There is much wailing and gnashing of teeth and lamentations unto heaven about this year’s crop of Dragon Award finalists. However, the level of woe is not matched by volume — it’s really just from a small corner i.e. Declan Finn (http://www.declanfinn.com/2020/08/dragon-ballot-2020.html) and Brian Niemeier (https://www.brianniemeier.com/2020/08/the-dragon-sleeps.html). Other authors of a woeful-hound aspect are either ignoring the ballot or are phlegmatic about it.
Elsewhere, the very trad-pub nature of the ballot has resulted in more positive press about the Dragons. How come? It’s no great mystery. Put books on a ballot list that are published by companies with a social media department and you will get more and wider coverage.
However, what has really changed here? To see what is different I want to point to this post from almost exactly a year ago. https://camestrosfelapton.wordpress.com/2019/08/11/more-dragon-stats/
I drew various doughnut graphs showing a breakdown of publishers at an aggregate level. I won’t copy over all the graphs from that post but here is 2016 – the first Dragon Award year.
The distinctive aspect of the Dragons was on the lefthand side of the graph for both good and bad. Many self-published works or small press works (often coalitions of self-published authors). Baen was a major force and there was the added presence of Vox “I have never been a Neo-Nazi” Day’s Castalia House.
Here is how 2020 looks:
There are still a significant chunk of small and medium publishers there (including new names like Aethon Press). However self-published and Baen have only a single book each and the behemoths of publishing (via smaller imprints) have a big slice of the doughnut (to mix bakery-product metaphors.
Here is a fancy gimmick that doesn’t quite work to show the change from 2019 to 2020.
While it seems like a big change in character, the big guys have increased consistently with how they have been increasing over time with the Dragons.
The biggest change is the loss of any finalists from Chris Kennedy Publishing, whose stable of authors have been a steady set of finalists over the years. Baen also has declined but it has been declining in numbers in the Dragons since 2016. Here’s a somewhat arbitrary grouping to show the changes:
If put under torture, I don’t think I’d be able to offer a consistent rationale for how I split things between trad and non-trad (e.g. Amazon’s 47North I counted as non-trad despite being owned by a huge company). Baen’s decline is a consistent trend. I guess if I could classify authors as “Baen adjacent” (eg Chris Kennedy again or Christopher Ruocchio who is published by DAW but is a Baen editor), the numbers would be bigger.
Is the change this year Covid-19 related? The pandemic is such a substantial presence this year that I can’t dismiss that out of hand. However, given that the Dragon Awards is and always has been a primarily online activity with only nominal connection to the DragonCon event (aside from the award ceremony), I’m sceptical. Overall I believe the data suggests that 2020 is not an unusual year but really just a continuation of an existing trend. Over time the Dragon Awards have featured more finalists published by imprints of the big publishing companies.
We have two competing hypotheses for the Dragon Awards:
- They are a genuine popular vote, with finalists and winners determined by simple counts of online voters.
- They are a somewhat curated set of finalists and winners that use online votes as advice and information.
These results do not help us discover where the truth lies between those two hypotheses. We might expect that over time votes will become more mainstream. Many, many people read independently published books in SFF but the common overlap of books read are more likely (in the long run) to be from big publishers. So over time we would expect a popular vote award to become more mainstream.
Good news for the Dragons? Yes and no. Yes in so far as some past winners have been hyper-dodgy. No because the smaller and self-published works were a distinctive aspect of the Dragons that distinguished them from other awards. However, rather like the down-ballot of the Hugo Awards helps promote short fiction and fan-creators, the down-ballot of the Dragons is still quite dragony in the MilSF and Alt-history categories. Arguably, very mainstream finalists in the headline categories brings more attention to the less trad-pub books further down.
Yet, the Dragon’s are also stuck with their initial legacy. Improved status going forward gives the original 2016 winners more status in the future.