ITW Thriller Awards

Posted by Joe Moore

Recently, my fellow Kill Zone blogmates John Gilstrap and Michelle Gagnon posted blogs that addressed the announcement of the 2009 ITW Thriller Awards nominees and the judging procedure. Both blogs raised questions and concerns, and generated a large number of comments. To address those issues, I asked ITW Vice President of Awards Vicki Hinze to comment on how the current judging was conducted and what the future holds for the Thriller Awards process.

I’ve been out of town and just returned and saw the threads, so I thought I’d add a little insight, though I think the subject’s been pretty well covered. Still, a little more insight into this might put some minds at ease, and I’m all for that. Also, please note that I’m speaking for myself and not as a member of the ITW Board.

hinze1 Last year, I chaired the ITW Awards, and we did have separate categories for Best Hard Cover, Best Paperback Original and Best First Novel. All three awards named Finalists and Winners.

In response to members’ comments, wishes and desires, we studied the market and discovered (no doubt many knew already, but we did study this) and determined that the format of a book is determined by readership and that varies publishing house to publishing house. In short, format is largely a marketing decision. The bottom line was that two categories, Best Novel and Best Paperback Original were combined for this year’s contest.

This year, when the scores came in, more analysis took place on the results. I’m serving as Awards VP, and I informed the Board that I would be asking that the awards again be separated. This will be on the agenda at the board meeting in July. If that vote goes as I hope it will, then the categories will be Best Hard Cover Novel, Best Paperback Original Novel, Best First Novel (which combines all debut novels–hard cover and paperback [mass and trade]). This year, we added an award for thriller Short Stories (which includes novellas) and next year we will continue it and we hope to add one for nonfiction.

One of ITW’s strengths, I believe–and it is this belief that got me to join and then to volunteer to judge and then to act as award’s chair and ultimately acted as a catalyst for me when it came to Board service–is that ITW remains open and flexible and seeks what is in the best interests of its members. That’s its top priority–and I say that as one who’s witnessed its workings and its methods of weighing potential programs and retaining or adjusting existing ones. (i.e. eliminating author membership dues)

ITW is a young organization and yet look at all it has accomplished for thriller writers. Has it been perfect since inception? No. No more so than any of us as individuals have been perfect. But ITW does strive to elevate potential for all involved, seeking win/win situations and solutions. I love that about the organization.

One reason, I think, for ITW’s success is its willingness to try different things and atypical approaches. Some have been enormously successful. Combining the categories for Best Novel and Best Paperback Original was not. I have no problem with saying an attempt made in good faith for logical reason on anything failed. Where I would have a problem would be in knowing it failed, in feeling confident it would continue to fail, and not doing anything to change it. That situation would be doing a disservice to members. Making changes that could benefit our members is a worthy goal.

So please understand that action is being taken on this matter. Can I say we won’t have future attempts that end up with results we find lacking? No, I can’t. I can tell you that we’ll continue to make every reasonable effort to create win/win situations for members. When a challenge is spotted, it’ll be addressed and hopefully resolved in a manner that best serves the majority of members.

Remember that we’re a progressive organization. We dare to try different things in different ways, seeking to do all we can to bring added benefits. Personally, I don’t see that as a flaw but as an asset. Change spurs growth; growth, productive change. It negates stagnation, and that’s a wonderful thing, in my opinion, because stagnant things die.

I do hope that this post eases minds. I’m not idealistic enough to believe that everyone will be satisfied with any program. But I do want you to know that we are trying to incorporate the desires and requests of members and to devise a program that satisfies the majority of members.

I don’t recall saying that the experiment of combining the two categories failed. But frankly, I am not satisfied with the outcome. It wasn’t good enough and I think we can do better. So that’s the goal. To do better.

This year, the structure of the program is behind us. Its benefits and drawbacks have been reviewed and we have a plan for a path with more benefits and fewer drawbacks to pursue–and we’re pursuing them. Please feel free to leave any comments on how to make the program better and stronger. I promise I’ll reply to all constructive suggestions.

Vicki Hinze
Vice President, Awards
International Thriller Writers

Vicki Hinze is the author of 21 novels. She holds a Master of Arts in Creative Writing and a Doctorate in Philosophy, Theocentric Business & Ethics. She actively lectures on writing craft and technique and philosophy.

