Why Awards Are Important but No Guarantee of Sales

Mary Keeley

Blogger: Mary Keeley

Book awards–even being a finalist–are an honor to receive, a reward for an author’s research, toil, and dedication to creating a gripping story or compelling nonfiction book. Award banquets provide authors the opportunity to gather and celebrate each other’s achievements. However, here’s an interesting reality in the industry: Awards don’t necessarily equal great sales.

Here are some obvious benefits to your career when you win an award:

  1. Contest awards help new authors to obtain a contract. Book awards help published authors get the next contract.
  2. Awards and being a finalist give authors recognition among their peers. And let’s be honest . . . that feels good. Who doesn’t want to feel his or her work is respected by others in the industry?
  3. Dreams of an award motivate writers to strive for a higher level of craftsmanship.
  4. Finalistis and winners get prime name recognition on announcements and press releases. The news is quick, easy material for bloggers, tweeters, and Facebook fans, which multiplies the positive exposure.

But

Why is it that the buzz generated around award winners and the impressive, medallion-like seals that go on winners’ books don’t automatically translate to great sales? What does it mean for the majority of authors? Here are several takeaways.

  1. Beautiful writing alone won’t get you the next contract. Your editor, marketing and sales staff, your agent, and the publishing executives all might love your book and root for its success, but if your sales are low on that winner, they might decide not to offer you another contract. The business aspect trumps creative genius. It has to. Publishers must maintain financial health; it’s important for everyone involved in this industry.
  2. Your award-winning story or topic may be a work of art in terms of craft, but if it resonates with only a niche audience, that will be reflected in your sales. If this reality comes as a surprise, you need to do some analyses until you understand why and remedy the issue for your next book. You can be sure your publisher will expect some insights from you if they decide to publish your next book. This is one area in which a good agent’s guidance is valuable because he or she knows it’s imperative that you have excellent sales numbers on the next project.
  3. For the majority of published and unpublished authors—those who don’t win the coveted few awards given—this reality should encourage you. It levels the playing field. Books that sell well have broad audience appeal and tell a great story or present a topic that sparks the interest of many readers. In other words, you don’t have to be an award- winner to have a successful, fulfilling career as an author.

What award do you aspire to win? Why? What book  have you bought because it won an award? If you have been a nominee, finalist, or winner of a writing award, in what ways are you heartened by this publishing insight?

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31 Comments

  • Sarah Thomas says:

    I was thinking about this as I drove to work this morning. The movies that win Oscars aren’t necessarily the money makers. Which matters more to me? Critical aclaim (awards) or commercial success (readers)? Practically speaking, I want to reach lots and lots of readers, but I can’t deny I crave the recognition of my peers as well. Hmmm. Cake and eat it, too?

    Right now, I aspire to win the Genesis because I hope it would catapault my career. I was a semifinalist this year and I hope even that will help, though at the speed publishing moves, I think it’s too soon to tell . . .

  • I’d love to win any award right now! :P But eventually, when I have books published, it would be awesome to even be nominated for the Carol or the Christy award. So much of me wants to write a well-written book, but something that reaches people too.

    In the past, I’m mostly listened to word of mouth instead of contest results, but there looked to be a lot of great finalists for the Christy awards so I’m going to try some of them out.

    • Mary Keeley Mary Keeley says:

      Lindsay, you bring up two good points. “A well-written book that reaches people too”– that’s really the prime mission for Christian authors to keep in mind. Helps to maintain perspective.

      Thanks also for the point you made about going by word-of-mouth recommendations most of the time should be an encouragement to all writers who have great stories.

  • Michelle Ule Michelle Ule says:

    I read all the Newberry Award winners some 15 years ago (when I was spending all my time in that section of the library), and it was a good exercise.

    Starting with the oldest ones, you could almost see the evolution of children’s literature in America, and how it had both improved and changed its focus over the years. I read up to the year, probably 1996, and enjoyed several books I never would have touched otherwise.

    I also realized that “classics” are only classics in the mind of the person who categorized them! What were they thinking on some of those older books?

    But for the time–they must have been extraordinary.

    I’ve also observed the awarded but not read phenomenon. I use awards to point out books I may not have noticed before. I look at the award differently after I’ve read a book or seen a movie–and then use that as my basis for recommendation.

    I haven’t seen an Academy Award winning movie I’ve liked in years, for example, so I don’t run out to see the winner anymore.

    As a reader, I read award-winning books when they cross my path.

    As a writer, I read award-winning books to see what is prized.

    A helpful exercise either way.

  • Jeanne T says:

    I loved Lindsay’s comment–right now any award would be nice. :) I’d be thrilled to win the Genesis or/and the Frasier, and then perhaps, one day, the Carol or the Christy.

    I don’t read books just because they receive an award, rather those recommended to me or by authors I’ve read before. I may begin reading more award books to get a feel for what others consider “good writing.”

