Saturday, January 03, 2015

Tips for Writers on Navigating the Whitney Awards

I've been fortunate to be a part of the Whitney Awards in some capacity for as long as the program has existed. Some years I've been a finalist. Other years I've been on the committee. (Those years don't overlap; anyone on the committee is automatically ineligible.) I've been a judge many times in a variety of categories. I was fortunate enough to win a Whitney Award in the General Fiction category for my 2010 novel Band of Sisters.

And this year, I'm (gulp) president. 

Having seen parts of the program at a distance and (this year) up close, I've learned a lot of things that I think would be useful for writers to be aware of. Hence, this post. Consider it a primer for writers who hope their books will one day be a finalist (or winner!), and that they'll take home a Whitney Award of their own. 

For those interested: The upcoming Whitney Awards will be presented at the 8th annual gala. The program honors the best fiction published by Latter-day Saint writers each year. The dinner and awards ceremony held in May will honor books published in 2014 and will be held on Saturday, May 16, 2015, at 7:00 PM at the Provo Marriott Hotel. The program is named after 19th-century Mormon Apostle Orson F. Whitney, who was a writer and proponent of literary arts.

You can buy gala tickets HERE.

And now, the advice: 

Make sure you can be both found and contacted online. Be accessible!
One of the most important steps in the Whitney Awards backstage process is contacting an author to confirm that their book is eligible in any given year. This happens after a book receives five reader nominations. A WA committee member will email the author to get some basic BUT CRUCIAL information. 

You would be surprised to find how hard it is to find any kind of contact information for some authors. You'd think that writers would have an online presence to build their platform. And that there would be contact information through that platform. In many cases you would be right, often in the cases of some very big names. But with some writers? Holy cow. We've spent weeks as a committee trying to find a way to contact a specific writer, using Facebook, Twitter, website contact forms, and more. Nothing.

Here's the problem: If the WA committee cannot confirm your book's details and eligibility with you, your book can't be considered for the awards. Seriously. That's the end of the line. So make sure we can contact you. If you have a random email address for your personal website that you check only rarely, check it regularly. Even better, have your author website forward to your regular inbox so you get messages. 

It's tragic when a book has received the required nominations but no one can reach the author, and the book ends up ineligible after all. Don't let that happen to your book. 

Be reachable online and reply to communications! Which leads us to the next point:

When you are contacted by the Whitney Awards committee informing you that your book is an official nominee, reply ASAP.
The committee spends months and months all year long tracking down books and getting them into the hands of the 40 judges who cover 8 different categories. Inevitably, due to many factors, but in part due to writers taking forever to get back to us (which then delays all of the other steps in getting books from publishers), the judges typically end up with a ton of books to read in just a few weeks during January before their ballots are due early February. 

Truth: The earlier a judge gets your book, the more time they have to spend reading it and really appreciating your awesomeness as a writer. 

Consider this: If a judge is thrown twenty books to read in two weeks, that's more than a book a day that they have to somehow get through. Remember, judges have regular lives: jobs, families, and more. And they don't get paid for being judges. Plus, they aren't necessarily super-fast readers. Instead, they're excellent readers. That's why they have the assignment. But fast and excellent are different things. 

If a judge doesn't get your book until January (or worse, the second week of January), along with a bunch of others, they simply won't have time to sit down and truly enjoy your book. Instead, through no fault of their own, they're racing through each book, making mental notes as to how to rate it, and then moving on to the next one. It's almost like cramming for a big test. (Did you enjoy studying for university finals? Didn't think so.)

Judges do their very best to be objective and fair. Yet they're human, not computers. If they get to spend a whole week or more on your book, chances are, they will remember details and cool stuff far better than if they raced through it in a matter of hours on one day. 

I'm giving this advice as someone who has been a judge many times, but I've heard the same thing from many judges over the years: they wish they'd had more books earlier so they could have devoted more time to each book. 

Speaking as a writer, I want judges to have a great, leisurely experience with my book, not some stressful, holy-crap-how-can-I-get-this-read-in-time freak-out. If I have the power to get my book to judges with months to spare instead of weeks or days, I'll do it.

SO: If you have the fortune to receive the committee's confirmation email, answer it IMMEDIATELY. 

AND, if you know who best can send over an electronic file of the book, even better. (Hard copies are fine too, but shipping takes time. E-books are preferred.)

For those who have self-published, go ahead and reply with your book file attached to the email. That cuts out several steps and gets your book to judges even faster.

Mention the Whitney Awards to your readers.
A lot of books don't necessarily get the required five nominations for the simple fact that the book's readers were unaware of the program. 

On the flip side, some very popular books take forever to get the nominations because readers incorrectly assume that a book must have already been nominated plenty of times. In this case, it's not a bad idea to reach out to the author to find out if their book is an official nominee yet. They'll know within a day or two of the fifth nomination coming in. (That is, assuming they're accessible online!)

If you self-publish, consider adding a line in the back of your book asking readers who enjoyed it to nominate it. (For e-books, please take out that line after the December 31 deadline of the publication year. For printed books, be sure to include the December 31 deadline with the year so the committee doesn't keep getting nominations for it years past its eligibility.)

Spread the word about the Whitney Awards! That helps writers as well as the committee and judges. Follow the Whitney Awards on Twitter, like the Facebook page, and follow the Pinterest page. Then re-tweet/favorite/like/share/re-pin things from the awards' social media. That spreads the word among readers, and in turn, will likely nudge your readers toward nominating your book.

THAT SAID: Please don't launch big campaigns with your readers to get a ton of nominations. 
Once a book reaches five, further ones aren't even recorded; they're irrelevant. The book already moves to the judging round. A flood of nominations just wastes the committee's time and clogs up the president's inbox. 

