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Book Awards: A Not-So-Trivial Pursuit

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PUBLISHED JUNE 2017

by Deb Vanasse, Reporter, IBPA Independent


Deb Vanasse

Navigating the world of awards in book publishing is no easy feat. How can you make the most of your submissions and stand out from the crowd?

“Greatness is difficult to measure,” novelist Aharon Appelfeld said. Yet there’s much to be said for the attempt to measure it—especially in the form of book awards.

As the publishing boom brings more and more books into the marketplace, awards provide a means to showcase exemplary titles. But with an increasing array of competitions to enter, publishers do well to consider the potential return on awards while strategizing to increase their chances of winning.


Award Results

To varying degrees, award-winning titles get extra attention from booksellers, librarians, and the book-buying public. Winners of prestigious competitions such as the American Library Association (ALA) awards, the National Book Awards, and the National Book Critics Circle get the most recognition.

Readers are drawn to award-winning books from a young age, notes Susan Middleton, Lower School librarian at La Jolla Country Day School. “The medals are like seals of approval for students looking for ‘good’ books to read,” says Middleton, noting that librarians often highlight award winners with special displays and shelving decisions.

A student reading under the Newbery plaques in the La Jolla Country Day School in San Diego

The social proof granted to an award-winning title influences adult readers, too, which is why booksellers pay attention to winners of the most prestigious competitions. “When award lists are released, our [book] buyer reviews and monitors our inventory of the relevant nominated titles,” says Maryelizabeth Yturralde, event coordinator for Mysterious Galaxy Books in San Diego.

Tricia Van Dockum, Publicist, Ollie Media

Publicist Tricia Van Dockum of Ollie Media notes that in addition to the major awards, smaller literary and regional recognition also holds sway. “Awards can only enhance the image of a book to librarians and booksellers,” she says. “They represent that colleagues in the book industry felt the book went above and beyond.”

When deciding what books to submit, publishers consider how their books measure up against the selection criteria as well as the potential return on investment. When required, entry fees can add up, as do travel expenses in the event of a winning entry.

Still, publishers report that the benefits of winning offset the expense, especially when an award is well-aligned with their goals.

Jack Mayer, Author

“I try to enter those contests that seem to be prestigious and reflect my own values,” says Jack Mayer, author of Before the Court of Heaven. Submissions to roughly 20 contests resulted in multiple awards for the book, including a 2015 Nautilus Book Award Silver Medal, a 2016 IndieReader Discovery Award, and a 2016 Readers’ Favorite Book Award Gold Medal.

Mayer publicizes his awards by listing them on the first page of his book and attaching the list to queries about speaking engagements. Released in 2015, the novel has sold nearly 80,000 copies to date, including audio books, e-books, and translations into multiple languages, Mayer reports.

NSTA Press Director Claire Reinburg also discovered the value of book awards when the press’s Notable Notebooks: Scientists and Their Writings (Jessica Fries-Gaither, illustrated by Linda Olliver) was chosen as the 2017 Outstanding Science Trade Book for Students, K-12.

“The Outstanding Science Trade Books list is anticipated each year by teachers and librarians in K-12 schools,” she explains. “The list brings the award winners great publicity and helps independent publishers reach many professionals with whom we might not be in direct contact via our catalog. We’ve seen significantly higher sales of books that have won this award compared to other books on our list.”

Awards can bring new life to older titles, too, as Johnnie Hyde, owner of Raven Productions, discovered when their children’s book Frog in the House (David Mather, illustrated by Stephanie Mirocha) won the 2016 Giverny Award for Science Children’s Picture Books.

When Hyde discovered that books published within the past five years were considered for the Giverny, she submitted the title, released in 2011. To showcase the first-place win, Hyde wanted to affix stickers featuring the medal to her inventory. When she discovered that Giverny doesn’t provide stickers, she commissioned the book’s illustrator to design one, subject to Giverny’s approval.

The payoff was quantifiable. “Sales at nature centers increased almost immediately, followed by an uptick in Amazon and Baker & Taylor sales, as well as sales from our website,” Hyde says. As an added bonus, nature centers increased their orders for similar titles by Raven Productions.


To Submit or Not to Submit

Despite the benefits of winning, it doesn’t make sense to submit every title for every award. Instead, savvy publishers consider which books line up best with the selection criteria, along with which contests afford the most recognition.

