the Arthur C. Clarke Award.” An open letter to all science fiction fans and award-watchers from Tom Hunter, Award Director
There was a moment in time, on the 25th anniversary of the Clarke Award to be precise, when a lack of sustainable future funding could have seen us make the decision to close down the award on a successful quarter century rather than see it slowly fade away.
Five years later, as we now celebrate our 30th anniversary, we’re hopefully more resilient than perhaps we ever were, and now as the award’s director I’m able to focus my attention on the future of the award once more.
It has been my intention for quite some time now to use this significant anniversary to open up conversation about our future plans , and I started that off recently when The Guardian gave me an open invitation to write about our anniversary year.
And the conversation has definitely begun. Past judges of the award and concerned authors are already out of the gate and blogging, way ahead of me, and I’m delighted to see the science fiction press is starting to report on the conversation.
One of my own personal commitments was to go into depth on some of the bigger issues (but probably not some of the more dull administrative ones) on this blog, but before I can do that I’ve realised I need an overview post like this one to introduce all the different areas currently under scrutiny, and there’s a lot!
Here then are some of the biggest ideas currently under debate inside Clarke Award HQ. I’ve separated them out into a list with an overview and my own director’s take on where I currently stand on a suggestion, or at least my thinking behind a particular initiative.
To be clear these are all my positions at time of writing, and in this first post the simple fact of length has meant I haven’t covered every nuance of even my own opinion let alone the counter debate, so I fully reserve the right to be swayed by compelling conversation!
Thank you for reading.
PS. In case you’re wondering, I’ve listed each point alphabetically rather than by order of priority.
14 ways in which I’m thinking about the future of the Arthur C. Clarke Award.
1. Arthur C. Clarke and Ada Lovelace
In 2013 the shortlist we announced was much discussed for being all male.
Absolutely correct that should be a major topic of debate too, although I was glad that a lot of commentators that year also picked up on some of the more nuanced parts of the issues, noting that our judging panel that year was 4 female to 1 male jurors for instance, and that they were selecting from a submissions list where only a quarter of the books were by women writers.
While awards will always attract conversations about diversity, sometimes they are not the best site for that conversation to take place as this particular year demonstrated. While some bemoaned this apparent lack of diversity, others were reassured that the judges in questions (being very, very aware of issues around issues of visibility and so forth) had apparently selected first for the books they thought best rather than applying any form of quotas or similar.
I like to think that the award shortlist that year served as something of a focus for raising awareness around the broader questions of how we can increase diversity within the science fiction publishing community, but it certainly didn’t help much in terms of immediate answers or practical solutions.
What it did do though was introduce me to the rather wonderful Ada Lovelace Day, which is looking to address many of the same issues in STEM disciplines, and its equally wonderful organiser Suw. I’ve recently accepted an invitation to join ALD’s advisory steering committee, and we are currently looking at developing joint projects that will link up our two organisations.
One thing I have learned from Suw is that these projects need to be long term and measureable, rather than the quick fix of a new fashionable theory or the release of an award shortlist, just like the daily trial and error practice of real science in fact.
I see collaborations such as these as a better way to work long term on this important issue than a system of quotas or even a separate shortlist for women that some people have suggested. I’ve talked to a lot of people on this, and it’s clear to me that neither of those suggestions are popular with the very authors this would supposedly help. What I’m clearly told is that the issue needs to be addressed more in the ratio of books by female to male writers published, and thus submitted to us, rather than the end product of a shortlist.
2. Book sales
When I first became involved with the award I tried to speak to as many different people as possible on what action they might want me to take first. One thing that came up again over and over was that, while the award was a very nice thing to have, it had little exposure or broader awareness and made no real difference to book sales in the ways other awards definitely did.
I’m now told by publishing sources that a Clarke win can translate into something like a 300% increase in sales in the months afterwards, which I call both great and only a great start.
At this point I imagine some of our biggest critics will try and take this as proof that, yes, Hunter has finally admitted that under his watch the Clarke Award has prioritised commerce over critical consideration and he now instructs his tame judges to select books based on a complex algorithm of popular ‘likeability’ rather than letting them choose ones they actually think are the best.
