(This is an essay I've had kicking around in draft for a while, but the first couple paragraphs exaplain why I decided to polish it up and post it.)
I've been watching the most recent Twitter conversations about the Romance Writers of America RITA award process, specifically the ways in which it demonstrably reinforces a very narrow (and very very white) vision of award-worthiness, in part due to the crowd-sourced "popular choice" nature of the process. In the past, it hasn't just been a matter of clearly excellent books by authors of color and/or featuring non-white characters getting overlooked, but of books with immensely problematic themes and characters getting elevated.
I have no dog in that fight. I'm decidedly removed from the RWA award process, primarily because I have yet to write anything that would be solidly recognized as "a romance novel" in structure. But also because the very tentative steps RWA has made toward acknowledging and accepting queer romance wouldn't make me feel welcomed if I did. (And those steps for the most part fall solidly in the field of "women writing m/m romance" so even the current level of acceptance doesn't feel welcoming to me.) But this post isn't specifically about RWA or about romance, it's about how an award system -- any award system -- gains or loses prestige, and consequently gains or loses value to both the authors and readers who use it as an index of excellence.
What the RITA awards are flirting with is embracing irrelevance.
Very few awards achieve prestige from the start. You can't build it in by fiat, though you may be able to get a leg up by borrowing an existing level of prestige either via the founding organization, the decision makers, or the initial works and people who are recognized.
If you are a well-known, well-respected book-related organization and you decide to create a new award or awards program, you can start with existing prestige that will be lent to the recipients of the awards and coast on that momentum until the award program itself either justifies the borrowed respect or fucks up enough to lose it.
If you begin a brand new award program by bringing in highly respected judges with a track record of reliably evaluating and identifying excellence in writing (for whatever interpretation of "excellence" you're aiming for), then people are going to start with a certain level of good will toward the outcome of your process, even if (or especially when) awards go to unexpected or unknown works and writers.
If you start an award program that recognizes the excellence of works or writers that your audience already considers excellent...well, this one's tricker. How transparent is your process? Are you going to be perceived as trying to borrow glory or ride coattails? Are you also recognizing less known works and authors within a process that leads people to check them out and agree that they share characteristics with the already-famous winners? This method can work, though people may reserve judgment a bit longer.
But if you're an unknown, with a selection process that involves people of unknown or unproven judgment (which may include crowd-sourced judgment), presenting awards to works or authors who don't have an existing track record of performance...well, let's just say that the prestige and value of your award will need to prove itself over time and in the pudding. (An example of a relatively new award that has yet to establish this sort of track record--and consequently hasn't yet developed the prestige it hopes to attain, is the Dragon Awards given out in a number of genre categories at Dragoncon.)
If you're an existing awards program that regulary, consistently elevates works that have glaring problems, or that regularly and consistently overlooks eligible candidates that the majority of your audience considers to be better than the works/authors that won, you're flirting with losing whatever existing importance you have in the field. And if writers of recognized excellence decline to participate in your award system, sooner or later, your award winners might start thinking that what you're offering isn't much of an honor after all.
But how is an author--especially a brand new author or one who doesn't have the benefit of mentors in the field--supposed to navigate the multitude of book awards to determine which are worth their interest (and especially, which are worth the expense of participating)? How do you figure out which awards or nominee/finalist lists are going to mean something to your audience in the long run and which boil down to empty self-congratulation? And especially, which will be a red flag to people in the know that you're either naïve or think that your audience is?
Anyone can create an award. Anyone can hand out certificates and shiny gold "award winner" stickers for your book covers. In fact, there's practically an industry built around this awards program model. But let's look at a few examples, just to explore some of the possibilities. Because outside of simple name-brand recognition there aren't hard and fast rules for identifying awards the confer respect and awards that maybe send a message you didn't mean to send.
Being an award nominee or finalist (never mind winner) can provide at least three types of usefulness for your career as an author.
Within these purposes, the different types of status (e.g., nomination vs. finalist) and the nature and exclusivity of the award itself will affect reception of your promotion to the extent that your audience knows about differences in that status/nature. For the undiscerning audience, "My book is has been nominated for the Arglebargle Award!" may be impressive. The more discerning audience wants to know exactly what the process is to be nominated for the Arglebargle and whether there is any filtering involved. If they feel that the Arglebargle (or the status of "nominee") is functionally meaningless--and especially if they suspect the author knows that--then the claim can have the opposite of the intended effect.
