Tuesday, November 15, 2011

Awards and "Best Of" Lists

Yesterday Kirkus had a major snafu. For those that don't already know, editor Elaine Szewczyk included Q.R. Markham's ASSASSIN OF SECRETS on their 2011 Best of Fiction. In the intro to the list, it says,

"While selecting this year's best fiction, Kirkus' reviewers and I engaged in a lot of arm wrestling, chair hurling and booze swilling. Not really."

Maybe they should have engaged in at least a little publication current events since the news of Markham's plagiarism had been plastered all over for a week prior to this list's appearance online.

Kirkus site before the removal of ASSASSIN OF SECRETS.

By the time the email announcement of their list hit my inbox, the book had been removed from the website post, but not before the word had been spread - ahhhh, social media. As authors and publishers announced their inclusion on the list throughout the day, I couldn't help but think, "Kirkus - and that list - really lost credibility with me." And not to begrudge anyone their kudos, but when this publication is supposed to be among the "elite" opinion of the industry, how can their "best of" list be taken seriously when they appear to not know what's going on in the publishing world? Or at the very least, not care enough to double check their list? But, the point of this post is not to bash Kirkus, so let me get back on track, since I seem to be doing just that.

What that snafu also made me think about today was how much credence I give to these "best of" lists. I really dislike that phrase - best of. And I don't use it when I do my end of the year lists. Instead, I opt to say, "my [insert year] favorites." I have never felt I could presume to judge the "best of." First of all, I can't read everything. Second, reading is too subjective. Granted there is stuff out there that's crap no matter who the judge is, but what's "best" is really up to an individual's preferences - feel free to ask me about Ulysses some day. But anyway, I realized that I've never read a book because it's been on a publication's "Best of" list. I've been happy for authors because of the acknowledgement they receive, but such things have never encouraged me to pick up a book I wasn't already planning to read.

Which leads me to awards. I've also never read a book because it was an award-winner. I've actually yet to see an award that I felt was actually a measure of quality more so than popularity. Sometimes the two can coincide, but not always. It is, however, always the popularity that wins out with awards. And some awards try to pick "obscure" so it doesn't look like popularity, but it's just popularity amongst the obscure when you boil it all down. Again, I'm happy for the authors when the recognition is bestowed on them, but I'm not motivated to read a book I hadn't chosen already for some other reason.

And then there's the whole question of which is more significant - the award that is chosen by fellow writers (we all know the "Academy" ALWAYS makes the best choices in the film industry) or the award chosen by the fans - you know, the people who buy the books, spread the word, write awe-inspiring Amazon reviews and put Glenn Beck on the New York Times best seller list? I guess my award skepticism is showing, isn't it?

What reasons do I pick up a book? I'm glad you asked. A short time ago, I talked about how I pick the next book from the TBR stack, but how do they get to the TBR stack? (And I hope this doesn't seem repetitive to anyone who reads here regularly.) I pick up books first because of history.  I was pontificating on this subject over the weekend. An author I read for years started to write with a slightly different approach to the genre; an approach I typically don't like. But, because the author had established a history of good books - in my eyes - I read the new book. (I liked it by the way.)

And y'all know when Robert Crais starts writing the phone book, I'll be reviewing that here. In all seriousness, a history of writing books I've enjoyed is the strongest motivator for me to read a new book by that author.

A recommendation from someone I trust is the second strongest motivator. Unknown reviewers from "elite" publications could be anyone. And if a different unknown reviewer reviewed the same book for said publication, the review could be entirely different. Thus, it's not a consistent measure I can align with my own preferences. But I know that Lesa Holstine and I share overlapping interests. Pop Culture Nerd and I share overlapping interests. Naomi Johnson...o.k., you get the point. I trust them. I also trust them to say, "Jen, I really liked this book, but I'm not sure you would." We have overlapping interests but not identical interests. What we always share is a trust of each other not to knowingly guide one another to a book that just isn't right for the other.

It was through recommendations from people I trust that I discovered Chris Grabenstein, Louise Penny, Craig Johnson, Martyn Waites, Craig McDonald and Louis Bayard - among others. I also want to mention good publicists in this category. I so deeply appreciate the publicists that take the time to know me and what I enjoy. I know if Dana Kaye tells me she thinks I'll like a certain book, she genuinely thinks that; she's not simply trying to get coverage. So, again, the trust factor comes into play.

And the last of the big motivators for me is simply an author's public activity. For example I discovered Bill Cameron on Twitter. I think I know what the gold miner's felt when they discovered their shiny nuggets. Finding Bill was like that. Steve Hockensmith I heard speak on a panel and knew right away that I wanted to read his books - the combo of me and Hockensmith's series turned out to be akin to chocolate and peanut butter! Sophie Littlefield and Rebecca Cantrell I discovered on the Criminal Minds blog. Based on their fun writing there, I was motivated to read their debut novels. Which then moved them to the "history" category.

And that's not a fail-safe model. There are some extremely fun, nice, entertaining people who write books that aren't my style. But a good public persona will improve the chances that I give a book a first chance. Being a jerk guarantees I'll never read the author's work, no matter how good it might be.

And of course, all of these motivators are assuming the book synopsis sounds like something I would enjoy reading.

Yes, I did indeed spend far too much time mulling these thoughts over today. But I'm curious now if I'm just the oddball or if others share my sentiments. Do awards and "Best of" lists motivate YOU to read a book you wouldn't otherwise have picked up?  Have you ever changed your mind about reading a book because it won an award? We've talked about blurbs and book jackets before. Are you motivated by those? Do you have other triggers that encourage you to pick up books? I hope you'll share your thoughts - differing opinions welcome and encouraged. But please be respectful of everyone's opinion.

