Monday, May 11, 2009

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??
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.


  1. Wonderful and interesting topic, Clare. Thanks for discussing it. Like you, I was not a big mystery reader until I started writing them and was not aware of the awards. Recently, I was nominated for the Lefty. It was a huge honor and it was always my dream to get such a nomination, but did it impact my sales? Yes, but my guess is only to those folks already plugged into the mystery community. Outside of mystery buffs, I was still on my own. I believe the real value of a nomination is in publicity. If you can promote a book as an award nominee or winner, you have a way of separating it from the pack in the eyes of someone considering buying and reading it. There are a lot of great books that do not receive any recognition whatsoever. Does that make them any less worthy? Of course not, but they might not get the same attention as a nominee or winner.

    The bottom line is always book sales. There is no way around it. And any leg up that can help sell our books is a valuable tool.

  2. I think you hit that proverbial nail on the head, Clare, by concluding that an award may help with the next contract (especially EARLY in a career), but that it's the track record overall that rules.

    Within each "writing world," the awards are prestigious and may result in more speaking gigs and the like, and that publicity helps. And there's likely a small bump in sales. But I don't think an award is a "tipping point" into the stratosphere. All publishers, publicists, agents and writers are still looking for a way to bottle that point, unsuccessfully. It's usually spotted in the rear view mirror.

  3. Thanks Sue Ann and James. I agree on the publicity front - and I was pleased as punch when I got my Macavity nomination (though I suspect being able to say I was NYT bestseller would have done more for my publisher:)) I also think that we writers have to use ever bit we get to try and differentiate ourselves from the pack - and awards are a great way of doing that. I do think there is probably a cumulative effect so that if over the years an author garners award nomintions etc. publishers may take notice - but I agree they seem to have only a tiny impact on sales and name recognition outside the mystery community.

  4. I think for those in the publishing industry that are familiar with the numerous awards given to writers, winning one probably adds a bit of respect to any author's resume. But if an editor doesn't like the manuscript you just sumbitted, being an award winner won't stop a rejection.

    I would be willing to bet that if you went into a local Borders or B&N, wandered the isles, and asked customers at random if they could name a literary award, Pulitzer or Nobel would probably be about it. Beyond that, the Edgar, Anthony, Thriller and the others we writers so cherish would be unknown to them, and would have little or no influence on their buying choices.

    Now, if you said a book was featured on Oprah, that would supersede just about any award.

  5. Ah of course the Oprah seal of approval - trumping all else! In Britain there's also a morning show due, Richard and Judy, and I believe if you get their recommendation, you're an instant bestseller. No award will ever come close to these three!

  6. Even within the industry I'm not entirely sure how awards are viewed. Is the Edgar Award, which is essentially writers voting on other writers, mean more than an Anthony, which is essentially a popularity contest among attendees at Bouchercon, many of whom are writers and many who are not?

    I know Joe was a judge for the Edgars and I was a judge for the Thriller this year, and I'm willing to now argue that these awards, though nice, probably aren't all that meaningful as an evaluation of the merits of the book in the first place. There are limits to what I can say about judging, but the way the Thrillers were broken up--ie., not all judges read all the books entered--I didn't read ANY of the books that made it into the finals. (Which is a bit of a blow, actually, although I read some fine books nonetheless and they were FREE!).

    If I were an editor at a publishing house I'd be happy in so far as I could put THRILLER AWARD WINNER or EDGAR WINNER on the cover of the book, which might--maybe, however unlikely--convince 1 out of every 189 people who pick up the book in the first place, to think, "Okay, it's an award winner, maybe I should buy it."

    It might also give me, as an editor or agent, some weight in my arguments when the sales inevitably dip, as they do for just about every writer at one time or another, "Hey, this guy's an award winning author, he's got the 'right stuff,' so you need to get behind a writer this talented." Blah, blah, blah.

    It's a game, but one we're all playing, right?

    Word verification: SLITY

  7. It would be interesting to know how much editors are influenced (if at all) by award nominations or wins...I think Joe's right that if they don't like the manuscript it won't make any difference but does it help convince others within the house to either keep an author on or sign an author on?

  8. I've been reading crime fiction virtually since birth and until I joined a couple of online mystery reading groups a year or so ago I'd never heard of any of the mystery writing awards. Even now that I have heard of them and I see all the winners I don't think they've influenced my reading at all as I've seen no evidence the award givers get it right any more than anyone else. Sometimes I suspect they are less successful than an average reader would be because the judges don't necessarily read a wide cross section of what's been published.

    I think that the fact there are so many awards probably lessens the influence any of them have for selling a work/author to publishers, booksellers etc. I seem to see a new list of winners every couple of weeks so I don't see how anyone in the business would use them to weed out the good stuff.

    And frankly, from outside the US at least, many of the awards themselves are laughable. I don't care whether you think it's a good book or not but the fact that Meg Gardiner's CHINA LAKE just won the Edgar for best paperback original even though it's been available to (and read by) a whole load of the world for 7 years makes a joke of the award and just highlights how out of date the publishing industry is.

  9. As a reader, I don't pay a great deal of attention to what book has won what award. Reviews and word of mouth tend to influence my choices in reading material.

    As a writer, I've become very curious about what novels and short stories are garnering the critical acclaim. If nothing else, it serves as a shaky frame of reference to my own writing.