The packet was originally gathered together by John Scalzi, with all of the content being contributed voluntarily by publishers and authors. Over the past few years it has become customary for the novels to also be included in the voter packet, but Orbit is bucking the trend.
This year Orbit has 3 novels on the shortlist, including works by Ann Leckie, Mira Grant, and Charles Stross, but Orbit won't be providing ebooks for voters to read. Instead they will only be offering excerpts of the novels.
We are of course very much in favour of initiatives that help readers to engage with important awards, and we are always looking for new ways to help readers discover new authors. However, in the case of the voter packets, authors and rights holders are increasingly feeling that if their work is not included in the packet it will be at a disadvantage in the awards. It’s difficult for anyone to know for certain whether this is the case, but either way we don’t feel that authors and rights holders should feel under pressure to make their work available for free. There are a lot of different attitudes to the idea of giving work away for free, but we hope most people would agree that writers and rights holders should be able to make their own choice, without feeling that their decision might have negative consequences.
I am told that for last year's Hugo packet Orbit only offered password protected PDFs (Thanks, Edward!), so their decision to cut back to excerpts should come as no surprise.
Still, I think Orbit's justification for this decision is a highly questionable argument. If you know that one option has potentially negative consequences and you choose it anyway, you can't blame anyone but yourself for the blowback.
And yes, I suspect there will be consequences; some voters are already unhappy, but even the voters who have no opinion on this issue will be affected. I'm sure that many will feel that they cannot vote for a work they have not read. This is going to put the Orbit titles at a disadvantage.
And that goes double when you factor in the detail that both of the other titles nominated for the Hugo this year, one from Tor Books and the other from Baen Books, will be offered in multiple DRM-free formats (Epub, Mobi, and PDF). Speaking of which, last year's Hugo Award winning novel, Redshirts by John Scalzi, was also offered in multiple DRM-free formats.
I don't know about you but I think there is a connection between making it easy for voters to read a work and it winning the award. But even though there is no proven connection (frankly there isn't enough data), there might be a connection so it is best to try to take advantage of that connection.
And even if there is no benefit from providing the free ebooks, Orbit Books handicapped their Hugo nominees this year by provoking negative attention both among voters and the media.
I hope that decision was worth the fallout.