It’s that magical time of year. The Horror Writers Association goes through the machinations of gathering, collating, and nominating various works to be nominated for their Bram Stoker’s Award. Here is the 2009 Preliminary Ballot (I thought about reproducing it, but since I’m going to rant, I’ll need the room. Yes, Orgy of Souls made the long list.).

For those who have even heard of the award, it is pretty much the main thing the HWA is known for doing (which, unfair or not, serves as a bit of its own commentary). The reason the award has sometimes been derisively called “the Strokers” is because of the perception that folks sit around and back-scratch each other. (As if a good chunk of most of our sales aren’t to other writers in the first place).

It’s an age-old debate, one that rages within the organization as well as without. The nominating process has the feel of backroom handshake deals determining the nominees. Here’s how it works (and I’m not betraying the secret handshake or anything here): for a year, anyone in the organization can make recommendations for nominees in the various categories. When the nominating period is over, a preliminary ballot is determined and the actives vote on who gets to be on the final ballot. After that, the actives vote on the winners. The first part is public to all the members of the organization which is good: often you can pick out the circle of friends who rec each other just by looking at the tally sheet. A lot of that gets sorted out between the preliminary and final ballots though (and there is an additions jury which weighs in on a few items in each category folks might have missed).

Don’t get me wrong, I’m not exactly complaining because Stoker season is when I get my dues money back out of the organization in books. This time of year, I’m offered all sorts of free books to read and possibly rec, which works out well because I rarely get a chance to buy as much as I’d like. Although, already you can see part of the problem with the nominating process: my vote is going to be skewed toward those books I’ve received free through campaigning.

In the interests of full disclosure, even I linked to story I semi-campaigned for, because I want the story read.

So I began a conversation with a fellow professional writer whom I will call Elvis on this topic. Mind you, discussing things with Elvis is pretty much me poking him with a stick then getting out of the way.

Me: So how are the Stokers doing more harm than good?

Elvis: No one outside the HWA knows what they are and those that do it’s because of the intense bitching over the Stokers as the public face of the HWA. All that cat-fighting takes a ton of time that should go to writing and leads to the kind of political bullshit that causes a fair number of people to either tune out or leave the organization. And did I mention the politicking?

Me: I actually don’t mind the stokers. I look at it mostly as a peer award. If we have a peer award, a “people’s choice” (The Black Quill or the Rondo Hatton Awards), and a juried award (the International Horror Guild awards and now the Shirley Jason Awards), I think all of our bases are covered. And if the Academy Awards are any indication, there’s all sorts of politicking that goes into any award (for those who want it bad enough)

Elvis: There are a couple of things hanging off that argument. The HWA is a small enough group that a writer can gain prominence by derailing/controlling the process. The Stokers need to have a greater value outside of the organization. Mind you, I’m not saying abolish the Stokers. I’m saying making a concerted effort to make them useful and beneficial.

Me: Open up the voting to all horror pros, send out ballots industry wide (which doubles as marketing as the organization can put itself in front of a lot of different professionals).

Elvis: Even if King, Barker, Romero and Craven don’t actually vote, saying they’re part of the voting body carries weight. And limiting recommendations means that a lot of the back-scratching goes away. You have to think about what you’re reccing.

One of the unstated points of the awards is to sell books, so why not make it easier for publishers to get the books into the hands of voters? Call it the Stoker Discount, or allow freebies, or whatever. Put a page up on the HWA website for PDF downloads of recc’ed manuscripts.

Me: a one-stop resource for recced material that’s OUTSIDE of the message board. Because in the end, we want the stories read, not just by our fellow writers/friends, but by fans/book buying public.

Elvis: Which means that, again, it moves away from “who has the most message board friends”

When all is said and done, neither Elvis nor myself is turning one down should we get one. And winning one certainly wouldn’t stop us from plastering that fact on our book covers and in our bios until we quit drawing breath. Of course I wait until I get nominated to do this rant. Nothing like biting the hand as it feeds you.

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