Guest Interview: Renay on The Hugo Award Recommendation Project

Posted December 23, 2020 by dove-author in Guest Posts / 0 Comments


Today I’m interviewing Renay, one of the minds behind the ! The Hugo Rec Project is a yearly spreadsheet collecting works eligible for the Hugo Awards! This is a fabulous resource both for nominees and people interested in seeing what was especially notable the past year or what trends may be emerging in the SFF field. I’m super-excited to get to help bring some more visibility to the project and to have Renay visiting today! So let’s dive into the interview!

S.L.: The Hugo Rec Project is my go-to for nominations because it’s by far the most comprehensive resource I know about. You’ve run it for several years now and I’m curious: what are some of the most important lessons you’ve learned from the project?

R: One of the most valuable takeaways I’ve had from running the project has been that the more opaque something is, the less likely it is that people will want to take part in it. People are opinionated, for sure, but feeling out of place, being nervous about lack of knowledge or context, having uncertainty about what the guidelines and common courtesies are in a community are a huge driver of people not wanting to participate. That’s on my mind every single year and I’m always searching for ways to make it as accessible as possible given the limitations of a spreadsheet.

S.L: That makes a lot of sense! And actually ties in neatly with some questions I had about participating in maintaining the spreadsheet! Being a perpetually anxious person, I actually find adding recs to the project pretty intimidating. (What if I mess things up and no one notices?!) Collecting as many eligible things each year as you can is something that I’m sure is intimidating to other people as well, so what are some tips beyond “Just do it! We’re nice people and don’t bite!” would you give to someone worrying they’ll accidentally get it wrong or make more work for you instead of less?

R: My advice about being intimidated about adding items to the Hugo sheet is still, “Just do it!” because doing it once makes it easier, which is not what you wanted to hear!

S.L.: *chuckles* Maybe, but it’s still true. Sometimes it helps just to state that, and others are still a little intimidated even so.

R: I don’t have a solid hack for intimidation beyond the fact that editing the sheet is largely anonymous and that can make it feel a little less fraught to get in there and start flinging the art you’ve loved everywhere. Even if it wasn’t, it’s important to note we wouldn’t track you down to demand to know why you listed things incorrectly—I actively discourage and delete/reword snarky notes/comments when they pop up, rarely, just to be sure no one seems anything discouraging on content they’ve added. The regular spreadsheet team—many of them strangers to me—is really good about the veracity of the sheet. They’re owners of it just as much as I am and they’re good about making it useful and fun to use. I’ve corrected people’s entries and people have corrected my entries, and it’s a collective effort where we support each other. 

One trick that might work: find a trusted friend who isn’t invested in the Hugos at all and have them add a few items for you to start. Then chat with them while you add some items. And lastly, add items yourself! Seeing their success can show that no rocks will fall and no one will mock anything you add. The worst that can happen to a rec on the sheet is someone pulls it into the eligibility sheet and raises an issue.

S.L.:Ooooooh, that’s a great idea! I would never have thought of that, but that could work really well for people with bad anxiety to get their proverbial feet wet or for people who are very self-conscious about trying to add their own works. Which… speaking of self-consciousness about eligibility… This is something likely to affect marginalised and/or indie authors most often for a variety of reasons. And, in my experience, the Hugo Rec Project has always striven to focus on and promote diversity and inclusivity. The past few years have seen a troubling amount of pushback against this, so is there anything that fans can do to help increase the visibility of diversity beyond the obvious suggestion of “Nominate and vote for these works”?

R: Nominating and voting are important for sure! The Hugo Awards are a very local award and its finalist lists are decided by a very small number of people, so small I don’t think people not deeply inside the fandom realize. Less than 2000 people for the main categories! And the numbers fall as you drop away from the top of the ballot, like the Hugo for Best Novel, and go to triple digits for the fan categories. So the obvious suggestion of nominate and vote is still relevant. 

S.L.: I won’t lie, I definitely didn’t realise quite how small these numbers actually are. Anyway, don’t let me interrupt!

