Last year I was invited to represent the Arthur C. Clarke Award in a panel discussion on science fiction book prizes, talking alongside the organizers of the BSFA Awards, the Kitschies and the Hugo Awards.
Somewhere in that conversation I found myself talking about the differences between the Clarke Award and the Hugo, the obvious big award in the room, and why, naturally, I thought the Clarke was the more important of the two.
Paralleling the classic competition between behemoth Microsoft and plucky Apple, I cast the Clarke Award in the David role, claiming we were the only award that could 'think different' and were somehow an infinitely cooler upstart than our Goliath cousin from over the water.
Of course, all such claims were made strictly in the spirit of friendly banter rather than actual competition, yet as I began to think more about the future direction of the award the idea stuck with me, and I started to ask myself if there might there be lessons we could take from Steve to help Arthur?
In case this all sounds very theoretical, it's worth noting that in 2011 the award was potentially in the same end-of-the-line situation as Apple prior to the much-celebrated return of Steve Jobs, and was then facing the loss of its core funding for prize money. News that made the national press and sparked a massive debate about the future of the award.
Here then are my top three ways that thinking less like an award and more like Apple might help us identify just what it is that continues to make the Clarke Award the award to watch for science fiction readers everywhere.
Apple is famous for its streamlined approach to product lines, allowing its iconic designs to stand out in a crowded consumer electronics marketplace.
Similarly, it's often been proposed that the best way for the Clarke Award to grow would be to extend its prize roster beyond a single 'best novel' category. Suggestions include adding new categories e.g. best debut author or a public choice award, prizes for different sub-genres such as best Space Opera or Dystopia, or embracing different mediums such as best novella, cover art or even awards for film, television or comics alongside the main prize.
Putting aside the practical problem of raising additional funds for new prizes, I believe that much of the value of the Clarke Award lies in its simplicity -- one prize, one winner -- and adding new categories will merely create additional complexity not clarity of our message.
This isn't to say we shouldn't keep our eyes open for future opportunities, but rather that these should come from new places rather than from the simple expansion of an existing concept. In this way the award has already begun to experiment in areas such as public events, consultancy and even publishing, with the release of a fundraising anthology, Fables from the Fountain, inspired by Sir Arthur's classic short story collection Tales from the White Hart.
In a world of ever-increasing Internet transparency a little secrecy can go a long way.
Apple has mastered the art of building anticipation around a new product launch, and likewise the Clarke Award is all about the conversation that happens around our six shortlisted books and the announcement of the winning title.
One school of thought suggests that the more people know about the reasons why a judging panel made their choices the better. For example, who on the committee supported which book, what were the titles that almost made the cut and which fell at the first chapter, and why don't the judges ever include any of my favourite authors in their final selection?
The truth is, that when it comes to awards, there's such a thing as too much information. Holding judges to public account removes any sense of speculation, the key conversation driver that surrounds any award, and after all we all love to ask 'what were the judges thinking?' whenever a new shortlist is announced.
Will we be letting people know what goes on inside the locked room of the judges meeting anytime soon? Somehow I think you can guess the answer.
Steve Jobs wanted Apple to outlast him, stating that the real measure of a successful company was becoming the kind of organisation that would stand for something for generations to come.
The Arthur C. Clarke Award celebrated its 25th year in 2011, and since then one of the central focuses for planning its future has been to think about both the legacy of Sir Arthur and the best way to reach our 50th anniversary. There's a lot do in-between now and the year 2036.
If we wind back the clock by a quarter century, the publishing industry is a very different place. In 1987 an award based on books published only in the UK alone made more sense. There were no e-books, no independent authors self-publishing, no crowd-funded anthologies or established writers choosing to release new works digitally for free to loyal readers via their own websites. The fences are coming down, but more choice in how to publish means more work to consider for shortlisting.
With the number of eligible submissions received already increasing every year, simply opening up the submissions criteria is not the answer (pity the judging panel asked to do justice to every last title in that scenario) but change is still inevitable.
Steve's answer to change wasn't always to be the first to the party, but he always made sure he was the best. Likewise, the award will have to change the way it works and that this is a good and healthy thing, but we also know that for some people this change won't happen anywhere near fast enough. The worst approach for us though is to have to keep tweaking and changing the rules every year, adding layers of complexity but never getting deeper into the fundamental issues.
What 'being the best' means to the Clarke Award is about showcasing the best of science fiction to the world, not being bigger, better or first to the hot new discovery simply for its own sake.
Thinking differently is one thing, succeeding is another, and if there's one thing Apple does better than anyone its to make success look as simple as the user interface on a new iPad. We know the story won't be that simple, but, like Steve, we think it'll be our passion that pulls us through. So, in classic Steve style, here's one more piece of news that shows we've definitely got our eyes fixed firmly on the future...
One More Thing
This year we're delighted to announce that the award's main ceremony is moving, with the winner of the 2013 Arthur C. Clarke Award due to be announced at a special event hosted by the Royal Society, London's prestigious academy for the sciences, on the evening of Wednesday 1 of May.
Now if that's not an insanely great way to start writing the future, I don't know what is.