“The envelope, please…”

by Michelle Gagnon

Congrats to Ann Littlewood, commenter extraordinaire and winner of our $50 gas card prize! And now, on to today’s controversial subject…

PBO Award, we hardly knew ye…

There’s been an interesting debate recently regarding changes to next year’s Thriller Awards.

Basically, here’s the scoop: the ITW (International Thriller Writers) organization has eliminated the Paperback Original (PBO) category. Now everyone (aside from debut authors) will pit their books against each other for the Best Novel award.

I’m actually surprised there wasn’t more of an outcry. PBO is a treasured category, in that it gives writers who aren’t necessarily guaranteed a spot on the bestsellers’ lists an opportunity for some recognition.

Writers and reviewers weighed in on both sides. Some claimed this was a fantastic decision, that a “Best Novel” category where only hardcovers are eligible makes the “Best PBO” look like a red-headed stepchild. It should be the content that matters, not the format, the argument goes. Which is a valid point, and one I always wondered about: why isn’t it simply, “Best Hardcover,” since nearly every other awards category is defined by format?

And many who chimed in said they trusted their fellow writers to treat the binding on submissions with a blind eye.

But just to play devil’s advocate, here are some things to consider:

  1. Bias

Allison Brennan made an interesting analogy based on her previous work in the legislature. I’m paraphrasing, but basically she said that when you wanted to talk to voters about the economy, you used a man as your spokesman; if you were discussing education, a woman. Because even when people think they’re completely fair-minded, there are inevitably some biases lurking in our subconscious.

There’s a chance that authors might prove to be more, not less, biased when it comes to formatting. After all, we understand how the publishing industry works. Sure, we acknowledge that there’s an arbitrary element to what kind of cover ends up on a book, and some publishers tend to favor one format over another. But given a choice, most authors would probably opt for a hardcover deal. It’s easier to get reviews, and collectors value them more highly. Also, since the production costs are higher, there’s a chance the publisher might throw some marketing money behind the book. These are all things someone who’s spent some time in the publishing trenches knows.

The average layperson, on the other hand, has no idea what the different formats mean, they just know that certain books are more expensive. But while they wouldn’t necessarily assume that a hardcover is superior to a paperback, an author just might. Even if they don’t think they’re biased.

  1. History

I asked during the discussion if anyone could remember the last time a paperback has been nominated for a Best First Edgar (since that category traditionally pits hardcovers against paperbacks, it’s a good reference point). I was curious, having submitted my debut thriller for consideration despite the fact that in recent memory I couldn’t recall a PBO garnering a nomination (if you know of one, drop me a line). Thanks to a bout of insomnia, I ended up going through the winners of Best First Novel Edgars (and believe me, I have discovered the cure for sleeplessness—this exercise could put Ambien out of business for good).

I got all the way back to 1971 before finally drifting off. For at least the past 37 years, no paperback has ever won an Edgar for Best First Novel. Next time I can’t sleep I’ll trudge through every nominee in that category, but I suspect the story will be the same. We all want to believe our books are being judged on a level playing field. But if that’s the case, then is it really true that for the past thirty-seven years, a hardcover was always superior to every paperback submitted?

  1. Why awards matter

When I’m writing a book, the last thing on my mind is whether or not it’ll end up being nominated for an award. I doubt any author is envisioning that as they tap away at their keyboards (although I have been known on occasion to accept imaginary Grammy awards in the shower. But you should hear my singing voice in there, it’s pure Mariah Carey.)

But we can’t pretend that awards don’t matter. Even my local bookstore (which has on occasion been downright hostile to genre fiction) mounts an Edgar display every spring. Harlan Coben has credited his 1997 Best PBO Edgar Award with keeping his career afloat, in that it persuaded his publisher to stick with him in the face of declining sales.

And again, I believe that a layperson couldn’t tell you the difference between an Edgar and a Barry if their life depended on it. But if they see, “____ Award Winning Novel” on the cover, they’re more likely to select that book over another one. Hey, it won an award, it must be a good read. So eliminating a category reduces the chance that five other books might garner some attention. IMHO, that is not a good thing.

  1. Apples and Oranges

There is inevitably some randomness to award distribution. Books on the whole are subjective little beasties, after all. And depending on the composition of the judging committee, some years noir may be favored over cozies, or vice versa. And really, how do you compare the two? Does the best romantic suspense novel trump the best paranormal? How do you weigh books written in only loosely related genres against each other? There are great books produced every year, across the board, in all formats. Yet it does seem that the more “serious” books (which tend to be hardcovers) have an edge. This is precisely why the Golden Globes feature separate categories for comedy and drama; it gives the comedies a shot, when traditionally they’re overlooked.

The RWA’s RITA Awards acknowledge this issue by having separate categories for Historical Romance, Paranormal Romance, and Romantic Suspense, among other subgenres. And these awards are generally acknowledged to be the romance publishing industry’s highest distinction.

