Books waiting to be shipped to judges in the Midwest Book Awards.

Books waiting to be shipped to judges in the Midwest Book Awards.

As chair of the Midwest Book Awards, I have discovered one can survive running a book awards program. It takes an immense amount of time, planning that would put most military strategists to shame, lots of contacts and friends with contacts, a patient and generous family, and a warm coat.

The Midwest Book Awards have been sponsored for 26 years by the Midwest Independent Publishing Association (MIPA). This is an organization that has dedicated more than a quarter of a century to raising the level of book publishing in the Midwest.

We still have a way to go, as I learned last year when AWP (Association of Writers and Writing Programs) held its conference in Minneapolis. I can’t tell you how many times I heard writers claim they were surprised by how much literature is being produced here; they considered us a “flyover” between the big publishers in the East and the trendy ones on the West Coast.

The Midwest Is Not a Flyover Literary Abyss

Well, fly this: This year the book awards received 198 titles entered in 305 categories. At this very moment they are being judged by 58 independent judges all over the country. All of the books are from publishers located in MIPA’s 12-state region: Illinois, Indiana, Iowa, Kansas, Michigan, Minnesota, Missouri, Nebraska, North Dakota, Ohio, South Dakota, and Wisconsin.

My job is a simple one: find the judges, promote the awards, handle the entries and entry fees, keep on the good side of all delivery people, deliver the entries to the judges and field their questions, tally the results, send out the good and bad news, throw a big party in May to honor the winners and finalists, and do not, under any circumstances, screw up my Excel spreadsheet that has all these details meticulously recorded.

Is Entering a Book Awards Program Worth It?

Entering award programs are important for authors and publishers. I’m not saying awards will sell a million books, but they have value. It is a way to get feedback on your work. All the entries in the Midwest Book Awards (not just finalists and winners) receive copies of the judges’ scoring sheets with their comments. This is part of MIPA’s mission—to help educate publishers and authors about best practices so they can produce better books.

From a promotion standpoint, finalists and winners can send out press releases, announce their glory on their websites, add this honor to their portfolio, and purchase gold (for winner) and silver (for finalist) seals to decorate the covers of their books. One winning author called me while on a book tour: “Please send me more gold seals. The readers and buyers love them.” I mailed a fresh supply to her hotel.

When publishers ask me about entering book awards, I say go for it with one caveat: Spend your time and money on the good ones. Not all award programs are the same in terms of prestige and return on investment. For example, if an award requires you to send just one book, that means there is only one judge in your category. What if that judge is having a bad day when she reads your book or your writing style just isn’t her cup of tea despite your memorable characters and clever plot. The Midwest Book Awards has three judges for each category; that’s three opinions to balance out the bad day and three times the feedback.

Is Coordinating a Book Award Program Worth It?

As for me, has it been valuable to coordinate this program? Think about what I’ve learned (about Excel alone), the books I’ve seen, the people I’ve met. When those judges open their boxes of books, it is like Christmas morning. They are excited and grateful and proud to be part of this grand adventure. One judge told me she is learning about ways to improve her own writing skills by evaluating scenes and pacing in the work of others. Some judges have asked to judge this competition year after year, and their only recompense is our undying gratitude, free books, and tickets to the awards gala.

The awards gala will be truly special. I know because I’ve emceed the last two galas. The books of all the finalists will be displayed for everyone to thumb through and to generate buzz before the ceremony. The authors and publishers will be giddy, cheering for their favorites, and taking pictures of everyone with their cell phones. The wine will flow and the appetizers will disappear.

But what about the generosity of family and that puffy parka? You need family to help you with the logistics of an awards program sponsored by a volunteer organization; someone has to box and deliver hundreds of books of varying sizes and weights.

The parka is a personal preference. When I was sorting and moving books on a daily basis, I was doing it in my three-season porch, the only space available in my home to store that many books. It was December in Minnesota, and some days it was not much more than six degrees on my porch. So, yes, a good coat is the book awards chair’s best friend.