Changing the Rules

[This article describes the current system for changing the Hugo Award rules. For an overview of how the current system evolved, see A Short History of the Hugo Awards Process elsewhere on this site.]

Don’t like the current Hugo Award rules? Want to change them, or add a new category? You can! WSFS is a democratic organization and anyone can bring a motion to the floor of our “town meeting” — the WSFS Business Meeting, held each year at Worldcon. The only obstacle in the way of your changing the rules is that you have to convince a majority of the Business Meeting attendees to vote for it.

Business Meeting 101

Every Worldcon is required to hold WSFS Business Meetings. These meetings usually are held on the second, third, and fourth days of the convention. (Very rarely, there is so much business that an “overflow” session is held on the fifth day.) The meetings typically start sometime between 10 AM and Noon, and they usually last between two and three hours. Yes, this does mean that you need to set aside some valuable panel-attending time and that you’ll have to be up in the morning to participate in the meeting.

Every member of the Worldcon is a member of WSFS. That means that all members of the Worldcon may attend the Business Meeting, participate in the debate, propose business (including changes to the WSFS Constitution, where the Hugo Award rules are), and vote. You do not elect representatives to a Board of Directors. You represent yourself, sort of like a New England Town Meeting.

The WSFS Business Meeting is conducted under moderately formal debating rules, codified in Robert’s Rules of Order, Newly Revised, as modified by the WSFS Standing Rules and WSFS Constitution. While you do not have to be an expert parliamentarian to participate, a familiarity with basic procedure will make the meeting less confusing and more productive for you. Remember that if you get confused about what’s going on, you can ask the Chair of the meeting — one of the Chair’s jobs is to explain things and help members get things into the proper format.

Worldcons publish in their progress reports and on their web site the specific rules for submitting proposals to that year’s meeting. The deadline for submitting proposals is 14 days before the first Business Meeting (which generally means 13 days before Worldcon starts). It’s a good idea to submit your proposals sooner, preferably by e-mail, so that the Business Meeting Secretary can get it on the advance agenda and help you with any wording issues.

In Advance

Proposals need to be submitted by at least two members of the current Worldcon, although you can always have more co-sponsors if you want them. You don’t actually have to be at the Business Meeting to submit your proposal, although in practical terms you really should be there in order to advocate it and to make sure the meeting understands how you expect it to be interpreted.

Let’s assume here that you have a proposal for a new Hugo Award category. You write to the current year’s Worldcon Business Meeting staff after finding their e-mail address on the current Worldcon’s web site. After corresponding with them, they help you work out the precise wording of your proposal. You find at least one other member of the current Worldcon who will co-sponsor it, and you submit it to the current Worldcon. The Secretary of the Business Meeting will let you know that they’ve received the proposal.

Realistically, if you are not already a regular participant in the WSFS Business Meeting, it will be very helpful for you to bring your proposal up informally as early as possible. Surprises at Worldcon, especially controversial or complicated surprises, are essentially never adopted. Probably the best venue for getting early feedback and buy-in is the smofs email list. (A SMOF is a Secret Master of Fandom — this is a long-running inside joke.) Smofs is an email list for people interested in convention-running, and especially for people interested in running the Worldcon. A substantial fraction of the WSFS Business Meeting’s regular attendees read smofs. (You can join smofs here. If you are subscribing and think that you might not be known to the list administrators, please write to the SMOFS List Administrators and tell them who you are and some background information, including your reasons for joining or who told you to join the list.)

When you bring your proposal to smofs there is a very good chance that people will expose your proposal to close scrutiny and raise many objections. This is a Good Thing since in advance you have a chance to modify your proposal to deal with some of the objections and to thus win support for it. If the objections first surface at the WSFS BM, there is very little chance of dealing with them and winning over the precious votes needed to pass your proposal.

At Worldcon

Now it’s Worldcon time, and the first meeting, held on the second day of the Worldcon, is approaching. This is called the Preliminary Business Meeting (PBM), and on the surface it may seem like you can skip it, because it talks only about setting up the agenda and stuff like that. Don’t skip this meeting! The PBM is the first real test your proposal will have. Although the PBM cannot pass your proposal, nor will the the meeting usually debate it in any substantive way, the meeting can make changes to it, and, for procedural reasons, such changes are difficult to undo at a later session. Even more seriously, the PBM can kill your proposal outright if 3/4 of the people at the meeting vote to Object to Consideration. This is a procedural motion that says, “This proposal is such a waste of the society’s time that it’s not even worth debating it.” (They may also vote to Postpone Indefinitely, which has the same effect and takes fewer votes to effectively kill your proposal, but you’ll get two minutes to explain why your motion is worth being considered.) You need to be present, along with enough of your proposal’s supporters, to make sure that your motion does not get “spiked” like this, and also to deal with technical questions. Typically, any new proposal not immediately “spiked” will result in a number of technical questions regarding wording. It is common for the meeting to set up a special committee, which will meet immediately thereafter, to work out these technical issues and come up with the final form of the motion to be considered the next day. The PBM also sets the debate time limits. Because WSFS members don’t really want to spend all five days of Worldcon arguing proposals, the rules limit the amount of debate time, usually to about twenty minutes or less per proposal.