“We’re always on the lookout for niche awards where our books might fit well,” says Reinburg, who notes that NSTA averages one award submission per title. “First and foremost, we study the award program, its goals, and the guidelines the sponsors provide for the types of publications they consider. It has to be a good match between the award program’s goals and our book, and it helps if there’s a unique approach we take with the book that could help it stand out among other submissions.”

A small press that acquires between one and three titles per year, Hyde’s Raven Productions makes award submissions based on whether a title is mostly regional or national. After reviewing selection criteria, she factors in entry fees, the categories in which a book might compete, and the extent to which an award might increase sales.

At Bear State Books, owner/publisher Chris Brewer hasn’t made a regular habit of submitting titles for awards, but he made an exception for Ron Hughart’s The Place Beyond the Dust Bowl. “We determined that Ron’s books were the most likely to be award winners due to their subject matter and personal experiences Ron had in life,” Brewer says. “So many people experienced the Great Depression and the migration west to California.”

The submissions paid off. Hughart’s 2002 title took first place in biography/autobiography category at the 2014 Great Southeast Book Festival and received honorable mention in the same category at the 2012 Southern California Book Festival.


Rewards from Awards

Awards may result in tangible benefits such as increased sales, but they also have less quantifiable outcomes, including increased author morale, product visibility, and validation of best practices within the publishing industry.

Inventory of Hughart’s award-winning Bear State Press title sold out, resulting in additional print runs. But perhaps equally important was the effect on the author. “These awards lifted Ron’s spirit to levels he had never experienced,” Brewer says. “He became a sought-after speaker and is considered an expert in the experience of the Dust Bowl and its aftermath.”

Awards had a similar effect on Mayer’s author profile. After winning, he received coveted invitations to participate in a prestigious Vermont fiction panel as well as the Bookstock Green Mountain Festival of Words. The Vermont Humanities Council also invited him to speak about the history that inspired his fiction.

“Winning awards helped me to feel confident about the quality of my work and the importance of the book,” says Mayer, who has promoted his award-winning titles in over a hundred talks in schools, libraries, town halls, synagogues, and churches.

The review process that accompanies award selections also provides inspiration for publishers, Reinburg says. “We always look at the winners of the Outstanding Science Trade Books awards as exemplars that can teach us something new about how to create the next great science book for kids,” she explains. “From fresh topics to new ways of studying science, nature, and technology, the award winners every year inspire us.”


An Abundance of Riches

For publishers in pursuit of awards, there’s no shortage of competitions. But with abundance comes the risk that the prestige of winning is diminished.

“The larger and more well-known book awards still have an impact on influencers and consumers,” notes Van Dockum. “Authors [and publishers] have to be wary, though. There are some smaller, less credible awards out there that really have no influence but are rather just moneymakers for that organization/entity.”

Brewer urges publishers to look toward the motives behind the competitions as a means of determining which awards are worthy of pursuit. “Some of the contests are bogus and create a false sense of quality and ability,” he says. “All they accomplish is raising money for the contest sponsor.”

Hyde shares this concern. “Some contests appear to be pay-for-publicity programs more than recognition of genuine quality,” she says. “These weaken the value of awards in general, especially when they are applied to a product that the consumer then finds to be less than excellent.”

For Reinburg, the question boils down to one of standards. “If the judging criteria and procedures are rigorous, more awards programs should only be a good thing in recognizing high-quality books,” she points out.


The Win-Win of Awards

Among publishers large and small, book awards are an equalizer, says Van Dockum. “I feel that most book awards are really careful in being fair by looking at big books as well as smaller books, giving lesser-known authors a fighting chance as well as known authors,” she says. “Otherwise the award loses its integrity.”

When a book achieves award status, Dockum advises publishers to make the most of it by sharing the news online. “As a publicist, I always mention the award on any press materials that accompany the book,” she says.

Crowing about awards isn’t all self-congratulatory, says Hyde. Winning publishers play an important part in educating the public about awards and the attributes they encourage.

In all, book award competitions give credence to the adage about rising waters floating all boats. As publishers aim toward the high standards of contests, they produce better books, which, in turn, satisfies readers and validates the award process. When that happens, everyone wins.


>>> The annual IBPA Benjamin Franklin Award™ program accepts entries through December 15th of each year. Click here for details. <<<


Co-founder of 49 Writers and founder of the author co-op Running Fox Books, Deb Vanasse is the author of 17 books. Among her most recent are Write Your Best Book, a practical guide to writing books that rise above the rest, and What Every Author Should Know, a comprehensive guide to book publishing and promotion, as well as Wealth Woman: Kate Carmack and the Klondike Race for Gold.

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