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Concern re: 2015 Elgin Award nomination & voting procedures

As a first-time Elgin Award nominee this year, I decided in late June to email all currently nominated individuals in both the Chapbook and Full-Length Book categories in order to obtain PDF copies for purposes of reading all nominated works. I will fully admit that, although I've been a member of SFPA for roughly five years now, I've only ever previously voted in the Rhysling Award proceedings; having been nominated for the Elgins made me realize that I should be voting in all proceedings, wherever possible. In the process of beginning to read these works and looking through the 2015 nomination guidelines, the list of current 2015 nominees, and the list of 2014 winners, I noticed a significant discrepancy: two of the currently nominated works were not only published in 2013 instead of 2014, but they also already won 2nd and 3rd places respectively in last year's Full-Length Book category. Given that the nomination guidelines clearly state that previous Elgin winners cannot be nominated a second time, I found this unusual; furthermore, I also found it unusual, when reading said guidelines that they have been changed to permit nominations of works published in the past two years instead of just in the past year. As far as I and a number of other individuals with whom I've been conferring on this issue can tell, in no previous year have nominations been open to books published in the past two years.

Therefore, the concern is two-fold:

1) Two currently nominated works in the Full-Length Book category (Dark Roads and Unexplained Fevers) have already placed in the 2014 Elgin Awards; both were published in 2013. By the guidelines, as currently worded, this makes them ineligible.

2) This year's Elgin nomination guidelines have been inexplicably changed to permit nomination of 2013-published and 2014-published work instead of just 2014-published work. There is no past precedent for a change like this, and there is no explanation as to why.

Does my concern stem partly from being a first-time nominee for this award? Absolutely, and I'm also concerned for every other first-time nominee and every other 2014-published work in the runnings that deserves fair consideration. I emailed the SFPA Officers on this issue, but the response I received was not encouraging: the Vice President said, point-blank in their response to my email, "I will not enter into any public discussion on the issue." The President has, so far, not responded at all, and my initial expression of concern was sent almost three weeks ago. Given that the Elgin voting deadline is September 15th, this concern is not likely to be addressed in time. I'm a conflict-averse individual, but I and other concerned parties fear that drawing this to public attention is the only way to ensure that it's properly examined. I also wrote to the current Elgin Chair on this issue, and their response was: "I’m interpreting 'win' as 'win first place,' which I believe is what was intended. If this is confusing, then I should change the wording, but I think that, in spite of offering 1st-3rd, it’s like the Rhysling Award (and most other prizes that I know of), where only 1st-place winners are referred to as having 'won' the award." In the same email thread, they looped in the SFPA Officers and asked for their approval to change the nominations guidelines, but, so far, as you can see, no change has been made to the wording (and I have screen-caps taken this morning to show that they have not been altered; I have also preserved all email correspondence relating to this concern). In fact, the Officers did not respond to that thread, either; I merely responded saying that perhaps language clarification would be the best course. Still, most of us seem to agree that having placed in the Elgin runnings, period, constitutes a win; otherwise, why bother to declare second and third places?

I have not directly been party to any of the recent-past conflicts concerning SFPA procedures and leadership conduct, although I've certainly been made aware of them. It disheartens me to realize that these difficulties are ongoing, and I would like to add my voice to the ongoing effort to bring about whatever procedural changes are necessary to ensure fair consideration for SFPA members and non-member award nominees alike.

ETA: For anyone who might want clarification on the desire for reform surrounding previously-placing books being permitted to be nominated again: a colleague of mine points out that the what-place-is-considered-an-award-and-what-isn't is muddied further by the fact that first, second, and third in the Rhysling Awards are considered to be winners, and placing poems are also considered to be winners in the SFPA Poetry Contest. The Elgins are apparently the only set of SFPA awards that permit second-placing and third-placing books to be nominated a second time; that can be interpreted as inconsistent with overall SFPA awards policy. I get the impression that people would be more comfortable with the two-year-window nomination policy if formerly placing books were prohibited from a second chance at winning first. That would free up the chance for still others who have never won or placed to, well, win or place. In any case, thank you for hearing us out!

