By Louise Ure
The crime fiction community is certainly not shy about patting itself on the back. Maybe it’s a reaction to that whole “genre fiction isn’t as important as literary fiction” guff, but we sure do like to celebrate ourselves with awards.
Here’s a partial list of some of the mystery awards out there.
• The Edgar®
• The Anthony
• The Agatha
• The Thriller Award
• Theakstons Old Peculier Crime Novel of the Year Award
• The Shamus
• The Lefty
• The Dilys
• The Crime Writer Association (CWA) Dagger Awards
• The Nero
• The Barry
• The Gumshoe
• The Macavity
• The Simon & Schuster/Mary Higgins Clark Award
• The Arthur Ellis Award
• The Lambda Literary Award
• The Lovey
• The Quill
• The Davitt Award
• The CrimeFest Awards
• The Bruce Alexander Memorial Historical Mystery Award
• The Reviewers Choice Award
• The IPPY (Independent Publisher Book Award)
• The Hammett Prize
• The David Award
• The Ned Kelley Award
• The SMM/Minotaur First Crime Contest
• The Spotted Owl
• The Falcon Award
Some of the awards (like Mystery Writers of America’s Edgar®, the granddaddy of them all, beginning in 1946) are determined by a committee of member-writers who make the selection. Others are more reader/fan based, like the Anthony or the Agatha. In those cases, attendees at mystery conferences like Bouchercon or Malice Domestic vote for their favorite crime writing of the year.
Other awards winners (e.g. The Barry, The Macavity) are selected by the followers of a particular crime fiction organization or magazine (Deadly Pleasures and Mystery Readers International, in this case).
The criteria for an award might be broadly stated (like The Nero’s “for literary excellence in the mystery genre”) or much more narrowly defined, like this list for the Simon & Schuster/Mary Higgins Clark Award:
“The winner is selected by a special MWA committee for the book most closely written in the Mary Higgins Clark tradition, according to the following guidelines set forth by Ms. Clark:
* The protagonist is a very nice young woman, 27-38 or so, whose life is suddenly invaded. She is not looking for trouble – she is doing exactly what she should be doing and something cuts across her bow (as in ship).
* She solves her problem by her own courage and intelligence.
* She’s in an interesting job.
* She’s self-made – independent – has primarily good family relationships.
* No on-scene violence.
* No four-letter words or explicit sex scenes.”
Many of these awards are U.S.-centric, but others are also geographically specific, like the Falcon (“to honor the best hard-boiled mystery novel published in Japan”), the Arthur Ellis (“recognizing excellence in Canadian crime writing”) or the Ned Kelly (Australian authors only). And while the Spotted Owl Award celebrates the “best mystery by a Pacific Northwest author” many U.S. states also have prizes for the best crime fiction set in that location or authored by a resident.
With all this going on you’d think that each and every one of us — fiction writer, non-fiction writer, short story writer and debut author – would be covered in glory by now. We’d each have so many blue ribbons and commemorative plaques and prize-winning teapots and crystal statuettes that we’d have no room for cups and glasses in the cupboard anymore.
Not so … but it’s nice to dream.
I don’t have a “favorite” award, although I must admit I go all Sally Field (“You like me! You really like me!) just thinking about those jury-of-your-peers committee review awards. On the other hand, there would be nothing nicer than getting one of the public vote awards and knowing your work resonated with the people it was supposed to: people who love to read crime fiction.
And while I don’t think awards do much for sales, if they make just one publisher, just one bookseller, just one hesitant consumer take another look at your work, there’s nothing wrong with that.
Last year’s book, The Fault Tree, is a finalist for a few awards this year and I can tell you – as a person who has both won and lost awards in the past – that the nomination itself is the most important part for me. It says, “Somebody somewhere thought you did something right once.” And it gives me a reason to sit down at the computer in the morning and try to do it again. Sure, it would be nice to win, but I will already have been buzzing with the nomination for three months anyway.
So how about you, ‘Rati? Do you have a favorite award or judging system? Do you think awards matter? And has seeing award information on the cover ever made you pick up a book?
