Monday, February 06, 2006

Are Awards Their Own Reward?

All of the arts have awards, and writing has more than its share. The Pulitzer and Nobel Prize are the most well-known, and then the Booker Prize and the National Book Award. Organizations give awards, conferences give awards, and they can be judged by peers or by fans.

There's something exciting about being nominated. It not only reinforces an artist's efforts and intentions, but this type of recognition can lead to more publicity and exposure, increased book sales, and it makes the publisher happy.

But I don't believe it ultimately makes the writer happy.

In the mystery, thriller, and horror genres, there are about a dozen or so highly regarded and sought-after awards. They include the Edgar, Anthony, Macavity, Dilly, Gumshoe, Derringer, Raven, Ellery Queen Reader's Choice Award, Stoker, Barry, Thriller, Shamus, Dagger, Nero Wolf, Love is Murder, and others.

I've been nominated for several of these. And I've won a few.

Sometimes you get nominated by your writing peers or fans. Sometimes you get nominated by submitting your stories and books yourself. Sometimes your editors will submit your work.

For a few recent awards, neither my publisher nor I have submitted my work to the judges for consideration. This is at my request.

While I feel honored to get on final ballots, and while I feel very grateful when I win, I've found that my feelings tend to be even more pronounced when I don't get nominated, or if I'm nominated and then I lose.

The highs don't make up for the lows.

It gets even more complicated. At the conference I attended over the weekend, I won an award, and I felt bad about winning. It's not that I don't appreciate it---I'm deeply honored. But I looked at the folks who didn't win and felt terrible for them.

Anyone who knows about my many rejections knows I'm an expert at having my hopes crushed. And I hate to see it happen to other writers almost as much as I hate to have it happen to myself.

The ultimate value of an award remains elusive. Letting a handful of judges with various tastes judge the merit of one's work may say more about the judges than the work. Nepotism and popularity often come into play while voting. Personal opinion plays a large part. And the self-congratulatory and semi-incestuous nature of some awards and awards committees tends to exclude the deserving (if there is such a thing), and embrace the familiar.

Looking at past winners in the above categories reveals two truths. A small percentage of popular authors keep being nominated for awards, and many of them keep winning. These authors are usually bestsellers. But the larger percentage of winners and nominees don't ever achieve bestsellerdom.

And many bestsellers never get nominated for awards, which really makes my wonder.

I don't believe that winning an award is a good indicator of future sales, or even a good indicator that the work is truly the best that genre has to offer.

Art is subjective, and I often read books that I believe are much better than the award-winners, yet were never nominated.

As any psychologist can tell you, allowing your happiness to be dependent on what a group of people dictate is not in your best interest.

What if you win an award one year, then lose the next year? What does that tell you about your work?

What if you get nominated year after year, but never win? Or what if you never get nominated?

The system breeds more stress and disappointment and frustration than it does happiness.

So, if I have a choice in the matter, I don't put my work up for award consideration.

Sour grapes on my part? I don't think so. I'm just trying to protect myself from a situation that I have no control over. I can influence my sales, and that leads directly to money in my pocket. I can't influence the awards I win and lose, and that leads directly to ulcers.

That said, for the 2005 Edgar Awards best novel, I'm pulling for VANISH by Tess Gerritsen. It's about time the Edgar committee realized what the rest of us have known for years---she's one of the best in the biz.


Anonymous said...

Interesting idea: not even entering yourself for consideration. Seems like it would avoid a lot of angst, and yet it would be hard to resist.

Do you think there might be more relative value for new writers to enter contests, even if only to reach new readers (i.e., judges, who tend to be prolific and often vocal readers)?

Not sure how the MWA works, but in SFWA (Science Fiction Fantasy Writers of America) the Nebula Award recommendations are printed in a member Forum each month (preliminary and final ballots are private). That way everyone can see who recommended whose work (receiving a certain number of recs gets you on the preliminary ballot).

I'm bothered by the potential for logrolling and hurt feelings and have therefore decided not to rec books as long as this format is in place. In talking to other authors, I'm not alone. Some of us prefer to keep politics a spectator sport. :-)

Jim said...

Joe: Like most things in the writing business, awards are part of the buzz. And there's no such thing as bad buzz, even if everyone can't end up being the top buzzer. Or phrased differently, isn't it better to have buzzed and lost than . . .?

mapletree7 said...

The immediate rewards may not be worth it - but there are long-term rewards as well.

Being nominated for an award, or better yet, winning one, is a great credential.

Your agent can use it to get you a better advance on your next book.

Your publicist can use it to pitch you to media.

Your publisher can use it to pitch you to independent bookstores or other author venues when you're on tour.

Your lecture agent can use it to pitch you as a 'real' author when talking about you and your work to educational venues or lecture series.

There are a lot of authors out there. It can be difficult to stand out in the pack.

I would only recommend voluntarily staying out of award pools to someone who has already gone as far in their career as they want to go.

