Everything You Ever Wanted to Know About the Bram Stoker Awards®

Everything You Ever Wanted to Know About the Bram Stoker Awards®

In order to gain some insight into The Bram Stoker Awards, I interviewed James Chambers, Administrative chair. I understand he consulted the other two chairs, Alex Hofelich, Co-Chair/Jury Coordinator; and Caroline Flarity, Co-Chair/Public Liaison, so they could collectively answer my questions. I'm so thankful for their time and willingness to participate. 

There seems to be some confusion in the horror industry surrounding the Bram Stoker awards. I admit, I’ve been an Active member for a few years and have voted the last two seasons, but I still don’t understand fully how each part of the process works. Thank you for taking time to answer these questions and demystify all of this for me and the community at large.

Thanks so much for the opportunity to clarify how the Bram Stoker Awards® processes work. There are a lot of rules, moving parts, and elements to them, so I understand how it might become confusing at times. I’ll do my best to answer all the questions.

Each year there’s an official Stoker reading list. I have used this list a lot both to make recommendations and to read recommended works. A few questions about the list: Is it open for public viewing?

Yes, a public version of the list for works published in 2022 is available here. Members recommend works they think merit consideration for a Bram Stoker Award, and we share their selections with the public. It’s a great resource for anyone looking for reading suggestions or wondering what’s new that year. Libraries sometimes refer to this list to make book selections for their patrons. Anyone, HWA member or not, can view this record of horror publishing from year to year. Last year’s list is available here.

Who is allowed to recommend books to the list?

Any member of the HWA in good standing may recommend books.

How do books on the list ultimately make the preliminary ballot? How are they chosen?

The Bram Stoker Awards® use a partial-juried system, which means there are two paths by which works reach the preliminary ballot.

The first path is via the recommendation list. A work must receive a minimum of five member recommendations to qualify to move to the preliminary ballot. After recommendations close in January each year, the top five works with the most recommendations move to the preliminary ballot. If fewer than five works in a category receive five recommendations, only those that meet the minimum for eligibility move to the preliminary ballot.

The second path is via the juries. At the end of the award season, the chair of each jury presents a ranked list of the jury’s top ten selections for the category. In most cases, the jury’s top five choices move to the preliminary ballot.

The 10 works in each category on the preliminary ballot combine the top five from the recommendations list with the top five from the jury’s list.

If fewer than five works in a category receive the minimum five recommendations needed to qualify, only the qualifying works move to the preliminary ballot, and additional works from the jury list are taken to complete a category. For instance, if only three works in the novel category receive five or more recommendations, then those three works qualify for the preliminary ballot, and the top seven works from the jury list also move to the preliminary ballot instead of only the top five.

Do works ever get on the preliminary ballot that were not on the list?

Yes. Works selected by a jury that did not also receive any recommendations may move to the preliminary ballot.

HWA members know all about campaign season. We start to get those “For your consideration” emails from authors asking if we (members) would like to read their eligible works. Do these emails improve an author’s chance of winning a Stoker?

These emails improve awareness of eligible works. Considering how many works of horror and dark fiction are published each year, it’s not possible for most HWA members to stay abreast of them all. Opt-in emails help members discover works they might not otherwise see. They help the authors give their work the best chance for award consideration by making sure members know their work is available. It also provides access to works for members who might not have the resources to obtain all the eligible works that interest them in a given year.

In that sense, the opt-in emails might improve the chances of a work appearing on the recommendation list and, possibly, reaching the preliminary ballot if members were otherwise unaware of it. Anthologies and novels from big publishing houses or by well-established authors and editors might be eagerly anticipated by most of the horror community. On the other hand, only smaller parts of the community might know of works published by independent presses.

Members and jurors can’t consider works of which they’re unaware, or to which they have no access. This process offers a way to strike some balance among popular works and obscure works that might be equally worth a look for award consideration.

The deciding factor, however, is the quality of the work. Putting work in the hands of members or jurors doesn’t automatically result in a recommendation or a jury selection. The members and jurors decide that based on their reading experience.

What is gained by this campaign? Is it awareness so that their work is recommended to the list? Because I get emails about books already on the list. So perhaps it is for members to be able to read the book should their work make it to the preliminary ballot?

