Wednesday, April 20, 2011

Do book awards have a future?

Sandra Parshall

In the past couple of years I was invited to judge novels for two major crime fiction awards. I accepted both times, not because I’m a glutton for punishment (although that might have been a factor) but because I wanted to know what the juried awards process was like on the inside.

We all quibble with the nominations and winners of the so-called “fan awards” given at conferences – the Anthonys, the Agathas, etc. – but in the end we accept that the people who pay to attend the conferences have the right to honor the books they like the most. The juried awards, though, provoke the same critical questions year after year. How can a small panel of people be trusted to choose the “best” books of the year? How could so-and-so’s brilliant work be overlooked? Why does she-or-he rack up so many nominations (and wins) while other worthy writers are slighted? Why are some obscure works nominated instead of books and stories “everyone” has read? And, of course: Why are so few women writers nominated for certain awards?

Many people, most of them writers, seem to assume that bias drives the decision-making. I wanted to find out if that was true. I especially wanted to find out if my own judgment would be fair or if I would feel a tug toward books written by friends.

I don’t know what went on the heads of other judges, but I can say honestly that I was as fair as I know how to be, and I didn’t observe any bias on the part of other judges. I’m acquainted with a lot of the writers whose books I was judging. Some are my friends. But personal feelings for the writer never influence me when I’m reading, and they didn’t influence me as an award judge. Furthermore, I never gave a thought to the author’s gender while I was evaluating a book. All I cared about were the words on the page.

I can’t go into detail about any books I judged, but I have to say I was amazed by the number of ineligible novels that were submitted. Most entries come from publicists at publishing houses, and I don’t think they bother to read the guidelines when they mail tons of books to awards judges. They throw everything into the pot and, apparently, hope the judges don’t pay attention to the guidelines either. 

But let's get real. A cooking or craft cozy, while it must have suspense in order to succeed as a mystery, probably won’t win a thriller or suspense award. To be considered in those categories, the thrills and suspense must be primary, not secondary. The same goes for “romantic suspense” novels in which the suspense vanishes for long stretches while the romance plays out in the foreground. These books face a lot of world-class competition from authors who always put the crime story first. Different awards exist for different kinds of books, and I find the claims of bias a bit baffling. After all, Lee Child doesn't complain because his books are never nominated for the Agatha Award.

I accumulated a big stack of books that had little or no chance of winning the awards I was judging. I gave all of them to a library book drive organized by Mystery Writers of America. I thank the publishers for their contributions to an underfunded library system in Mississippi.

As I completed my judging duties, the digital revolution was getting underway. E-books were, and are, threatening to take over the publishing business and relegate printed books to secondary status. That makes me wonder if I was one of the last participants in an awards process that will soon be obsolete. When major authors take their work directly to e-publishing platforms, leaving Big Publishing behind, and midlist and small press writers conclude they can make more money by getting out of print and self-publishing their novels as e-books, will mystery awards be rendered meaningless?

If the awards are to continue, shouldn’t they include all books, regardless of platform? If all books are included, the number submitted for awards consideration will be staggering. Will awards committees become huge and the process of dividing up the books for judging impossible to manage? If e-books kill mass market paperbacks, as is predicted even by professionals in traditional publishing, will entire award categories vanish and all books be lumped together? That, of course, will further diminish each individual writer’s chance of being honored.

Will there still be a place for awards in the publishing world of the future? What do you think? Do awards serve a purpose? Are they worth keeping? If so, how do we do it?


caryn said...

I wonder if there shouldn't be a category for various awards for ebooks. It seems like it's unrealistic to include all of the ebook offerings along with the print books for all of these awards as well. Also, and I'm sure I'll make some authors angry with this, the standards for wht is available in ebooks is apparently nonexistent. There are some very good book that are only available in eform, but a lot of the eform only things seem to be a little less than great.

Sheila Connolly said...

Do you find yourself wondering if it is the publishers that encourage these contests? Goodness knows they're quick to slap "XYZ Winner!" on the cover, if it happens, just as they're eager to put "National Best Seller!" when a book has hit the top twenty for books sold in malls on a Tuesday. Does it matter to readers? (Apparently marketing departments think so.)

As a veteran judge of a couple of "name" contests, and a former coordinator for an RWA-sponsored contest, I have to say I was often conflicted when reading some entries. I would read a book and enjoy it, but I would know that it didn't stand a snowball's chance of finaling in a particular contest. Luckily in most cases the winners stood out for the majority of judges.

