Awards SFF in Conversation

SFF in Conversation: Removing Bias in SFF Awards – A Thought Experiment

SFF in Conversation is a new monthly feature on The Book Smugglers in which we invite guests to talk about a variety of topics important to speculative fiction fans, authors, and readers. Our vision is to create a safe (moderated) space for thoughtful conversation about the genre, with a special focus on inclusivity and diversity in SFF. Anyone can participate and we are welcoming emailed topic submissions from authors, bloggers, readers, and fans of all categories, age ranges, and subgenres beneath the speculative fiction umbrella.

We continue our ongoing new series of posts “SFF in Conversation” with a thought-provoking post from Lizzie Barrett (known on Twitter as @alittlebriton), a judge for the Best Newcomer Award 2013 for the British Fantasy Society. Lizzie talks about bias in SFF awards and proposes an interesting – if unorthodox and perhaps controversial – solution.


Please give it up for Lizzie Barrett, everyone!


Removing bias in SFF awards

We talk a lot about why there are fewer women and people of colour in SFF (both as authors and positive characters) while never actually doing anything about it. I understand that both gender and racial bias or assumptions are prevalent in our society and it’s going to take a few more hundred years to eradicate white supremacy and patriarchal privilege, but I do think it’s time we did something about it where we can.

I’ve turned my focus to juried awards because to my surprise and delight, I’m judging this year’s Best Newcomer for the British Fantasy Society. Judging is just one part of the awards process – submitting books to be judged is another as is getting word of mouth and sales going if it’s a voted award. But as I have no experience of those things, I’m sticking to what I (barely) know.

Someone reminded me the other day about how when last year’s Clarke Award all-male shortlist was announced, there was some backlash on Twitter and in blogs. People wondered how on earth there wasn’t a single book written by a woman on that list. I didn’t actually have a problem with it, probably because the judging panel was mixed-gender, and because several of the judges have been very vocally positive on the topic of women in SFF in the past. But I did wonder what we could do as a judging community to prove there is no unconscious bias in SFF awards?

I suggest a possible answer is blanking out all covers and author information for award submissions for a trial period of three years. Just black covers with a number on them, author pages, photo and acknowledgments removed. Judges would read them without any knowledge of the author, their age, their gender, their race, the publisher, and the cover, which to me gives the added bonus of not being biased by good or terrible design. It’s a bit of extra work on the part of submitting publishers and the award runners, but I think it could work.

Someone pointed out that doing this looks like we don’t trust the judges and they would be offended by this. I think there are several answers to that, the first being, yes. It’s not that we think you are sexist, although some of you might be (towards either men or women). It’s not that we think you might be racist, although again, it’s possible. It’s just that living in the society that we do, we receive a lot of gendered and racial information that can have an unconscious effect on our choices. I don’t trust myself to be impartial to a lot of the books I read, because I know the person or have heard stories or because they once wrote a truly dreadful werewolf romance that made me want to cry for humanity. You can’t help but have biases, they’re part of what forms our likes and dislikes and us to choose between the thousands of books on the shelves. This removes that, and makes what you are about to read a mystery, free from any baggage.

The second answer to that point, is ok, judges may feel like they are mistrusted. But isn’t upsetting about 30 people a year worth possibly eradicating any potential bias in awards? Isn’t it worth at least trying? Awards do make a difference to the sales of books, they do help authors to get more publicity and push for future works and most of all, they form a big part of a writer’s self-esteem on a piece of culture they sweated over. I married a writer; I know how much effort goes into books and how much pride comes with an award nomination. And if we can prove that this is the best book because of a blind reading (or however you want to term it), then so much the better. I’m ok with a few people getting their noses bent out of shape if it means silencing this debate once and for all.

Now, it’s of course possible that the judges will recognise the synopsis and know who the author is, they may have read the book in their own time, or another judge might accidentally let it slip. We’re a book-reading bunch and it would be surprising if this didn’t happen. But at least we would have a system and hopefully an honour code to try to adhere to – and I think, judging by the size of most people’s TBR pile, there will be a few surprises in the submissions to keep everyone happy and in the dark.

The downside of this system is that authors and publishers won’t be able to use nominations before the announcement of the winner(s). The general public won’t be able to read along and the debate on the merits of the shortlist and winners will inevitably be delayed. I haven’t found a solution to that, and it is something that may mean this solution isn’t viable. But until we try something to put an end to this debate once and for all, we’re going to keep going round in circles, constantly bemoaning the fact that there aren’t enough women or people of colour in SFF but doing nothing to encourage a change. Just a tiny nudge, just one hurdle to acclaim removed and it could start a cultural landslide. Can we at least give it a try?

I’d love to hear if you think this could work or if you think the bias is more in submissions and commissioning. How can we eradicate bias along the award process?

Lizzie Barrett is a judge for the Best Newcomer Award 2013 for the British Fantasy Society. She prefers fantasy novels and sci-fi TV, and thinks books should be a viable form of currency. She lives in London with her husband, Tom Pollock, and their three cats. Find her on @alittlebriton on Twitter.


