Writing Awards: Judging, Being a Nominee, and Winning

By E.A. Aymar

Writers, you’re not supposed to want awards. That ambitious desire is expected to stay nobly hidden as you walk on stage, accept your trophy, and make a short speech that includes a self-effacing joke. It’s only when you’re back in your hotel room that you are allowed to do a little dance, clutch your award close to your heart, and explain to your husband or wife that you and this trophy were destined to be together and you’ll never love anything more, including your spouse. Will he or she understand? It doesn’t matter, because you and the trophy complete each other.

According to a stat that may exist somewhere, that exact scenario happens to award winners 95% of the time. But no one ever admits it.

After all, the writing is supposed to be its own award. And for the most part, it is.

But there’s no denying the sense of appreciation you feel when your fellow writers, or other industry professionals, recognize what you achieved after toiling all those long lonely hours at your desk.

But do awards affect sales? Do they help your career? Are they noticed by anyone outside of publishing?

The answers to those questions, like the answers to most questions in publishing, aren’t universal. What is universal is the appreciation of having your work recognized. There’s no shame in that feeling, or in the curiosity of what the award process is like.

To that end, we asked three writers at different stages of the award process for their perspectives:

Anthony Franze is the Vice President of Awards for ITW.

Lili Wright’s debut novel, DANCING WITH THE TIGER, is a nominee for the 2017 Edgar Award for Best First Novel.

And Jenny Milchman’s COVER OF SNOW won the 2014 Mary Higgins Clark Award.

On Judging, with Anthony Franze

Approximately how many award entries does ITW receive?

While the number of submissions varies each year, in a typical year publishers and authors enter around a thousand books or stories in the six award categories, which includes Best Hard Cover, Best Paperback Original, Best First Novel, Best Ebook Original, Best Short Story, and Best Young Adult Novel. 

Do people who take on the reading/judging responsibility understand how overwhelming the process can be? Has anyone backed out during the process?

The judges, which include New York Times bestselling authors, reviewers, bloggers, and industry professionals, take the job extremely seriously. It’s been heartening to see the pride and care they take to make sure every submission gets a fair shake. We try to give them a realistic understanding of the scope of the commitment, but I’ll confess that on occasion, after the process is over, we’ll have someone say: “You didn’t warn me it would be so hard!” Still, the judges I’ve spoken with say it was an incredibly rewarding experience both to “give back” and because they discovered several new favorite authors. 

Is there a system in place to handle conflicts of interest?

The judges sign confidentiality agreements and there are conflicts rules in place. Also no one on the Awards Committee (me included) is eligible for any award. The results are a closely held secret—not even ITW’s board knows who won until it is publicly announced at the Awards Banquet at ThrillerFest. Rest assured, we’ll work hard to make sure there’s no Oscar-like envelope mix up!

Is there a system in place to handle disagreements between the judges?

We give the judges autonomy to discuss—and vigorously debate. All of the judges are professionals and we trust them to work out any disagreements amongst themselves. I’m not aware of any instances where they’ve needed outside help to do so.

On a side note, what are you working on now (writing-wise)?

Thanks for asking. My latest novel, THE OUTSIDER (St. Martin’s Press/Minotaur), came out on March 21. 

On Being Nominated, with Lili Wright

How did you find out that DANCING WITH THE TIGER was nominated for an Edgar award? Can you describe how it happened, and your reaction?

I was leading a student trip to the Sundance Film Festival when Lori Rader-Day, president of the Midwest chapter of MWA (Mystery Writers of America), wrote me an email to say congratulations. Utah is two hours behind the East Coast. It was 9:30 a.m. and I was just starting the day. She said I’d just been nominated for the “Oscar of mystery writing.” I was stunned—I still am—and floated through the snow banks, in and out of film screenings, the rest of the week.

(Ed. Note: Check out Lori Rader-Day’s story of how she got published in last month’s The Thrill Begins’ feature, How It Happened.)

Have you read any of the other nominated first novels?