Sorry, but no. There’s a few reasons why the Chair of Judges is a separate role from mine, and also why our judges are independently nominated by our supporting organisations not selected (or vat-grown) by me. I’m not actually usually even in the same building when judging meetings take place for this very reason, and only find out the shortlist later when decisions are final.
In this way I’m actually just like everyone else currently reading this when you hear our latest shortlist for the first time, I just get to have all those reactions a few weeks earlier than you and very quietly sat on my own!
My job isn’t to somehow create a shortlist that we think we can promote, it’s to get out there and promote the shortlist I’m presented with by our judging panel to the best of my ability.
Speaking of which, if by some chance you haven’t seen it yet, here’s this year’s Clarke Award shortlist.
3. Calendar of announcement dates
While the award has broadly stuck to a rough calendar for announcements (this year being a deliberate major deviation from that plan precisely to include 30th anniversary opportunities like this conversation) there has been a call from some quarters for a more fixed schedule and I’m looking at that.
Some of our date moves in the last decade have been pure necessity (scheduling judging meetings for example) or done to work better with the publications of SFX magazine, our media partners, or have been deliberate experiments into things like seeing what works better for selling books (see above).
A certain degree of flexibility of dates is important to the needs of the award right now, but if there are opportunities to lock down our calendar more firmly, I’m certainly open to exploring them.
4. Charitable status
The Serendip Foundation, the organisation that owns and administers the Arthur C. Clarke Award, is run as a company, although one staffed entirely by volunteers.
Myself and our Chair of Judges Andrew M. Butler are the company’s two directors, and we have recently taken on a third member of the team, Stephanie Holman, who has joined us to administer a number of the projects outlined here as well as leading the team as our financial expert (for which I am hugely grateful).
There is a good question to be answered though about whether we might be more successful in our broader mission, and potential future fundraising, if we looked to secure status as a charity.
Right now, my own feeling is that our current company status gives us more flexibility, but while a straight charity status might not be for us I have learned a lot by looking at mixed models such as social enterprises.
For instance, one way we were able to successfully pull the award back from the brink five years ago was to adapt the social enterprise model with my consulting commercially with organisations such as the British Library and Tate Britain on their audience development programmes with the fee going to the Clarke Award coffers.
5. Events organisation
One area I’m keen to build up in the future is our running more events across the year. Our kickstarted Write The Future conference in 2013 was a big success for us, so I’d be keen to repeat that experiment as well as look at other formats and also partnering more with other organisers.
If that sounds like you, please do get in touch.
6. Digital only submissions
Right now the award only accepts submissions in book form (our rules were first set 30 years ago remember) which means we’re starting to miss out on submissions from digital only imprints and similar.
I think we’re going to change that, although we do need to acknowledge that many judges prefer to work with physical copies still, if only so they can see all the books piled up in front of them.
My major concern is that publishers don’t all try to save postage costs and all ask to submit digitally. In theory this would be fine if all judges were happy to read all books this way and save bookshelf space, but sadly major publishers are rather hamstrung by their own legal teams who won’t allow editors and PRs to send out ebooks in copies that are actually good formats for ereaders; and that’s even before they insist on crippling files with DRM or adding disruptive formatting and ‘sample copy’ text throughout the book — we need to read these properly after all if we’re going to judge them
Basically publishers, I’m not sitting manually converting over 100 PDFs into friendly ebook formats for our judges every year, but if we can sort that issue out I think there are advantages to tweaking our rules here and allowing digital submissions for ebook only titles.
7. Geek Pound research project
The Geek Pound is our codename for a project we’ve been conducting in collaboration with Birkbeck University’s Centre for Contemporary Literature that seeks to survey the extent of geek influence across the creative and cultural industries and identify how value is created in the intersection between these organisations and audiences.
Initial research has been completed, although there’s still much more work we’d love to do, and our aim is to begin releasing this information as part of our 30th anniversary celebrations, starting with an ebook collection of our findings and ideas to date.
I’m hoping our mix of marketing insight coupled with the academic rigour that Birkbeck have brought to the table will be of value to authors, publishers and fans alike, and also that it’ll be a fun and geeky read.