  • Brent
    August 13, 2013 at 3:05 am

    In academia, some conferences ask for anonymized submissions, so well-known researchers and institutions don’t get judged differently. No one takes it as an insult. So this idea isn’t bad, and I don’t think judges would be offended if it’s just a general system, and not aimed at them personally. It would be tricky though for the reasons you mentioned, like how many would recognize the books they had already read.

    Fair judging is important even if most of the problem lies elsewhere (I’m sure bias lies in many places throughout the long process of getting published and becoming a top author). Awards are a good measuring tool for opportunity in the industry. So by all means, let’s make sure award judging is well-calibrated. While verifying the thermometer won’t cure the fever, it does give us more confidence in the diagnosis, and that’s a good start.

  • Amber
    August 13, 2013 at 5:42 am

    As academia has used this for, well, ever, I don’t see how anyone could really be offended by it. I’ve wondered in the past why contests weren’t judged this way, partially because eliminating negative bias isn’t the only problem. There are some awards that some authors seem to always sweep as long as they’ve published anything that year…I wonder if, judged blindly, the books would still win on their own merit without the weight of the author’s historical performance behind them.

  • Fangs 4 the Fantasy (@Fangs4Fantasy)
    August 13, 2013 at 6:48 am

    But is this going to challenge biases or just accept them and try to ignore them? This isn’t pushing that POC or women or GBLT people can be just as good authors as straight, white men – because we have to hide their POC, femaleness or GBLTness from the judges

    And will a blank cover be enough? The prejudice against authors is as likely to follow to protagonists as well. To avoid prejudice, do we expect the authors, even minority authors, to write straight, white, male protagonists only?

    It’s a nice idea, but ultimately it’s a band aid on a sucking chest wound.

  • Jodie
    August 13, 2013 at 7:28 am

    I remember hearing about a top orchestra that started using masked auditions and think the number of female players brought in rose drammatically. It won’t work for all awards (Hugos for example) but it might work for some. And there’s possibly the option of just masking until a short list appears then revealing at that stage if someone is worried about decreasing public engagement.

    Fangs 4 the Fantasy – The identities of the authors would be revealed after judging so that would be when perceptions get challenged. It’s sort of the same logic that Malinda Lo used to explain why sometimes blurbs that mask LGBTQ content can allow readers perceptions to be challenged (although it makes that can make it harder for LGBTQ readers to find those books – so that’s a big downside).

    Might be worth an experimental run at one or two awards at least just for data.

  • Juan Pazos
    August 13, 2013 at 7:45 am

    I’m with Fangs 4 the Fantasy here.

    First of all I need to say that, as well-meaning as the idea may be I think it’s quite naïve. The publishing industry just doesn’t work that way. The first source of bias in terms of gender, race and such is the industry itself so when selecting (or submitting!) works for an award this is going to be inevitably reflected in the outcome. The only way I think “blind-judging” would work would be in awards that only accept unpublished texts, of which I don’t know that there are any. But even in that case what Fangs was (were?) saying would still apply.

    Bottom line, from my point of view: awards mean nothing, as a reader I just can’t go with them to choose something to read because they do not necessarily represent what I might be interested in. If and when they do, fine, but in any case they are mainly a way for the industry to attract attention to itself, which is not a bad thing in itself.

    Ultimately, if we want more diversity (in race, gender, sexual orientation both in authors and characters) the best way to go is spread the word about works that give it, pay for them so the industry see it as marketable, and just forget about awards.

  • Shecky
    August 13, 2013 at 10:03 am

    No, awards don’t necessarily affect readers (although I do know quite a few who, when they see a name they haven’t seen before or haven’t read on a list, will add those new names to their to-be-read stack)… but they do. Awards are big medicine for contracts, publisher awareness, distributor awareness, etc. etc. etc. They mean that recognized stuff will almost certainly enjoy a somewhat heavier pull in the market. Which means that it will be more likely to make it into a reader’s hands. So, yeah, awards do affect readers.

    And sure, this won’t cure the issue. But let’s not throw the baby out with the bath water; NOTHING will CURE the issue. We have to look at what can be done right here, right now, things that work toward the goal instead of a Pollyanna-ish insistence on “all or nothing” that lets lots of good ideas fall to the side because they don’t get it all done immediately.

    One step is better than none.

  • April
    August 13, 2013 at 10:11 am

    I don’t use awards as anything. I don’t pay attention to the shortlist or the winners. I’ve never selected a book based upon an award or gone out searching for award-winners to read. I could see how using a blind judging style would be nice but getting the books themselves are submitted for judging by those that know the gender/race/favorite ice cream flavor of the author and that pre-selection is another place where those biases come into play.

  • Fangs 4 the Fantasy (@Fangs4Fantasy)
    August 13, 2013 at 11:08 am

    The issue I have is that, while I appreciate the sentiment of this, I think it’s more giving us the GESTURE of doing something rather than actually doing something that will address the issue – which is, ultimately, more diverse judging, more diverse submissions and more diverse authors who feel welcome in the genre.

