One Monday in March, in a break from work, I glanced at Facebook and got some lovely news. Murder Under the Bridge: A Palestine Mystery had been named a finalist for the IndieFAB awards. I am a finalist in both mystery and multicultural fiction, so I have two chances to win. I was over the moon.
Since the email I dug out of my spam folder telling me of my good fortune had scant details, I went to the website to see what finalisthood gets you. I hankered for one of those shiny “FINALIST” stickers I’ve seen. And of course, I can get them – 500 of them for a mere $100 (you can’t get fewer than 500); with that comes the right to print the finalist artwork right on your cover, which is good for a book that’s going to be print-on-demand from here on out. I figure I’ll wait to see if I win because I wouldn’t want to pay twice.
A couple weeks later I got even better news. I had actually won an award – the silver medal for mystery in the Independent Publisher Book Awards, also known as IPPY, not to be confused with the Independent Book Publishers Association, the IBPA, which gives out the Ben Franklin awards, the IBPA-BF and the IBPA-BFDA, the Ben Franklin Digital Awards. If you’re thinking “Life of Brian,” you’re not the only one.
I opted not to go to the awards ceremony in Chicago, which is being held at this week’s Book Expo of America. Had I chosen to go, I could have gotten free tickets for myself and a guest – not for the expo, not to display my book, and certainly not for travel or hotels, but only for the awards cocktail party (business casual). If I wanted any extra people to come see me honored, along with over 250 other authors, we could have paid $75 per person for that privilege. IPPY is, however, mailing me a medalist’s packet containing a dozen stickers.
I was also offered the opportunity to have my book displayed along with other IndieFAB finalists in the Foreword Reviews booth for only $190, or to be part of a group ad for $305. I can only imagine how big my book cover would have been in that ad. (To be fair, it is a 15-page ad.) I passed.
I had never heard of any of these awards until I started getting ready to publish my book. There are literally dozens of awards open to small press, university press and self-published books. I only entered the competitions for IPPY, IndieFAB, and the Lambda Literary Association LGBT book awards. I could have entered at least twenty other competitions including NextGen Indie Awards, National Indie Excellence, USA “Best Books” Award, and my favorite (for which I am sadly ineligible), the Shirley You Jest Awards. There are the International Book Awards and the Global eBook Awards.
Pretty much every competition has an entry fee. For the prestigious National Book Award, the publisher must pay $135 to submit a book; the chairpersons of each judging panel may “call in” titles that have not been submitted, but if the publisher wants those called-in books to be considered, they still have to pay the $135. These less well-known competitions usually charge $50-75 per entry, but if you want to be considered in multiple categories, you pay for each category. Most give you a discount on the extra categories, like $75 for the first and $50 for each additional category. Since my book is a multicultural mystery with lesbian content, I submitted in Mystery, Multicultural Fiction, and LGBT Fiction, but I could have also submitted in women’s fiction, Middle East regional fiction, and since it has such great literary merit, literary fiction. Small press authors typically have to pay all these expenses themselves. Someone who wanted to, or whose publicist convinced her she should, enter all the contests for which her book is eligible could spend thousands of dollars to win awards that don’t even come with cash prizes.
With so many contests and so many winners, what does winning bestow besides the chance to spend more money? Opinions vary, but most experts seem to agree that winning the right contests matters. How much, though, and even which contests are the “right ones,” is very open to interpretation.
Book publicist Scott Lorenz, who has represented quite a few best-selling authors, says “‘Do book awards matter?’ YES!!! … one of my clients won the prestigious Los Angeles Book Festival award. That then led to a flurry of media interest, which subsequently led to a major New York agent deciding to represent the book and pitch it to all the major publishing houses.”
Lorenz lists 37 awards that authors should definitely apply for (last year it was 35, two years ago 32, which tells you something about the way these awards are proliferating). You’ll notice that IPPY and IndieFAB are at the very top of his list, above National Book Critics Circle, Man Booker Prize, Pulitzer, National Book Award and the Nobel Prize. Not sure if that means something about how seriously I should take his advice.
Speaking of the National Book Award and the Pulitzer, even those, according to a 1983 New York Times article, have little impact on book sales. “[T]he Pulitzer Prize … usually has little effect on the sale of hard-cover books, both because it tends to be awarded to books that are already successful and because by the time of the Pulitzer announcement the hard-cover sales have largely run their course.” More recent information gives a different picture. In 2012, reported Publisher’s Weekly, “Four weeks after the four National Book Awards winners were announced… [a]ll four winners have experienced sales spikes. Fiction winner Louise Erdrich’s The Round House (Harper) sold 30,000 of its 47,000 copies since its victory.”
Then again, maybe not so much, especially if you don’t actually win the prize. A lot of people I know read (or tried to read) A Brief History of Seven Killings after it won the Man Booker Prize, but according to blogger Wendy Fox, “the least-selling of the Man Booker dozen short-list clocked in at 604 copies.”
Those short-listed authors may get their revenge. “Literary prizes make books less popular, study finds,” proclaims a 2014 article in The Guardian. Researchers compared books that had won prestigious awards with ones that were shortlisted but didn’t win. The prize winners got much more negative response from readers. But, the authors concluded, that may be because more people read the winning books.
I, for instance, bought the IPPY gold-medal winner in mystery to see if it’s better than my book. Hopefully the bronze winner will buy mine for the same reason. I have long suspected that writing is a pyramid scheme. Probably the majority of books sold at group readings are to one’s fellow authors.
So, back to my question, does winning mean anything? Sarah Schulman, author of 17 critically acclaimed books, says, “It means someone liked your book.” I have noticed that the same books seem to be winning many awards, which conveys some level of critical consensus.
My publisher, Brooke Warner, says the best thing about prizes is that they give you an opportunity to hype a book that’s been out for a while.
“The life of a book is surprisingly short, after all. You get three to six solid months to push it out the gate. After three months, your book is backlisted, and ceases to be new news. So anything that breathes fresh air into your campaign should be seen as a positive—and winning gives reason for your existing fans to rally around your book, and creates buzz that will hopefully result in new readers finding you.”
So, that’s what I’m doing. Read my book. It makes great beach reading. Recommend it to your book club and your library. Tell them it won a prize.