And the Winner Is . . . The Top Five Issues to Consider Before Entering a Book Awards Program

December 14, 2010

by Florrie Binford Kichler, President, IBPA

As a publisher, I’m a believer in book awards. Not only does that gold or silver seal on your book attract the consumer’s attention; the tangible mark of distinction also gives you marketing and promotion ammunition for catalogs, bookmarks, blogs, Web sites, and more.

Another benefit comes from those few programs—such as IBPA’s Benjamin Franklin Awards—that give you individual feedback on why your book was or wasn’t chosen. The education and insight you receive through feedback can be applied to future books and is invaluable.

Granted, unless the award your book gets is national in scope, you may not see a huge bump in sales, but for buyers faced with a universe of millions of books—and the new title count approaching a million a year—an award provides one more reason to choose your book.

So the decision to enter a book award competition is easy. What’s hard is choosing which one.

Criteria for Choosing Among Awards

The Pulitzer, the Nobel, the National Book Award—winners of these venerable prizes for book excellence enjoy the well-deserved prestige they confer, and their publishers generally enjoy increased sales. And while the Pulitzer does require an entry fee (the Nobel and National Book Award do not), my guess is that the independent publisher of this year’s Pulitzer Prize winner for fiction, tiny Bellevue Press, did not begrudge that expense.

But what about the hundreds of other book award programs that invite you to plunk down entry fees ranging from under $100 ($90 for the IBPA Benjamin Franklin Awards) to $300 (for the iParenting Media Awards)? Literary Market Place has almost 800 listings in its category “Awards, Prize Contests, Fellowships and Grants, International Literary Prizes,” and while the listings are not all for book awards, I counted well over 100 before I decided that the only thing more difficult than writing about awards would be continuing to count them.

How to narrow the field?

Consider the following five issues as you’re deciding which book awards program would be right for you.

Who is the sponsor and/or organizer of the awards program? Is the program sponsored by and/or run by book industry professionals? Or by for-profit or not-for-profit vendors whose primary goal is to collect fees and amass a mailing list that will help them sell their services to publishers? Make sure that those behind the award programs are legitimate and well respected in the industry; that affects the way their awards are perceived by the outside world.

Who are the judges? Do they have credentials for judging against standards of excellence? Are they members of the book industry? Awards don’t mean much if those who give them out aren’t qualified to do so.

What do you get for your entry fee? Many award programs do need to charge a fee to cover administrative expenses, but weigh the amount of the fee against the value you as an entrant receive. How is the award program going to promote its awards in general, and your award winner in particular? And will you get individual feedback—pro and con—as value-added for your publishing education?

How many award categories are there as compared to the number of entries? Does nearly every entrant win an award? If so, then you need to balance the advantageous odds of winning against the likelihood that the award will be perceived as meaningless.

What do previous award winners report? Talk to some people who have won awards in the program you’re considering and find out what winning did for them. Did they notice an uptick in book sales? Were they happy with the judging process? Did they feel that they received a good value for their fee? Previous winners may be the best source of help in deciding about an award program.

Pants Precautions

“A person who publishes a book appears willfully in public with his pants down,” remarked poet Edna St. Vincent Millay. Her observation about the vulnerability of book publishers is painfully apt when publishers invest their hard-earned cash to send new titles out for judging by coldhearted strangers with no guarantee of a win, place, or show.

However, whether it’s the Pulitzer Board or the Boston Book Club, taking time to investigate the people behind the prize may increase your confidence, reduce that vulnerability—and pull those pants back up where they belong.

This article first appeared in the November, 2010 issue of the IBPA Independent.

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