by Terry Nathan
Why Let the Big Guys In? The Awards Eligibility Issue
The end of this month is the first deadline for entries in our 21st Annual Benjamin Franklin Awards™ (see the Call for Entries insert in this issue). This deadline is for books published between January 1, 2008, and now. The next deadline—December 31—will be for books published during the remainder of the year. Having two deadlines helps our judges complete their monumental task. Last year, they dealt with more than 1,800 entries, including some of the best books I have ever seen.
Several members have asked me to address a controversy that crops up every year about who is eligible for the awards. In my opinion, our eligibility policy is a primary reason that our awards stand out from the rest. In addition, I believe it helps our members get better at the business of publishing.
But let’s start with a little background.
The Benjamin Franklin Awards program is among the most prestigious in the industry, and one of the reasons for that is this: Any publisher may enter, large or small. We do not discriminate among publishers.
Yes, HarperCollins may enter. Yes, Simon & Schuster may enter. Yes, Dorling-Kindersley may enter. Yes, any publisher may enter. Each year, if one of the larger houses wins an award, the phone lines at the office light up. “Why do we allow these guys in our awards program?” “How come they can enter?” “This just isn’t fair!”
Many years ago, Jan Nathan sent a response to this line of questioning that I’ve kept on file because it absolutely nails our philosophy:
When we first began the awards, it was both to honor the publishers who produce quality titles and to teach publishers how they can compete in the world of book publishing. We recognize that when people purchase a product they do not purchase it because a specific named publisher publishes it, they purchase a book because it fulfills a need and is well designed and edited. Each and every day all houses compete for shelf space and consumer recognition. By providing feedback on your entries into the awards, you hear what the buyers and reviewers think about your product and learn that you can compete. Sometimes the major houses do win. Other times, the smaller publishers win out because they do a better job and provide a better product. As you can see by the wording of our awards, it is opened to all. We decided to parallel the universe of book publishing that doesn’t discriminate between large and small.
—Jan Nathan, PMA Executive Director 1983–2007
Our volunteer judging pool is made up of industry professionals from the library, bookstore, reviewer, designer, publicity, and editorial sectors of our business. The task of judging is very difficult, and our judges take it very seriously.
So do we. Each year we judge the judges to make sure we are offering our members the best pool of judges anywhere. In addition, a committee of the IBPA board reviews the judging forms and judging process each year to make the program more useful for our members, and to help it become the most prestigious in the United States today.
The judges are asked to make constructive comments about each entry, and to rate several aspects of a book on a scale of 1 to 10. The forms with their comments about and scores for a book are sent to the book’s publisher, and that practice has proven to be one of the most useful features of our awards program. I receive many letters of thanks from participants, and requests to use the judging comments in their marketing materials.
But the strongest sign that this program is helping members is the quality of the books entered. Each year’s entrants are better than the ones the year before.
When I first began organizing this program 17 years ago, self-published titles were all too obvious. As we shelved the Ben Franklin books in a special section of the office, those that had been self-published or issued by fledgling publishers jumped out at us. Not any more. If you were to enter our office today and look through the entries, I would challenge you to tell me which books had been published by large publishers, and which were from small and self-publishers.
One caveat: A few years ago when print-on-demand technology started to catch on, we saw a huge step back in production quality, but that is a topic for another discussion.
A core group of Benjamin Franklin Awards categories covers all major areas of the publishing industry. Each year we keep our ears to the ground, listening for the latest trends in publishing, and adjust our categories accordingly. This year we are introducing some new categories, splitting a couple, and bringing a couple back.
I’m excited about one of the ones we are bringing back. As you know, we recently changed the association’s name from PMA to IBPA. PMA originally stood for Publishers Marketing Association, and in the interests of keeping our core beliefs alive we are reintroducing the Benjamin Franklin Award for Excellence & Innovation in Marketing and renaming it the PMA Award. It has two subcategories (55 and 56 on the entry form): books with budgets below $100,000 and books with budgets of $100,000 or more.
Other notable additions to our categories this year are E-Books, Graphic Novels, and Historical Fiction. We also split a few categories to help our judges in their superhuman job. Autobiography/Biography/Memoirs has been split into Autobiography/Memoirs and Biography. Psychology/Self-Help has been split into Psychology and Self-Help. And Cover Design has been split into Fiction and Nonfiction. Interestingly, the Regional category that we added a couple of years back has proven to be one of our most popular.
Who May Enter?
Our program is a competition among book publishers. Not authors, not agents, not marketing reps, but publishers. Any publishers. Which brings me back to the perennial controversy.
Here is what the actual Call for Entries says:
Publishers of books copyrighted in 2008 may enter the competition. Any books submitted with copyright dates other than 2008 must be accompanied with proof of initial distribution in the year 2008. Authors are able to enter on behalf of their publishers only if accompanied by a letter of approval from the publisher. The entity to which the ISBN was issued by R.R. Bowker is the publisher. If you have questions about who owns the ISBN on your book, please contact your publisher.
(In case you’re wondering about that last sentence, we added it this year after we realized that many authors who use print-on-demand companies are now responsible for the execution of the marketing and distribution of their books.)
Think of It This Way: A Martial Arts Metaphor
One of my passions over the years has been Brazilian Jiu-jitsu. I am not the best, but I am also not the worst, and that is because I push myself to be better. Whenever I am matched with a superior opponent (for instance, someone who has more money for equipment or more time to train), I do not turn and run. Nor do I complain. Instead I do my best and learn from the match, which ultimately makes me a better competitor. And believe it or not, many times I have gone away the winner.
When a smaller publisher beats out one of the large houses, I could not be more pleased. When a larger publisher beats out one of the smaller publishers I probably could be more pleased, but either way I am hopeful—hopeful that other publishers will learn from the winners, no matter what their size, and hopeful that the experience will help smaller publishers make their next books even better.
I welcome your feedback about our awards program, and I’d also like to hear from members who are interested in being added to our judging pool. You can always reach me by email at firstname.lastname@example.org.