I have lots to share on the Murder & Mayhem in Muskego weekend, some fun projects I've been hatching and gads of reviews to catch up on. So stay tuned and happy reading!


Anonymous November 15, 2011 at 6:44 AM  

I will read every Newberry Award winning children's book I can get my hands on! That is just the kind of person I am! I used to read everything on the NY Times Bestseller List - mainly because I don't watch TV and it was a way to keep a finger on the pulse of what was being written and read in the great big world. Now I have you to suggest books to me so I don't need no stinking lists!!! xoxo Anonymous Ginny

Luanne November 15, 2011 at 7:37 AM  

Good post Jen. I really don't let the 'lists' influence me at all. I think I am the only person working in a library who has not read The Help. And I'm being stubborn about it. I like what I like without being influenced by a list. But.... I too would rather hear from someone who I know loves books ( and the type I enjoy - thrillers, suspense and mystery) ( you and Lesa are on my radar) and check out their recommendations. So bottom line - I read the lists and take note, because invariably I will be asked at work for "that book on the bestseller list - you know - with the yellow cover...." .

Now I have one for you. Inger Ash Wolfe - start with The Calling. There's only 2 so far. It is an Canadian author using a pseudonym. Great protagonist.

Have a great day Jen!!

H. L. Banks November 15, 2011 at 8:14 AM  

Word of mouth - that's my guage for checking out authors new to me. I've been disappointed in the past when selecting a book based on blurbs - I don't trust them anymore.

BettyB November 15, 2011 at 8:56 AM  

I might read a book that appears on an award list only if other books I already enjoyed made the same list, best of mystery and suspense, for example. I won't read a book just because it is wildly popular (Luanne, I also work in a library and have not read The Help). I don't pick books because of blurbs and I'll only read books I've heard of by way of mouth if I know the person likes the same type of books I do. That's why I trust this blog so much!

Jen November 15, 2011 at 10:07 AM  

Hey all, great discussion! So fun to hear how you are finding and choosing your books.

Luanne, I HAVE read "The Calling"! I know I have the second book, too, but haven't read that one yet. And I'm coming to you when I can't remember the name of the book but can see the book jacket in my head! You're good. ;-)

Betty, thank you!! That means the world to me. :-)

Beth F November 15, 2011 at 1:20 PM  

I'm always curious to see what won awards, but I never pick a book JUST because it won.

I also wanted to say welcome to What's in a Name 5 -- hope you have fun with the new categories.

Rebecca Cantrell November 15, 2011 at 1:56 PM  

I'm glad you found the blog and the books, Jen!

I pick books based on recommendations from people I know and I also browse a lot. I don't bother with the jacket copy or the the blurbs, I go straight to the author's words and read the first page. Then the second. Then, if I like it, I'll keep standing there reading the third page (thinking, please don't lose me now!).

This used to work great, but now that we only have a small bookstore on this side of the island, I have nowhere to browse and I am bereft.

dog eared copy November 15, 2011 at 1:58 PM  

I'll read the teaser to see if it's something I might like; but the blurbs mean nothing to me. Certain reviewers and bloggers definitely influence me. As for awards though? It may draw my attention to a title that would otherwise not be on my radar; but again, people whose opinion I trust are the biggest deciding factor outside of my own instincts.

Gary November 15, 2011 at 3:53 PM  

I have read books that my local mystery book store owner recommends. They do something called the "hand sell". They got to know me and what I like. Then, they hand me a book and say, "I think you will like this." Thus, the hand sell. They are often right and I have read somethings I would not otherwise read.

I do not read a book because of an award, but it does help me in my assessment. I try to know how an award is selected and what they have selected in the past to see how much weight I give it.

SuziQoregon November 15, 2011 at 5:47 PM  

I really only pay attention to awards and best of to see how books I've already read and loved or how favorite authors fare in the results. It's more of an 'oh yeah' than an 'Oh I'll buy that' kind of thing for me.

I rely on people I've grown to trust for book recommendations. As you said - it's folks who I know have overlapping interests that can get me to consider reading a book. Many of my TBRs area all your fault!

Oh and where do I pre-order that phone book by Robert Crais?

John November 17, 2011 at 5:50 PM  

I've discovered many great authors based on awards. Case in point: Michael Ayoob's debut novel IN SEARCH OF MERCY. Not at all a popular book, not even a best seller. A case of a real udnerdog winning an award. It's an original update of the private eye novel and well deserving of the Shamus for Best First Novel.

Lesa November 19, 2011 at 8:10 AM  

First, I have to tell Luanne & Betty that I haven't read The Help either, so there are three of us working in libraries who haven't read it.

Like you, I have enormous TBR piles, and I wouldn't want it any other way. I want to pick the book that fits my mood.

I do look for the new author. With them, it has to be the plot synopsis. If I read a review, or read the jacket, and liked the sound of it, I'll give it a try. Unless it's a favorite author, I'll often try a new author first.

But, there are so many favorite authors. And, which of the two of us discovered Todd Ritter first, Jen? Bad Moon was one of the best books I read this year. I'll give you credit for Craig Johnson and Hilary Davidson. I get credit for Louise Penny and Chris Grabenstein. We made a couple good recommendations, didn't we?

As for Kirkus, I gave up on them thirty years ago when they wrote snarky book reviews. I didn't appreciate that then, and I still don't care for them. You'd be surprised the number of libraries that don't subscribe to Kirkus for those reasons.

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