By Tom Hunter
First, congratulations to Gareth Powell, the winner of this year’s Guess the Clarke Shortlist competition!
Gareth was one of several people to correctly guess 3 of the 6 shortlisted titles, and his name was selected by our HAL 9000 random number selector.
Thank you to everyone who entered and for all the great books you nominated. Looking collectively across all of the entries received we can see that all 6 of the official shortlist titles were guessed by one or more of the entrants, just not all in one go (as indeed was the Shadow shortlist). I shall leave it others to draw conclusions about the predictability or otherwise of the award this year.
With our competition winner revealed, it seemed appropriate to dwell a little on the reasoning behind why the Clarke Award now makes a point of revealing its full submissions list every year.
The Clarke Award is now into its 4th decade as one of the premier prizes for science fiction literature, and while people mostly still view the Clarke as a fixed moment in the space/time continuum of the SF genre, the truth is that under the surface the award has always been slowly evolving and changing with the times, just as everything else does.
For example, back in the inaugural year of 1987, the award had eight shortlisted titles and it played with those numbers for a few years, up and down, eight, seven, six, before finally settling on its now familiar six-title format.
Many of the other significant changes happened behind the scenes – funding, administration, a shiny new logo and so on – but one of the most distinct for me, and one I am perhaps most proud of in my tenure as Award Director, is the decision to make our full submissions list public every year.
Now, I should be very clear to say submissions list, not a long-list, no, sir! Rather the complete list of eligible titles submitted for consideration to our judging panel by publishers from the year in contention.
2009, the first year we trialed this, was my third year with the award, and for me the time when I really started to get past the basics of administration (it’s a full time job, pretty much) and into the business of wider promotion. We’d started talking about press partnerships, social media was in the ascendancy, and I’d started toying with the idea of whether we could do more with our submissions data.
I had a few ideas and ambitions behind this plan. Most immediately, I’d been recruited onto the award team with the specific brief to look at the wider promotion of the award, and this seemed a great way to create another media moment in our news cycle without being needlessly stagey or creating another interim list before the official shortlist.
What really interested me though were the potential opportunities afforded by making our data public.
While the Clarke Award can never guarantee having every potentially eligible book submitted, we are able to offer a reasonably comprehensive ‘state of the nation’ snap shot via our lists, not only of the books themselves but also for deeper analysis into the numbers of submitting publishers, the demographic breakdowns of authors and similar should people want to take those numbers and run with them.
More immediately, after my first couple of spins in the director’s chair I was starting to learn all of the ongoing debates, criticisms and wishes that surrounded the award’s announcements every year.
The award was, in no particular order, overly predictable, willfully unpredictable as a tactic to generate PR controversy, trying too hard to be the Booker, ignoring the heartlands of SF, full of wrongheads (a lovely fannish term that one), and so on and so on – Business as usual for a book award in other words.
One particular phenomenon I noted was the first reaction to books that might not typically have appeared in the usual SF conversations but that were being nominated to the shortlist every year. Even the most ambitious or dedicated SF reader would probably not be approaching their reading in the way that our judges were, so it shouldn’t necessarily be so surprising that the judges might favour different books than a reader might from their own choice of reading in any given year.
Indeed, a piece of research we conducted a few years later showed how active SF readers might easily get through 50 or more books a year as well as purchasing a similar number of titles in that year. Good news for publishers you might think, but interestingly we also saw that of those 50 or so titles being read a year only perhaps 5 of those being read were from the year they were published. I’m sure you can imagine what else people were choosing to read just by looking at your own to-be-read shelves, but suffice to say even the most active readers were unlikely to be reading just UK SF novels and exclusively in the year of their publication.
When we broke down a lot of the negative commentary towards those apparent outlier shortlisted books, it was often the case that the person critiquing was not familiar with the titles and usually hadn’t actually read them if they were; a lot of the subtext seemed to be basically ‘I know about this stuff, and if I haven’t heard of it either I know less than I thought or this other stuff isn’t worth knowing.’
