Sunday, April 10, 2016

Are Pay-to-Play Published Book Contests Unethical?

To celebrate that THE TALON OF THE HAWK won Best Fantasy Romance of 2015 from RT Book Reviews, I got this amazing tattoo of Ursula's sword. I'm thrilled with how it turned out. (Freshly finished and a little red here - it looks even better now!)

If you haven't yet signed up for my newsletter, one went out today with an exclusive, never-seen-elsewhere, juicy deleted scene from TALON. If you sign up today, you can still see it. Yes, I'm totally luring you. Is it working?

You'll see this in the newsletter (hint, hint) - Kensington is sponsoring a Goodreads Giveaway of 25 copies of THE PAGES OF THE MINDHie thee hence to enter!

This week's topic in the Bordello poses the question of whether book contests you pay to enter are immoral or unethical. I confess that this was a topic I suggested, so it works out well for me to kick off the topic this week. I'm posing the question to the rest of the Word Whores and I'm really interested to hear their answers.

Allow me to explain a bit.

I entered the fiction-writing world via Romance Writers of America (RWA), and the highest award there is the RITA. It's essentially the Oscar of the romance-writing community. There's even a golden statuette! The RITA is open for anyone with a published novel or novella to enter. The author (or publisher) pays $50 and provides five paper copies of their book. Judges are sent packets of usually six to nine books to read and score, and the top scoring books are the finalists in their categories.

In contrast, the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America (SFWA), which I joined later because their membership requirements are stiffer, have the Nebula Awards. To have a book nominated, it must be first put on a recommended reading list by SFWA members, then nominated by a certain number of those members, with the top contenders becoming the final nominees. (The nominees don't HAVE to be on the reading list first, but it helps.) The salient point here is that authors cannot enter their books - they can only provide copies for the reading list. The Hugo Awards for science fiction, fantasy and horror work much the same way, with "members" of the WorldCon convention that year nominating and voting.

What came as a surprise to me was that it came out in conversation with other members of SFWA that they look down on the RITAs for being "pay to play" awards. They see the Nebulas and Hugos as having greater integrity because the authors cannot enter the books - someone else must nominate them. However, to me this feels like a perpetuation of cliques and old-boy networks, with certain authors always nominated while others are overlooked for various reasons. Also, as we've seen with various scandals like Sad Puppies, these awards are subject to slate-stacking for various political purposes.

The RITA system, however, is far from perfect also, with bias against authors who cannot afford to enter and judges reading subgenres that are not ones they necessarily love. However, I do like that I can at least enter my books in the RITAs, even though they have yet to final. I suggested that SFWA entertain the notion of a new award where authors could pay to enter, which would be an excellent fundraiser - RWA made upwards of $100,000 on this year's contest - and was met with withering scorn. I'm not kidding. The phrase "withering scorn" was used in comment responding to my suggestion.

This is how strongly some members of SFWA feel.

So, I'm curious - what do you all think of this issue? I frankly don't get the withering scorn, but is that just me? Feel free to comment! And I'll be following with interest this week to see how my Bordello-mates weigh in. 


  1. Ooo, "withering scorn". Are you squelched? No, I didn't think so! Yay,Jeffe! (Pats SFWA on the head - it's a new world out here, folks.)

    1. LOL. It is difficult to squelch me, it's true! :-)

  2. I don't think that it's unethical for an award to charge an entry fee. I do prefer the "no entry fee" model, and with the Nebulas, authors/publishers CAN make their work available to the membership for consideration. That doesn't guarantee that a given work will get real consideration, but I'm not sure that paying an entry fee does, either. :/

    I'm also not sure that the fund-raising side is as effective per man-hour as the amount of money raised makes it sound. The acceptance of five copies and a submission fee implies that the award is going to have five judges who will, at the very least, START reading the book. If each of those judges reads the entire book, that's a big time investment on the judges' part. Even if they're unpaid volunteers (I don't know if they are or not), there's still an opportunity cost involved in using their labor in this fashion. And if they're not reading at least, oh, a chapter or two ... then I don't see how having paid a submission fee helps with the "old-boy's network" issue at all. :|

    Anyway. I think both models have their drawbacks, and I'm happy to see both existing in the world of awards.

