Will First Consensus Novel of the Year Mean Changes?

3.25.08 | | 16 comments

The news that Coke Newell’s novel On the Road to Heaven won Best Novel at the new Whitney Awards could have interesting implications for the LDS market, at least in my wishful thinking. Since the novel also won the Association for Mormon Letters’ Novel award earlier this year, Newell’s work is clearly the consensus novel of the year, and is the first to take that honor.

But despite the apparent universal honor for the book, the book still doesn’t appear even in Deseret Book and Seagull Book’s online websites (let alone their actual stores). Why, On the Road to Heaven is published by Zarahemla Books, a relatively new LDS press and aparently one that the large LDS chains don’t think they should pay attention to.

The problem is particularly interesting, given that the Whitney Awards are selected by a broad range of industry participants, instead of a small group of academics.

Awards tend to be divided into two rough camps. First, and more traditionally, are what I call “academic” awards. These awards are selected by a jury (usually just a few people) who have either academic or other qualifications relevant to the award. Most often these are either academics or critics. Well-known awards that operate like this include the Nobel Prize and the Pulitzer Prize. In the Mormon markets we have the AML awards and the Mormon History Association awards that are run this way.

The second system for deciding awards is much more democratic. Members of an industry group or some cross-section of the industry, sometimes including thousands of people, vote on the books that have been nominated, which also tend to come from a broad group in the industry that can nominate. In film, the Academy Awards operate this way, as do the People’s Choice Awards, and a host of other well-known awards. In our case, we have both the Pearl Awards (given by the Faith Centered Music Association) and now the Whitney Awards that are run in this fashion.

I’m NOT trying to claim that one system is better than the other. Both have strengths and drawbacks. Academic systems can come across as elitist or out-of-touch with the public, but they can also be much more consistent and be based on clear standards. The popular awards tend to be more fickle, based on fads and popularity (who still believes that Titanic was the best movie of the year in 1997?), and they seem ready to divide the awards into an ever-increasing number of sub-categories. But these popular awards are also more responsive to the public and more in touch with the public feeling.

With the advent of the Whitney Awards, we now have both academic and popular awards in place for fiction and literary works. That is a huge improvement, IMO. What one award system misses because of its weaknesses, the other is likely to pick up. And I have to conclude that a consensus pick, like On the Road to Heaven, says a lot.

[Although, since the Whitney Awards are new, they probably don't carry as much weight as they will (I hope). For what it's worth, On the Road to Heaven is the only work on both award lists].

Given this environment, I now wonder exactly what the effect of a consensus between these two awards systems will have. Supposedly the managers of each Deseret Book and Seagull Book store votes in the Whitney Awards (they have a right to — don’t know if they did or not). It is certainly true that winning an AML award hasn’t necessarily led to Deseret Book carrying a title. But if their managers are participating, I would expect that to lead to carrying the award winners.

It is in the best interest of the Whitney Awards’ sponsors to see that the award winners are available as widely as possible, and that retailers promote them as Whitney Award winners. So perhaps Deseret Book will be under a bit more pressure to carry Whitney Award titles.

In the end, however, I’m not quite sure that Deseret Book and Seagull will actually comply. I hope that they will, and I think it is in their best interest. Awards do sell books.

16 comments: “Will First Consensus Novel of the Year Mean Changes?

  1. William Morris

    Excellent analysis, Kent.

    And in spite of my initial misgivings (I thought the Whitneys and the AML should consolidate rather than compete), I do think having both award systems is a good thing. I especially like that the Whitneys finalists give a good snapshot of the market for the year. For example, the number of nationally-published books in any given category might be indicative of how strong a year the Mormon market has had in that genre as well as how well Mormon authors are doing on the national scene.

  2. Chris Bigelow

    I’m still pressing as much as I reasonably can to get Zarahemla titles into Deseret and/or Seagull. Zarahemla’s three new titles for 2007 are all distributed by Granite, which is necessary because the biggies won’t work directly with small accounts like Zarahemla. Granite has been actively trying to get the books placed with both of the biggies, who still haven’t decided yet (as far as I know).

