The Gemmell Awards 2012

Today we’re thrilled to have another guest blogger on the blog. Following the delightful Pornokitsch joining us to talk about the ethos behind their award, today we have Stan Nicholls, Chairman of the David Gemmell Legend Awards, with a little bit about how the award came about, and what it’s designed to do. And watch this space! The David Gemmell Legend Award Shortlists are announced on Sunday!

When David Gemmell died on 28th July 2006, aged 57, his friends and colleagues sought a way to honour his life and work. The consensus was to create an award in Gemmell’s name; an idea first floated publicly by author David Lee Stone.

Why an award? Well, apart from commemorating a widely admired author, we felt there was a real need for a proper award for fantasy. By which I mean what you might call ‘pure’ fantasy – the kind Gemmell wrote – that, at least here in the UK, seemed unregarded. Science fiction, horror and other popular genres have their prizes, we reasoned, so why not fantasy?

We had a false start. Our initial efforts amounted to lobbying/haranguing other people and organisations in the hope that the idea would catch fire. I won’t weary you with the ins and outs of how that came to grief. Not that anyone was to blame. We were too many cooks, maybe, with too many diverse views about what we wanted to do, and how to do it. So the whole thing went into abeyance for a while.

Michael Moorcock once told me that in order for a group to achieve anything it needs what he called a ‘loony dictator’. He reckoned taking on that role was what made his 60’s reboot of New Worlds happen. It was another of Dave Gemmell’s friends, the writer Deborah Miller, who emerged as our loony dictator. (Not that I’m implying anything derogatory; in many ways Deborah’s one of the sanest people I know.) What she did was step up and say it was time to dump our somebody-ought-to-do-something-about-this stance and get on with it ourselves. More than anything else, her drive and determination was what got us on the road.

A core committee was formed, with Deborah as Award Administrator. Gareth Wilson, who has a good claim to be David Gemmell’s Number One Fan, came aboard as our Website Manager. Mike ‘Sparks’ Rennie, who’s provided the Tech/Logistics for numerous conventions, agreed to do the same for us; and Christine Harrison brought her fiscal expertise to the role of Treasurer. My wife, Anne, took on editorship of the award ceremony programme book, among other things; and I had the honour of being offered the position of Chair which, after a brief period of trepidation and false modesty, I accepted.

Our initial decision was easy. We wanted to create an award recognising the best fantasy novel of any given year. What else could we call it but the Legend Award, after Gemmell’s first and most celebrated novel?

After that, things got a bit complicated.

Exactly how would we go about arriving at a winner? There were three options:

1) have a jury decide;

2) have the public determine a shortlist and a jury settle the final outcome;

3) have a completely open vote with no jury.

Every juried award, particularly in a specialist area like fantasy, has a perennial problem: finding suitable judges. In considering the juried option we felt it wouldn’t be appropriate to include anyone connected with publishers or literary agents. Not that we thought they’d be biased but because of an unfounded perception that they might be. How would it look if an editor or agent sat in judgement on a shortlist that included a writer they published or represented? What if said shortlisted author won? It’s a bit of a stretch, but the same could be said about using authors as judges when the shortlist could well include an entry with whom they shared a publisher. Critics? How many are there who are sufficiently knowledgeable about the field and available to us, given that the requisite number of judges is usually considered to be five and should be refreshed every year? Damn few. We mulled over the possibility of having a judging panel consisting solely of readers. But the massive amount of reading involved – our first longlist ran to over ninety titles – and the fact that we couldn’t reimburse people for their time and effort, made that a big ask.

Adopting the second option – part public vote, part jury – would boil the longlist down to a manageable number, but doesn’t solve the practical difficulty of finding suitable judges.

In arriving at the decision to adopt a totally open vote we weren’t in any way being critical of awards that choose the juried route. We’ve no doubt that their verdicts are reached honourably. But apart from the practicable considerations involved in mustering juries we have what might be called a philosophical objection to that way of doing things. Frankly, the idea of a small group handing down pronouncements about what deserves an award and what doesn’t strikes us as a little elitist, and against the spirit of our times. In an age when masses of ordinary people are using technology to topple despotic regimes and change government policies, surely they can be trusted to vote for a book award.