Her articles have appeared many respected publications and e-zines (Novelists, Inc., Romantic Times, Romance Writers’ Report, The Outreacher, The Rock and others) and have been extensively reprinted in as many as sixty-three foreign markets. She has coordinated and/or judged national and international writing competitions, served on various writers’ association committees, has been honored by Romance Writers of America with their National Service Award and in 2004 was named PRO Mentor of the Year.

Vicki is a charter sponsor of International Thriller Writers and serves on its Board of Directors. She’s a member of The Authors Guild, American Christian Fiction Writers, Novelists Inc., Romance Writers of America, Mystery Writers of America, Published Authors Network, Emerald Coast Writers, ACRA, Deep South Christian Writers and other writing organizations.

12 thoughts on “ITW Thriller Awards

  1. Vicki, welcome to the Kill Zone, and thank you so much for sharing your insightful post with us here today! It’s clear that a tremendous amount of thought and effort goes into decisions that get made at ITW, including awards, and it’s heartening to know that when structures are perceived to be a challenge, they can change! I wish that all organizations were so dynamic and flexible.

  2. I made some comments on one of the other blogs about this, because I was one of the preliminary judges (and as a result, have to largely keep my mouth shut on specifics).

    I will say this: if you want an opportunity to realize just how subjective, capricious, random and time-consuming the judging for the Thriller (or any award) is, volunteer to be a judge. Put your money where your mouth is and volunteer. Then you can decide whether women are under-represented, whether it all goes to Americans and not authors from other countries, whether bestsellers have an advantage, or whether it matters whether the book was published in hardcover or paperback.

    The semi-finalists didn’t surprise me for any argument I’ve heard so far–hardcover or paperback or American or men–but they surprised me for other reasons. And I’m sure I’m not the only judge who raised an eyebrow.

  3. Mark, on Michelle’s blog you said, “[judging the awards are] wildly subjective, horribly time-consuming.” And here you said, “Put your money where your mouth is and volunteer.”

    I could not agree with you more. Until someone has actually done it, they have no idea what the process is like, the least of which is the time invovled. They only see the results. Having just finished 11 months of judging 220+ original paperbacks for the Edgars, I welcome anyone who questions any literary judging process to get involved and witness it firsthand.

  4. Yes, Joe. Absolutely. I’m glad I did. I learned a lot. Will I do it again? Hmmmm, I’ll tell you what. If anyone wants me to be a contest judge like this, they’re going to need to get me drunk to talk me into it, or at least catch me at a very compliant period. That said, it’s not inconceivable.

    Nonetheless, you get a slew of free books and you’ll learn a lot about writing, publishing, and mostly about the totally random aspects of literary awards.

    I think every publish writer should do it at least once.

  5. At some point I would love us to have a general-topic discussion about awards and their impact on an author’s career (I mean awards in general, not specifically the Thriller awards). For example, what is the economic impact versus the prestige impact of awards? When I started my mystery series, I asked a prominent editor about awards, and was told that publishers don’t pay much attention to them, that only hard sales numbers count in the decision-making world of publishing (she didn’t say it exactly that way, of course). That made a huge impression on me at the time. Maybe it made too much of an impression, witness the fact that I haven’t won any awards, lol. If I ever win one, I’ll be like, la la la, I’m so fine!

  6. I’m not going to comment on the ITW Awards specifically, because Vicki covered everything, but I will concur that the Board has always been responsive to my questions, they specifically asked for a report from me, which I delivered–probably far, far, FAR more information and statistics than they wanted (I think it ran 8-9 pages, single spaced, not including spreadsheets.) I am confident after hearing feedback that the Board will seriously consider my comments and suggestions, that Vicki has gone over and beyond in being responsive, even while during the crunch time in the awards, her mother-in-law passed away and then she went in for major eye surgery.

    No award is perfect. Every contest that is judged by human beings is subjective. First, remember that virtually every contest is comparing books THAT ARE ENTERED. Some authors–and some publishing houses–don’t enter their books in contests.

    Anyway, I didn’t read any of the criticism of the awards because I don’t think I could have kept my mouth shut, and then the Board would hunt me down and find ways to torture me–and they all know how to do it. In the end, good thrillers finaled and good thrillers didn’t final. That is always the case in every contest. I’m thrilled for the finalists, and hope they enjoy the ray of light shined on their books. They deserve it.