    The main book we’ve been pushing is actually Doug Thayer’s HOOLIGAN, because it’s done so well at BYU, including numerous positive reviews in BYU media. Doug has been getting high-profile Deseret editors and authors who like his book to contact the Deseret buyer and lobby for the book. A BYU Bookstore buyer who has ordered more than 600 copies of HOOLIGAN has vouched that the book could and should be carried by Deseret. So I hope that HOOLIGAN breaks through and maybe ON THE ROAD TO HEAVEN and some others can follow.

    Also, I hope Parables is beating on the doors too with Angela Hallstrom’s very well received new novel BOUND ON EARTH.

    As far as the Whitneys, what a great operation and experience all around! All of us who care about Mormon literature, both literary and popular, should rally together around this inspired Whitney platform and make some great new things happen in our Mormon culture.

  3. Anneke Majors

    Interesting insight! Hopefully the industry proves responsive.

  4. William Morris

    Just in case anyone was wondering about how the Whitneys work, Rob Wells included this paragraph in the news release announcing the winners:

    “To be eligible for consideration, a book must have received at least five nominations from readers, after which a panel of judges narrow the nominations down to five per category. Finally, the finalists are voted upon by an academy of 285 industry professionals, including publishers, retailers, authors, bloggers, and critics.”

    And Chris Bigelow recently mentioned on the AML List that he provided a PDF version of “On the Road to Heaven” to voters because it was not an easily available title. I think that’s a great idea.

    It sounds like a real recipe for success to me, although that doesn’t mean we should discard the AML Awards — one of the benefits of the AML Awards process is that judges can decide which categories to award and which not to — and whether or not to include honorable mentions. As such, I think the AML Awards are a good measure of what’s hot and important from a literary perspective in the world of Mormon narrative art.

    And for the record: I am not a voting member of the Whitney Awards academy.

  5. Kent Larsen Post author

    Chris:

    I hope you know that I’m not critical of you or Zarahemla Books in this. IMO, its Deseret Book’s and Seagull’s policies that are inscrutable. It is merely my hope and expectation that the major chains will recognize the value of awards like this, and the unusual nature of a title that gets both critical and popular acclaim.

    I wish I had some way of helping with this. I’d offer to pass my thoughts on to someone at Deseret Book, but I’ll bet no one there even knows about “A Motley Vision.” If there is something that I can do, I’d love to know about it. I think this is inexcusable.

    William wrote:
    And for the record: I am not a voting member of the Whitney Awards academy.

    I was actually surprised at this. Many of the blogs and sites that are listed are, IMO, actually less widely read and have less frequent posts. Its really kind of disappointing.

    I don’t think we have said anything to disparage the Whitney Awards, have we?

  6. William Morris

    Sorry, Kent. I didn’t mean to imply that at all — I should have said that I was invited to be a member of the Academy but couldn’t in good faith vote because I had only read a couple of the finalists. If PDF files of all the books (or at least all the Mormon market books) were made available next year, I would seriously consider it, and I would hope some of the rest of the AMV contributors would too. That is a lot to read, but if I had PDF files I could convert them so to e-books and read them on my PDA. And the national market ones I could check out from the library most likely.

    ——-
    A Motley Vision is on Deseret Book’s PR list (it’s how I was able to review Mormon Scientist), but they haven’t always been open and responsive to my correspondence — so we’re on the radar, but I’m not sure they quite know what to make of us and/or how to relate to us even though I’ve tried to speak PR talk to them. Of course, that’s only on the publishing side. I doubt that we’re on the radar on the retail side.

    Edited to add: In fact, I should go further and say that Rob Wells has done a fantastic job of allaying my fears of a literary/genre divide and has gone out of his way to reach out to the more “literary” bloggers and publishers. And granted “On the Road to Heaven” is the perfect type of novel to be feted by the AML and the Whitneys, but I can’t overstate what a good moment its winning both awards is for the Mormon literature community. I don’t expect it to be duplicated (in fact, I don’t think that it should be). But I do think that it would be great if genre readers would embrace it and some of the other novels like it (in tone and style) like Bound on Earth, The Conversion of Jeff Williams, The Marketing of Sister B and Angel of the Danube — AND — if some if literary readers will get over themselves and try some of the genre novels that won. I’m still figuring out which ones I’m going to read, but I personally am going to commit to reading three Mormon market genre novels this year.