I don’t think I’ve ever bought a book because of an award. I look at the nomination lists sometimes and see books I’ve read and think, "Ick. That was nominated?" I will admit to getting a kick out of seeing a book I enjoyed receive a nomination. I kind of adopt books and authors I like, and I enjoy seeing them get the recognition, even though I don’t follow the awards myself.
Wearing my civilian hat, I do sometimes pay attention to Edgar winners/nominees when I’m browsing the shelves looking for something new to read. It becomes one more factor, particularly if I’ve already heard about the book and it piqued my interest. The other awards don’t influence me especially.
Dana, I had one of those "ick" moments last year. Can’t remember which award it was for, but one of those books seemed like a big warty toad by comparison to the others.
Neil, you still read for pleasure? When do you find the time?
With all of the books out there — and all the author self-promotion happening — I’ve noticed that booksellers’ eyes often glaze over when I introduce myself: "Hi, I’m an author."
It’s almost as if they’re wary.
But when I quickly follow-up that first line with, "I’ve been nominated for two Agathas," they’re very receptive. It gives me credibility somehow.
I’m incredibly grateful for my nominations andI look forward, someday, to knowing what it feels like to win.
You’ve done wonderfully so far and I expect we’ll be celebrating many more of your successes in the years to come.
I don’t think I’ve ever picked up a book because it has won an award – I read a book because the story and writing interest me. On the other hand, I certainly wouldn’t be adverse if I found myself clutching a handful of awards for the exact same reason as Louise mentioned – to get your butt back in the chair and write some more of whatever the "people" deemed worthy enough to nominate.
Congrats on the nomination, Louise. When do the winners get announced?
You make time, Louise! That’s why I got into this business in the first place, because I love books.
Plus: There’s some overlap between work and pleasure. I publish a lot of crime and suspense because I like to read it, and knowing who’s good and interesting can have many benefits. I know who’s working in a particular genre, who’s got heat, what subjects are current. Sometimes I end up publishing people I’ve been reading for years just for fun. And my reading provides perspective: If I didn’t do much outside reading, I might get a ms of, say, a WWII thriller and think, "Hey, this is great!" But knowing the classics in the field, I can say, "No, THOSE books are great — this one’s pretty good."
It does get my attention when I see that a novel has garnered an award or two. Even if it’s been nominated.
It’s interesting, though, how many fantastic books I’ve read that have never received awards or nominations. It’s like looking at the list of great actors who never received an Academy Award nomination.
Pari, your Agatha nominations were how I first learned of your books, so I know the value of that added "cred." And you was robbed!
Alli, The Fault Tree was nominated for a Mary Higgins Clark Award (announced earlier in the year; I didn’t win it), a Macavity (announced at Bouchercon in October), and a Nero Award (announced in December. Oh, and that gorgeous cover design is up for an Anthony at Bouchercon as well.
Neil, it’s a godsend when our passions and our day jobs overlap. Publishing is very lucky to have found you … and vice versa.
I agree, Stephen, that some of my faves have never been honored with awards. But when you think about how those nominations are made (the random tastes and interests of a small panel of writers or the particular combination of people who attend a mystery conference or read a mystery magazine a certain year) it would be an unusual year for us all to agree on the best books.
Didn’t there also used to be an Alfred Hitchcock award? I’m thinking wa-a-a-y back to when I was addicted to the Alfred Hitchcock and Ellery Queen magazines in the 60’s through the early 80’s. Ha, I see they are still around, although I never see them on newsstands anymore. I’ll begin looking harder.
I’m skeptical of awards, especially after reading Junot Diaz’s Pullitzer-winning The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao. What an awful book. It’s all subjective opinion, and my opinion, as a reader, is the one that matters to me. I often wonder if the truly fabulous book I just read was never submitted for a contest. So the answer is "no", I don’t read books based on awards.
The two magazines are still around, Karen, although possibly easier to get online than in bookstores. I can only think of three stores in the Bay Area that carry them today.