The opt-in email process is about access and awareness. There are significant limitations on how it can be done, so it’s not quite accurate to call it a campaign. First, authors may send these opt-in emails only to members who have already agreed to receive them, who have “opted-in” to the process. It’s voluntary. Two, authors may email about a specific work only once and post the offer on the HWA Facebook page and member forums only once. Anything more than that is considered a breach of awards etiquette and can hurt a work's chances.

Works wind up on the recommended list independent of this process. If a member reads a novel, short story, or poetry collection as part of their regular reading and likes it enough to recommend it, they can. When an opt-in offer goes out for a work already on the list, it’s about expanding awareness and the audience and reaching a wider audience. Of course, the hope is that this will result in additional recommendations because a minimum of five is required to qualify for the preliminary ballot, and only the works with the most recommendations advance.

As avid readers, I’m sure HWA members acquire many of the works published in a given year on their own, but obtaining all of them can get expensive. It’s impractical. The opt-in process removes barriers so members who want to consider a particular work might have the chance to do so. This becomes a bit more important once the preliminary ballot is announced because voting members often try to read as many of the works on the list before the voting deadline, and this makes it easier for them than scrambling to get their hands on dozens of books fast.

The process creates a structured, limited, consistent way for authors and editors to give their work its best chance for fair consideration. The alternatives might be not allowing sharing of works at all, which might disadvantage small and independently published works, or having no limits, which could advantage aggressive promoters and create problems for members receiving unwanted solicitations. The awards committee monitors this throughout each awards season and reaches out to anyone who breaks etiquette.

Can you explain to us what happens after the preliminary ballots are sent out and members have voted? The first year, I didn’t realize members could vote for more than one book in each category so I only voted for one. The second year, after I was told about the multiple nominations, I voted for more in each category. How are all the votes tallied and what happens next? Is the final ballot decided by member votes only?

Only Active and Lifetime HWA members vote on the preliminary and final ballot.

For the preliminary ballot, members may vote for up to five works in each category or abstain from voting in a category. After voting closes, the votes are tallied. The five works with the most votes in each category advance to the final ballot. Ties are rare, but possible, if works in fifth place have an equal number of votes.

For the final ballot, members may vote on only one work in each category. When voting closes, the votes are tallied, and the work with the most votes receives the Bram Stoker Award.

Every year I get HWA emails about volunteers to count votes and requests for jury members. Can you explain the counting process and jury selection and the function of the jury?*

*I was mistaken, mixing up the different opportunities to volunteer

Votes are not counted by volunteers. Voting is done and tallied through an independent, secure system supervised by the Ballot Master. At the end of voting, the Ballot Master exports the tally and shares it with the Bram Stoker Awards Committee. The committee reviews and certifies the vote, and then moves on to prepare the final ballot or the awards.

Technically, no one “wins” a Bram Stoker Award. They receive a Bram Stoker Award for Superior Achievement

However, there is still a team of volunteers who oversee and manage the awards process. Our Head Compiler and Assistant Compiler ensure that recommendations are properly added to the reading list and that all required information about the work is correctly recorded. Our Head Verifier and Assistant Verifiers research and qualify the eligibility of each work recommended or submitted to the juries. You can imagine the amount of effort these volunteers put in to maintain the integrity of the awards process and makes sure that only eligible works advance to the preliminary ballot. They are also responsible for making corrections to titles, publisher names, credits, and so on received from authors, editors, and others. There’s a tremendous amount of correspondence behind-the-scenes that supports this process.

Of course, the jurors also put in an enormous time commitment and effort to read all the works submitted in their category. Each jury has a chair and assistant chair who help manage the process and request works from authors, publishers, and editors to make sure the jury has access to as many eligible works as possible. These volunteers sign on for months of reading, seek out works for the jury to consider, and navigate difficult choices to provide their final selections.

So, as an active member, something I enjoy doing is after I read a great anthology or short story collection, I will go to the reading list recommendation portal and recommend the anthology, and individual stories that stood out to me. This year, I found it unusual for an anthology or a collection to be on the ballot, but none of the short stories from it in the short fiction category. How does that happen? It reminds me of the Academy Awards where a movie will win Best Picture but the director is either not nominated or doesn’t win in their category. How can a Best Picture not also include the director? That’s WHY it won best picture. So in my opinion, an anthology or collection is the sum of its parts! How is it possible short fiction from those works don’t make the preliminary ballot from the reading list?

Anthologies and the stories that comprise them are two very different types of works. They’re assessed differently by readers. Some things that determine a good anthology, such as the theme, the sequence of stories, the editorial vision, and so on are independent of the stories themselves. Members might read an anthology that stands out for them as a whole, while they perhaps found the individual stories not as powerful as stories they read in other venues.