  1. Multiple categories dilute the significance (or “Brand,” if you will) of the award

This claim I really don’t agree with. If anything, changing which books are eligible for an award on an annual basis would seem to threaten its legitimacy far more than keeping or adding categories (not to mention being incredibly confusing for authors and publishers). For example, last year my debut thriller was not eligible in the Best First category since it was a mass market paperback. The year before (2006) it would have been in the running, and it would again this year (2008). But in 2007 it was thrown into the mix with every other paperback author, regardless of whether they were on book one or twenty. Random? Absolutely. I’m glad they reverted to a true “Best First” category, with every debut eligible regardless of format. You only get one first novel, after all.

  1. “The Thrillies”

Personally, I’m all for having your more serious “Thriller Awards,” with gravitas, pomp, and circumstance. But after handing those out, why not have a little fun? Present an alternate set of awards and call them the “Thrillies.” Give a “Best Psycho” trophy (a knife, perhaps?) for the most terrifying villain, or a “Best Sex” prize for the best sex scene (I’ll let you use your imagination when picturing the prize for that one.)
I realize that will probably never happen, but it’s fun to consider. I’ve always thought that the Thriller Awards should be to the Edgars what the Golden Globes are to the Oscars: more entertaining and light-hearted, with someone throwing up in the bathroom by the end of the show. The Golden Globes achieve that by passing out more awards, not less (and by serving copious amounts of liquor). And I
don’t think an actor has ever turned one down because they felt having more categories diminished the significance.

I love the ITW organization, and have volunteered for it because I’m such a believer in their mission and goals. But in this instance I believe they’ve made a mistake.

There are many strong and legitimate opinions on both sides of this debate, and I’d love to hear them. Plus, if anyone has a spare Grammy hanging around, I’m in the market for one…

(my imaginary Grammy)

13 thoughts on ““The envelope, please…”

  1. The first thing that comes to my mind is to wonder how on earth any judging committee can handle the volume of both hardcover and pbo originals published each year. I’m aware of previous discussions where people have scoffed at the idea of judges reading all the books in any category already. I certainly don’t believe it’s possible to read all the books in this category now.

    I think it’s a disappointing decision. The truth is that there’s speculation that fewer hardcovers will be produced in the future and in some respects this is a move that could be seen as embracing that future. I’m not sure I agree that the death of the hardcover is imminent, and meanwhile, pbo authors already face numerous challenges (such as reviews in some publications) that work against them.

    It’s also interesting that the NY Times list divided and created separate lists for hardcovers and paperbacks last year.

    For my part, I would have revamped the categories:
    Best Hardcover
    Best Trade Paperback (I think the numbers are starting to warrant its own category)
    Best Paperback Original

    And I agree that many people have biases they might not even admit to themselves. Of course, I suppose the option for eliminating another source of controversy is to revise the categories as Best Novel Written By A Man and Best Novel Written By A Woman…

  2. There’s a lot to consider here, clearly. If reading all the entries is overwhelming, then considering changing the categories is also a huge undertaking as well.

    I would not want the humorous categories. The Academy gives out many more awards than the public sees on TV. And we, the public, are thankful that we don’t have to sit through those. But those “minor” awards are not really minor at all — they are major accomplishments for the people who receive them and can make a real difference in their careers. Just as all the ITW and other book awards can make a difference in a writer’s career and life. I wouldn’t want them diluted with trivial categories.

  3. I like having separate best hardcover and best paperback awards. It’s an opportunity for another author to be honored. I was at the Thrillerfest awards ceremony the last two years, and the awards did not seem to drag on. I also agree judging such a large pool of combined entries may get cumbersome.

  4. I agree with a lot of what you’ve said, Michelle. However, as a judge last year for Best First Novel, our number of entries was miniscule compared to Best Novel and Best PBO. Every judge on my committee agreed that PBOs should have been included in our category and we all felt that debut PBOs that we have read would have competed fairly in our category. I don’t want to say that a PBO may have taken a slot or three, because I was very proud of the five finalists and I don’t know which PBOs, if any, would have been entered in Best First, but I can say with total conviction that they would absolutely have been contenders.

    This isn’t to say I agree or disagree with the decision of the ITW board (other than combining for best first because I was a public advocate of that for two years.) I think that all your points are valid and I really hope that you submit a letter to the Board for consideration next year. As Vicki Hinze the VP of Awards said, ITW is a new organization and there is always room for improvement. Nothing is perfect or set in stone–except for this year!

    As far as the RITAs go, I would argue that the RITAs do not have the gravitas or respect in the industry like the Edgars and Nebula, et. al., do. In fact, after the second Thriller Awards, which were announced about the same time as the RITAs, the Thrillers got far more industry attention than the RITAs. You rarely see “RITA award winning novel” printed on books, though you always see Edgar, Hugo and Nebula. I think we’ll see “Best Thriller” as well. Why? Well, it’s branding. Readers don’t know about or care about the RITA awards. Readers do take note of the Edgars. Most bookstores don’t put special displays together for RITA nominees or winners; most bookstores DO put these displays together for the Edgars.

    My point about the inherent bias in people (though you used my example very effectively!) was that romantic thrillers were not given the same status as a “regular” thriller. Writing romance as a whole is considered sub-par with virtually all other genre (similar to how thrillers were often marginalized by mystery writers which necessitated the need for our own organization.)