In my view, we would be putting something of value into the conversation by releasing our submissions lists and also demonstrating the breadth of books in contention so that the sudden appearance of a new author on the shortlists might not be so much of a surprise to the award watching community.
The other part of the decision to release the submissions lists was based on those books we don’t manage to call in.
One particular example from my first year, before we took the step to reveal our submissions, was the absence of Cormac McCarthy’s The Road from our shortlist – a title many people not only expected to see shortlisted but also saw as the most obvious winner for that year.
‘Why have the judges ignored it?’ they demanded, and sadly the obvious answer was while we would have loved to have it, it was not put forward.
You can put that case out there in response, but by that point the criticism is made and the argument has either moved on or you’re then met with demands for more information to clarify why it wasn’t put forward, did we ask for it, were we snubbed and so forth. Answers we might not be able to give based on our commitment to maintain some necessary privacy around award organisation and maintaining long-term relationships with publishers.
Again, the better, solution seemed to be to put out the full list of books actively under consideration so that serious award watchers (our primary audience for this type of release) could see precisely what our own judges were seeing as they deliberated.
Looking back over those post-submission release years, I would definitely recommend a similar approach to book prizes that are juried as we are and that work to a similar submissions model.
I think we’ve gone a long way to addressing some of the criticisms of old, although I should be clear our aim is not to reach some kind of position where the award is somehow magically accepted by everyone every year without critique – any sufficiently advanced technology may be indistinguishable from magic, but that particular trick sounds like pure sorcery to me.
It’s also a lot of fun. Pretty much every year we’ve run a competition of some kind to guess the shortlist, usually asking for some form of justification for the decision, and from this it’s been interesting to see that to date no one has successfully managed to guess all six shortlisted books, which kind of knocks the ‘predictable shortlist’ argument down a peg or too. It is much easier to declare something as obvious and predictable in hindsight, but much trickier to actually make the prediction.
What those guesses also do is provide some basis to another critique I regularly hear, namely that half the shortlist makes total sense whereas the other have appears less cohesive or similar. While I would not usually agree with that comment about our shortlists, we can at least see where it comes from when many of our own competition best guess entries typically manage 3 or 4 correct titles. Individual cognitive biases gain some reinforcement, but of course when we break down the data we see that it’s never the same 3 books that are being correctly guessed by everyone.
Now as we move further into the award’s fourth decade we’re seeing a distinct shift in the ways people respond to our lists and how we get information out there. Social media is still hugely valuable to us, of course, but the power of Twitter and the focused attention and interests of bloggers has definitely changed, and so we come full circle to look at how best we might utilize our submissions lists for future years.
For me the releasing of the list is still a powerful idea, and one I am reluctant to remove having now made it a regular feature of the award, but perhaps there are other ways to make better use of its information in years to come.
Could we, for instance, release details of submitted books as they are received rather than all in one go, or would we be able to bring more attention to the shortlist by releasing the submissions lists at the same time or perhaps a day later, regaining some of the shock of old but partnered with the opportunity for deeper analysis in the days to come?
Whatever the future decisions we make, I believe that revealing our full submissions list every year has had far more positive benefits for the award and its followers than, for instance, introducing a form of longlist or similar, and it the ability to provide a snapshot of a year in UK science fiction publishing plays an important part in the award’s wider mission to positively promote SF literature.
Tom Hunter is the current Director of the Arthur C. Clarke Award for science fiction literature.
Before joining the Clarke Award, his first serious foray into SF&F culture was as a reviewer for The Third Alternative magazine, covering SF-tinged experimental theatre, before going on to edit Matrix, the news and media magazine of the British Science Fiction Association.
Alongside his award duties, he works as a marketing and communications specialist, freelance consultant and occasional journalist.
He lives in London and tweets as @ClarkeAward