8. Governance & succession planning
As mentioned in my section on charitable status, the Clarke Award is currently administered by just 3 volunteers. Could we do more if we had more people involved?
A fair few people have promoted themselves to me as viable candidates over the years, but while many have been keen to have a say in the running of the award (or just like telling me they could do a better job with it) right now one of the reasons the award has weathered its troubles so well has been because of our ability to move faster on key decisions than a continual vote by committee model would likely have allowed us.
Still, as I look to the future again, there are many potential advantages to be gained from our increasing our board membership, not least the fact that when I first took this role a decade ago I only planned to stay for 5 years.
I changed my mind back then because of the need to build a new financial resilience into the award to keep it going, but one day sooner or later I intend to step down after I’ve recruited my replacement.
Padawans wanted. Apply here.
9. Hub for UK Fans
An idea under much discussion right now in UK SF critical circles is that there is a need, or at least a desire for, some form of hub or home for the critical analysis and deeper SF conversation that will replace previous sites and message boards etc that have fallen by the wayside as fashions and technologies change and owners move to new projects.
This is perhaps not directly related to the Clarke Award, but since much of the conversation I have seen on this has come at least in part from discussions around the award (or more precisely, discussions about the lack of good places to go online and argue about the Clarke Award) I thought it appropriate to cover it here.
Two things: First, I definitely don’t think that the award’s own website is the best place to host this as some have suggested. Simply put, I don’t think it’s appropriate to host a conversation that, by its nature and my experience of much of that critique, is likely to question the decisions of our judging panels. I’ll happily send traffic your way, but I don’t think we’re the best place to for that part of the conversation to live online.
Second. There’s been some talk about how genre institutions such as ours aren’t interested in furthering critical analysis and debate. I disagree with that opinion completely and perhaps some critics have confused the role of what an award director is actually for e.g. I’m here to positively promote the shortlist our judges select every year (and as I’ve said before, I’m not even usually in the room when that choice is made) not to provide the means for critics to take those decisions apart afterwards. That bit’s up to you all to organise I’m afraid.
That said, until recently I wasn’t even aware that any SF critics would even lukewarmly welcome my involvement in this sort of thing, but if there is a practical way of me assisting with the creation of a critical hub, then I would be very happy to lend my particular expertise if it can be of use.
It’s worth noting that while Serendip administer the award, the actual decisions about which books get shortlisted and win are made by judges nominated by our three supporting organisations, not Serendip staff.
Right now those three supporting organisations are the Science Fiction Foundation, the British Science Fiction Association and the SCI-FI-LONDON film festival, who collectively nominate five judges for us every year.
I’m reluctant to stop working with any of these organisations to be honest. The SFF and BSFA have been with us since the beginning, and SCI-FI-LONDON were a key player in keeping the award going over the last decade.
If you attended one of our award ceremonies held at their festival opening nights any time in the last decade or so, you should know they were donating that space to us free of charge and also that we were very grateful for the wine everyone was drinking (that was them paying for it all every year, not us).
Still, the point has been made that perhaps we need to look to other organisations to nominate judges for us as well somehow, especially if we want to ensure a continuing diversity in our mix of jurors. The conversation continues.
11. Limiting submissions numbers
When I first became involved with the award we were receiving something like 40 to 45 books a year. In recent years that number has jumped to over 100 books a year.
There’s a few good reasons for that, ranging from an increase in genre publishers & small presses as well as more mainstream imprints being increasingly willing/keen to submit their titles to a science fiction prize and also simply my spending a lot of time on the phone chasing editors up to make sure we get stuff sent in. The increasing reach and reputation of the award helps too.
However, people have recently started suggesting to me that this is perhaps too large a submissions pile. This typically doesn’t stem from concern for the judges however, but rather a notion that the award should only be concerning itself with the best books to begin with and chucking out the rest.
In short the Clarke Award should become more like the Booker Prize, which rather than allowing publishers to submit all of their eligible titles asks them to make a choice by actively limiting the number of books that will be accepted — full information on their guidelines for submission here.
I find this all rather ironic given one persistent criticism of the Clarke in its early years was that it was trying to be too much like the Booker by willfully picking more literary works over so-called heartland science fiction in an effort to somehow escape the genre ghetto or similar.
