This will be my third year nominating and voting in the Hugo Awards for the year’s best sci-fi and fantasy, and it’s only just now that I feel like I’ve garnered a solid understanding of the process.
The basic “how-to” questions are easy enough to answer. You buy a supporting membership for the current WorldCon (or, for nominations, use a supporting membership from last year’s WorldCon), which is usually about $50. Wait for the nominations to open (usually January), get an email with instructions for a ballot link, and nominate up to five entries in each category before nominations close at some time in the spring (this year: April 30).
I’m not going to rehash all of the logistics, because Adri Joy at Nerds of a Feather already did it all back in 2020. Some of the links are out of date, but the basics are there. What the categories mean, how to find what’s eligible (here’s an updated link to an excellent crowdsourced Hugo spreadsheet), you get the idea.
But because this is exactly the kind of nerd I am, I want to spend a little bit more time talking about the E Pluribus Hugo scoring system and its practical effects on crafting a nominating ballot. If you don’t care about the details, just nominate some things and let the math do what it does. If you’re curious, read on. And if you’re curious about the practical effects but not the voting mechanics, skip the next couple paragraphs and pick back up in the following section.
The E Pluribus Hugo Nomination System
So the E Pluribus Hugo system is an attempt to synthesize hundreds of disparate opinions while simultaneously minimizing the chances of bad actors gaming the system (yes, this has been tried). It effectively splits each person’s nominating ballot for each category into two different scores. There’s a raw total of Nominations, where every entry on every ballot is counted as one Nomination. But it also gives a Point to each nominator for each category, splitting them evenly between each item nominated. So if you nominate one work in a category, it receives one Nomination and one Point (this is sometimes called a “bullet vote”). If you nominate the maximum of five works in a category, each one receives one Nomination and .2 Points.
The Nominations and Points are tallied, and the two entries (plus ties) with the lowest number of Points are compared. Of the two with the lowest number of Points, the one with the fewest Nominations is eliminated. If a work you nominated is eliminated, its Points are redistributed to the other works on your ballot. If you only nominated one thing in a category, the full Point disappears when your nomination is eliminated, since you have nothing else in the category. If you nominated five things in the category, when one is eliminated, its fifth-of-a-point is redistributed, and the remaining four nominations now each have one Nomination and .25 Points. And so on down the line.
This process continues until the nominations are whittled down to a top six, which will constitute the Hugo finals (also called the “Hugo shortlist”) for that category. Because of this scoring structure, the works with the top five Point totals (not including ties, and keeping in mind that Point totals change as works are eliminated) are guaranteed positions in the finals, as they will never be in the bottom two to be compared by Nomination count. On the other hand, only the very top most-Nominated work is guaranteed a finals position. Even the second most-Nominated work could theoretically be eliminated if the top two in Nomination count are both outside the top five in Point total and get compared against each other before the finals are set.
Practically, this is unlikely, but it’s not at all unusual for one of the top six in Nomination count to miss the finals. In fact, this happened four times just last year. My favorite novella of 2021, Adrian Tchaikovsky’s Elder Race, had just the 8th-most Nominations for Best Novella (ignoring the totals for Martha Wells’ wildly popular Fugitive Telemetry, for which she declined nomination), but as it had the 5th-most Points, it was never in the bottom two comparison, and it remained safe. The ballot cut ended up coming down to Alix E. Harrow’s A Spindle Splintered (5th in Nominations, 6th in Points) and Catherynne M. Valente’s Comfort Me With Apples (6th in Nominations, 7th in Points), with A Spindle Splintered earning the final shortlist spot. Additionally, “L’Esprit de L’Escalier” (Best Novelette) and Small Gods (Best Fanzine) never dropped out of the top four in Points, despite being outside the top six in Nominations, earning finals positions in their respective categories. And then Small Gods proceeded to actually win the Hugo.