For example, among Science Fiction and Fantasy awards, the Hugo Award is pretty far up there in terms of established prestige. And being a Hugo Finalist is usually treated as being only very slightly less prestigeous than being a winner. But being a Hugo "nominee"? There's a reason that "nominee" isn't an recognized status for the award, because everyone who's a paid member of the relevant conventions is a nominator and all it takes is one person (including you) putting your work into the nomination process to technically be a "nominee". (Though it takes a certain threshold for you to be able to prove it, as even the list of the long tail of nominations that is released after the awards are presented has a numeric cut-off below which titles/names are not identified.) So while it certainly is A Thing for some people to puff themselves off as a "Hugo nominee" because their best friend Bob said they nominated them, it's a thing that will tend to attract derision.
Similarly, there are well respected book awards that require an entry fee for consideration (though see more about entry fees below) as well as submission of copies of the work for consideration. Technically, anyone who pays the fee and submits their work is then "a nominee" for the award. But it does seem a bit odd for an author to treat that status as being an honor it itself. (There's a fuzzier line where maybe your publisher has selected specific works to submit for consideration for the award and has paid the fees. In that case, it may well be a mark of your publisher's confidence in your work to do so, and something to be pround of. But it still isn't a status that has emerged from the award selection process itself.)
Let's talk about award entry fees. Fees exist for a very practical purpose: manageability of the numeric logistics. (Also: profit. But we'll get to that.)
Crowd-sourced award systems, where large numbers of people have volunteered to participate in the nomination and selection process, and who obtain works to evaluate out of their own pockets manage these logistics by the distributed and voluntary nature of the system. There will be overhead for data management, the physical awards, and the context of presentation, but it's more or less a fixed cost and doesn't increase with the numer of potential works/people eligible for consideration.
At the opposite end of the scale, a juried award where a relatively small number of people have committed to read and judge all eligible works has to have some system for making that a manageable workload. Even in the rare case where the judges are being compensated for their time. The system might involve a separate pre-filtering process (of unspecified nature). It might involve procedural hoops that need to be jumped through that not only reduce the number of people who consider it worth the effort, but that--when applied by many award systems--reduce the number of awards systems an author is willing/able to do the work of submitting for. (It used to be that the sheer cost and effort of mailing in multiple physical copies of a book for consideration was enough of a hoop. E-books have changed this dynamic significantly.) But a very practical system that not only sets an entry filter but also supports the incidental expenses of the award system is to have an entry fee. It forces authors to consider not only whether the award itself would be worth the investment should they win, but also forces them to consider which of the many existing fee-based award systems it might make sense to focus on. Ideally, ones their works are suitable for and that would provide genuine prestige from being associated with.
It's easy to calculate that if an author can enter a book award program with no fee, and can submit e-books for consideration, and IF the award program has genuine prestige and no way to crowd-source the work of evaluation, it's going to burn out the judges on the first go-round. We hear a lot of bashing of "gate-keepers" these days, but gates are a way of keeping logistics to a manageable number. It's going to happen one way or another or it isn't sustainable.
If some respectable award systems require entry fees, does that mean that having an entry fee shouldn't be used when judging whether to enter your work for award consideration? Absolutely not. But it does mean you need to look at two factors.
Yes, I'm calling out a specific awards system business model here. It's one that I see a lot of new and especially self-published authors lining up for, not realizing that experienced professionals wouldn't touch those awards with a ten foot pole. There are a LOT of awards out there that use this model. Often they identify themselves with a specific city or region, or have some other distinguishing "faceplate". But the model is so cookie-cutter one would be unsurprised to find that many are fronts for a single organization or are franchises of some sort. (Or, I know for a fact, some are set up by well-meaning but naïve people who think this model is simply an accepted practice and don't realize why they get a lot of side-eye for it.) Here are the hallmarks to look for:
Rather than end on that note, I want to get back to the question of how, as an author, you evaluate whether to focus your efforts (or your hopes) on a particular award program. (And for many of the most prestigeous award programs, you have absolutely no control over whether your work will be considered. So it's a matter of "hopes" rather than "efforts".) One approach is to look at past winners and finalists of the award and ask yourself, "Is this company I would be proud to be in?" And perhaps more importantly, "Is this work that I would proud to lose to?"
This is where we circle back around to the current RITA controversy. And to similar backroom discussions about other award programs. An award program can embrace its own irrelevance if too many people look at the works being recognized--or the works being excluded--and find that the answer is "no."
I'll confess that when my debut novel came out, I put it in for consideration by a variety of award programs. (Though none of the "buy our finalist stickers" ones!) In part, it was simply the exhuberance of being a real author and wanting that experience. In part it was feeling out the landscape. But I also took a look at the results, the track records, and the contexts of those award programs and made some different choices going forward.
Only one of my books has won an award: the Gaylactic Spectrum Award given to Mother of Souls. I look at the past winners and finalists of the Spectrum and I can sincerely say that I would have been proud to have lost to any of them. That's what makes it possible for me to be proud of winning.