Today it seems some of those same people want us to be more, not less, like the Booker.
I’m not keen on this idea at all for a number of reasons both practical and more fundamental to our mission, which differs greatly from that of the Booker.
Mostly though I think it’s important that our judges be able to see as much of the work out there as possible, and given our close knit community I would hate to see us effectively creating a system where editors are forced to pick favourites or so-called solid bets from their lists.
This would seemingly penalise our big genre publishers the most as they will be the ones forced to make tough choices (and explain to the rest of their omitted authors that while they are obviously great, they are not a Clarke Award kind of great) while mainstream imprint editors who have that one potential Clarke book will seemingly benefit.
I think this is a result the people proposing this idea think would somehow improve the award, but my own experience (gained from actually doing the spade work calling in books every year) suggests to me that in the longer term it’ll be the outlier submissions that dry up if editors find themselves repeatedly paying higher submissions fees but not getting shortlisted. I’ve put a lot of work into building up our submissions numbers over the last few years and am reluctant to burn all that away.
Also, while I can always find other funding models, it’s worth noting that right now the way we charge for submissions works well for us without overly breaking the budget for submitting publishers, and a move to limit submissions will necessarily require us to mimic the Booker in one more crucial way and significantly raise our fees. This again will likely have a negative impact on many smaller imprints and presses putting their books forward.
My position is a strong NO vote right now. Depending on how the conversation progresses I may return to this subject in a future blog.
A fair few people are vocally campaigning for us to add a long list announcement to our year.
I can see the arguments being made and can understand where a lot of people are coming from, but while I am open to being persuaded I am not so sure this is a great idea in the way that our decision to begin releasing our full submissions data every year probably was a good and positive thing to do.
There’s a lot to cover on this one, so this will almost certainly be the solo subject of my next blog post, but in brief I’m not convinced that adding more lists is the best use of our finite time and resources.
It also feels more like copying than innovation, like the feature creep requests fans of tech and software products continually bug their favourite companies for but are invariably always disappointed by if/when the company shifts from their original vision; the one that made you such a fan of their stuff in the first place.
My jury is still out on this one, but I’ve yet to hear a really compelling argument in favour of long lists whereas concerns have been raised to me that there’s a real danger of list fatigue kicking in before the real shortlist is out, with fans losing interest early once they know their own favourite books aren’t in the running. I have to say this argument has a real resonance with how I see the majority of people engaging with our announcements at present.
13. Self-published author eligibility
First thought: Uh oh, talking about the monster that is self-pub. You’re gonna need a bigger blog.
This is definitely a big question with complex implications for the future of the award, and I’ll be returning to it again I’m sure. Briefly though the Clarke Award does not currently accept self-published titles and this goes back to when the award was first conceived 30 years ago and when self or vanity publishing was a very different beast.
The lines are blurring though, technologies are unquestionably changing and, more importantly from the award’s perspective, we are now missing out on some great books that maybe we ought to be considering.
For example, a couple of years ago Clarke Award winner Jeff Noon, author of one of my personal favourite Clarke winners Vurt, published an original new novel Channel Skin as a digital only publication. That’s right, as noted in a previous point above, a past Clarke Award winner was already ineligible because of their chosen digital only medium, and that’s even before we get to the bit where Jeff had opted to go solo on this new project and self-publish.
Of course he’s far from alone these days, and we have to ask ourselves if we’re already missing out on people who actually won our award in the past, who else might we be missing?
Turns out we don’t need to look very far, because our own shortlist this year contains a novel, The Long Way to a Small Angry Planet by Becky Chambers, which was originally self-published and went on to be shortlisted by our friends The Kitschies last year because of that and only later became eligible for the Clarke once it was picked up by Hodder & Stoughton.
If we stopped there, opening up the award to self-published authors would seem like something of a no-brainer, but of course opening up to some would necessarily mean opening up to lots of others, and there are lots of self-published authors out there now, many of whom are, to politely borrow a phrase from earlier, maybe not a Clarke Award kind of great; And this in a time when the award is already receiving larger numbers of books to consider every year. How will our judges cope, assuming we even manage to recruit new ones as the tide rises?