    I appreciated your insights today. My personal hope is that I will be able to craft a book that speaks to many readers’ hearts and is also profitable for the publisher, whether or not it wins a prize. You’ve given me good food for thought today. Thanks. :)

    • Mary Keeley Mary Keeley says:

      I agree, Jeanne. It’s hard to imagine an author who wouldn’t feel that any award would be nice. It’s interesting that you also are someone who reads books recommended to you or by authors you’ve enjoyed in the past. We read the kinds of books we like. If it’s an award-winner, that is icing on the cake.

      Your last sentence provides the balance: “… to craft a book that speaks to many readers’ hearts and is also profitable for the publisher.” That’s something to strive for.

  • Mary, Great minds… and all that. I blogged about this on Wednesday, after giving my feelings a chance to sort themselves out after the dual announcements on Monday of the Carol finalists and the Christy winners. Would I like to have won another award? Of course. Am I jealous of my colleagues who won? Not really. At least, I hope not.
    In writing, as in golf, we compete mainly with ourselves, to do the best that we can. How our work stacks up against others is subjective, rather than the concrete judgment of strokes per round, and the ultimate prize isn’t one that has a name on it, but rather the satisfaction of doing the best job we can and honoring the One who called us to this task.
    Thanks so much for your post.

    • Mary Keeley Mary Keeley says:

      Eloquently communicated, Richard. “. . . the ultimate prize isn’t one that has a name on it, but rather the satisfaction of doing the best job we can and honoring the One who called us to this task.” That is worth framing and hanging above our computers.

  • Lynn Dean says:

    I like what Richard said: we compete mainly with ourselves. My goal is to make each story better than the last. To grow. To “tell HIStory.”

    To that end, I make it a point to read award winning Christian books. Feeding our souls is not so different from feeding our bodies. We are what we eat. So I try to ingest and digest quality storytelling, reading bits that inspire before I sit down to write. Authors I’ve enjoyed recently include Athol Dickson, Ronie Kendig, and Ann Tatlock. My how they sing! :)

  • Michelle Lim says:

    Great thoughts, Mary. I’ve heard a few writing friends say that even though they won an award they did better on other books as far as sales.

    Thanks for a great post!

    • Mary Keeley Mary Keeley says:

      Michelle, interesting reality, isn’t it. Winning an award is a welcome and desired achievement for authors, but books don’t have to be award-winners to reach a reader’s heart.

  • This is a difficult subject for me because, of course, I would love to win an award and be recognized by those in the know. On the other hand, aren’t the contests somewhat subjective, just as in publishing? Of course, there are definite story elements the judges look for, but, if a story resonates with them, aren’t they more likely to score it higher? (I would share my experience in the Genesis contest, but I’m not sure what’s appropriate on a public blog.)

    I also think about my own book-reading experience. I might pick up a book at the bookstore that has won an award, but if the back cover and the first page don’t hook me, I won’t read it just because of the award. There’s that subjectivity again! We are all human, and very little seems to be completely objective.

    Richard makes a terrific point — the ultimate prize being to honor the One who called us to this task.

    • Mary Keeley Mary Keeley says:

      You are so right, Meghan. There definitely is an element of subjectivity involved in the judging. And as you said, it’s part of being human. Our personal tastes, histories, and experiences play a part in how we resonate with a story or topic, even among judges. But if what an author writes honors and brings pleasure to God, the perfect judge, that is our ultimate award.

  • When I was nominated for the Christy’s, a multi-published author I won’t name quipped, “Well, there go your sales!” Apparently it’s quite common for award-winning books to have lower sales. Go figure. :)

    I’d love to broaden my audience with my next book, and I think I know how I can. I listened to Randy Ingermanson’s class from the 2011 ACFW conference and he talks about how our one-sentence pitch is used to sell to an editor or agent, then to a committee, then to the book sellers, then by the readers to excite other readers to pick up the book. My novel, The Familiar Stranger, is somewhat of a facade book. It’s not what it appears to be, and other than saying that, you can’t tell someone what it’s really about or why he or she should read it without giving the main plot away.

    My next book will have a pitch that can be shared WITHOUT giving everything away. :D

    • Mary Keeley Mary Keeley says:

      Christina, I’ve heard that same word-for-word quip for years, which shows this isn’t a new trend. It speaks clearly about what matters to readers. Award winning books are valuable and a joy to read for their exceptional quality of writing. But the sales numbers reveal that more readers care about great stories and topics that specifically resonate with them.

  • Dee Bright says:

    So many good comments. Thanks to all of you for sharing your thoughts and vulnerabilities.

    I’m new to fiction writing and entered my first two contests this year, the Genesis and the Frasier. My motivation? I think it was threefold. First, for the experienced feedback I knew I would receive. Second and third–here’s me, being honest–in the hope of gaining further validation of my writing, and for the recognition that comes with the honor of winning or placing.