    I don’t think “you’re going to have to hide your name, author pic and bio” at least until after they’ve read your book” does that. Or “if you’re going to include minority characters, try to hide the fact in the blurb so we can spring it on readers” for that matter. It feels like we’re tying to… shield against prejudice rather than challenge it and maybe it’s a first step but it almost makes the genre feel more unwelcoming to minority readers and authors. I mean we have the “hey we’re trying to do something, we do care, we are trying and discussing” which is positive to see and encouraging.

    But we also have this almost acceptance that the genre is deeply prejudiced and the way to solve that is to hide the POCness, GBLTness or femaleness of authors (and protagonists/main characters) to be included – either completely or at very least to get in to the genre and then surprise everyone.

    Especially since to follow this through as a method of changing the genre, the people who submit the book for the award would also need to not know the author (or protag). As would the publishers who first agreed to publish it, the shops that agreed to stock it (and not banish it to “niche” shelving) – so on, so forth

  • Jamie Moesser
    August 13, 2013 at 11:33 am

    Though, as a reader, I don’t necessarily base all of my reading decisions on whether or not a book or an author has won a particular kind of award, I am aware of the significance of a book or an author having won an award. Blind judging is definitely something that would increase the credibility of the judging panel and process, especially since it’s done that way de facto in academia, in medical and sociological experiments, in most kinds of research. The point is to have any one work judged on its merits alone; no one can debate that that is the end goal, right?

  • Expy
    August 13, 2013 at 12:17 pm

    Is there not an award where blind judging is practiced? Why is blind judging the norm in academia and research, but not in the book world? What’s with the resistance?

  • Rachel Neumeier
    August 13, 2013 at 12:18 pm

    You know what would be interesting? Having all new authors go strictly by initials plus last name for the next decade. No mention anywhere of first names. I wonder how that would affect marketing and buying decisions?

    As far as furnishing blank copies to judges, sure, why not? It may not be a perfect solution to all issues ever, but I wouldn’t want to “let the perfect be the enemy of the good.” I think it would be worth trying.

  • Robert
    August 13, 2013 at 5:57 pm

    I like the OP thinking, but there’s another issue: sometimes, it is the author’s biography that enhances the book. Perhaps the book is part of a wider world building project, for example – A good read in its own right, but also the triumphant conclusion to a triology, five years in the making. Or maybe some words just feel better, or spme characters become more alive, when you know they’ve been written by a woman (or a man, or a black person, or a gay person, or whatever).

    See Pierre Maynard, Author of the Quixote by Jorge Luis Borges for more on this idea.

  • The English Student
    August 13, 2013 at 7:04 pm

    Only today I bought a book solely because it said “Winner of the Terry Pratchett Prize” on it. Awards do affect sales, directly or indirectly, and I think “blind judging” is, in theory at least, a good idea. I’m not sure that it’s necessarily about “hiding” the female-ness or minority-ness or LGBTQ-ness of the author any more than it would be about hiding the male-ness or Caucasian-ness or straight-ness of an author (does that make sense?). It’s about removing any bias, including positive discrimination, and selecting on merit only (although I do agree that context can occasionally be an enrichment), which is the important thing here, I think.

  • Linda W
    August 14, 2013 at 12:35 pm

    In my grad program, stories for scholarship consideration were submitted anonymously. Only the program director knew who wrote the stories. No one was offended by that system. So, perhaps the authors won’t be either.

  • hapax
    August 14, 2013 at 3:10 pm

    Blind judging doesn’t work completely in academia, of course. Spouse’s field is a small one, and he can tell pretty much who wrote every paper he reviews, based on the topic and how it’s handled.

    I’m pretty sure that I could recognize a China Mieville book, or a Terry Pratchett, or a Malinda Lo (just to pick some names already mentioned at random) just by reading them as well. This might not be the case for a “newcomer” award.

    So,yeah, it’s not a “cure”, but why not try it for a while? Could it make the situation worse?

    P.S. Every public library in which I have worked has an explicit collection policy to purchase certain award winning titles. So this isn’t only about sales, but about exposure — which books are displayed, put on reading lists, front faced, etc.. To act like awards “don’t make a difference” is to ignore reality.

  • Robert
    August 14, 2013 at 4:12 pm

    Although this idea may not work for awards where prominent authors of already published books are concerned… But it could work for submitting stories to SF&F magazines, anthologies, etc.

  • Juan Pazos
    August 15, 2013 at 5:59 am

    @Hapax: yes, libraries do that, of course. I’m not saying awards do not have any kind of impact, but that’s not exactly the topic here, if I’m not wrong. Let libraries keep buying the books that come with “award seal of approval”, the issue here would be how to make sure that the awards themselves are not biased in the selection process, and I don’t think that can be done, as things stand today. Of course blind-judging wouldn’t hurt. But again, it’s not about not hurting (further, I should say) but to heal, which again cannot be done in one swift decisive stroke. So, let’s keep talking about this, please. And keep supporting authors, works, publishing endeavours, blogs, bookshops and libraries that do something about this. The goddess knows they are not that many.

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