Now, of course The Kitschies seem to manage this ok right now, so maybe we don’t need to worry, or maybe as a newer award word hasn’t really gotten around yet they’re open to self-pub and they’re now cursing me from their tentacular lair for revealing this rule to the world.
As any literary agent with a looming slush pile will tell you (which is, of course, every literary agent) it is of course entirely possible to decide very, very quickly if a book simply sucks. For us though the problem isn’t just one of volume of submissions and varying levels of quality, but is also complicated further by the fact that the award charges a fee these days for submissions, something which is all tied in with how we’re now more financially stable. It isn’t much (£100 flat fee for multiple submissions from your list basically) but while a publishing business and even the small presses can budget ahead for that, there are questions about whether we should treat self-published authors the same. Some suggest a discounted rate while others point out that if you are self-publishing professionally you’re basically in business for yourself and should budget accordingly with no preferential treatment if you think awards are something you want to consider.
My main worry with this is that I am possibly going to find myself in a situation where authors like Becky or Jeff will rule themselves out on financial grounds precisely because are aware of the realities of both awards and publishing, whereas the school of self-publishers who basically type The End on draft one then upload to Amazon seconds later are precisely the people who will pay a fee because they are convinced they will win. And for anyone thinking I’m perpetuating evil myths about self-publishers, I’m sorry but while I’ve just gone to great lengths to provide counters to that myth above with Jeff and Becky, I’m afraid I actually get approached by authors like this a lot already.
And that’s another part of the problem. While I suspect I could potentially solve all of our funding problems very quickly by taking cheques from all-comer self-published authors, I’m not comfortable with the idea of becoming some kind of vanity award that takes money from people when I know there’s no real chance of them being considered seriously by our judges.
It’s possible that there might be a third way to work this, possibly based around our judges’ ability to ask us to call in books, but while I’m playing with that idea now and seeing if it could work, the mechanism at present is clunky and would, at some point, likely have to involve a form of rejection letter to authors the judges decided to say thanks, but no thanks to.
I’ll come back to this idea again on a later blog, but for right now consider this one is filed under Challenged Accepted.
14. Shortlist size
So, having already covered longlists, increasing submissions sizes from self-pub or the reverse option of deliberately limiting submissions in order to ensure a supply of only the good stuff as it were, I wanted to turn quickly to the shortlist itself.
Thirty years ago, when submissions numbers were much lower, the first shortlist was actually made up of eight books. For the following three years it was seven books, and it was only then that the award found its magic number and settled on the six book shortlist we all know and love today.
And that was back when submissions were more like 40 books a year, if that.
Now with us regularly receiving over 100 books a year, the question we’re asking is, rather than mess around longlists why not just get straight to the point with a bigger shortlist that would allow the judges to highlight more books in one larger shortlist to rule them all?
Eight books might work well again, or even twelve which is the number some people have suggested as a longlist figure, so again why bother calling it a longlist, let’s just have more people actually shortlisted — it looks better on the cover of a book for a start.
It’s a question I’m thinking about a lot right now. We’re getting more and more diverse books every year with mainstream and YA publishers increasingly submitting, and that’s before we touch on the self-pub thing again.
Would a larger shortlist be more of a focal point for both debate and promotion than the staggered and potentially fatiguing extra step of a longlist? I’ll leave that idea hanging for now, but for me this feels like more of a new move than the idea of copying a longlist format from another award, and feels somehow more in the spirit of Sir Arthur to me.
That’s everything from me for now except to say thank you for reading all this way and that I really would value the thoughts of all science fiction fans and awards-watchers on everything I’ve discussed above.
As I said at the beginning, please remember my own opinions or those of my colleagues are still open to change, it simply seemed more open and honest to state my own current position above rather than do a straight pros and cons breakdown or something.
I’d also like to make one final request.
There are contact me links dotted in the text above, but to save you looking here’s one again:
Please share and comment and blog on all of the above as much as you would like, but please also do me one little favour. There’s a lot to take in above, so if you have a question about something please do get in touch and ask me. This is a fluid conversation and I’m happy and available to give personal and more specific answers as much as I can.
On behalf of the future of the Arthur C. Clarke Award, thank you again for reading.
Tom Hunter, Award Director