R: But valuable beyond the awards is still talking about art by marginalized creators, from books to short fiction to art and beyond. Bringing your friends who are into SFF with you and encouraging them to nominate, or if they can’t pay to nominate (still a barrier to overcome), suggest things that are eligible. That’s incredibly valuable and enriches the work the spreadsheet is already doing. The spreadsheet was always meant to do two things: show people what’s eligible but also show the range of art in a year so it can be found later, too. Even if something wasn’t eligible, it being in the sheet on eligibility issues was still visibility. And sometimes visibility is key when it comes to art by marginalized creators.

The spreadsheet is for everyone, not just people who pay to join the WSFS to nominate and vote. There’s no cost to contribute and there are no requirements for hopping into the sheet to list things other than the work being eligible to the best of your knowledge. You never know who will see your rec in the sheet, after all. The answer to “how do we get more diversity?” is still “continue inviting people with diverse interests to contribute in whatever way they can”.

S.L.: I suspect that will always be the answer to “how do we get more diversity?”, but I really appreciate you highlighting how valuable suggestions are beyond award season. It’s such a small thing for a single person to do and yet it can make a huge, huge difference. It also sounds like the Hugo Rec Project is a great way for people unsure about engaging with SFF fandom as a whole to sort of dip their toes in and help create ripple effects without a lot of pressure put on them.

I’m still fairly new to engaging with fandom through the award season, but in that time one of the things that’s really stood out to me is that it always feels like the shorter fiction categories struggle with nominations. Based on your experiences with the Hugo Rec Project, do you think that’s accurate and what can readers do to improve it?

R: Yes, the short fiction categories do struggle. The SFF short fiction market may feel large because there’s so much work coming out, but it’s a very tiny community of people working very hard, often for little to no compensation, to make cool stuff for us. Time to read short fiction is an issue and the loss of the blogging culture which did a lot of reccing is another. Plus, some short fiction venues are still behind paywalls, and I’m not sure the spreadsheet itself has a ton of overlap with readers consuming short fiction that way. Obviously, I want short fiction readers to come add all their favorite stories as they find them throughout the year, but I haven’t had a ton of time to do the organizing necessary to develop those connections the last few years. Hopefully in the future.

S.L.: Oof, yes. It feels like an incredibly tiny community, but also one which is relatively hard to become a part of. At least I see a lot of the same names repeatedly, especially when it comes to the short fiction venues. As understandable as that is, it does really make me want to know what we can do to help make those categories more robust, especially since indie short fiction projects seem to be on the rise through Kickstarter attempts etc as well and I feel like those suffer even more from visibility issues.

The Hugo Rec Project has always been very welcoming of indie works, though, and explicitly makes an effort to include them. (For which, thank you! Not making indie and self-published authors jump through hoops means the world to some of us.) Do you find that it adds additional stresses to maintaining the project, though, and what are some of the things you most wish the community would do to make including these works easier?

R: Oh, including indie works doesn’t add any stress to the process. Indie works list just as easily as mainstream works and it’s often fun to audit them because you learn about something new. I do wish people listing indie works would continue to promote the project in their indie communities and invite them over to suggest items, because that would be another great way to expand the wealth of recommendations to pull from when looking at art out in a particular year. People who are in other fandoms have a deep wealth of knowledge and the context to know what awesome SFF thing their communities are making. We absolutely need more crossover with other fandoms.

S.L.: I’m now wondering how we could get the part of Romancelandia that writes SFF romance on board… That would be a huge boost in visibility, though it’s not exactly indie. In my experience with indies some of the issue is still the underlying resentment at being seen or treated as lesser, so that’s another hurdle some people have to navigate as well.

But this is getting somewhat depressing, so let’s focus on something else for a bit! What is one of your favourite memories of the Hugo Rec Project to date?