    The result? Both discouragement and a new, more grounded and positive perspective. The discouragement came when I received an 85, a 96… and a 60 in the Genesis contest. The lowest score knocked me out of the running by a mere .3 of a point! Hence, discouragement. But that also caused me to stop and ask myself some important questions: Who am I writing for? And more importantly, Who am I trusting with my writing career?

    Once the answers were crystal clear, I found a renewed sense of joy, desire, and freedom in my writing. And, in what can only be God’s perfect timing, a bit later I got the call telling me I’m a finalist in the Frasier contest.

    Yes, I’ll be doing the Rocky dance if I win, but more importantly, win or lose, I’ll be excited and content about whatever God has in store for my writing career!

    • Mary Keeley Mary Keeley says:

      Bingo, Dee! Thank you for sharing your experience and the ultimate conclusion you arrived at. It perfectly illustrates the goal of my blog.

      Best wishes in the Frasier contest. But isn’t it freeing to know that you’ve entrusted that to God’s plan.

  • Thanks for this interesting perspective!

    Children’s picture books are the only books I’ve read solely based on the book winning an award (especially if the book was a “Reading Rainbow book,” which isn’t even an official award!) I suppose what awards offer are reputable recommendations on the book’s merit.

    Like a few others have mentioned, I do like picking up an award-winning book to introduce myself to a new-to-me author.

    • Mary Keeley Mary Keeley says:

      Caroline, have you always liked the award winning children’s books you’ve read? Especially among ABA winners in the Children’s category, I’ve been left scratching my head after reading some, wondering what made them winners.

      The name recognition is for an award winner surely is a benefit, isn’t it.

      • I agree with you, Mary. Some award-winning picture books baffle me.

        I’ve just paid more attention to picture books with certain awards more than other genres. Perhaps it’s due to the prestige favorite librarians put on these awards when I was a child.

  • Darby Kern says:

    There’s a couple ways to look at this from where I’m at at the moment:

    Winning an award, or the nomination, means I have a published book. That’s an accomplishment right there. I have won a couple awards for short films I’ve made, but the money that I’ve made from them wouldn’t buy me a dinner at McDonalds. So for fleeting moments I’ve been… what? An artistic success but a financial failure? I can live with that but my family can’t eat it. That said- I haven’t made it that far as a novelist yet.

    It’s easy for me to say, I just want my work to glorify God- that’s been my main prayer for some time now, but there’s always part of me that wants peer approval and a level of financial success. I don’t imagine I’ll become wealthy as a writer but I live so modestly already that I don’t need to. There’s a couple old Petra tunes bouncing through my noggin as I write this- “The gold that I must seek won’t be found in earthly things,” and “No need to pat me on the back, or stop to shake my hand. I just wanna hear my Father say, ‘Well done.’” Then there’s the other part of me that wants Daniel Silva to send me a message that he read my book and liked it.

    Bottom line- I’m shooting for a Peabody! (And I’ve a fellow Bookie who’s sporting one of those!)

    • Mary Keeley Mary Keeley says:

      Darby, Thanks for you transparency. I see many heads nodding. We humans want (need) affirmation and occasional recognition. That’s why belonging to a community of authors, like critique groups and our Books & Such bookies, is such a blessing. Authors need the encouragement and inspiration to keep on keeping on down the road to publication.

      I hope you win that Peabody some day. Are you going to tell everyone who the fellow Bookie is who won a Peabody?

  • I feel like a poor kid looking through a candy store and drooling. I’ve had two books published in Australia with two publishers who released fiction. Now it’s gone to only ONE who publish faith based fiction and of course they are overwhelmed. I have taken the big step of querying an agent from Books & Such. It seems that’s the only way to break in from o/seas. So here’s hoping and praying.

    • Mary Keeley Mary Keeley says:

      Rita, I understand your dilemma. it can be tough to find a Christian publisher in some countries, not to mention one that has good distribution. I do wish you well in your efforts to acquire an agent.

  • It was really interesting reading through these comments, and I love that people feel welcome to be open and honest here. I would love to win the Genesis right now, because it feels like it would be the next step in my journey. The wonderful thing about it is that, whether I win or not, I’ve learned so much from just this single contest. If I can learn and grow as a writer a little every year, then I feel like I’m on a great path, with or without awards :)

  • Mary Keeley Mary Keeley says:

    Cindy, that is a great and healthy outlook. That and your deep desire succeed to publication is a winning combination.

  • Darby Kern says:

    I better not say his name without his permission, but it was awarded for the (brilliant) audio drama, Bonhoeffer: The Cost Of Freedom- which I highly recommend.

  • Great post, Mary!

    As a first time author seeking representation, it’s hard not to get swept up in the contests, award ceremonies and dreaming of our acceptance speeches. It’s great to hear realistic feedback from fellow Christians further ahead than I am in the industry.

    It’s this type of insight that encourages me to continue and more importantly to keep writing for the One and not for the part of me that wants recognition.

    P.S. How do you get a picture by your name when you post?? I have no idea. Thanks!

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