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?