On the third day of the Worldcon is the Main Business Meeting, and this is where your proposal will face its biggest challenge. After the meeting deals with business left over from last year, such as ratification of amendments passed at the previous Worldcon, it will take up new business, including your proposal. As the maker of your proposal, you have the right to speak first in debate. Remember that you don’t have a lot of time (there is that debate time limit established yesterday) and that you won’t get a second chance to speak until anyone else who wants to speak in favor of your proposal has had a chance to speak. (There are exceptions to this; if someone asks you a direct question, you may be able to answer it if the person asking gives up some of his/her debate time to you.) After you’ve made your “opening argument,” the other members get to debate the question, alternating between speeches for and against the proposal. Something that people may find very frustrating is that debate need not be factual and you do not have the right to interrupt someone else to correct them if they make a mistake in their facts. You have to use your own debate time (which is limited, remember?) if you want to correct someone else’s mistakes.

Members can also propose (and debate) amendments to your proposal, move to send it to committee for further study and discussion, and other things. Bear in mind that even though you made the proposal, once it’s before the meeting, the meeting owns it and can amend it as it pleases, whether or not you like it. Assuming it doesn’t get sent to committee or killed by one of a number of parliamentary maneuvers, eventually the motion will come to a vote, and if a majority of those people voting vote in favor of it, your motion has received “first passage” and you are halfway home.

If the meeting runs out of time before getting to your proposal, or if the proposal is sent to a committee with instructions to do something this year, action on your proposal will be deferred to the Second Main Business Meeting, sometimes also called the Site Selection Business Meeting because usually the first item of business there is the announcement of the winner of Worldcon Site Selection.


Note that we said you were “halfway home” once you got the Business Meeting to pass your proposal. That’s because WSFS rules require that changes to the Constitution be passed twice, at two consecutive Worldcons. This prevents an enthusiastic group of people from “packing” the meeting to vote on issues of a transitory or local nature. Because Worldcons are held in widely separated places each year, WSFS assumes that anything important enough to be part of the Constitution ought to be able to appeal to a majority of the Business Meeting attendees in two consecutive years. At the Worldcon following the one where your proposal got first passage, your proposal will now be in the section of the agenda where previously-passed proposals are up for ratification. You should probably still go to the Preliminary Business Meeting, but the good news is that your proposal is not subject to Objection to Consideration here. At the Main Business Meeting, you will once again debate the proposal and try to persuade a majority of those people present that they should vote for it. If a majority votes to ratify the proposal, congratulations: it’s now part of the WSFS Constitution and will take effect with the following year’s Worldcon.

Now, you may have read all of this and said, “That’s a whole lot of work!” And you’re right, it is. Constitutions aren’t supposed to be easy to change, and nobody wants it possible to make significant changes to the Hugo Awards quickly. Procedural safeguards are in place that assure that any change to WSFS rules has been thoroughly debated and considered seriously for a minimum of two years before it takes effect. And you have to do the work yourself. You can’t appoint a proxy or elect a representative or lobby some distant “them” to do it. This is a direct democracy, and you’re responsible for your own actions.

Some words of advice

While it is theoretically possible to propose any change to the Hugo Award rules, as with any political process it helps to propose something that has a good chance of being successful. The comments that follow are advice from Business Meeting regulars as to how to best go about promoting your idea.

Talk to people – it may be that an idea similar to yours has been tried before and failed. If so, you’ll want to know what arguments were brought against it. Besides, the more people you talk to in advance, the more supporters you’ll have before the meeting even starts.

Don’t make the category too narrow – a category for “Best SF Novel About Space Elevators” is unlikely to get adopted because there are not enough novels about space elevators written to make it worthwhile.

Don’t cause an overlap with another category – if you do your proposal is likely to get bogged down in endless discussion of technical issues. Ask the Business Meeting staff for advice beforehand on how to write your proposal so as to clearly distinguish it from other categories.

Don’t ask Administrators to make value judgments – the role of Hugo Administrators is to rule on technical matters: for example, how many words long is a story, or when was it published. They will, in general, refuse to make judgments that can be easily argued against. So if, for example, you propose excluding horror novels from the Hugos you’ll find that people complain that it is a matter of judgment as to what make a a story horror rather than SF or fantasy.

Don’t place any burdens on prospective nominees – the Hugo Awards exist to celebrate science fiction and fantasy, not to make their creators jump through hoops in order to qualify for awards. Remember that some of our greatest writers are quite old and may not be very good with email and web sites. Forcing them to undertake specific actions in order for their nominations to be valid will probably be viewed as rather rude.

Don’t ask for anything that will cost a lot of money to implement – Worldcons are run by volunteers on a very tight budget. They don’t have money to spare for expensive ventures.

Be patient – The amendment process takes two years at the minimum, and it is intensely political, by which we mean you have to persuade others by patient argument and coalition-building. If you come in with an attitude of “My proposal is so obviously correct that I shouldn’t have to work to convince you of it and you all should roll over and do what I say,” your proposal will be thrown out as fast as the members can say “Objection to Consideration.” (One WSFS Business Meeting once killed four proposals in four minutes in this way, and for that reason.)