Why Locus Magazine shouldn't be nominated as a semi-prozine for a Hugo Award


Feb 9, 2012 (Updated Feb 21, 2012)


The Bottom Line It's time Hugo nominators play fair with the real semi-prozines in the speculative fiction industry and nominate the staff of Locus with their equals.

As the Bay Area Science Fiction Association gathers to put together its recommended list of eligible work for nomination for the 2012 Hugo Awards, I've had a bit of an epiphany. For years I've been irritated with the Semi-Prozine category, which in the past had been nicknamed "the Locus Award" by those who followed the races for the Hugo Awards. Since the Hugo administrators started putting together e-packets of the nominated material a few years ago, it appears that giving easy access to the nominated works is all that was needed to spur Hugo voters to consider the other nominees in the category. However, for the last couple of decades Locus has still maintained a place in the Semi-Prozine category on the final ballot. Locus is a vital institution in the science fiction community and therein rests the bulk of my anxiety as to why it has surpassed its eligibility as a semi-prozine. I always thought of semi-prozines as struggling for either recognition, survival or both. It's never been a secret that part of the reason Locus has been nominated so much is because the publisher tailored its traits and practices, such as its limited print run, to comply with the eligibility requirements in the Hugo's Semi-Prozine category. It's time for Hugo nominators to play fair with the real semi-prozines in the industry and nominate the Locus staff with their equals.

What Locus has accomplished since it started out as a humble fanzine is one of the industry's biggest success stories. The late Charles N. Brown co-founded Locus with Ed Meskys and Dave Vanderwerf as a one-sheet news fanzine in 1968 to help a Boston committee promote their bid for Worldcon. At the time he was employed full time as an engineer and married to Marsha Elkin, who helped him continue its publication until their divorce in 1969. His second wife, Dena Benatan, helped him edit Locus when he worked full time as a nuclear engineer. Brown's hobby became his full-time occupation in 1975. One thing I've rarely seen people of the community give Brown credit for is his tenacity. Anyone who has attempted to publish a periodical—especially for the traditional print market—will understand all of the mundane details that go with it. It's time-consuming work and constantly coming up with ideas about what to cover in a magazine is always a demanding, on-going task. Keeping to a regular production schedule is the biggest challenge of all, especially when they're just being produced as a hobby. Publishing on a reliable schedule is definitely what separates the professionals from the amateurs. Many fanzines fall behind and burn out before they reach their zenith. Brown maintained a regular schedule for over 40 years. It was his consistency that made Locus the vital publication it is today. Even more remarkably, Locus has survived Brown's two divorces and his death. Few, if any, fanzines or semi-prozines have overcome one of those obstacles, much less all three.

When looking for updates in the field, professionals and fans alike turn to Locus. If speculative fiction readers are looking for news or reviews of the latest in the speculative fiction genre, they'll depend on Locus to tell them. Locus is as much of a household word for people involved in the science fiction community as Variety is to people in the movie and TV business. Arthur C. Clarke, Robert Heinlein, Terry Pratchett and many others have all testified to Locus's value to the science fiction industry. To top it off, Locus Publications have gone on to producing anthologies, created a series of its own awards to honor excellence in the genre, and has a companion website that shares its name. These are all efforts that have garnered the Locus empire honest respect.

So, why is Locus still considered a semi-pro magazine?

Semi-prozines struggle. They struggle for capital, sales, readership and survival. Charles N. Brown worked hard and left an awesome legacy behind. If Locus ever folds, it wouldn't be from lack of recognition or inability to maintain the well-oiled machine, but—unless his heirs pull a major bungle—it would fold only because the staff chooses to move on to something else. Even then, they could easily sell Locus before folding. Non-fiction usually does better than fiction when it comes to marketing to the trade.

Realms of Fantasy, for instance, had a change in ownership about 18 months ago when its publisher, Warren Lapine, gave up the struggle to make it a preeminent periodical in the genre. Although he had managed to make other publications to work, this title just wouldn't push off. He sold it and his best wishes to William and Kim Gilchrist for a $1. They were able to produce for about another year, but ended up folding the title themselves last October. If it had had a Hugo nomination, the spurt of interest arising from a nomination could have done wonders.

Weird Tales started out as a pulp and professional publication. But even that title has had its ups and downs. It has folded and been revived more than once. In its current incarnation it is considered a semi-prozine in its effort to keep the spirit of its format alive. Needless to say, the Hugo it won in 2009 gave it a boost to help keep it going.

Another periodical that was nominated as a semi-prozine for a few years in the past was Speculations, a journal similar to Locus, but devoted to the writing side of the industry. Despite the encouraging readership it had, Publisher Kent Brewster burnt out and folded his efforts in 2006. If Speculations had won any of the years it had been nominated, it would have done more to keep his enthusiasm alive and it might still be published today. Enthusiasm is the most critical thing a publisher needs to carry on his business.

For publishing outsiders, there is a fallacy that publishers have deep pockets. There are a few houses that do, but most of the smaller ones have limited budgets. Truth is, if anyone wants to make a lot of money, he shouldn't go into the publishing business. It should only be done by the people who have the passion for it. When I was publishing Princessions, one of my distributors went bankrupt owing me $500. That really hurt. I'm sure Locus has its obstacles like any other traditional market publication, but for the Locus empire nowadays, they are just challenges. For others who have neither seen its success nor longevity, they can be dealbreakers.

Frankly, I tend to see semi-prozines as being on the brink, like Realms of Fantasy. There is no telling when a setback can pressure a publisher to fold. A semi-prozine editor/publisher decides format, selects content and keeps the publication on a schedule. A circulation of 5,000 is considered a healthy print run in most trade circles. (It becomes mass market with 25,000—but to qualify for that austere status, many prefer circulations of around 100,000.) Neil Clarke, editor of Clarkesworld, which won the 2010 and 2011 Hugo for Best Semi-Prozine, takes pride in being able to pay his contributors, but to date has been unable to take a wage for himself. He would love to be able to work on Clarkesworld full time, but he is no where near Locus's success yet. Locus has already jumped through all of these hoops and is now a formidable force in the genre. Fortunately, no one ever heard of Brown using his powers for evil.

The discontent of Locus's dominance in this category is split in the World Science Fiction Society community. Last year, a couple of motions have been made at the WSFS meeting to amend the eligibility requirements for the Hugo's Semi-Prozine category. Those attending found neither satisfactory, but the subject will likely be brought up again this year.

Marion Zimmer Bradley started her writing career in fanzines, but at the time she died she was a respected professional writer. Is Locus any different in its job? Its success and longevity is testament to how it passed that brink into the professional world. When a well established publication can support a full-time staff of more than one person, it isn't fair to compare it to other publications where the editors have to divide their time elsewhere to make ends meet. Granted, for all Locus has done for the genre, it deserves the recognition of a Hugo nomination, but not in the Semi-Prozine category. By the time Locus started issuing its own respected awards, it should have owned up to being professional and competed with its equals. For those who feel Locus should be nominated, add the names of its current editors, Liza Groen Trombi & Kirsten Gong-Wong, to the Best Editor—Short Form category. Please reserve the Semi-Prozine category for struggling periodicals that need the recognition. The deadline for nominating this year is March 11.
 


For those interested in the details of how the Hugo Awards operate, please see my essay, "A Description of the Hugo Award Process." Some details require readers to update for 2012, but it is otherwise still accurate.


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