Between the Lines #84 min read


Laura Zats and Erik Hane
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As readers, we’re always a little disappointed with book awards. Not because a particular award does anything wrong, per se, but because there’s always, always, a disconnect between what work you would have chosen to win and what actually does. Much of this stems from how we see the criteria; award descriptions leave lots open to interpretation, both for us as observers and for the actual judges of the prize.

It doesn’t matter if the prize is juried, a popular vote, or in between. Every award, from the Hugo to the Man Booker to the Indies Choice Book Awards, are constantly being judged in the minds of the readers. And if we feel they get it wrong, will it be an understandable wrong, or a wrong that will cause everyone to write angry blog posts?

As agents, we “judge” books every day, which eventually got us thinking: how would we design our own book award to reflect the criteria we find valuable? It’s an interesting and surprisingly difficult exercise, but one that could make all of us better consumers of the written word.

The first question to tackle, if inventing your own book award, is: what will it be evaluating? Fiction, nonfiction, poetry, plays, children’s books. All of these categories can be chosen, but allowing picture books to play against a 150,000-word tome of literary fiction makes the grading rubric difficult. There is, however, something exciting about an award where speculative fiction and thrillers go up against MFA-style novels, so for ease, let’s split the difference. The Between the Lines Award will be for adult fiction of all genres. Not as specific as a genre-focused award like the Hugos, but enough to make sense.

Next is perhaps the most difficult part—figuring out how to justify why you’re going to choose what you choose. Put another way, what does best mean in the context of this award? Some awards, like Watty awards from Wattpad, seek to find the best in storytelling posted on their site. As it’s a vote for self-published works that are released with no standardized editorial process, one can extrapolate that for these awards, quality and popularity mean the same thing (or are fairly adjacent).

Other prizes, like the Women’s Prize for Fiction (formerly the Orange Prize), position themselves differently. Their mission statement is to “celebrate excellence, originality and accessibility in writing by women throughout the world.” Unlike with the Wattpad award, best and popular are definitely not synonyms here. We would bet that the shortlist of this prize does not require its nominees to be popular successes. In fact, it might even be better serving their mission statement to select lesser-known authors.

But what would our “mission” be? The agent life has us constantly thinking about what’s “essential” in a given moment for publishing, whether it’s a certain perspective, style, or even something like setting. We are always trying to capture lightning in a bottle, in that way, to find books that contribute in compelling ways to the broader cultural conversation. So, maybe that’s our line, then: “the book that best captures what’s essential about a given period of culture.”

Prize design doesn’t end there, though. Intricately tied into an award’s mission statement is its format. The Indies Choice Book Awards from the American Bookseller Association “reflect the spirit of independent bookstores nationwide,” which implies a popular vote by ABA members and will, as a result, award books that are good hand-sellers. Winners won’t just be flashes in the pan, but rather will be books that are consistently recommended over the years and result in improved sales and foster a relationship between local shoppers and booksellers.

There is, however, an issue with popular voting for awards, as we’ve seen with the Hugos. This award is formulated after the Academy Awards, and is therefore a limited popular vote. Only members of the World Science Fiction Society can participate, but anyone can join by buying a ticket to WorldCon. In 2015, two groups of right-wingers (the Sad Puppies and the Rabid Puppies), upset at the growing diversity represented in the award, campaigned to stack the ballot with their choices.

A popular vote allowed for the system to be gamed. The openness of this selection method meant that the award could be manipulated by the users until it no longer represented the goals of the organization.

So, then, is a juried vote much better?

We think so. In the end, judging art is a completely subjective task. With a juried vote, at least the award is acknowledging it. When five or six judges come together, the winner might not be the most universal, but it means that the award, in that year, says something specific. In fact, even the selection of judges has an artistic and worthwhile element to it. Think of the Man Booker—it’s long been considered the award for the book “everyone actually wants to read,” and a big part of that reputation is the fact that it puts tons of work into selecting who will do the selecting.

Yes, it means you end up having to trust some “tastemakers,” and that always requires scrutiny as to who they are. But the upside is the chance to show a book to readers that perhaps they haven’t seen before, something a popular vote can’t offer nearly as well. And as people who spend all day, every day in the Book World, this is our favorite thing about juried awards—they often surprise us.

So, given our druthers, here’s what we’d design: an award for conversation-capturing fiction chosen by a panel comprised of people with a good ear for that cultural conversation. It’s imperfect, it’s incomplete, but so are all awards, and in the end, that’s the beauty of them—by not aiming to be everything, they can uniquely succeed at showing us something. And it’s that something that will make these awards matter for years to come.

  • Laura Zats

    For a decade, Laura has worked with books in every way from book selling, to editing and ghostwriting, to helping authors self-publish. A literary agent for over six years, she finds the most joy in working closely with authors to build their long-term careers in ways that contribute positively to their financial and mental health, as well as the greater community. Since 2016, Laura has hosted Print Run, a weekly publishing podcast, with Erik Hane. In her spare time, Laura plays tabletop role-playing games, follows the long-distance dogsled-racing season from her couch, and drinks a lot of tea. Connect with her on Twitter at @LZats.

  • Erik Hane

    After graduating with a B.A. from Knox College and obtaining a publishing certificate from the Denver Publishing Institute, Erik Hane began his career on the editorial staff at Oxford University Press and then as an editor at The Overlook Press. Along with Laura Zats, he is a host of Print Run Podcast. Now an agent at Headwater Literary Management, Erik is looking for writers who bring a clear-eyed sense of the stakes of this political and historical moment to their writing, no matter what kind of project their expertise draws them toward. He loves tennis, video games, and novels about sad people in cold places. He’s probably tweeting from his account @erikhane as you read this.

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