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The Authority of Book Awards

Most authors, either through their own efforts or those of a PR firm, seek validation and publicity for their books. Recognition by a reputable book award can do both. Unfortunately, many national book awards are closed to small, academic, and independent press authors, and their practices can be just as exclusive and suspect as your local government. (See earlier article: The Eric Hoffer Book Award: Righting the Wrongs.)

While many award contests are open to small and independent press authors, the landscape is full of both charlatans and champions. As the Chairman of the Eric Hoffer Book Award for the last decade, I’ve helped develop a set a criteria that has elevated our book award to international prominence. This criteria should apply to any book award you are considering. In the spirit of transparency, I’ll apply each of the following questions to the Eric Hoffer Book Award as well.

How many registrants are accepted each year? The number of annual entrants should be available upon request both during and after registration. The overall number relates to public interest in the award. If only a few hundred or less register annually, then the book award is probably not worthy of your consideration. Each year, over one thousand entries register for the Hoffer Award. Our coordinator provides detailed registration information during the year and especially after the final results are tabulated in the spring.

What are the registration fees? This helps determine if the book award exists to help the authors or enrich the host of the award. The Hoffer Award registration fee is kept intentionally low. Some awards charge for every entry combination, which results in hundreds of dollars to fully register a book. For the Hoffer Award, a single category registration exposes your book to all higher level awards. The staff is composed of volunteers, although a small honorarium is given to the category judges. Clearly no one is getting rich for their hours worth of service. The bulk of our budget goes to shipping books around the country for evaluation.

What is the award focus? Many awards focus on certain genres or are known for one genre more than another. A little research should reveal this information. The Hoffer Award was designed to be all-inclusive across eighteen unique categories. Our registration committee ensures that each book reaches the correct judging committee.

What awards are given? Beyond cash prizes, recognition by a reputable award is much more valuable to the success of your book. Some awards honor only a grand prize and a handful of finalists, which means only a small percentage of worthy offerings are being recognized. The Hoffer Award offers a grand cash prize; winners, runners-up, and honorable mentions in eighteen categories; press type distinctions; the First Horizon Award, Montaigne Medal, and da Vinci Eye; and a group of category finalists. From thousands of registrants come over seventy prizewinners and dozens of finalists. Each author is able to capitalize on these honors in various ways.

Who are the judges? Without clearly stating who the judges are, your book will likely be evaluated by unqualified in-house staff. The Hoffer Award has over one hundred experienced category readers, who typically include librarians, literary agents, and category professionals. Judges are carefully vetted via resume/CV, references, and an interview with one of our coordinators. Judges are annually graded and rejoined/released based on their individual performance. It is not unusual for a returning judge to receive notes on improvement for the coming award year. To keep judges fresh, they are rotated into different qualified categories whenever possible.

What is the publicity campaign? Try to determine if the award uses traditional or modern campaigns, if any campaign at all. Merely posting results on their website is not a publicity campaign. The Hoffer Award uses a combination of promotional activities via press releases, media coverage, and the Internet. Our partnership with the US Review of Books has been highly beneficial to authors. (More on that later.) We also get honorees and entrants involved via social media to help promote each other. In the future, we are planning more innovative ways of cross-promotion via entrant participation. Some entrants have done very well with only an award nomination.

What is the award reach? The ways in which the award results are viewed and processed aids the success of honorees. The Eric Hoffer Award results are published within the US Review of Books, which is read by over 15,000 subscribers and tens of thousands of monthly visitors and followers. (The US Review reports a significant spike in traffic in the months surrounding the award announcements.) As the Chairman, I have firsthand experience of literary agents and publishers who scout our book award results for new authors and books. In our history, we have twice been asked to suppress the honors for an independent author because a new publisher has purchased the book (in part based on its Hoffer Award honors) and requires time to prepare the new publicity campaign.