Sandra Ruttan said...

What if you win an award one year, then lose the next year? What does that tell you about your work?

Sometimes, I think it boils down to judges playing politics. Remember a few years ago, Jodie Foster was big talk re: an Oscar nod? I remember the insider word was that she wouldn't win because the academy didn't want to honour her a second time when she was so young.

It was craziness. It's supposed to go to the best...and yes, that is subjective. But I think what happens sometimes is they say, "we can't vote for so-and-so because they've won too many times" so they pick someone else. Or don't even nominate the person in question.

But that is only my opinion...

Though I'd venture to say you're right. Mostly. Except us super-newbies don't have any choice.

JA Konrath said...

"I would only recommend voluntarily staying out of award pools to someone who has already gone as far in their career as they want to go."

I disagree. I have seen no direct link between the number of awards an author wins, and their sales, popularity, or the amount they are paid.

Many multi-award-winning authors still struggle to sell books, and many books sell zillions without every winning awards.

Stacey Cochran said...

Great post, Joe. Like Mark said, you sound genuinely concerned over winning the award and how that affects the other nominees. You're a caring guy and that means a lot.

I'd only add that I think there needs to be more entry level awards.

Specifically, awards designed to recognize and publish previously unpublished writers.

St. Martin's Press should be applauded for sponsoring two contests each year in the mystery field to discover and publish unknowns.

I wish there were more.

Does anyone know of other contests like SMP's?


Rob Gregory Browne said...

Nice of you to give Tess the nod, Joe. I think VANISH was a great book (one of the best openings I've ever read) and was pleased to see it nominated.

Lynn Raye Harris said...

I'm pulling for Tess. She's one of the founding members of my RWA chapter, and a nice lady to boot. I don't know her personally, but there are folks here who still do and they all, without reservation, speak of her as one of the nicest people they know. I like it when nice people win. Call me sappy. :)

PJ Parrish said...

Gotta disagree with you on this one, Joe. If you never step up to the plate, you never have a chance of hitting one out of the park. You act like you got beaned with an brush-back fast ball on the first pitch.

I've been nominated for the Edgar once, the Shamus three times, and the Anthony three times. I haven't won squat. But as a nominee, to be mentioned in the same breath as Jeff Deaver, Harlan Coben, Laura Lippman, Robin Burcell, Max Collins, Rick Riordan, Jack Bludis, Martin J. Smith, Andy Straka and countless others who won or were nominees in the PBO category.... man, that's a high in itself. They wrote good books, man!

The most valuable thing I got out of NOT winning? That you owe it to your readers to never phone it in because there are so many great books being written that you have to stay sharp.

To quote (roughly!) from Alice in Wonderland: In this country, it takes all the running you can do just to stay in place.

JA Konrath said...

"If you never step up to the plate, you never have a chance of hitting one out of the park."

Hitting one out of the park requires skill on the part of the batter, not votes by peers.

I've won more awards than I've lost, and I don't really dig either. To me, it feels like acting up just so your parents pay attention to you.

Being nominated is an honor. Winning is an even bigger honor.

But I've come to prefer to let others receive those honors.

My goal is to please fans, not award committees.

mapletree7 said...

I have seen no direct link between the number of awards an author wins, and their sales, popularity, or the amount they are paid.

Sure, there's no direct link. There's no 'direct' link between the number of drive-by signings an author does or the number of radio shows they go on and their sales, popularity, and the amount they are paid.

Awards are a marketing tool like any other.

Anonymous said...

I can understand the emotional factor in not wanting to compete. It's difficult to control our feelings, or even sometimes to know how we feel, and I can see how this could be a real roller coaster ride. A writer has enough of that, starting out, with rejections. I've had similar feelings to those you describe when competing for promotions with coworkers, or getting awards at the office.

I'm also always a little uncomfortable when I see the same person get the same award over and over again.

Interesting what Anonymous said about the Nebulas. I didn't know they did it that way, and that could be awkward.

As Mark said, a very honest post.

JA Konrath said...

"There's no 'direct' link between the number of drive-by signings an author does or the number of radio shows they go on and their sales, popularity, and the amount they are paid."

The more dive-by signings an author does, the more books they'll sell. Always.

I moderated a panel over the weekend and asked three editors what the difference in sales is between authors who self-promote, and authors who don't. They all agreed that authors who self promote sell many more books. Often as many as double.

I have had some experience with radio, but haven't seen it help my numbers. But, like being nominated for awards, publishers want to hear about it.

The difference between radio interviews and winning awards is that you can solicit radio interviews. It's within an author's power to get on the air. Awards are largely beyond an author's control.

But perhaps not as much as you may think.

In the case of the Nebulas or the Stokers (Horror Writer Association's awards), writers are nominated by other writers, and the nominations are public. You can see the problem here.

