Reach for the Prize
“We’ll take any award we can get.”
- Peter Mehlman, Co-Producer of Seinfeld
The year my first novel, Death in Little Tokyo, was published, approximately 25% of all fiction published were mysteries. I’ve forgotten how many books this was, but it was a lot.
If you’re very lucky, your first book will get what I call “the treatment.” This is the attention, hoopla, and promotion lavished by publishers on what they peg (in advance) as a best seller. I’m convinced no one actually knows in advance what will be a bestseller, but publishers persist in the notion that they can create one by applying the treatment. My book didn’t get the treatment.
If fact, it took a few months for me to understand that my book was going to get no attention from the publisher. My book was an orphan. The Editor that bought the book went on to a much better job at a bigger publisher. My book was assigned to another editor as an extra project. I never learned if the new editor liked or disliked my writing. I learned that whatever promotional money was there for new mysteries, my book got none. Zero. Nada. The purchasing editor for my book was not there to fight for a piece of the budget.
It took me a while to learn this because no one would tell me directly. I would contact the publisher with various promotional ideas, and I would get the run-around. They told me some ideas were good, but no money or effort ever appeared to implement them. Finally, after several months, I asked the publicist, “Look. I won’t get mad, but I just want to know if my book has any budget for promotion. If there’s no money, I’ll try to promote it myself, but I hate wasting your time and mine by contacting you if there’s no money.” After a long pause, the publicist sighed and said, “I’m afraid I have no promotional budget for your book.”
Not what I wanted to hear, but it’s better to know.
Despite this inauspicious start, I feel like I’ve done okay at writing. I never got a movie deal or a huge advance, but my writing money has enhanced our lifestyle. It’s improved the kind of cars we drive or the kind of trips we take. I think I could have lived off my writing, but it would be the life of an impoverished student. That’s why I always had a day job.
I’ve been told that my early books got attention because I was lucky enough to win awards. How do you win awards? I really don’t know. I’m not completely a dummy, however, and I have some information that might be of help.
There are two basic ways to pick award winners. An award can be voted on by many people. Another kind of award is selected by a small committee or group.
The mass voting award requires you to have many people reading your book (or having a book title so clever that people will vote for it just based on the name). In my case, there was a Listserve called Dorothyl that was very active when my first book came out (it still is active, although not as busy as in the 90s). I enjoy reading about mysteries (and, let’s face it, kibbitzing). but I wasn’t smart enough to realize I was building interest in my book (this was before Social Media and all that comes with it).
So winning an Anthony Award, which is based on votes at the World Mystery Convention (“Bouchercon”), was a shock. My nomination for an Anthony prompted a promotional budget and I’m thankful that my publisher gifted a paperback copy of my book to each convention attendee. Obviously, this helped the book’s award chances tremendously.
Other awards are based on a committee or a smaller group of people. These awards may be of most interest to new authors because you don’t need to reach a mass of readers to get votes.
Many conferences and groups have awards associated with them. You should contact the organizer and ask them about the requirements to be considered for a prize. Most awards require a particular number of books by a deadline. There may be other requirements or restrictions. Obey the rules scrupulously!
Many groups don’t provide the exact procedures used to pick award winners. I’ve always found this puzzling, but I guess if the group gives the award, they can set the rules. Some may disagree.
My first award was the Little Tokyo Library Book of the Year. This is barely known outside of the Los Angeles Japanese American community, but it was very meaningful to me. It signified the acceptance of Death in Little Tokyo by the community I was writing about. That validation was huge for me.
Obviously, it’s nice to win local awards, but you get more notice with a nomination for a well-known national award. This was my experience with my nomination for an Agatha Award (another complete surprise). The nomination alone made my book stand out and caught the attention of bookstores. Winning this award requires votes from participants of the Malice Domestic Mystery Conference, and I lost that award. That was a learning experience (and the source of other stories I might cover in another blog post).
Later I was lucky enough to win a Macavity Award, given by the members of Mystery Readers International. Then I won an Anthony Award at the World Mystery Conference. After this, I discovered, to my great surprise, that I was the first Asian American to win mystery writing awards. Since Asian American detectives have been in mystery fiction since 1909, this came as a shock.
During this period, another new writer I know won an award. I congratulated him and he complained, “It’s not the award I was hoping to win.” I told him there were four finalists who didn’t win who would be happy to swap places with him. I said it was his first award and for his first book. Frankly, it may never get better. He should learn to enjoy it.
I may not be an expert on awards, but I can give you some good advice on how to win them. Write the best book you can. I think no one sets out to write a terrible book, but not everyone will spend the time to make it as good as they can. This advice should apply to every book you write. Hopefully, your books will get better and better, but even if they don’t progress, a book should be the best you can do. That satisfaction is the real prize.