    Anyway, I would have no problem with more categories, but I would hesitate to go down the path of RWA. When I was on the committee to reform the RITAs and make suggestions for improvements, I suggested cutting the categories in half–NO ONE agreed with me. But I felt that to get recognition and have the award mean something to Readers, we had to make the award similar.

    BTW, on bestsellers . . . PBO have just as good of a chance of hitting a best seller list as a hardcover. The lists are separate. Readers are more likely to give a new PBO author a chance than a new hardcover author, especially now in this economy. It’s a great way to build an audience. Especially in romance or any of the subgenres because romance readers don’t generally buy romances in hardcover.

    Great points, BTW.

  5. While I support the idea that a higher volume of awards is better for writers, I look forward to the day when there is no distinction between books based on format. Thanks for an informative post.

  6. So I’ve got a bit of egg on my face, and apparently my “recent memory” is even worse that I suspected, b/c I have been informed that there were, in fact, a few PBOs nominated in the Best First category in the past decade:
    2006 Alison Gaylin, Hide Your Eyes
    2003 Stephen Clark, Southern Latitudes
    2003 Kam Majd, High Wire
    So perhaps there’s hope for a PBO winning a Best Novel award yet.
    Everyone has raised some great points–and someone else contacted me directly to point out the if ereaders take off down the line, this might all be a moot point anyway. Then, there might truly be no difference aside from the content.

  7. I agree with Sandra – this is a disappointing decision. When an organization is only two years old, it’s hard to imagine why they feel the need to overhaul things so quickly. It usually takes five years at least before people get used to how things work; which category to enter, etc. Personally, I never buy hardcovers as they’re just too expensive. I’ll wait for a favourite author to come out in paperback, and many of my favourite authors come out first in paperback anyway. To get rid of Best Paperback Original seems to be shooting themselves in the foot.

    People have plenty of bias, whether they admit it or not. If my debut were to be a trade paperback, that might be seen as a step up from a mass market one. Or, you’ve got the problem of unconcious envy in judges.

    As for the RITAS, I feel RWA doesn’t spend enough energy or money promoting those awards and encouraging publishers to put the award on covers, and to educate the public about what it means. If they can promote authors in movie theaters, surely they can promote the RITAs in a similar way. Okay, off that soapbox!

    Thanks for bringing this forward, Michelle. It’s so good to read about what’s really going on in the industry.

  8. Michelle says: >But given a choice, most authors would probably opt for a hardcover deal.

    Not this author! I’ll take mass market pb over hc any day. Sure, my hardcovers get more reviews and, in some cases, more prestige [snort], but I’d rather have more sales!

    That said, I’d prefer the awards split into Best Novel and Best Paperback Original.

  9. Awards are a ^£*^&*&£ nightmare all round. They involve incredible amount of work on the poor souls who volunteer as judges, often for little or no reward. People who don’t win them tend not respect them. People who do win often wonder why they got it when others didn’t.

    It’s a crap shoot, to use an Americanism, and one that will always offend someone along the way somehow.

    That’s not to say you don’t have a point, Michelle. Just that if you did win this one someone would soon pop up to say why it was a mistake – or that something else is wrong.

    After Thrillerfest I had people come up to me (seriously) and say a Brit should never have been allowed to win, or someone who wasn’t there (imagine that announcement – ‘The prize goes to the second best book of the year because the real winner didn’t show’.

    David (winner of audio crime book of the year – unabridged, and there’s a story too – in the UK 2008 for The Seventh Sacrament read by Saul Reichlin)

  10. I think the points that Michelle raises are incredibly valid. Although there may be separate best seller lists for PB and Hardback, the reality is that people published in HB get two bites at the marketing cherry, by following up in PB.
    Those published only in PB have but one chance to make an inmpact with readers and booksellers.
    As we all know, it’s far more difficult to get reviewed if you’re in PB, which means less reader awareness.

    Co-op is equally challenging, so it’s word of mouth that leads to survival, or death by lack of sales. We all know great authors of both hardback and PB who haven’t had contracts renewed due to poor sales.

    For that reason, I believe that any award that gives PBs an increased profile and sense of importance should be valued.

    And although HB authors may receive a higher royalty, the increased cost to the publisher means the pressure is on to recoup the advance and sell loads. Again, HB awards increase their profile.
    Rather than diluting the value of awards, it adds kudos.

    That said, no one ever promised that awards lead to increased sales, although the Edgars at least manage promotion in bookshops.

    I do appreciate the magnitude of work that goes into judging awards and truly respect those who volunteer for the onerous task.
    However, I still think that best original paperback should be a separate category at ITW.

    Another advantage of opening up to have more award categories, is that people like me would volunteer to judge, spreading the workload of the other judges.

    And in these times of economic stress, will trade paperbacks replace the HB?????? Should trade and mass market be lumped together?
    I don’t think so, but that may need to be revised in the future.

  11. Thanks for chiming in, everyone- it’s really interesting to hear all the different sides of this issue discussed in such an open manner. I’ve also gotten a lot of emails from people off-list, bemoaning the loss of the PBO category. So hopefully the ITW will reconsider for the 2009 Awards.

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