If a writer wants to be nominated, he can appeal to his friends. Author popularity can quickly get confused with book popularity. The "I'll nominate you is you nominate me" plot has been used many times in the past.

If a writer wants to win, he can send free books to the judging committee, which consists of all active members. It is not required that judges read every finalist, so many votes are cast without the judge having read a single thing on the ballot.

This happens, all the time.

In the case of the Edgars, judges volunteer to read submitted works. There are a small number of judges compared to a large number of entries (the opposite of the Stokers.)

I happened to know two of the judges on this year's short story committee, and I mentioned to both of them that I had no interest in winning any awards (all mystery short stories in major magazines are nominated by their editors.)

Could neoptism influence who wins? I don't know. I know that I could volunteer to be a judge, and that I'd be more likely to vote for my friends. Who wouldn't? Could you truly be impartial when one nominee is an unknown, and the other bought you ten drinks at the last Bouchercon?

And what if a cozy makes the final ballot, but two of the judges hate cozies? Is the best book really winning, or will the hardboiled book win just because of personal taste?

Awards can be helpful to an author's career, I've no doubt. But I'd rather pursue radio interviews...

HawkOwl said...

I don't think an award is at all a "credential" or even remotely a marketing plug. I've sworn never to buy another Pulitzer, Hugo or Nebula winner, because I've read many and they ALL sucked. Not some, ALL. It's very handy. "Hey, this looks good! Wait, Nebula winner, put it back." I've read good Booker and Governor General winners, but not enough to make it a statistic, where I'm going to rush out and buy the book as soon as it's announced. So the lost sales outweight the gains.

Same goes for reviewers, actually. I will read what Oprah recommends because I've loved most of her choices. Not all, but most. I will not read anything that Ann MacCaffrey recommends because not only I didn't like her own books, but whenever I pick up something she endorsed, it sucks. Never fails. But this one does probably go both ways. I think if I saw George R.R. Martin endorsed something, I would buy it, because his own books are good.

Stacey Cochran said...

"I'd rather pursue radio interviews."

And like newspaper articles on you (or articles in Forbes:), radio interviews have a credibility that make them an attractive marketing/PR move. Not to mention, several thousand (or hundred thousand) people hear it at once.

I want to learn more about publicity and publicists -- both hiring your own and working with the publisher's. How does that work?

Maybe a future blog topic?

Adam Hurtubise said...

As a PR guy in my day job, I can say that great PR has only a tiny impact on sales. If you want somebody to like your product, you invest in PR. If you want someone to buy your product, invest in advertising. Ideally, do both.

If you want someone to like you and buy your product, do what Joe does. I have yet to figure out what Joe does, actually, but it's not straight PR, it's not advertising. It's more one-on-one sales (retail), a lot of networking with booksellers, other authors and readers (wholesale), with a heady shot of PT Barnum thrown in. The point is, it works.


Anonymous said...

As an ad guy in my day job, I agree with Adam. I've seen a lot of award winning work, but rarely does that translate to increased sales. Only marginally, if that.

Word of mouth is king, even if it's self-generated.

Awards judging is freakishly subjective, so it's probably not wise to hang your head or beat your chest either way based on their outcomes.

Anonymous said...

One of biggest positives to winning awards is that, like good reviews, they affect the way a writer is perceived by his/her publisher.

Publishers, like everybody else, covet external validation of their work. When one of their authors gets a great review or wins an award, it validates their efforts on that author's behalf. They will then increase those efforts, and feel better and more enthusiastic about them.

The downside to being in competition for awards is the let-down if you don't win (or the hard feelings for or from others who don't). But if you can get past that, it's all upside.

JA Konrath said...

It's more than a letdown, David. It's giving other people the power to influence how you feel about your own work.

Writers are already wracked with insecurity. Getting an award that tells you you're worthwhile, or that your worthless, is a tough mental block to overcome.

To a degree, this is also true of reviews. But reviews have been shown to sell books. Even bad reviews.

I had a Derringer Award winning story in an anthology, and that didn't do a thing to increase the sales of that antho. Nor has it done much for my book sales.

My publisher loved to hear about it, and it has helped generate in-house enthusiasm, but they were a lot more excited about my appearance in Forbes than my awards nominations.

That said, here's a cool picture of me, Morrell, and Eisler, with our LIM awards.

Anonymous said...

Just a follow-up to David Montgomery's keen observation. Shortly after Julia Spencer-Fleming had the good fortune to win some awards for Best First Novel, her publisher decided to completely redo and reissue the mass market cover. So publishers do pay attention. And act.

My own thinking is that an award is precisely as commercially valuable as the publicity that is derived from it. And that is a different kettle of fish. I learned this at JA's knee. Kind of like a kick return. The award drops into one's hands, but the goal is way up thattaway.

Or, as the Visa advertisement might say, "commercial value, XX dollars. Value to self of being held in regard by peers and fans: priceless."
Onward and upward!