On the other side of the coin, there were nine instances last year where the final round of comparison eliminated the sixth-highest Point-getter due to having fewer Nominations than the seventh in Points. In fact, in the Best Novelette category, Aliette de Bodard’s “Mulberry and Owl” was in the top six in both Points and Nominations and still missed the shortlist. “L’Esprit de L’Escalier” had fewer Nominations, but so many Points that it stayed comfortably in the top five, with the final comparison coming down to “Mulberry and Owl” (6th in Points, 6th in Nominations) and “Colors of the Immortal Palette” (7th in Points, 5th in Nominations), which was won by the latter due to a higher Nomination count.
So what does this all mean practically? Well, the splitting and recombining of Points does a very good job of minimizing the ill effects of slate voting, as demonstrated nicely in a blog post by Django Wexler. While the Points are split at the beginning, the recombination process focuses everyone’s Points on the things that really have a chance to make the shortlist, and after enough rounds, a higher number of honest votes will force potential slate votes to similarly consolidate onto a much smaller number of top choices. It’s only these top choices that last until the very last comparison whose Points are never consolidated.
And this leads me to the crucial strategic takeaway: the incentive to limit your nominations only applies when nominating popular works. Yes, nominating five things will split the Points on your ballot. But any of those Points assigned to things that don’t end up in the top seven will eventually be reassigned to the rest of your choices. Throw in something that’s excellent and no one else has heard of, and you’ll get the warm fuzzy feelings for nominating it, but it will be quickly eliminated and your Points will be redistributed to your nominations with a realistic chance. So go ahead and nominate those hipster favorites–either they’ll have more fans than you think and make a run at the ballot, or their Points will be reassigned to the rest of your ballot and won’t take away from your popular favorites’ chances to make the shortlist. It’s also worth noting here that the top 16 Point-getters are published (in what is often called the “Hugo longlist”) after the winners are announced in the fall, so even if your obscure favorite is eliminated long before realistic finals contention, it may still get the honor of finishing among the top 16. That’s not nothing.
Another nice strategic result is that it takes away the incentive to overstuff your ballot. Unless you’re an incredible volume reader who keeps up with the new releases, you’re not likely to have five favorites in every category. But you don’t have to fill out each category with five Nominations. If you have fewer clear favorites, the ones you do nominate will have extra Points. There’s no doubt that the most widely-read books among Hugo voters have a massive advantage in making the ballot, but at least the scoring system incentivizes nominators to only include popular works if they find them exceptional. Again, it’s not nothing.
- I spent years being confused about how word counts worked when determining what category a work should be nominated for. As it turns out, there is a 20% leeway rule, so some works are eligible for multiple length categories, and nominations will be moved to the category where they were most nominated. This can lead to situations where a novel for Nebula purposes is considered a novella for Hugo purposes, which I expect to see this year with Nicola Griffith’s Spear.
- It’s easy to forget about the non-fiction categories, but this is a great opportunity to honor artists, fan writers, related works, and others. I will never encourage people to nominate in categories they know nothing about (so I’ll personally be skipping Fancast, Graphic Novel, and Dramatic Presentation), but most readers will at least encounter the work of Professional Artists, and anyone still reading this essay has encountered the work of at least one very obscure Fan Writer (and very likely more).
- The Hugos have an unfortunate tendency to be dominated by Americans. In recognition of this, works first published outside the United States are given two eligibility periods: the year in which they’re first published, and the year in which they’re first published in the US. Incidentally, this applies to both of the books at the top of my Lodestar nominating list this year: Lonely Castle in the Mirror was eligible upon its Japanese publication in 2017 and again this year following its American publication in 2022, and Unraveller is eligible this year upon its UK publication in 2022 but will also be eligible next year, due to a 2023 US publication date.
- I mentioned declined nominations earlier, which don’t happen often but do happen occasionally. If you nominate something and the creator declines the nomination, the elimination is applied after the iterative score comparisons. If it’s eliminated due to insufficient support, its Points will be redistributed as usual. But if it isn’t eliminated before the top six is set, its Points are never redistributed, and the 7th-place item simply moves onto the shortlist. This also applies to ineligible works (and happened as recently as last year, when a graphic novel published back in 2020 still gained the most Points before being excluded on the grounds of ineligibility).
- I’m still working on my own nominating ballot, especially in the non-fiction categories, but I’d be remiss in not mentioning my 2022 Recommended Reading List. There’s a lot of great stuff on there, if I do say so myself.