Yes. I’ve read UNDER THE HARROW and am now reading THE DRIFTER. I’m hoping to read them all before the banquet.

​They are amazing, beautifully crafted, and suspenseful. I’m honored to be in such fine company.

Are you going to prepare a speech, or are you too superstitious to risk jinxing yourself?

The winner gives a speech? Oh no. There’s a reason I became a writer—it takes me six years to figure out what I want to say.

​The truth is ​I’m a shy person, so if there is any chance I will have to approach a microphone, I will definitely write something down. There’s no shame in throwing the scrap of paper away. That said, I am superstitious. In my family, we kick the plane before boarding.

What’s been the best part about being nominated?

The validation. DANCING WITH THE TIGER mixes a variety of genres—mystery, thriller, travel writing, romance, magic realism—and it makes me incredibly happy to know that readers enjoyed the story and the characters. The novel has been called “a romp.” I love that word. We all need a little more romp in our lives. Or at least I do.

What are you working on now?

I’m writing a novel based in Italy about a reporter who sets out on a double quest: to solve a mystery and find God. That’s all I’m going to say because, as you know, I’m superstitious.

On Winning an Award, with Jenny Milchman

How did you find out that COVER OF SNOW was nominated for the Mary Higgins Clark award? Can you describe how it happened, and your reaction?

You know, we think of ourselves as in a “business,” the “industry.” With all the connotations of such—order and know-how and strategic blah blah. But really, publishing is a jungle. A rainforest of rapidly adapting creatures and competing tribes and primordial ooze. Before I fall too in love with my own metaphor—and you have to edit me—I’ll say that while you might think that my agent or editor or publisher would’ve called to let me know about the nomination, or an official announcement was made, actually I found out via that great jungle telegram called Twitter. People began Tweeting at me even before the announcement was posted, far less the high-ups in publishing found out. Who knows how they knew? I did some Googling, and then my agent, editor and I all had a confab. My publisher took out a full page ad in the Edgars week program. Everyone was thrilled—there was a great sense of hope and validation. I’ve been lucky enough to have a few pinnacle moments in my career so far, and for all of them, the hive knew first. When Cover of Snow hit #9 on Amazon books overall, due to a BookBub promotion, someone sent me a screen shot. When my third novel, As Night Falls, won the Silver Falchion award for best novel at Killer Nashville, conference attendees actually called me! Like, on a real phone and everything.

Did you read the other nominated first novels? Were the writers friends of yours? Are they still?

I did read and like them—and I didn’t know any of the authors at the time. (At least one was a debut, like me). Here’s the funny thing. The Mary Higgins Clark award is given for a very specific type of book—best suspense novel of the year, yes, but a certain kind of suspense. In fact, New York Times bestselling author, Julia Spencer Fleming, tells a funny anecdote about what not to do if you want to win the award. (Ask her sometime). So you would think that all the nominees would have a certain set of things in common. But none of the other books were ones I would’ve normally picked up. They were all well outside my reading comfort zone.

What was it like when they announced you’d won?

The Mary Higgins Clark award is presented at a cocktail party the first night of Edgars week. I have a lot of memories of that night. It was drizzling out, and I remember being at my publisher’s office, and we were waiting for a car. (Get nominated for a major award, and you will suddenly be the type of person who takes a car!) But due to the weather, said car was late, and finally we realized we’d better hop on the subway in order to make it on time. (Get nominated for a major award, then come down to earth and realize the subway works just fine). Both my editors were hustling me along the street, apologizing for our rainy run, and I was saying it was fine, I was happy. And then one editor said, “But how would we ever know if you weren’t happy?” It was one of the most insightful things anyone has ever said to me—I tend to put on a good face—and I realized it was why this team had been able to edit my book so well. Anyway, okay, so then we’re at the party, and I remember an editor I really love—not my own—whispering in my ear before the award was given, “You’ve already won.” But I don’t remember hearing my name or book title said. That’s one thing I don’t remember. My husband had to push me up on stage.

Did you prepare a speech, or were you too superstitious?

