How much do awards matter?

By Clare Langley-Hawthorne

I was on a Yahoo! discussion group the other day and we were discussing a recent book choice when the question was posed – how much do awards influence what you buy and read? This got me thinking of the bigger issue about how much mystery awards matter – for readers, writers and the publishing industry in general.

My theory (and feel free to disagree!) is that while awards are influential in terms of industry perceptions and in terms of making authors feel great, they have only minimal overall influence on readers. Now, I’m not talking about the mystery reading community but rather the wider reading community in general. I have to confess before I had my first book published I had never heard of most of the mystery book awards – and I was an avid reader! (though not, to my shame, a huge mystery reader – I have subsequently rectified this, at least a bit!). I vaguely knew about the Edgars but that was it – so while I had heard of the Booker prize I had no idea about the Lefty, Agatha, Macavity or Anthony – so for me (obviously!) awards didn’t have much of an influence on my book buying. In fact, many awards (Booker for instance) often reflected rather strange selections so I was more inclined to be influenced by reviews and recommendations than the seal-of-award approval. But that’s just me…

I do think awards recognize excellence and that the publishing industry certainly takes notice. I think (although I have no personal evidence…) that being nominated or winning an award may help an author secure the next publishing contract and perhaps garner a higher advance than would otherwise be the case. I also think, though, that an author’s track record in terms of sales is what really counts for publishers…There have been many terrific authors who have been nominated and who have even won awards who have still been subsequently dropped by their publisher on the basis of sales.

The consensus on the Yahoo! group appeared to be that awards were nice but not really influential. Most people preferred to rely on recommendations made by friends or reviewers they trusted. Many on the listserv also noted that in the mystery field there were so many awards that some readers felt the impact was diluted as many ‘popular’ choices went on to dominate – some people felt the awards lost their significance as a result. Many of the mystery awards are nominated and won on the basis of votes from members or registered conference attendees so overlaps are probably only to be expected – but I’m not sure whether this means in terms of the awards themselves or their significance to readers.

So what about you? How much do you think awards matter? Do awards influence what you buy and read? If so, which ones are the most influential and if not, why not??
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Coming up on our Kill Zone Guest Sundays, watch for blogs from Sandra Brown, Steve Berry, Robert Liparulo, Thomas B. Sawyer, Paul Kemprecos, Linda Fairstein, Oline Cogdill and more.
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The Results are in…

by Michelle Gagnon

The ITW recently posted the nominees for their Thriller Awards. Some of you might remember a post I wrote last August, when it was first announced that the paperback original category had been eliminated. Henceforth all of those books would be battling it out with the hardcovers for the moniker “Best Thriller.” There was a range of responses to my post, everything from “Hear, hear!” to “It’s silly to have different categories for different formats.” A few people chastised me, saying that any bias against paperbacks was only perceived, that I didn’t have enough faith in my fellow authors to judge a book based on its merits alone.

Well.

The results are in, and I am shocked, shocked! to report that not a single paperback original made the cut. thriller-award

Here are the finalists:

BEST THRILLER OF THE YEAR
Hold Tight by Harlan Coben
The Bodies Left Behind by Jeffery Deaver
The Broken Window by Jeffery Deaver
The Dark Tide by Andrew Gross
The Last Patriot by Brad Thor

Now, I’m not claiming these aren’t the best thrillers of the year- of the five I’ve read three, and they were great. But I also read a slew of PBO thrillers last year, and I’d rank them as high (or higher) than those three. The ITW is always battling charges that it’s morphing into a club for NY Times bestselling authors, and judging by this list, that might be the case. Granted, books are subjective little beasties, and what I love others might loathe. Perhaps these were the best thrillers of the year. I plan on reading the other two to satisfy my curiosity (and because they’re probably good books).

But I still don’t see where having a separate category for Paperback Originals does any harm. If paperbacks are consistently passed over in favor of their hardcover brethren for another few years, I believe there will be an exodus of PBO authors from the ITW. Which would be a shame, considering the fact that this award was initially conceived to address the fact that few thrillers were acknowledged by the established mystery awards. And making PBOs the red headed stepchildren of the organization doesn’t help anyone.

That’s my two cents.

Comments?

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Been There, Been That

By John Gilstrap
http://www.johngilstrap.com/

I’ll be honest: This is not the blog entry I’d intended to write, but given the posts over the last two days, inspiration struck while I wasn’t looking.

I think Ol’ Cap’n Sully is worth every dime of the $3.2 mill his agent was able to squeeze out of William Morrow. He’s worth twice that if that’s what Morrow was willing to pay. That’s how the game works. Agents pitch books, publishers make offers and authors accept or decline. I know for a fact that if Pinnacle, my current publisher, had offered ten thousand dollars more than they did for my next book, I would have accepted it. Ditto a hundred thousand or a million or even five million. I’d be out of my mind not to. I’d expect nothing less (more?) from someone as sharp as Sully.

I think Mark Combes had it right in his reply to Michelle’s post yesterday. Publishing is not a zero sum game. The fact that Sully got big bucks does not mean that someone else won’t. I heard on the news yesterday that Crown is paying $7 million for President Bush (43)’s book on his most important decisions. That’s $10.3 million in a single day from two different publishers. Will they earn out? I’m betting they come close, but I’m sure that from the authors’ perspectives it doesn’t matter.

I’m equally sure that as authors competing for shelf space in the same stores, it’s none of our business. I find the sniping about such things off-putting.

Fourteen years ago, I had the honor to be one of the seven-figure first-novel news items. After decades of writing for my desk drawer, I’d achieved my lifelong dream–in spades. I think I’ve written in this space before about the thrill I feel being in the company of writers, of calling myself a member of the club that I’ve always dreamed of joining.