It’s very subjective.

A member might read stories in magazines or other anthologies that they didn’t otherwise enjoy much but had one standout story, then recommend that story but not the publication that included it. At the same time, they might enjoy the overall reading experience of an anthology that offers stories of consistent quality and a standout reading experience as a whole, but no individual story moved them enough to recommend it. Of course, the juries are reading only for one or the other item, an anthology or a work of short fiction. The anthology jury might agree on a particular book, but the short fiction jury didn’t include any stories from it on their list.

It's a common question we hear year after year about how the anthologies can make the ballot when none of their stories do. The answer really comes down to the fact that not all stories are published in anthologies. There’s a broad range of venues from which to choose short stories (collections, online and print magazines, etc.). More members may recommend stories from other publications, pushing stories from recommended anthologies down the list.

These categories are simply about two different types of works. The Best Director/Best Picture analogy doesn’t quite sync up with fiction publishing. An anthology editor isn’t “directing” the individual stories. The authors do that, and the editors decide if those stories fit their needs. They might ask for revisions or changes, but it’s up to the authors to agree to make those changes and decide how they’re made. It’s more like an anthology movie with segments by different directors. The quality is going to vary from segment to segment while the overall viewing experience might add up to more than the sum of its parts.

How does a work get from the reading list to actually winning a Bram Stoker Award? Walk us through each hoop it must go through in order for that to happen. 

An important element of the Bram Stoker Awards that often gets lost in the shuffle is that, technically, no one “wins” a Bram Stoker Award. They receive a Bram Stoker Award for Superior Achievement, and the award does not recognize the “best” work in a category, but a work that achieves something noteworthy. This distinction has been part of the awards since their founding. That one work receives an award over another does not equate to that work being “better” than the other. It means only that more members voted to recognize what that work achieved. This was part of the philosophy put in place by HWA founders such as Dean Koontz, Robert McCammon, and Joe Lansdale, among others.

The Bram Stoker Awards come directly out of the horror community and...the awards structure encourages inclusivity.

To move on from the reading list, one, a work must receive a minimum of five member recommendations to qualify for the preliminary ballot. That means five or more members must independently recommend the work to the reading list. Authors may not recommend their own work. Editors and publishers may not recommend work they published.

Two, a work must receive a number of recommendations that places it in the top five works for its category to move to the ballot. This means the more members who recommend a work to the reading list, the better its chances of being in the top five.

Three, enough active and lifetime members must vote for the work on the preliminary ballot so that it is in the top five number of votes received for its category. This means it moves to the final ballot.

Four, essentially the same as number three, enough active and lifetime members must vote for the work on the final ballot so that it receives more votes than all the other works in its category. It is possible, however, for works to tie if two (or more) works receive the exact same top number of votes.

Are there any considerations for moving to a jury only system? The reason I ask is this: There is no way members are reading every single nominated work on the preliminary ballot. I know that I haven’t and because of that reason, I don’t vote in categories I haven’t read. But that’s an honor system. There are members that likely vote for something they have heard a lot about, or know the author, or something, but they aren’t really voting based on the work because they haven’t read everything nominated. How can that be eliminated? If there was a jury and it was their job to read everything nominated on the preliminary ballot and then make a decision on the best work to move forward, wouldn’t that be a more unbiased way to generate the final ballot? 

There are logistical obstacles to a fully juried system that make this difficult on a practical level, especially since the Bram Stoker Awards have been expanding, for example, adding a new Middle Grade category for the 2022 awards season. The awards now include 13 categories, and the awards committee and HWA board are active about reviewing and considering the categories to make changes and additions in the future.

There are limits to what even a very dedicated jury can read in the time available. Some categories receive far more submissions than others.

Also, the partial-juried system provides an opportunity for more balance than a full-juried system. It provides a channel for the HWA community in full to be heard as to what works impressed it. There’s less chance of any given work not being considered at all when more people have access to recommend something they feel is worthy. The reading list is an important part of recognizing the many good works published or released each year.

The juries work very hard to keep up with everything in their category and to compile their final list, but at the end of the process, that list represents the opinions of only about five people, and sometimes fewer because the jurors don’t always agree with each other’s choices. The final ranking can sometimes come down to the selection of two or three jurors. But their input is essential to the process to make sure worthy works aren’t overlooked.