To clarify: A book with a hundred nominations is at no advantage in becoming a finalist over a book that received only five nominations. Both books go on to the judges, who cast their ballots while being completely unaware of how many nominations any of the books in their category received. 

For that matter, only the president will ever know. And, if they're anything like me, the president will quickly lose track of the number of nominations a book got past the magic number of five. (Except they may want to put a pox on the house of authors who do launch big campaigns, glutting the president's inbox and adding pointless hours to their duties. We can totally tell when you do that. Please don't.) (For the last four months, I've spent an average of two hours on awards-related email every single day. Seriously.)

Let your readers know when your book is an official nominee.
It's a moment to celebrate anyway, so spread the word! Even better, put the information somewhere that readers can find it, such as on your website's ABOUT page or in your Facebook bio description. That way readers can know that they don't need to nominate the book, which saves the president's time. (This is no longer an issue for my term, but I thank you on behalf of future presidents.)

Be hyper aware of your publication date and what it means for your book's eligibility.
The most common place to find the eligibility date for your book is on the copyright page in the front. Granted, a book even in rough-draft form is legally protected by copyright, but traditionally, the copyright year in the front is the publication date. 

If your book is listed as having been published late in December, then that is the year it's eligible. Late-year releases do make getting nominations a bit trickier, but it happens quite frequently. You can help the process along. For example, you could send out review copies a few months in advance, then ask reviewers to nominate the book if they enjoyed it. 

If your book was technically eligible at the end of a previous year, it cannot be eligible the following year. That's not fair to anyone. One possible exception exists, but it's an incredibly rare case that's unlikely to happen to anyone living in the U.S. And it's happened once in eight years.

Advice: Talk to your publisher about release dates. If you're thinking a book will come out in January, and you don't give a thought to the Whitneys until the following spring, but the copyright and sale date are December, you're up a creek. Your book was eligible but isn't anymore. 

The rule: Books are eligible only during the year they were published in. The upcoming gala will present awards for books published during 2014 only. 

The website nomination page is still open, and here's why: Readers can already start nominating books they loved with 2015 publication dates. Any nominations that come in between now and the gala in May will count for the next Whitney Awards gala. I'll keep track of those nominations as I have the ones for 2014, and then I'll pass along that information to the next president. 

In short: Be sure you know when your book is eligible!

Place your book into the correct category.
The Whitneys recognize books in two age categories (youth and adult) and eight genre categories. Authors decide in which category to place their book. 

That's very useful for the committee, because sometimes a book blurb makes a book sound like one genre, but it's another (e.g. it sounds like a romance, but while it has romantic elements, it's not really a romance and would really fit better under General Fiction). Or maybe a writer typically known for one genre switched genres for a new book, and the committee was unaware of the change. 

However, sometimes authors think that trying to play the system is a good idea, so they put their book into a category where it doesn't really belong, usually in a category that's known to have fewer books and therefore, they think, less competition. 

This type of thinking inevitably backfires. Why? Because judges are consciously judging books based on the category they've been assigned. If a book doesn't fit the category, it won't fare well in the rankings, no matter how brilliant it is. 

Don't over think this one; it's nothing to be paranoid over. Just familiarize yourself with the genres (I blogged about them a couple of years ago HERE) and be honest in picking the one that best suits your book. You're doing yourself a favor.

Here's a hypothetical example: If your book is similar in content and tone to an Encyclopedia Brown book, don't put it into the adult Mystery/Suspense category. It'll be up against books with complex plots and a level of suspense intended for grown-up audiences. Such a book may be downright excellent, but that doesn't mean it fits in the adult category. It probably belongs in one of the youth categories, but if it's in the adult one, it'll be judged as an adult book. 

(As of this year, the best fit for this hypothetical book would be the Middle Grade category; there is no youth mystery category, at least not yet.)

If you're unsure about what categories exist for the awards, visit the website and check out the finalists and winners from recent years to get a feel for what books fit into which categories.

All of the categories are listed on the Program Overview page.

Or wait until you get the confirmation email; they'll all be listed there for you to choose from. 

Remember that the first version of your book is the eligible one. 
With e-books and self-publishing becoming more common, this issue is a bigger problem than ever. For those self-publishing, here's the thing to remember: Don't hit PUBLISH until you're sure that the books is as good as you can get it. 

Here's why: If you're informed that your book is an official nominee, you're not allowed to go back to do another revision before sending the new, shinier version to be judged. You need to send the original version. (And soon, too. See above.)

Educate yourself on the rest of the awards process.
The nomination process and judging round don't make up the whole program. The judges' ballots lead to the selection of five finalists in each category. (This year, finalists will be announced on February 9.) From there, the Whitney Awards academy, which is made up of hundreds of industry experts, reads the finalists and casts their ballots. The awards are announced at the gala, which immediately follows the annual LDStorymakers conference each spring.

You can read the rules and FAQ page on the awards website, but the Program Overview is a quick guide for understanding the basics.

There you go! My best advice for navigating the Whitney Awards and making sure your book has a shot. These suggestions will also make life so much easier for the committee: seven people who volunteer an untold number of hours throughout the year simply because they believe in the program and want it to succeed.


Karlene said...


Marsha Ward said...

Thank you for writing this primer, Annette. It's so valuable to writers to be aware of how the process works.

Valerie Ipson said...

Well-said! Thank you.

Anonymous said...

Great post and wonderful candidates this year. Good luck with the job, Annette. I'm sure you'll do wonderful things!

Donna Hatch said...

Thanks for the clear information. Hmmm. I'm rethinking my December publication date...


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