When our committee has to confront difficult decisions we have a rule of thumb that amounts to ‘What would Dave have wanted?’. Knowing the importance he placed on readers – the people who put their hands in their pockets and make authors’ lives possible – we’re sure Gemmell would have favoured as democratic a system as possible when it came to an award bearing his name. So we put our faith in the wisdom of crowds

We’ve caught some criticism for crowd-sourcing the award. In the same way that we would have been disparaged if we’d gone with a jury. One objection was that readers would band together to vote for their favourite author. Our response is: so what? Unless people are being strong-armed into voting in some unimaginable way, then presumably they really do favour the writer they’re voting for, whether in unison with others or not. To suggest that people are so weak-willed that they could be influenced to vote for someone they wouldn’t normally vote for is plain insulting. And if some kind of partiality should creep in – though it’s difficult to think how it might – our contention is that a sufficiently large pool of voters dilutes it to the point of insignificance. We also felt that that having the voting restricted solely to the internet wasn’t a disadvantage as just about everybody has access to it these days.

So this is how it works. A longlist is compiled from titles submitted by the publishers (the public are welcome to suggest additional titles they think worthy and eligible). The longlist is voted on and the five titles with the most votes forms the shortlist. A second round of votes determines the winner (we have robust systems in place to prevent multiple voting).

In our first year the Legend Award garnered almost 11,000 votes from 75 countries.

Simultaneous with working out how, we were looking for where. After investigating numerous venues, we settled on the theatre at The Magic Circle headquarters in London’s Euston. To say the place has character would be an understatement, and we loved its eccentricity and intimacy from the minute we stepped over the threshold. Securing The Magic Circle as the annual location for our ceremony is entirely thanks to our sponsor Bragelonne, France’s leading publisher of Fantasy, Science Fiction and Horror. Bragelonne’s Alain Névant and Stéphane Marsan were also Gemmell’s friend, and his French publishers, but as our award is for English language books there’s no conflict of interest.

With the how and where sorted, we turned our minds to what. We wanted something special as a trophy. Simon Fearnhamm of the Raven Armoury volunteered to supply the perfect solution – a half-sized replica of Snaga, the awesome axe wielded by Gemmell’s illustrious hero Druss. Simon’s Snaga is a truly beautiful hand-crafted artefact. With a price tag of more than £2000 when made to commission, we believe it to be the most valuable trophy on offer in the Science Fiction and Fantasy fields.

With the permission and support of Dave’s widow Stella and the Gemmell family, and the backing of the publishing and speculative fiction communities, our first presentation took place at The Magic Circle on 19 June 2009. We were particularly pleased that Dave’s daughter Kate and son Luke were able to join us for the ceremony. It began with a spirited reading from Legend by author James Barclay, yet another of Dave’s friends. James’ opening recitations from Gemmell’s works, and his conduct of an auction of fantasy memorabilia that precedes the presentation, have became invaluable staples of our ceremonies.

Other ‘Friends of the Awards’ as we like to think of them – people not actually on the committee but who have proved unstinting in helping the process run smoothly – include, among others, Mark Yon, Nick Summit, Tiffany Lau, Elaine Clarke, Anna Kennedy, Marianne Fifer and Rachel Oakes.

The first winner of the Legend Award defied expectations. It turned out to be Andrzej Sapkowski for Blood of Elves, a novel translated from Polish. The four runners-up each received a ‘mini Snaga’ by way of congratulations, a practice we’ve continued.

Buoyed by the success of our initial ceremony we decided to add two new categories in 2010. The Morningstar Award honours the best debut novel, something we thought especially important as Dave Gemmell was noted for the help and encouragement he gave to many aspiring writers. The Ravenheart Award was designed to recognise the best fantasy cover art, an aspect of the genre we felt deserved acknowledgement. We were now officially The David Gemmell Awards For Fantasy.

That year the Morningstar went to Pierre Pevel for The Cardinal’s Blades and the Ravenheart to Didier Graffet for the cover of Joe Abercrombie’s Best Served Cold. The Legend was a surprise choice again but richly deserved. It went to Graham McNeill for Empire. 15,500 votes were cast overall.

2010 was also notable in that we welcomed SFX, the UK’s number one sf and fantasy magazine, as our media partner.

2011 saw the Morningstar awarded to Darius Hinks for Warrior Priest, the Ravenheart to Olof Erla Einarsdottir for the cover of Power and Majesty by Tansy Rayner Roberts, and the Legend to Brandon Sanderson for The Way of Kings.

One of the things that’s delighted us about the awards so far is their international flavour, with prizes going to authors and artists from France, Iceland, Poland and the US as well as the UK. Proof, if it was needed, that the literary expression of the fantastic knows no borders.

The 2012 shortlists, now released, offer some intriguing possibilities for our fourth year. As to the future, we hope to add further categories in due course that embrace other strands of the fantasy fiction sphere. A lesson we have learned is that nothing is so constant as change, and that in order to remain relevant we need to view what we do as organic.

In 2013, for instance, we’re planning something surprising. But it can’t be revealed just yet. Watch out for an announcement at this year’s ceremony in June.