No awards system is perfect. In my experience, HWA members in general put in the effort to make informed choices when voting, and a lot of members abstain in certain categories. Most do their best to adhere to the “honor system.” I’m sure not everyone does, and that some members are more likely to recommend or vote for their friends’ works or popular works by authors they like otherwise. But no work can advance via recommendations without wide support. Similar issues potentially exist within a jury too. Jurors are trusted to read the works submitted and not just gravitate to a popular work or the work of their friends and ignore others or only skim them.

It does not seem possible to “police” what people are actually reading before they make a recommendation, submit their jury selections, or vote on the ballot. The honor system factors into both approaches.

With a similar concern as the preliminary ballot, the final ballot is very important. Can you tell us how winners are decided?

Winners are decided by a simple vote of active and lifetime members in good standing. The work in each category that receives the most votes receives the award.

This might just be a “Sadie Hartmann thing,” but I have wondered how something I have never heard of wins a Stoker. It never showed up in my HWA emails as a campaign. I never saw it advertised on social media. It wasn’t sent out to reviewers. It wasn’t on Tor Nightfire’s list of books for the year. I never saw anyone reading or reviewing it and yet, suddenly…here it is nominated for a Stoker. This has happened. I’m not saying I see everything and know about every single work of horror, but if the nominated work literally has zero or less than five reviews on Goodreads, I’m just curious how it finds its way? Who is championing this work? How do books that fly under the radar end up on a ballot for the biggest award in horror? 

This mostly happens because the Bram Stoker Awards come directly out of the horror community and because the awards structure encourages inclusivity.

Whether or not something gets reviews on Goodreads might not be a reliable measure of interest among horror readers. Many people who read horror and are in the HWA do not use Goodreads. I’ve heard countless stories of frustration about Goodreads’ interface from authors and readers. I know avid horror readers who avoid it for that reason. I’m one of them. I don’t know how Tor Nightfire compiles its list of books for the year, so I can’t speak to why something might not show up there.

Part of [our] mandate is to seek out lesser-known work, work by authors and creators from marginalized communities, and work that might otherwise go overlooked

A lot of good work in horror is done on the small and independent press level. Often those presses don’t have a wide reach for promotion. They might have a regional presence versus a national or global one. They might be stronger in terms of acquiring and publishing good work than promoting it. Social media doesn’t surface everything. If a book gains popularity or is written by an already popular author, that book may show up in your feed more often due to how social media algorithms identify “engagement.” Meanwhile, another book or author may never show up in your feed. Not all books receive equal promotion, and ultimately, all of these online channels are insular to some degree. Certain works populate them; others never do.

This is why the option for authors, editors, and publishers to submit their works to the juries and for members to make recommendations to the reading list are so important. It provides a central place for these works to be cataloged and recognized.

In addition, our juries make a concerted effort to reach out to authors, publishers, and others to acquire works for consideration. Part of their mandate is to seek out lesser-known work, work by authors and creators from marginalized communities, and work that might otherwise go overlooked because it doesn’t fall neatly into the horror genre. Making sure the awards reach outside the immediate horror community and beyond individual bubbles is one of the reasons the HWA implemented the partial-juried system. Sometimes those efforts result in works unfamiliar to parts of the horror community appearing on the ballot.

I’ve had the same experience you describe of finding a work I hadn’t heard of wind up on the preliminary ballot. It doesn’t make the recognition of that work any less valid than that of one everyone knows. It just means that work didn’t crack our individual social media bubbles or reach the outlets we frequent for book information before it reached the ballot—but it did for other people. Or it reached the jury.

I’ve also sometimes seen posts questioning the absence of a particular work from the ballot when I know from our data that the person asking the question did not recommend the work and it was never submitted to the jury. That’s unfortunate. The time to speak up about a good work is while the recommendations list is open and juries are accepting submissions. That’s one of the reasons the HWA encourages members to recommend any work they believe worth award consideration. In some cases, the juries request works but never receive them because not every publisher agrees to provide their books. Sometimes jurors will then acquire them themselves, but they can’t always do that.

Thank you for answering my questions. I know this is a lot. If you have any feedback or concerns about these questions, let me know.

Thanks so much for the chance to talk about the Bram Stoker Awards! I encourage anyone working in the horror genre to submit their work to the appropriate jury, and, of course, I hope all HWA members will take the time to share their recommendations for the reading list.

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