Fanzines and Semiprozines
The Best Fanzine award was first presented in 1955. Science fiction fandom is largely based on the amateur fan magazines that have been published since 1930. Fanzines predate the first science fiction conventions. Fanzines are forums for fans to write on all kinds of topics of interest to each other. Fanzines are labors of love, with editors typically not accepting any kind of paid subscriptions, instead trading letters of comment or postage with other fans. The earliest fanzines were generally mimeographed, then xerographed, and in the past few years websites and blogs have dominated. The podcast StarShipSofa won in 2010.
During the 1970s, Locus ruled the Best Fanzine award. Locus had clearly moved to a more professional level than typical fanzines, with paid subscriptions and providing its editors with a nontrivial income. At about the same time, other “semiprofessional” magazines, such as Interzone and Science Fiction Chronicle, were gaining popularity. As a result, the Best Semiprozine category was established in 1984 so that traditional fanzines could more fairly compete against each other. Locus has been nominated as a semiprozine every year since then, winning 22 times, including this year.
Because of the domination by Locus, an ad hoc committee was appointed by the Worldcon Business Meeting in 2009 to look at the rules governing semiprozines. Many people felt that Locus had become a wholly professional magazine and should no longer be qualified to compete in the semiprozine category, but that the rules as written weren’t specific enough to move Locus out of contention. A few fans just wanted to eliminate the category altogether.
The committee presented its findings and recommendations at the Business Meeting last year at Renovation. With some slight changes in wording, the Business Meeting approved the committee’s proposal and it was finalized with a few minor changes at Chicon 7. The proposal redefines several publications as professional magazines. Interzone, Lightspeed, Locus, and Weird Tales will no longer be considered semiprozines based on their employee’s income or their publisher’s owner/employee’s income. Clarkesworld will likely move out of the semiprozine category within a year or two (its editor withdrew it from the semiprozine final Hugo ballot this year).
What’s the Problem?
In my mind this does not solve the problem, it just moves it elsewhere. There is no Best Professional Magazine category for these publications to move to. Best Editor is not the same thing as Best Magazine. An editor has a large part to play in defining a magazine, but by no means the only one. To maintain parity, there needs to be a Best Professional Magazine category—well actually, a Best Collection award might be a better definition so as to include original anthologies.
Moreover, semiprofessional is a wishy-washy definition at best. Publishers of semiprozines want to have their cake and eat it, too. If they are publishing professional articles and stories, it’s irrelevant to me as a reader whether they are making or losing money. If a publication sells subscriptions, is available for sale at newsstands, collects donations, or pays any of its staff or contributors, it is a professional publication. The semiprozine publishers claim they want to create a level playing field, but that is an idealistic dream. The awards don’t differentiate in other categories regarding financial support. Two years ago, the small film Moon won over behemoth Avatar. In fact, independent films have gone head to head with major studio productions many times. In the 1980s and 1990s digest magazines successfully competed with the well-financed magazine Omni. Lightspeed and Clarkesworld have had short stories nominated. In addition, Lightspeed’s editor, John Joseph Adams, and Clarkesworld’s editor, Neil Clarke, were nominated as Best Editor, Short Form. So to say that semiprozines need a separate category is disingenuous. Good science fiction is good science fiction, no matter where it is published.
Another problem I have with the semiprozine definition is that it requires the semiprozine publishers to confirm that they are eligible before receiving the nominations (Yes/No answer). No other category is required to provide this kind of self-reported proof of eligibility. Do we trust the publishers to tell the truth about their finances without doing an audit? Would the Hugo Award Administrator be required to examine the publishers’ tax returns? I don’t think so. What if a publication is found to be fudging the truth after the nominations come out? After the final results are announced?
This year’s Business Meeting ratified a proposal to create a Best Fancast category, removing podcasts from Best Fanzine consideration, rightfully realizing that the printed word is significantly different from audio and video broadcasts. Unfortunately, a parallel change to remove audio and video from the semiprozine category was not made. Additionally, they didn’t define what constitutes a fancast, leaving open the possibility that a mixed media publication could find itself in limbo. With the rise of Kindle and iPad apps, this is a definite possibility.
In anticipation of the permanent Best Fancast category, Chicon 7 included a special Best Fancast Hugo category this year. SF Squeecast, a collaboration between Hugo-nominated authors Seanan McGuire, Paul Cornell, Elizabeth Bear, and Catherynne M. Valente, along with Lynne M. Thomas, won this award. Frankly, I was underwhelmed by all of the nominees, but there were twelve podcasts that made the 5% eligibility cutoff, so there are obviously a number of well-regarded podcasts available.
This brings up an interesting point. The winners of the Best Fancast Hugo are professional writers. The winner of the Best Fan Writer was Jim C. Hines, a professional writer. The leader in the first five rounds of voting for Best Fan Artist was Randall Munroe, a professional artist. I don’t know what this means, exactly, but it’s clear that name recognition goes a long way, and, at least for this year, the lines between fan, semiprofessional, and professional were extremely blurry.