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(Deleted comment)
I'm answering these concerns as the current Elgin Award Chair. Subject to approval of the SFPA president, SFPA award Chairs have some discretion as to the guidelines for each award; in the past, for instance, e-only books and self-published works were not eligible for any SFPA awards, but this is no longer the case. Other discretionary points have been what percent of the poems needed to be speculative (currently at least 50%), and whether books containing fiction were eligible (currently not).

In the first year of the Elgin Award, 2013, the then-Chairs chose to restrict it to only books published in the previous year, as with the Rhysling and Dwarf Stars Awards. As Star*Line editor, I personally campaigned to change this to the two previous years, as it was evident that books published late in a given year were at a significant disadvantage with regard to penetration of readership awareness; i.e, not only did members not have time to read those books before the nominations deadline, but reviews of many books had not yet appeared in Star*Line or elsewhere.

Because of this intrinsic disparity, it seemed appropriate to allow all books that had not actually won (the Elgin Award goes to first place only, even though second and third place are named) to be eligible for two years, thus presumably allowing them to achieve a similar public presence.

!!! I see that you are absolutely correct that the guidelines have not been updated! I _did_ update the web page immediately following our conversation on June 25, and I don't understand why the change was no longer visible. I have just re-uploaded it (the only change is from "won" to "won first place." I'm sharing webmaster responsibilities at this point, and it's possible that some crossing of signals may have occurred; also, I've had one other site with the same webhost inexplicably partially revert to an older version. Those of us who volunteer for SFPA are significantly overbooked; it is a huge help to have those who notice errors and omissions point them out.

I'm not sure what majority considers second or third place to constitute a win. The general convention in literary contests is that one does not continue entering a piece or book that has won a monetary prize; since none are given for the Elgin Awards, this does not apply. I'd invite those concerned to voice their opinions to elgin@sfpoetry.com, which copies to me and SFPA officers. If there is sufficient feedback/interest/equivocality, I could send out a survey to the membership. SFPA is always looking for volunteers … including next year's Elgin Chair.

F.J., thank you very much for offering such a thorough perspective. I suppose my ultimate conclusion is that clarification of the guidelines' wording is definitely what's needed; I have, in fact, been encouraging the other individuals with whom I've been in contact to directly express their concerns just as I have done. My motivation for making this post was largely triggered by the lack of attention from the President and Vice President, as well as the all-around curt and dismissive manner in which the initial inquiry I made had been handled. Joshua Gage has already made some productive suggestions in a comment to my post on the SFPA Facebook page with regard to guidelines overhaul and guidelines clarification. That's a start!

This is the third sentence on the main Elgin Awards page: "The Elgin Awards, named for SFPA founder Suzette Haden Elgin, are presented annually by SFPA for books published in the preceding two years in two categories, Chapbook and Book." This was a change made last year.

The 2014 Elgin Award winners and nominees were, in fact, archived and linked at the top of the Elgin Award page. Through my oversight, the link to the 2013 page was omitted; this has just been rectified.

It disenheartens me when any difficulties, especially those easily remedied, are attributed to corruption or some kind of monstrous plot rather than to the fallibility of overworked volunteers. Which SFPA needs more of, did I mention? (the volunteers, not the fallibility …)

Thanks for highlighting this, too; the guidelines page probably does need to be comprehensively updated with everything relevant to this discussion in order to head off further confusion. With regard to volunteering, I'm currently occupied with mentoring new staff in the Poetry Department at Strange Horizons and also seeing to it that our reading periods, which have gone through some restructuring and shake-up with the hiring of said new staff, get through the transition. I anticipate being in the position to consider volunteering outside SH when 2016 rolls around and the high-residency MFA program I'm beginning in August is complete, so I will be keeping a keen eye on open chairs.

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