How are the books judged? Any book award should offer a window into their evaluation process, otherwise it is a black box and open to doubt. To preserve integrity, the Hoffer Award does not divulge its judges’ names, but it does discuss its process with entrants and in writer’s forums across the country. Our scoring process is a proprietary seven-point system that encompasses the entirety of the book from content through production. Judges must complete scoring sheets and commentary according to schedule. No judge handles more than twenty books during an award year, and no judge works in more than one category. When the initial double-blind scoring is complete, books are promoted for higher level panels that are composed of mutually exclusive judges, although they may contact the initial judges for consultation.

Are they claiming publishing rights? Some book awards claim publishing rights for the book being entered. (Many literary magazines hang by a thread and claim one-time publishing rights of a story for an issue or anthology. That is reasonable, because there is little and often no money to be made.) However, claiming the publishing rights of any entire book or any portion without a significant payment in return is just another way to publish an author’s work for free. If the book award in question loves the book enough to give it honors, it should respect the author enough to offer a proper publishing contract. Each time we field this question from registrants for the Hoffer Award, we advise that the author avoid any operation that claims rights.

If the book award you are entering cannot answer the above questions satisfactorily or avoids answering these questions altogether, consider avoiding that organization. Every one of the Eric Hoffer Award’s correspondences explains our basic mode of operation within our e-mail signature, whether you ask the question or not. Any award you enter should be that transparent and work hard to promote your book.

Christopher Klim is the author of several books including and the novel, Idiot!, and the short collection, True Surrealism. He is currently working on a novel trilogy about the space program past, present, and future.

Customer Service Always Matters

Recently our website home page was wiped clean when the monolith that hosts our business website had technical issues. In the digital world, issues occasionally arise, but when we requested a very simple restore operation (i.e. the placement of a single HTML file: our home page), we were given a ticket number and told that it would be solved in 24 to 48 hours. I don’t know a single business that appreciates being shutdown for a day or two. At 4am we discovered that their problem was fixed, but our website was left in disarray. The promises made to restore our website were forgotten, as well as the promise to notify us when the solution was implemented. In fact, we’re still waiting for the notification. Thank you for a job so poorly executed.

How a company reacts in crisis often reveals its business emphasis: people vs. profit.

The US Review of Books never forgets that it deals with people—most specifically authors who take their books very seriously. Like our web host, the US Review help line is open virtually twenty-four hours per day. On the other hand, we work quickly to resolve issues in an effective manner. Typically it’s a simple misunderstanding or an easy fix. Sometimes it’s a customer who wants specific rewording of their book review and the issue becomes stickier. With any issue, our editors work through a specific set of guidelines to solve the problem as fast as possible and leave the client satisfied. By the way, our web host has never fumbled a billing cycle.

Good customer service involves taking care of the whole as well as the individual.

In the larger picture, the US Review provides professional unbiased book reviews. Our thousands of monthly readers rely on that. To accomplish this, our writers are carefully screened, vetted, and run through a trial review. Like any publication we have a specific style and guidelines. This not only encompasses the summary and critique breakdown of each review, but it includes methods for delivering criticism, which must be aimed at the book—not the author—with clear example and/or focused commentary. Some writers cannot write criticism without being nasty and are quickly shown the door. We have no place for this in our publication. We can make our point without impugning the author.

Focused listening resolves issues.

When an issue arises, there is often subtext to the conversation. At the US Review, our editors understand that the problem isn’t always as stated by the client. While every review we write mentions what the author does well, maybe the author believed that hiring us for a book review automatically returned unfettered praise. Sometimes the author has never had a book reviewed before, which can be startling when insightful third-party examination appears for the first time. From time to time, the author merely desires a different pull quote, which is easy to accommodate. For any issue, the solution is never cookie-cutter or one-size-fits-all.

A quick resolution inspires confidence.

Whether it’s an actual issue that needs to be fixed or a need to better understanding the situation, it is our objective to achieve a polite and speedy resolution. When an author is unhappy, our editors are unhappy. When there are no problems on the board, which is most often, our workday is finished. Caring about individual circumstances makes for a healthier publication as a whole. It also creates return customers.

While we hope that issues never arise, entirely smooth sailing is an unrealistic expectation for any business. At the US Review of Books, we understand that the author is as important as the review of his/her book, and we’re willing to stake our reputation on it.