    1. Yes - the judges are all volunteer and to enter the RITA we commit to judging. We also commit to reading ALL of the books we're sent. I think most people do. I know I do! I end up reading a lot of books I never would have left to my own devices, for sure.

      I agree that I'm happy to have both models in the world, but I wish there was one for SFF!

  3. There's usually a difference between "juried" awards with judges, and a "fan nominated" awards. I always thought the Nebula was juried, and the Hugo a fan award. The Nebula system sounds weird.

    In Canada, the equivalent awards for SF/fantasy are the Sunburst (juried and a $20 fee to enter) and the Aurora (anyone who pays $10 can nominate and vote)

    Some people feel juried award are more prestigious... some people are happier with fan recognition.

    1. There's a definite difference between peer awards and fan awards, for sure!

  4. Congratulations on the RT award. Which, I assume, you didn't pay to play, right?

    When the Ritas are touted as being the Oscars for romance writers, it makes me wonder... Do the movies, the actors, the technicians, etc., have to pay to play in the Oscars, too? I'm guessing not.

    An author who enters the Ritas is paying by providing the books and paying with their time with judging, on top of the entry fee. Sometimes it does seem a bit excessive. But what I really dislike is that when I enter the contest, I can't judge the genre I entered, which is my favorite genre. It's like they don't trust the authors to vote honestly, and that's kind of sad.

    1. An excellent point on the RT Award - and thank you! Yes, I think RT probably counts more as a "fan award," as Nicole points out above. It's certainly not peer-awarded. But there's also a critical element. And for the record, no! I did not pay anyone! >_> LOL!

      Also great points on the Ritas. It's not really equivalent to the Academy Awards, as you illustrate. Also, I totally agree on judging our own genres. I really don't love that the people judging my erotic and fantasy romances are not people who typically write in that genre. I also feel like I'm not the best judge of some of the genres I'm sent, though I try my best. Most important, I feel that the Ritas, by throwing out the highest score as well as the lowest, are selecting for the middle ground, not the highest.

    2. Generally, I think that throwing out the high and low is a good strategy. Sometimes you get people who really just hate something for no good reason, or love something that isn't very good for some equally vague reason. Getting rid of the outliers makes the overall score more fair, especially when not all judges judge all the works. If author A gets the judge that hates everything and Author B gets the judge that gives out only high marks, Author B might win even if Author A has higher marks from all the other judges. I have mixed feelings on the other aspects of the various awards. Paying to vote (hugos) seems even more messed up than paying to enter (what's to stop someone from paying for a bunch of fake votes?), but all the systems have their flaws. Anything fan-based is bound to have issues and be susceptible to marketing campaigns, with the less-well-known-but-better books never having a chance. Juried voting seems like it would be more accurate, except that who selects the juries and who selects the nominations? Even in a small, niche market, no one can read all the books. Voting only on genres you don't read/write for seems really bizarre. If RT is a fan award, I feel like you shouldn't have to pay to enter, and using it for "fundraising" seems disingenuous. Contest entry makes more sense to me if it is used to pay for judges, but the judges would need to be appropriately credentialed, or some other cost of running the contest. FWA uses blind entry (author's name stripped from all documents) and blind judging (no one knows who the judges are/will be), but it has plenty of it's own issues. SFWA definitely seems a bit clique-y to me and it would be difficult for an author who isn't in it or friends w/ SFWA members to get nominated, regardless of merit, and since it's a lot harder to qualify if you're self or indie published, that leaves most of that group out. As a reader, I tend to simply ignore all of the awards, since, like the ones for Hollywood, they rarely match what I would choose (gender disparity issues being only the tip of that iceberg). I'm sure my Hugo nominations will mostly get thrown out, even if the Puppies don't simply overtake things again.