  7. I’ve helped judged the Thriller Awards 3 times now, and I’d gladly do it again. Yes, it’s time-consuming and thankless and frustrating at times. But it’s also fun! Reading is a blast and being part of the writing community is rewarding.

    I don’t think these awards (any awards) matter a whole lot in the grand scheme of things, nor do I think they have a significant impact on an author’s career. (Most of the time I think they probably have no impact at all.)

    They are, however, a nice way to bring a little recognition to books and authors, and that’s always a good thing.

    As Allison says, it shines a ray of light on the books, even if it’s only for a brief time. I think that’s a great thing.

  8. Kathryn, I think an award won very early in a career may have an impact in getting a contract at “the next level.” But after that, it’s really a track record game.

    I don’t see publishers or readers caring that much. If thye find a writer they like, the fact that he or she isn’t an award winner won’t matter in the least. And we all know of multiple award winners who would gladly trade those in for a larger readership.

    Cary Grant never won a Best Actor award and was nominated only once. Yet who was better at comedy, drama and Hitchcockian suspense? But the award oversight didn’t seem to hurt his career or the esteem we hold him in now.

  9. Thanks Vicki for your thoughtful response. It ain’t easy pleasing hundreds of authors – it’s kinda like herding cats. But I too think ITW is responsive and generally moving in the right direction – and certainly keeping their “eye on the prize” – serving the thriller writer as best they can.

  10. Hi Vicki, thanks for stopping by to clarify things, we appreciate it!

    In the interest of full disclosure, I judged a category of the Thriller Awards this year. And addressing one of Allison’s comments, I agree that part of the problem is a lack of submissions by publishers.

    However, I think the many changes to the Thriller Awards in the past few years has only served to exacerbate that problem. I know that my publisher in particular sent me a letter last year saying they’d submitted my debut MMP for Best First- then a month later, I received a second letter from them explaining that actually, paperbacks weren’t being considered for Best First, they were being lumped in with all the other PBOs. So they’d re-submitted Tunnels for that category.

    This year, when PBO was eliminated, you can just imagine them throwing up their hands.

    I think that if we want these awards to really mean something, we need to make it easier on publishers. We need to figure out what the parameters of each category are, and stick to them. That is also only fair to the nominees and winners- winning an award, only to discover that category eliminated the next year, has to smart. Of course every organization experiences growing pains, but its important to get this nailed down.

    On another note- because thrillers are “hot” right now, a lot of books/stories are lumped in as thrillers, when they’re actually noir or traditional mysteries. I understand that there is some debate on what actually constitutes a thriller, but as a judge it would have been helpful to have an established set of guidelines. I think that for a “Thriller Award,” being a thriller should be an critical qualification.

    And finally, as far as the importance of awards…I don’t know if it’s true, but I’ve heard from several people that Harlan Coben only managed to get another contract in the face of declining sales because he had won some well-regarded awards. Does anyone know if that’s the case?

  11. re: whether awards help a career or increase sales.

    Some do. Edgar nominees are often given a special display in bookstores, particularly mystery indies, for months. That’s longer than many of us are on the shelves. That helps sales. How many? I don’t know. But it can’t hurt.

    The industry places great weight on some of the awards. The science fiction awards (Hugo? Nebula? I don’t know because I read very little SF) are printed on books, Edgar-winning or Agatha-winning author is often seen on the cover. I think that helps–at least to get someone to pick up your book.

    The RITAs (yes, you all wonder what that is) have been around for more than 2 decades but haven’t seemed to garner the same attention. My four RITA nominations (no win . . . yet) for romantic suspense doesn’t really do anything except get me some special recognition at the RWA conference, a little press, and one more thing to add to my writing resume. I’m not being cynical, it’s just some awards seem to have earned more prestige than others.

    My publisher doesn’t care. I get flowers when I hit the NYT list, not when I get nominated for best anything.

    BUT . . . being nominated is nice. It’s a peer award, and getting recognition as being outstanding in your genre means a lot, at least to me 🙂 But we writers tend to be neurotic, so every little bit helps!

  12. I hate to see ITW getting into ruts. A lot of the ITW authors aren’t thriller writers, but energetic mystery writers, which is okay. But why do we have Thrillerfest in the same place every year? Yes, NYC is the vital publishing Metropolis, but it’s getting a bit old checking into the same hotel every year. Phoenix was great. NYC was great the first year. Okay the second, and I’m yawning here…

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