R: Weirdly enough, one of my favorite memories is the constant struggle I had over the appearance of Archive of Our Own on the sheet in Best Related Work. At the time I was often annoyed because I or someone else would list it and then later we’d come back and find it moved to the eligibility sheet wholesale, where we ask folks to put things if they feel there may be issues. Every single year it happened, multiple times! People really did not believe the Archive was eligible because they didn’t think enough changes were made to the code year to year to justify it being a finalist. I simply kept persisting. I would add it, someone would move it out, maybe adding a snarky comment, I or another fan would move it back, over and over. We know how it ended: enough people were convinced of its value to fandom over time (the whole point of lobbying for an item instead of slating it and trying to brute force it onto the ballot) that it got a nomination and then an award. This just proves to me that the WSFS constitution, although obviously a flawed document that needs continued improvement, is good at adapting to change due to the way it’s written. It’s way more forgiving than individuals, that’s for sure. This moment continues to be my favorite because it shows that fans largely guide the award and also what the WSFS constitution means in a cultural context. That’s pretty neat!

S.L.: That is indeed very neat! And, honestly, such a well-deserved win too. I’m so happy you stuck with it and it’s amazing to see some of the ripples that came from the nomination and the win. Speaking for myself, at least, part of what got the Archive to win my vote was the role it plays in fan cultures. It really showed the power of individual people banding together out of love and enthusiasm for the field as a whole.

Of course, since it’s Award Eligibility Season, that means lots of individual posts and threads by people either collecting their own works for nomination or collecting their favourite works (and often both!) How important are these threads/posts to the Hugo Rec Project? What are some things you really, really wish people did when composing these?

R: In the early days, eligibility posts were a huge source of information for the spreadsheet. I had more time in those days and could add things from those posts to the sheets. I stopped having that kind of time, sadly, but I’ve tossed around the idea of having a sheet specifically for eligibility posts starting in December of each year. I’m not sure how that would fly, so I haven’t done it yet. It’s not off the table, though! I do, selfishly, wish that everyone who created an eligibility post would then port their items over to the relevant sheets because people are less likely to sort through a bunch of linked posts for recs rather than click down a spreadsheet column to open a Goodreads page or trailer or any other resource, but I’m also aware that eligibility posts are about exposure, as well, and porting them over means they go from a dedicated blog post about a specific creator to one stone in a lake full of other stones. I don’t want to undermine folks! I’m still workshopping potential ideas for the future to take advantage of those posts.

S.L.: Oooooh, those are some really good questions and considerations. I wonder if there’s a good way to combine them, though. Most eligibility posts I’ve seen tend to include more details on the work than a spreadsheet would allow, so I could see a set-up that combines porting the items over with a way to nudge people into creating more exposure maybe?

That said, the Huge Rec Project is already a huge undertaking each year. When do you usually start collecting the information for the recs? What does a typical yearly schedule for the project look like? Do you start it around award season or is that when it opens to public nominations?

R: Honestly, because of ARCs, I’m able to start some sheets way ahead of schedule. 2020 has been a weird year. So many books got pushed to 2021 that now there are people reading ARCs and they’re already asking me for the link to the next year’s spreadsheet so they can record the 2021 books they’ve read and loved. So probably before 2021 even hits the spreadsheet for 2022 will be made and linked up so people visiting the 2021 sheet can find it, but there won’t be direct promotion.

I do try not to promote a sheet much when awards for the previous year haven’t been decided. So, while the 2021 sheet was available, I didn’t promote it much until the 2020 Hugo Awards were given, because I think those folks deserve their time in the finalist and winner spotlight before we collectively move on to the next shiny thing. So each spreadsheet is most often soliciting recs actively starting in September and up through when nominations close.

S.L.: 2020 has really done a number on everything, sadly. It’s going to be… interesting to see what effect it’s going to have on the awards in general with so many books getting pushed to 2021 or just generally shuffled around. I hope it won’t cause too much trouble for you to keep the spreadsheer available for people to add things to, though!

Thank you so much for your time and thoughts, Renay! I absolutely loved getting a closer look at the workings of the Hugo Rec Project (and, by extension, a look at how the Hugos work)! I think it’s very clear that the best way to support the Hugo Rec Project is a combination of spreading the word to your friends who might have works to nominate as well as, well, adding works to nominate! You can find this year’s spreadsheet for the Hugo Rec Project as well as a general overview of previous years since. And, of course, you can find more information about Worldcon, which runs the Hugo Awards, here.