Six LDS Writers and A Frog

Wednesday, February 23, 2011

Does Popularity Influence the Voting?

Jeff wrote an interesting post at the LDS Publisher blog discussing Whitney judging. The question had come up of how the Whitneys are judged/should be judged and whether or not the Whitney Awards are a popularity contest. My immediate reaction to that question—and others agree with me; Jeff included quotes from other authors on the subject—was that no, they aren’t a popularity contest, if we’re assuming that popularity=highest sales.

This is the fourth year of the Whitneys. In 2007, Best Novel of the Year went to On the Road to Heaven, by Coke Newell—a book published by Zarahemla Books, a small LDS publisher. 2008, Sandra Grey took Best Novel of the Year with her first book, Traitor, published by Covenant Communications. In 2009, the overall winner was David Farland with a self-published novel, In the Company of Angels.

In 2007, Best Novel by a New Author went to Jessica Day George for Dragon Slippers, a nationally published title. In 2008, the winner was Angela Hallstrom for Bound on Earth—a book released by Parables Publishing, a small LDS publisher. In 2009, there was a tie—a nationally published book (Dan Wells’ I Am Not a Serial Killer) and a self-published book (Riley Noehren’s Gravity vs. the Girl).

Detecting a trend here? Yes—the trend that when it comes to winning a Whitney, the size of the publisher and how many copies the book sold have nothing to do with it. Winning titles might be huge sellers from huge publishers, or small sellers from small publishers, or self-published titles. If any Academy judges are influenced by a book's sales numbers, they must be a tiny minority, since the results don't show it.

Big national titles win awards, like Brandon Sanderson’s Hero of Ages (Best Speculative, 2008) or Carol Lynch Williams’ The Chosen One (Best Youth Fiction, 2009). Novels from the biggest LDS publishers win awards, like Josi Kilpack’s Sheep’s Clothing (Deseret Book, Best Mystery/Suspense 2007) and Brandon Mull’s Fablehaven II (Shadow Mountain, Deseret Book’s national imprint, Best Youth Fiction, 2007). Books from Covenant Communications have taken several awards, like HB Moore’s Abinadi (Best Historical, 2008) and Michele Paige Holmes' Counting Stars (Best Romance, 2007). Cedar Fort authors have also won trophies: Aubrey Mace for Spare Change (Best Romance, 2008) and Annette Haws for Waiting for the Light to Change (Best General Fiction 2008). Small LDS publishers Zarahemla and Parables have won awards, as mentioned above in the paragraphs about Best Novel of the Year and Best Novel by a New Author. Self-published titles have taken three Whitney Awards (the two books mentioned in the paragraphs above, plus Liz Adair’s Counting the Cost, Best Romance, 2009).

I think it's very exciting that the Whitneys are one of the few places in the publishing world where sales numbers don’t mean anything.

Here are how the Whitney winners shook out, publisher-wise, in case you’re interested. For national market titles, I didn’t list the specific publisher—I figured what was more of interest for purposes of this blog was whether the book was published in the LDS market or nationally.

Best Novel of the Year:

2007: Zarahemla Books
2008: Covenant
2009: Self-published

Best Novel by a New Author:

2007: National title
2008: Parables Publishing
2009: (tie) National title/Self-published

Best Romance:

2007: Covenant
2008: Cedar Fort
2009: Self-published

Best Mystery/Suspense:

2007: Deseret Book
2008: Covenant
2009: Covenant

Best Youth Fiction:

2007: Shadow Mountain (Deseret Book)
2008: Shadow Mountain (Deseret Book)
2009: National title

Best Speculative:

2007: National title
2008: National title
2009: National title

Best Historical:

2007: Covenant
2008: Covenant
2009: Shadow Mountain (Deseret Book)

Best General Fiction:

2007 (category didn’t exist yet)
2008: Cedar Fort
2009: National title


At 2/23/2011 2:43 PM, Blogger T.J. said...

Good post, Stephanie! Really proves a good point. Popularity is out the window here.

At 2/23/2011 2:48 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Don't larger sales numbers reflect, at least to some degree, the advertising behind a particular title? Which, means that at least the publisher believes that a particular work will appeal to a broad audience, which in and of itself is a wonderful thing for the author. So kudos to the authors who win the praise and support of their respective publishers---the ones who put their money where their marketing gurus believe will have the greatest public appeal.

And also big kudos to authors who, without winning the advertising support of their publisher, write terrific works worthy of the praise of their peers.

Authors in both categories: Whitney Award winners, and best-sellars, should be happy with their contribution to LDS-connected art. And if those two categories just happen to criss-cross, double kudos to you authors!