And I think you should start your own awards list: The Karen. But what would the prize be? A statuette? A plaque? A ceramic armchair to show where you curled up to enjoy the book?
Love it, Louise! The Karen award would have to be a pair of golden reading glasses mounted on a cushion.
" … a pair of golden reading glasses mounted on a cushion."
I have very mixed feelings about awards.
Seeing award information on a book cover hasn’t ever made me pick up a book.
But, upon hearing that a favorite book or author has won an award has made me squeal out loud a time or two.
Are they important? I’m one who thinks that a nomination for an award is a lovely thing, and important in that it does, I think, give a writer credibility. And helps get their name out there to readers.
My problem with awards is that they’re perhaps becoming so plentiful that they’re maybe – just maybe – becoming less meaningful.
(am I getting myself in trouble by saying that? If so – well hell, I take it back!)
I’m going to come at this from a different direction. Having been a judge, and knowing the inside process, how damn much work goes into a judging committee, the oodles and oodles of books that are read, the time and effort and sacrifice the judges make, the furor that always seems to surround the short lists, even the animosity and backlash some awards seems to bring to the fore year after year – yes, the awards matter. They can launch careers, can be a stepping stone, a validation, even a reference, as Pari pointed out.
That said, I think they matter a little more to us authors than they do to the average reader. When I first got started in crime fiction, I’d never heard of the Edgar, and I’d been a reader for many, many years. Some awards have more gravitas than others, but I’ve never seen an author turn down a nomination because they didn’t think it mattered. (Has that happened before???)
I would think you’re right on that, JT, that awards matter more to authors than to the reading public. However, other authors tend to be great fans and promoters of each others’ works, so having an award would be an extra boost to that process.
Again, though, if a book is not read by a committee, who knows how many deserving books have never even gotten a look? It’s like the whole process of publication: many manuscripts that were turned down are still languishing in a drawer someplace that would very likely be the next award winner. So I do tend to think of it as arbitrary.
By the way, I would award Tess Gerritsen’s "Vanish" a Karen. Fer sure. And Toni’s first two books, as well. However, I haven’t yet read most of the other Murderati authors’ books, although they are teetering in a TBR pile next to me. Just saying.
I like your approach to awards. It’s kind of like if one of our kids won a foot race, we’d congratulate him on it, but it wouldn’t make us love him more or less.
Are there too many awards/footraces out there? See J.T.’s oh-so-trenchant observation that it doesn’t seem like anyone’s ever turned down a nomination.
And Karen, you’re going to have to add Stephen Jay Schwartz’s debut to that towering TBR pile. It comes out next month!
Karen, you just made me smile! Thank you. I would be honored to be nominated for a "Karen." (Love the glasses.)
Louise, I know I’ve never picked up a book because it won an award. However, I have heard of books I would have never heard of because they made the finals list, and that made me curious enough to go read the back cover copy or read the first chapter.
My pleasure, Toni. 😉
That Stieg Larssen book, The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, is a good read, but I’m mystified as to why it got awarded Crime Thriller of the Year, and other awards. Seriously?
Yes, it has a great title.
Awards have never made me read/buy a book unlless I were purposely attempting to read all award nominees such as Larry Gandle does for the Edgars. My lack of attention to this is especially lately when it seems like a) the same books seem to get nominated for everything in a given year or b) they are so obscure or out there that they don’t appeal at all. My main problem with awards is that even though they may be decided by a jury, everyone has their own taste in liking what they read. If I were on a jury, I would read everything, of course, put in front of me, but perhaps lean more in favor of a book/author that wrote historical mysteries … it’s just my personal taste. Someone who favored gritty/noir would put more favorable marks toward that type of book. And then again with a jury, it’s a consensus, not necessarily the best book.
Ruth Dudley Edwards wrote a deliciously satiric mystery called CARNAGE ON THE COMMITTEE about a literary prize.
Way back in the days of my innocence (before I dipped my toe into the writing waters)
I selected books that were Edgar winners. The other awards were not as well known, but an Edgar winner would almost always go home with me. But then, maybe I just loved the idea of being in bed with Edgar.