Having said that, I would hesitate to categorize those winners, save that the writer either presented an entirely fresh and distinctive voice, or (in the case of some well-established authors) they just did everything right.

Sandra Parshall said...

"They just did everything right" -- Sheila, I think that's the mark of a professional. I know publishers love it when their authors win awards, but writers love awards too. I'm not sure they mean anything to readers. Those of you who are readers but not writers: Do awards influence your book choices?

Unfortunately, there's a lot of "campaigning" for the fan awards given at conferences. My reaction to this kind of thing is always negative. At least the campaigning is cut to a minimum and doesn't count for much in the case of awards given by panels of judges.

Beth Anderson said...

There is already a completely ebooks award, the EPPIE. Authors who only publish in ebooks should submit there, and the competition is always hot. The winners can be proud of their awards because it's not easy to win an EPPIE. The substandard books are winnowed out quickly. A good book is a good book, and it has to be good to win. The EPPIES have always been that way for the same reason Caryn mentioned. Quality of the book.

The NY Times has added an ebook category as a separate part of their List. That's good news for ebook only writers. They're being noticed also, but on the basis of sales, not necessarily quality.
So are the print books.

For the big print book awards, my opinion is that the criteria should stay as it is. If a book is both print and e, as most are today, the submissions should be print only. I'd sure hate to be a judge for one of those awards and have to wade through the thousands of ebooks that would be submitted if it's allowed, and you have to know they would be if authors are allowed to enter their own books.

Maybe the criteria should always be that publishers have to be the ones to submit. Some are, but I'm not sure which is which. That might be a good list to see on this blog. What ARE the various criteria for the different awards?

Sandra Parshall said...

Authors are allowed to submit books themselves for some of the juried awards.

Jeri Westerson said...

The book award that I judged one year was the same thing, Sandy. Many sent that were not eligible. And part of the eligibility was that it had to have been released in hardcover, if memory serves. I think there was also a paperback category. Makes sense to also have an ebook category.

I had well over 80 books to get through and I did my best to ignore covers, publishers, and authors, reading them as blind as I could. What I found was that big name bestsellers from big houses were usually the best written. I was a bit shocked, but there was a clear delineation. That being said, there were a few smaller names from small houses that stood out too, some of which ended up in the top ten before we eliminatd down to five. Among the judges for our category, we all had picked, idependently, quite a few of the same books. So there was some value in a judged contest such as this.

Sandra Parshall said...

For one award I judged, all of the judges chose, independently, the same nominees -- and we all agreed on the winner. No discussion necessary. Quality really does stand out.

I was surprised that some publishers submitted paperback reprints of books originally published in hardcover in the paperback original category. Did they not read the rules, or did they hope the judges wouldn't notice the books had been published before in hardcover?

Larry Marshall said...

Book awards, bestseller lists, and most other forms of acknowledgement of quality have always made the mistake of obfuscating the quality judgement with judgement of medium. The notion that a book is a hardcover says nothing of its quality relative to a paperback.

The only thing that has changed is that the industry is railing against the shift to eBooks and those handing out awards see them as 'different' in some way. When everyone comes to understand that it's the story that matters, not how its presented, awards and bestseller lists will maintain their relevance.

Cheers --- Larry

Sandra Parshall said...

Some wonderful books are published as paperback originals. That's a good way for a talented new writer to find an audience.

NancyM said...

Good points made here, Sandy. I wonder if it's going to be possible to find judges as the number of entries gets bigger and bigger and bigger? It's very daunting to be a judge these days.

I agree that the campaigning is off-putting. And how embarrassing to learn your publicist has entered your work into a contest it's not suited for!

Sally said...

What I dislike about the "fan" awards that are voted on at conferences is that the process discriminates against writers and readers who cannot afford the money or time off from a day job to attend the conference. This means only a small segment of people can vote. To be fair, allow all members of SinC or MWA or RWA or whatever to cast electronic votes for certain awards.

Nancy A. said...

As both a reader and writer, I have to say that with so many choices out there, I often zero in on books that are nominated for awards. If nothing else, it certainly ups the author's name recognition.

jenny milchman said...

Let me just say that I am grateful for all your hard work, Sandy, and that of the other judges, and I hope awards are here for a long, long time. As long as books are, and long live books :)