Friday, July 28, 2006

Question about the Christy Awards

Happy Friday. First, I need to announce that I will be taking Monday and Tuesday off from blogging. We'll meet back here Wednesday. (My husband and I are celebrating our 25th anniversary with a trip to Kauai.)

This question came in as a comment to yesterday’s post:

"Where are the Christy Award winning books on that best-selling list? How is it that more isn't done, marketing wise, to move the best books onto the best-seller list?"

There are a numerous ways to answer that question. As always, I'd love to hear your thoughts on the issue, which may well differ from mine.

The bottom line answer is that the Christy Awards are geared toward the more literary-minded books in each category. It’s an established fact in both the general market and our market that literary fiction doesn’t sell very well—far less well than commercial fiction. (Unless your book becomes an Oprah pick.)

Also, we have to remember that by the time a book wins a Christy Award, that novel was released some time ago—anywhere from around eight to twenty months, depending on what month it was released the previous year. The Christy Awards have not taken hold enough in the industry to bump sales of a novel much, even though there is some special marketing for winners. Sad to say, in the end the awards are a nice kudo for the winners, but they do little to nothing for sales.

However, there’s another side to the question—an imbedded assumption that isn’t necessarily the case: that the “best books” are reflected in the Christy Awards.

Novels are entered in the Christy competition by the publisher. It’s expensive to enter a book—$175 per entry. Only publishers can enter a book—not an author. (If a book wins, the publisher also agrees to pay the Christys $1000 to help cover the marketing efforts that the organization does for the winners.) Because of the entry fee, publishers are careful about which books they enter. Some publishers can afford to enter more books than others. Sometimes publishers, knowing that a novel is more commercially-minded and not likely to place in the Christys anyway, don’t bother entering it.

In addition, there are some authors who have decided it’s best for them spiritually not to be a part of any kind of awards, and won’t allow their books to be entered.

So the Christys inevitably can’t represent all of Christian fiction in the first place. They only represent those books that the publishers chose to enter/could afford to enter, and the authors allowed to be entered.

The other issue is the age-old question of commercial versus literary—is the latter always “better?” It depends on who you ask—the cognoscenti or the hoi polloi (to use the terms that would most divide the two groups). The two types of fiction focus on different things. Commercial tends to be about plot and characterization. (Some would argue commercial focuses only on plot. I say not so, at least in the best commercial novels. The most unique plot in the world isn’t going to matter if the reader doesn’t care about the characters.) Literary tends to be about beauty of language and characterization. Again, this is a sweeping simplification that we could argue until the hereafter, and there are many books that tend to balance this divide. Some commercially-minded novels have great language. Some literary-minded novels have more plot than others. The literary lovers would argue that these novels are the ones that tend to hang around as classics, while fast-selling commercial fiction will wither over time. This ain’t necessarily so, either, as some of the fiction we term “classic” today was thought anything but literary in its day of publication.

I’m glad for the Christy Awards. I’m really happy for the winners and finalists. But we do have to understand the context in which a book might final/win, and we can’t expect these books—however well written they may be—to hit the bestseller list, because in the end they don't always appeal to the majority of readers.


Mary DeMuth said...

Great words, Brandilyn. And I remember being surprised knowing a book got a Christy, but it didn't translated into sales. What transfers into sales? Word of mouth and buzz. And folks don't buzz much about a slow-moving book.

I think you balance things beautifully in your books. In fact, I think you're my heroine in that aspect. You create lovely, well-rounded characters (and some terrible icky spidery ones) and you have a fast-paced, surprising plot.

So, I guess I consider my writing somewhere in there. I love language, but I often put down literary fiction because (to me) it can be pretty boring.

That's why Peace Like a River gave me hope. Good writing, great plot. That's my onus for writing. As far as the commerciality of it, for me I'm probably writing about too controversial stuff AND I'm a VERY new novelist. It takes years to build that kind of readership.

BTW, you looked maaaahvelous at the Christys, dahhhling.

J. Mark Bertrand said...

Hi Brandilyn! I agree with Mary -- good comments. For any writing contest to have an "Oscar effect" on its winners, readers would have to know about it first. How do we find out about the Booker winners? Press coverage. Since no media chronicles the CBA scene, since no juicy judging scandals break onto the front page, and readers (who aren't online) don't have a means of keeping up with what little information is made available (finalists and winner), it's not surprising that winning a Christy creates no sales bump. Most prizes don't, for the same reason. At least this one gives authors a chance to dress in sparkly attire and be as glamorous as they want to be, right?

I'm curious about one thing. Looking at the list of past winners and this year's crop, I'm not sure why the Christys are perceived as having a "literary" bias. I freely admit that I have such a bias, but judging on the evidence -- especially in the clearly delineated genre categories -- it doesn't seem that the winners are a gaggle of hoity-toity elitist tomes. I can say from experience that the perception that judging is weighted toward literary writing is false. Good craft matters, but literary pretensions aren't scored. More weight is given to plot, character and the other basics of good writing than to the esoterica of 'art.' If a literary book wins, it will be because it was a better written, more engaging book than its competitors (sometimes by a long shot, sometimes by a thin, subjective hair), not because it was more 'literary' than they were. At least, that's been my (admittedly limited) experience of the process.

Also, it's true that the titles in the running are not exhaustive -- i.e., not every book is under consideration -- but still, it's a vast and (it seems to me) representative pool.

Personally, I'm encouraged to see publishers and authors participating in the Christys in spite of the fact that it isn't a marketing bonus. The bottom line is important, but it isn't everything, and the fact that the community can value something other than the dollar is a good thing, right? Hopefully as the awards grow, more genres are broken out, and evangelical media expands, the award will help authors find new readers. Until then, I think it's safe to say that the more people talk about it, the better! Sorry for being so long-winded....

Anonymous said...

Happy Anniversary Brandilyn; What happy day is it?

Lynetta said...

Happy Anniversary! I hope you have a wonderful time in Kauai.

Domino said...

Happy Anniversary!! Have a great time.

Rebecca LuElla Miller said...

Great comments, Mark. I was contemplating posting the judge sheet at ECPA, since I understand there are similarities to it and the sheet used for the Christy's. I didn't see anything there that would give literary writing a significant edge.

I see how a lack of media coverage would keep the award winners from receiving a bump. I also think that should be something that could be addressed. I mean, I had a newspaper lined up to cover a book signing locally. I can't imagine that the Denver Post wouldn't cover the Christy Awards when IRCS was in Denver. (Maybe they did and that's as far as the info went).


Kristy Dykes said...

Phooey. I'm so addicted you, I can't remember that you're taking Monday and Tuesday off.

Hurry back.