Didn’t prepare a thing, didn’t let myself think about winning. I gave a speech, and I think I remembered to thank everyone, including Mary herself, who presents the beautiful cut glass statue (all ninety pounds of her). People told me that what I said was really touching, but I don’t remember most of it. Then I again, I am someone who, upon first learning at an event that I will be speaking live, on radio, for exactly fourteen minutes (no more, no less), makes it up on the spot and comes in at thirteen-fifty-five.

How do awards affect the sales of a book or career of an author?

One thing that doesn’t get explored as much I think it should is the awards cycle, and the effect it does have on a book, or a career. Awards are known in the industry—I mean, in the jungle—as not correlating much with sales, which is why the books you see on the New York Times bestseller list are usually not ones that won an award. But I don’t think it’s as simple as that. Winning a major award can give a writer whose sales weren’t great a second chance with her publisher, or at a new one. And every year there is what I call the Best First Bouquet, those books that are nominated for two or more of the major awards, often winning at least one. If we looked at the authors of those books, would we find that they were still standing a few years later, that being one of Those Books gave them a certain amount of oomph or longevity? I’d really like to know.

What are you working on now?

A novella featuring my police chief, who’s the one recurring character, appearing sometimes for a scene, sometimes for whole chapters, in each of my novels, and which I’ll release on my Patreon page for followers. And then I’ll begin what I hope will be my 2019 release—I’m so excited to go live in that world, I could skip and sing. But I don’t do that as well as I give spontaneous speeches.

Thanks Anthony, Lili, and Jenny for your time!

Anthony Franze is a lawyer in the Appellate and Supreme Court practice of a prominent Washington, D.C. law firm, and a critically acclaimed thriller writer with novels set in the nation’s highest court. Franze has been a commentator on legal and Supreme Court issues for The New Republic, Bloomberg, National Law Journal, and other major media outlets. He is a board member and a Vice President of the International Thriller Writers organization. Franze lives in the Washington, D.C. area with his family. Learn more at www.anthonyfranzebooks.com.

To learn more about THE OUTSIDER, click on the cover below:

Lili Wright is author of DANCING WITH THE TIGER, a literary thriller set in Mexico, and the travel memoir, LEARNING TO FLOAT. Her essays and journalism have appeared in The New York Times, Newsweek, The Chicago Tribune, Down East, and many other publications. A professor of English at DePauw University, she lives in Greencastle, Indiana, with her husband and two children in a yellow Victorian that always needs work. You can learn more about DANCING WITH THE TIGER, read her essays, and check out her mask collection at her website www.liliwright.com.

To learn more about DANCING WITH THE TIGER, click on the cover below:

Jenny Milchman is a suspense writer from the Hudson River Valley of New York State. Her debut novel, COVER OF SNOW, was published by Ballantine/Random House in January 2013 and her follow up, RUIN FALLS, was published in April 2014. Her third novel, AS NIGHT FALLS, was published in June 2015. Jenny is a board member and Vice President of International Thriller Writers, responsible for Author Porgrams. She is also the founder of Take Your Child to a Bookstore Day, which was celebrated in all 50 states and four foreign countries by over 700 bookstores in 2013. Jenny hosts the Made It Moments forum on her blog, which has featured more than 250 international bestsellers, Edgar winners, and independent authors. Jenny co-hosts the literary series Writing Matters, which attracts guests coast-to-coast and has received national media attention. She also teaches writing and publishing for New York Writers Workshop and Arts By The People.

To learn more about AS NIGHT FALLS, click on the cover below:

E.A. Aymar’s latest novel is YOU’RE AS GOOD AS DEAD. He also writes a monthly column for the Washington Independent Review of Books, and is the Managing Editor of The Thrill Begins (for the International Thriller Writers). His short fiction and non-fiction have appeared in a number of top crime fiction publications. Aymar is also involved in a collaboration with DJ Alkimist, a NY and DC-based DJ, where his stories are set to her music. For more information about that project, visit www.eaalkimist.com.

To learn more about YOU’RE AS GOOD AS DEAD, click on the cover below: