Tuesday, February 01, 2011

Whitney Awards: Behind the Scenes

The reading is done, and the ballots are in. I'm writing this the night before the finalists are announced, and by the time you're reading this, we should be within a couple of hours of knowing who the finalists are.

Being part of the awards has been a fascinating and rewarding experience, especially since I was able to part of the growth of the program from early on. Robison Wells, the founder of the awards, bounced the idea off me the day he came up with it (I consider myself lucky to have been in the right place at the right time). I landed on a name for the program that he liked. The second year of the awards I served on the committee, and I've been a judge for three years.

At the first gala, I felt overwhelmed with the potential for the program and where it was headed, and honored that I'd been part of something so amazing. (You can read more on that and my teary reaction HERE.)

Enough people ask about the Whitney Awards that I thought I'd explain a bit about how they work. This post will already be long enough without explaining my personal judging philosophy and process, so those things may have to wait for another post.

I will say, though, that I try hard to judge each book by the same criteria and to judge as objectively as possible, so that even if a particular novel isn't my personal taste, I can still acknowledge whether it is well-crafted and accomplishes what the author set out to do.

Michele Paige Holmes blogged about her job as a Romance judge this year in two posts, HERE and HERE. Read them. They're excellent and insightful . . . and good lessons on writing, too.

How the Whitney Awards Work
For the full list of rules and such, see the site's ABOUT page, but this post should give you the basics.

In essence, the Whitneys aim to recognize the best LDS fiction writers, regardless of genre or market. They're named after Orson F. Whitney, an early apostle who gave an inspiring talk about the arts and literature, saying that one day we'll have "Miltons and Shakespeares of our own." We're seeking to move toward greater and greater excellence, to one day fulfill that prophesy.

For a book to win a Whitney, it goes through three phases:

1) Reader Nomination
To be an official nominee, a book must be nominated by at least 5 people who do not have a financial interest in the book (such as the publisher, the author, etc.). Nominations are accepted throughout the year for books published during that calendar year, so the upcoming awards will honor books published in 2010. Nominations closed on December 31.

(Note: Keep in mind that you can already nominate 2011 titles. Nominations for the current year are open all the time.)

2) Genre Judging
The Whitneys include 7 genre categories: General, Historical, Romance, Mystery/Suspense, Speculative (Sci-Fi/Fantasy), YA General, and YA Speculative (a new category this year). Each genre category has 5 judges assigned to it by the Whitney president and committee. Judges are selected based on their qualifications, and while they are often writers in the field, sometimes they're editors or other industry professionals. Judges read every nominee in their category/categories.

The current Whitney president and committee are not eligible for awards (too bad, really, for current president Josi S. Kilpack, who has won a Whitney in the past but also has two books out this year that could have easily been finalists). Writers serving as judges are eligible for an award; they just can't judge a category in which they're eligible. For example, one year I judged General and Romance when I had a Historical novel eligible.

When they've read all the nominees assigned in their genre, the judges cast a complex ballot online that uses a point system to give each book the fairest rank possible. It's a Condorcet-style ballot, where every book is pitted against every other book in its category.

So instead of just ranking the books a judge liked ("this one is my favorite"), the ballot creates every possible pairing of titles and asks the judges, one pair at a time, to say which book of the two is most deserving of the award. Each vote for a book in any pairing creates a specific weight in that book's favor.

This is where we are right now. The judges' ballots were due yesterday at midnight, January 31. The points have been tallied (using some fancy computer formula that's beyond me).

Now 5 titles in each genre are finalists.

(The list should be up on the Whitney site by noon today.)

3) Academy Votes
Where do we go from here? Once the finalists are announced, the Whitney Academy members will get busy reading them. The Academy is made up of literally hundreds of industry professionals: writers, editors, reviewers, publishers, and so on. The Academy keeps growing. Just the LDStorymakers guild itself has doubled in membership since the inception of the awards four years ago.

Academy members will cast their ballots a week or two before the Whitney Gala, which takes place immediately following the annual LDStorymakers conference. In the past the Academy has had about 2 months to read finalists; this year, the conference and gala will be held a bit later, giving us almost 3 months. Yay!

Voting rules for Academy members are simple: Vote in as many, or as few, genre categories as you wish, provided you have read all of the finalists in any category you're voting in.

In other words, an Academy member could read just the Historical finalists and cast a ballot for only that award. Or a member could read finalists in two or three categories and vote in just those areas. They cannot vote in any category where they haven't read every finalist.

To cast a vote for the two overall awards (Best Novel by a New Author and Best Novel of the Year), the Academy member must read every book eligible for those awards. That means reading several titles to vote for Best Novel by a New Author and reading every single finalist to vote for Best Novel of the Year.

(That's a lot of books, but I did it last year. Barely, but I did it.)