Toni, I think you and Neil and I use awards the same way: a really late early warning system for a book we might not have heard of when it first came out.
Karen, I still haven’t read DRAGON TATTOO … but that’s just one of a hundred I’ve promised myself. No? Should I forego it?
PK, I know how rigorously the reading panels try to be in reflecting gender/geography/genre diversity among the judges, but it can’t be helped. I’m just going to like some books better than others.
And Judy, you probably still won’t go wrong 80% of the time to pick up an Edgar nominee. Notice I did not say "get in bed with an Edgar nominee."
Louise, it’s a good book. But I think a lot of the hype about it was because Larssen died after handing in the three manuscripts.
My brother-in-law, who is a college professor, just stunned me by saying it was the best novel he’s ever read. Then I realized he’s been reading non-fiction almost exclusively for the last 40 years. lol
Karen, in a much crasser comparison, how about all the folks who raved about the Da Vinci Code but had not read any other fiction for years!
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as a reader…I rarely pay attention to the awards, unless it says it somewhere in the blurb.
as a wanna be writer…of course I pay attention….and take note.
and as weird person with a whacked sense of humor….. I mentally start singing MACAVITY’S NOT THERE(CATS) whenever I read something about the Macavity award, the two are so intertwined in my head.
Louise, I think you deserve an award just for making that list! I had no idea there were so many mystery awards. [Is this where I should admit I’m not a big mystery reader? Um, probably not.]
I was about to chime in with the consensus that I don’t buy books based on awards, until I remembered that when the kids were little I made a point of buying a whole bunch of Newbery and Caldecott winners. Many of which dated back to when I was a child. Sigh. I guess they’re classics for a reason. Not that I bought award winners exclusively… remember those elementary school book fairs where they’d set up tables in the library or gymnasium and stack them high with books for sale as a fundraiser? My kids would pick out the books they wanted and be ready to leave, but I’d still be wandering, building up my bicep muscles by picking up every third book and saying, "Oh, I remember this book. You’ll love this. Oh, what about this one–" They’d each grab an overloaded arm and drag me over to the cashier. I miss that. 😉
Kit, I love that song! Had to go back and look because I’d missed seeing there was a Macavity award.
Sorry for always commenting so late in the day over here. By the time I get home from work and take care of all the other various life demands, well, let’s just say this blog is my reward at the end of what is usually a very long day. Like dessert.
Being an award winner does give an author a certain standing, and it’s always exciting.
We have one customer who buys every Edgar nominee, every years. It’s the only thing he buys.
By the same token, we have a customer who prefers signed hardcovers of debut authors. Rarely will she buy the sequel.
It takes all kinds, y’know?
Congratulations to every author nominated for an award, even if it seems like it’s a popularity contest rather an an award for excellence. I think they’re still pretty cool, truth to tell.
Deborah and Elizabeth, I most wholeheartedly accept the nomination for our ‘Rati bunch. 😉
Kit, how about a duet? I like Macavity in all it’s guises.
BCB, if I’d included all the sci-fi and romance awards, you’d still be reading. Put your feet up and relax.
Hey, Fran, you also have a customer who only buys books with suitcases and travel trunks on the cover. Bless you for your patience.
I skim the lists and if something looks like I want to read it, the list might be the tipping point–meaning, the book might not have come to my attention unless I had seen it on a finalist list.
I’ve been nominated for four RITAs (RWA) for Best Romantic Suspense. I love being nominated with fabulous RS authors like JD Robb, Nora Roberts, Carla Neggers, Roxanne St. Claire, Karen Rose, and others. It truly is a thrill and honor to be on the same playing field with them. Nominations and wins really don’t mean much to the readers, IMO, but they make the authors bio sound better 🙂 And the tag, "Award-winning author" or "award-winning, NYT bestselling author" in an article or on the sell-in sheet sounds good. Is it going to make buyers order more books? Maybe some of them. I think if I finaled in a major mystery/suspense award, some of the indies might take notice or maybe I can put my foot in the door.
Every positive thing helps, it’s just a matter of how much and with whom.