And for those of us who have yet to convince a publisher to back our novels with hundreds of thousands of advertising dollars, or have yet to convince the whitney judges that our novels will inspire bibliophilic praise for decades to come I say: Press on in the cause of telling lies that will entertain generations unborn! I never know when one of my whoppers will end up on a bookstore shelf.

At 2/23/2011 4:18 PM, Anonymous Wm Morris said...

It should also be noted that although Covenant currently leads the pack in terms of number of nominees and winners (7) from a single publisher, it also publishes a ton of titles in the categories the Whitney Awards honors.

At 2/23/2011 5:33 PM, Blogger Julie Wright said...

love the recap. This is a great post!

At 2/24/2011 1:05 AM, Blogger Sheila said...

Fabulous post Stephanie! I think this proves how I have always felt about this topic, the right books usually win that most deserve it. I have never felt it was a popularity contest.

At 2/24/2011 12:01 PM, Blogger Michele Holmes said...

Interesting stats. Thanks for pulling this together, Stephanie.

At 2/24/2011 12:34 PM, Blogger Jennie said...

I'm curious. How many judges actually judge the final round for the Best Novel and Best First Novel awards? I agree that in the early rounds, popularity doesn't play a role, but that last round is a little dubious. Gung Ho science fiction fans aren't going to pick the best romance and romance readers aren't likely to choose dystopia, yetthey're being asked to judge in a category they don't read and know nothing about. How many of those judges are wannabes who have never published or have any literary background? Is it due entirely to advertising when one book is picked up by a publisher and sells twenty thousand copies and another can't find a publisher so is self-published and sells two copies? It makes us feel good to say there's no bias or popularity involved in judging the Whitneys, but I suspect it just isn't so.

At 2/24/2011 1:44 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...


I agree. That's sort of what I was trying to get across in my previous post, without raising the blood pressure of the "anti popularity" people to tizzy levels.

So what's wrong with popularity? Isn't that one of many ways to measure the quality of a novel? If we reject the idea that popularity can be a good measure of the worth of a novel, don't we, in part, become elitists? Ad dollars aside, the popularity factor is the common reader's vote and if you reject that vote, then don't we tacitly support the idea that the common reader isn't smart enough or educated enough or literarily skilled enough to decide the worth of a novel?

I'm not saying we should change how a novel is selected for an award. The Whitney people do a marvelous if not super job. I defy anyone to do better. They are concious of the pitfalls in the selection process and they're always searching for ways to improve. Rob Wells set the award on a solid foundation. I'm just saying that in our talking about awards in novel writing maybe its a bad idea to look down our collective nose and cast popular novels as somehow inferior or unsophisticated. There is something very sophisticated in the simplicity of an appealing story. No matter how uneducated it is.

I'll bet Huck Finn would agree with me.

At 2/24/2011 2:33 PM, Blogger Stephanie Black said...

Thanks for the comments.

Anon, I did not say that the Whitney process somehow casts popular novels as inferior or unsophisticated. That is completely opposite of the intention of the Whitney Awards. What I was trying to convey was that the Whitneys level the playing field--a NYT bestseller might win, and that is wonderful. And a small, self-pubbed book might win, and that is also wonderful. The judges can evaluate each book based on their own opinion of the book's merits, not on how many copies it sold.

There's nothing wrong with popularity. I'd be extremely surprised if there were anyone on the finalist list who wouldn't love to be selling tons of books. And yes, popularity is one way to measure the quality of a novel. If a novelist connects with millions of readers, obviously she's done her job very well in crafting that book. But popularity is not the only measure of quality. How well a book is written is not the only criterion a publisher uses when deciding where to put its marketing dollars--and marketing has a huge effect on how many readers out there have heard of a book and had the chance to fall in love with it.

Jennie, I have no idea how many people voted for Best Novel of the Year last year. But if there is bias in the Whitney judging, I just can't see how it's manifesting itself in the winners--the variety is so broad.

At 2/24/2011 5:30 PM, Blogger Charlie Moore said...

My question is, among nominees, is this a serious competition or is it a fun competition? Are they getting as worked up as it sometimes seems others are? Whether it is serious or fun, or both, let it be what it is. And if changes are needed, that will happen naturally with growth.


At 2/24/2011 6:52 PM, Blogger Stephanie Black said...

Charlie, while people take the Whitneys seriously, I don't see people getting worked up--this is a very supportive community, and authors are a lot more likely to congratulate each other than criticize each other. If there are hard feelings, people don't publicize them.


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