The Whitney Gala
The genre and overall awards are announced at the Whitney Gala, as well as special awards that the committee decides on, given to people who have had big achievements in their work and/or been instrumental in serving LDS writers. Previous award-winners include Orson Scott Card, Gerald Lund, Kerry Blair, Dean Hughes, and Dave Wolverton, among others.

One rule change this year could be fun to see unfold: In the past, one book could win one award. If it won in its genre (say, Speculative) but and also won New Author and Best Novel, it would take just the highest award (Best Novel). The next highest-ranking book in New Author would take that award, and the same with the genre award. Spreading the love, acknowledging more books.

Now, a book can win any award it's eligible for. That means one book could take its genre award as well as Best Novel.

Or we could see a 3-award sweep with 1 book taking its genre award, New Author, and Best Novel. (Wouldn't that be wild?)

I make a point to read widely during the year, especially writers who I know are good at what they do and who have been previous finalists or winners. That way when the finalists are announced, there's a decent chance I've read at least a few of them and don't have 35 books to read in a short span.

Of course, I can't predict every finalist; there are always surprises: underdogs I've never heard of, self-published books that are gems, and so on. It's exciting to see the list each year. I really hope I've made some decent guesses.

After all, I must have read every finalist if I'm going to vote for Best Novel again.

And I plan to.


Emily M. said...

Noon, huh? I am impatient! Thanks for the inside scoop. The ballot system you are using sounds excellent.

Jennie said...

There are eight categories this year. That means to vote for Novel of the year a person must read forty books. I've managed to do it before, but I don't know if a I can find time this year. Two speculative categories is a lot for someone who doesn't care for the genre to wade through.

Annette Lyon said...

There are 7 genre categories (the ones I listed--and double-checked on the Whitney site) and 9 total awards (adding in New Author and Best Novel), not counting the special achievement ones.

Yes, it's a lot of books to read, but I think it's important to acknowledge the best out there, so I do it.

For some reason, although I do have favorite genres, I'm able to appreciate something in every genre, so it's not a huge chore for me. Just finding the time to get it all done is the tricky part.

And there really is no way to provide a fair voting system for Best Novel if those voting haven't read every book eligible for that award.

Lu Ann Brobst Staheli said...

It's especially going to be difficult if Brandon Sanderson's The Way of Kings is a finalist at 1,008 pages, which I haven't yet read!

Susan Anderson said...

Wow, judging the Whitneys represents quite an undertaking!

It was interesting reading about the process, and it sounds well-conceived.

I'll be interested to hear (and read) the winners!


Krista said...

Thanks for breaking it down. I was recently asked about the voting system, and I did pretty well, but this is much clearer. I'll be able to answer better next time. (or I could just send them here! :))

Why Not? Because I Said So! said...

Excellent post! I am so excited to read who the finalists are. I love what I have read so far. I am hoping that I will be ahead of the game with all of the books I read last year.

Lisa Loo said...

I think I would like to vote in the chocolate cookbook category :0)

Cranberryfries said...

Thats awesome! Thanks for the info.

Jordan McCollum said...

Just saw the noms. Congrats!!

Chantele Sedgwick said...

Congratulations! I just saw the finalists!! :)

Andrew said...

Jennie has a good point. I can see that you would want to be fair to all of the books, but really, requiring someone to get their hands on and read 40 books is too much. If Jennie, who reads a ton of these books for her column, feels like she can't do it, who can?

Annette Lyon said...

Andrew, It is tricky, sure. (I will point out that Jennie has said she reads 15 books a month--this wouldn't be less than that.)

But the problem remains on how to fairly give out a Best Novel award. You end up with people judging who have read only a few books and have a pet favorite.

No system is perfect, but the Whitneys have taken the best from a variety of awards systems. They've been thoroughly thought out, revised as needed (and likely will continue to be tweaked as they grow).

But for what they are, and for the resources they have, they're a pretty amazing--and fair--program.

Annette Lyon said...

(35 books in 3 months is LESS than what she currently reads per month--typo. And I'm betting she's already read several.)

Heather Moore said...

Instead of trying to read 35-40 books in a couple of months, I read all year, hoping that many of the ones I am reading will be Whitney Picks. Looking at the finalist list, I've read 15 already. So I have a good start and a ways to go. But I have most of the books on hold at the library, have ordered a few on Amazon, and started this morning reading. I don't have lots of extra time to read (like most people), but I always keep a book in the car, one at my bedside, and find snatches to read. Most often I'm reading from 10pm-midnight.

Melissa Cunningham said...

This is so exciting! I would love to be a part of it someday. Who knows? Dreams do come true. =)

Anonymous said...

The Whitney's are so awesome. There are so many good finalists this year that I think the judges have their work cut out for them!


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