  7. Coke Newell

    In light of the above discussion, which is typically AMV fascinating, would it interest anyone to know that I never even CONSIDERED submitting “On the Road to Heaven” to Deseret Book or any of its imprints?

    I tried numerous New York publishers with it… including St. Martin’s Press, which has made over a quarter of a million dollars on my previous book with them (Latter Days: A Guided Tour Through Six Billion Years of Mormonism, 2000). With my former SMP editor retiring, I found no interest there (which is perhaps the most depressing comment of all in regards to Mormon books finding an audience in the larger world).

    I harbored no illusions at all that DB would be interested; but on the other hand, I simply wasn’t interested in THEM.

    Chris Bigelow created exactly what I was looking for: a brave publisher willing to look at and publish the honest story of a convert who came from a world in which a Savior was actually needed and wanted. As I’ve said in another piece on this website, readers who want to read the conversion story of someone who started out mostly perfect and just needed a little tweak will just have to buy a different book. From a different publisher.

  8. Kent Larsen Post author

    Good for you, Coke.

    Sometimes the LDS market reminds me of what I sometimes see pigeons do here in New York. Two pigeons will sometimes fight over a crumb thrown to them, remaining blissfully ignorant of the many handfuls of crumbs scattered on the ground around them. [Of course, here pigeons are also known as "rats with wings," but that's another story...]

    Somehow most publishers in our market seem willing to fight over sales in a portion of the market that might reach 20% of active Church members. Protecting your share of 20% isn’t likely to be as beneficial as grabbing a share of the 80% that’s not being reached.

    I think you managed to get away from the companies that are focused on the 20%.

  9. Elizabeth Petty Bentley

    Mega-congratulations to both Coke and Chris. I’ve always had faith that there was a sizeable market for more challenging LDS stories. I wish you both all the best with a very deserving book. And yes, Chris, I’ve been beating on the same doors you have. Granite took Angela’s book, Bound on Earth, to their committee yesterday, and I’m hopeful they’ll want to carry it. Meanwhile, I’m encouraged that BYU Bookstore and the Orem B&N have stocked it. I think we’re making steady progress–thanks in large part to blogs like AMV.

    Beth
    Parables

  10. William Morris

    Best of luck, Beth. You’ve done a good job of creating some well-deserved buzz for the book. Let’s hope the retail stores decided to try and leverage that.

  11. Rob Wells

    Hey guys,
    I’m very grateful for all the kind things you’ve said about the awards. I’m still amazed by how well everything went, and by the kind of support that the Whitneys received. We’re going to tweak the awards a little bit this year–now that we know a little better how to do thing–and I’ll certainly keep you appraised of how it’s coming.

  12. Josi S. Kilpack

    Great commentary and afterthoughts–I was thrilled when Coke’s book won because of the very thing stated here; there is a variety of books to be read and honored and I loved that there was a good cross section represented in the semi-finalists and among the winners. As I understand it, people involved in the LDS publishing industry can apply to become an academy member, so if you have a stake in LDS writing you can have a vote. Also, I have a very small local library but I took them a list of the whitney semi-finalists and they were excited to have something to go off of when ordering books into the library. Even if you don’t buy the book yourself, encouraging your library to do so helps the Whitney vision of access to quality fiction move forward.

    And congrats again, Coke, I loved your acceptance speech and was absolutely thrilled for you.

  13. William Morris

    Your library is excellent, Josi. And it shows the value of canon-forming projects like awards.

  14. Mahonri Stewart

    I love the idea and setup of the Whitneys, I was very impressed, even though I didn’t attend the actual even. Although I must admit there are elements of the AML Awards which the Whitneys haven’t picked up, such as branching out into other literary-based mediums such as Theater and Film. As a playwright, I would love to see the Whitney adopt those kind of mediums.

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