Unfortunately, my newsmaking advance barred my immediate entry to the club because I was assumed by some of my “colleagues” at the time to be a talentless hack who happened to bamboozle gullible publishers (23 of them worldwide) out of money that they could never earn back. Because I hadn’t paid my dues, some of the authors I admired most wouldn’t even speak to me.

Most notably, I was in New York attending an event when a well-respected midlist mystery writer introduced me to one of the Great Names as “John Gilstrap, the guy who made X on his first novel.” The Great Name glanced at my outstretched hand and walked away.

Even though all of these authors understood how the game is played, their prejudice (jealousy is too loaded a word, and is too self-elevating) was focused on me—not on my agent and not on the publisher, but on me. I guess no one wants to burn bridges with agents or publishers. I have it on good authority that my advance in and of itself made NATHAN’S RUN dead on arrival as a possible nominee for a first-novel Edgar Award. (I’m not saying that I would have won, or even should have; only that I was told that the fix was in from the beginning.) That’s tough stuff.

As for there being no zero sum game, I think it’s interesting to note that one of the popular and woefully underpaid writers at the time—and one who always treated me very well, in fact took me under his wing—recently signed a reported $10 million book contract. Good for him.

Every year brings a new crop of newsmaking advances. Some of the recipients are celebrities, some of them are short-term headline darlings cashing in, and some of them are real authors beginning what they hope will be a long career. Each of these newly-anointed rich folks triggers a new round of behind-the-back sniping. I understand where it comes from, but I can’t bring myself to participate. Been there, been that.

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Are you here for the conference?

by Michelle Gagnonconference

Until I received an invite to Bouchercon, I had no idea conferences like that even existed (and until relatively recently, I had no idea how to properly pronounce Bouchercon, either, as it turns out. I have to stop myself from French-ifying it).

How cool, I thought- the opportunity to meet some of my favorite authors and discuss their books with like-minded fans. When I joined some of the online mystery groups and found out that not only could I attend, but I might even be asked to serve on a panel, it was downright mind-boggling. So the year my debut thriller was released, I devoted most of my marketing budget to conference fees, flying everywhere from Anchorage to New York.

Was it worth it?

Well, I had a great time, that’s for sure. The camaraderie at these conferences is fantastic- where else could I spend a night kicking back with Jeffery Deaver and Harlan Coben? But after two years of attending as many as I could afford, I’ve developed some basic parameters:

  • Cost and release dates: My last two books had summer releases: great for conferences, since most of the big ones occur between March and October and they’re clustered in the summer months (I always think of Bouchercon as closing out conference season). THE GATEKEEPER will be released in November, so I’m cutting back dramatically on what I attend since I’ll just end up pitching BONEYARD to people, many of whom already heard about it last year. Cost is always an issue- even if the conference fee isn’t very expensive, once you factor in all the ancillary costs (travel, hotel, etc), each conference runs me at least a grand. And that adds up quickly. Which leads to…

  • What do I hope to get out of it? Mind you, I love hanging out with fellow writers and fans, but it’s hard to justify spending a thousand dollars over a weekend to do that (especially in this economy). So ideally, I hope to get on at least one good panel, and to network with people I haven’t met yet. There’s always a lot of debate on the lists about which conferences are worth attending, and I’m certain that everyone has a different experience. You might sell more books at smaller regional ones where you’re one of a handful of authors, whereas at larger conferences you might get lost in the shuffle. Yet at those big conferences there’s an opportunity to meet domestic and foreign editors, booksellers, and agents, and to get your name out to a larger cross-section of mystery fans.And sometimes the regional conferences are skewed toward local authors, so if you’re not from the area, you might find yourself relegated to the panel on bug detectives (not a well-attended one, in my experience). So it largely depends on what your career goals are at that given moment. Personally, I’m doing the same thing with conference attendance that I do with my financial portfolio: spreading it out between smaller conferences like Left Coast Crime (they had me at “Hawaii”) and big ones like Bouchercon (which I always seem to get a lot out of).

  • Is it a fan conference, or a writing one? Not that writers aren’t fans- we all are, obviously. But some conferences specialize in helping new authors hone their craft and pitch agents- which is invaluable for them, but I’ve discovered that at those conferences, I spend most of my time dodging requests to pass a manuscript on to my agent. I’d much rather go to a true fan conference, where most of the attendees are readers who want to meet their favorite bestselling authors, and who might be persuaded to try a new one as well.

  • Which genre does the conference emphasize? I’ve gone to a few romance conferences, and so far haven’t had much luck with those (although I know my friend Alex Sokoloff has had a much more positive experience). For me, going to RWA felt like starting over again; I didn’t know the lingo, and since romance isn’t a major component of my books, I drew a lot of blank stares. I’m considering giving Romantic Times a shot when it lands a bit closer to home, but flying to Orlando isn’t a possibility for me this April.

Even though I’m cutting back, as of right now I plan on attending Left Coast Crime, LA Times Festival of Books (a cheap flight, and I can stay with friends), Book Passage (local, and no conference fee), and Bouchercon. I’m on the fence about Thrillerfest, since NY is just so darn expensive, and I’m skipping BEA since my ARCs won’t be ready yet. Also, no Edgars for me, sadly, or Sleuthfest (I could really use a trip to Florida, too. Oh well).

On the plus side, this leaves my summer largely free. But I have to wonder what poor Harlan and Jeffery will do without me. So my question for the day is: are you going to any conferences? Which ones, and why?

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“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)


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