On “Publication” As Defined By the Hugo Awards

I’m sorry that I didn’t write Monday. I had jury duty. By the time I was dismissed, I was abnormally tired and sluggish – so much so that even routine tasks like setting bread and making dinner took twice as long as they would under normal conditions. Writing was a lost cause under those circumstances.

I mentioned Friday that I didn’t agree with the Hugo Award Committee’s gentleman’s agreement (it really can’t be considered a ruling) on “first presentation to the public” as what constitutes published. Why is this?

Because it demonstrates a hopelessly luddite view of publication, from the days when publication meant someone had purchased your work and was presenting it to the public on your behalf. Meanwhile, the traditional publishing environment is rapidly unraveling as it tries to compete in the digital world. And for the popular award of the science fiction community to embrace Luddism is a shame that cries out to the galactic rim for vengeance.

Consider Patreon. It’s like a subscription Kickstarter for long term projects. You can be a small scale, $1 a month patron of the arts. In exchange, you get monthly rewards for being a patron. Frequently these rewards include getting to see serially published work (like webcomics) before it goes live on the creator’s website. Outside of Patreon, some authors will run their own mailing list for donors, where short stories or chapters of serialized fiction are available before they’re available for purchase. Or you have authors like John C. Wright, who generously gift all readers, not just the donors, with advanced view of the occasional snippet, excerpt, or short story.

All of these situations constitute “first presentation to the public.”

Other people are publishing serially these days, especially during the NaNoWriMo events. When does that become ‘published’? Serialized fiction is nothing new, but publication is (I think) dated to the compilation of the whole work. But if you’ve posted each section of your novel to your blog as you write it, does it become compiled, and hence published the minute you post the last section?

This is a level of granularity that is impossible to monitor. The Hugo Awards Committee, consisting of mere men, cannot possibly monitor every avenue of publication under their very own definition of what constitutes published. It doesn’t even matter whether malfeasance is involved or not. Things will inevitably fall through the cracks in their omniscience, which makes their definition functionally useless.

Now, I’m a helpful sort of person, and I would be remiss if I sat here complaining about something’s inherent stupidity without providing a possible solution, so here is my idea:

Let date of first publication be set to the first association of an ISBN, ISSN, or registered copyright with a specific work.

This provides a simple, verifiable, and (most importantly) unarguable date of publication. It is accessible to any method of publishing: traditional, indie, or self publication. And it would put an end to the pointless bickering caused by wishy washy subjective guidelines.

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5 Responses to On “Publication” As Defined By the Hugo Awards

  1. Bill says:

    Copyright attaches as soon as a work is “fixed in a tangible medium”, and registration isn’t necessary. So that may not be an appropriate way of establishing date of publication.

    • GeekLady says:

      This is true, but the purpose of copyright registration is “to place on record a verifiable account of the date and content of the work in question”, which would serve the purpose. This is why I specified registration, and not attachment. I can’t imagine why someone would go to the trouble of registering their copyright without bothering to attach an ISBN, but it does fix a date and, in the US, registration confers other legal benefits.

      • GeekLady says:

        I suppose it’s also worth mentioning that you can make a digital work available for sale without having an ISBN or ISSN attached to it. This definition of publication couldn’t collect everything that is offered to the public in it’s finished form for sale. The advantage is that ISBNs, ISSNs, and registered copyrights are both widely available and definitive. There is a trade off, but in cases like these, I prefer to err on the side of objectively fair.

  2. Warren Buff says:

    There was a very deliberate effort several years ago to make it clear that web publication counts. However, it’s also clear that early versions like NaNoWriMo drafts might not be the final, definitive version of the work. The author has final say on which version is definitive, so any substantially different early versions can be ruled not to trigger eligibility. If more than basic spelling and grammar changes are made, you’ve got a case for a different version. While only one version gets to be nominated in a category, ever, it’s meant to be the authoritative one.

  3. Gary Farber says:

    This is also a solution to what is as yet a non-problem. Hugo Business Meetings are inclined to wait for actual problems to become actual problems before arguing about solutions to a current non-problem. There are enough ongoing motions, as a rule, and not all that much time to address them at the meetings.

    But if you’d like to make a motion with your proposal to the Business Meeting, you should write it up, submit it, and show up to defend it at the BM; maybe you’ll convince people to vote for it. (Two years running.)

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