Quick: without Googling it, which novel won the National Book Award for Fiction this year?
Chances are, you don't know the answer. I have to admit; I didn't, and I work in the publishing industry. I had to look it up, and the winner was announced just last month. Yet, many authors are convinced that book awards will help them sell thousands of copies of their book.
Do book awards really sell books? The answer is: it depends.
Each year, it seems that there are new book awards being created for authors to enter. The reason for this is that for many competitions, book awards make money for the organization sponsoring the award.
I can understand why an author would want to enter their book for an award. They are proud of their book, and they would like to be recognized for that work by their peers. However, don't confuse recognition with book sales. They are two completely different things.
Here are a few myths about book awards competitions:
1. "A book award will help me sell lots of books." I did some research on this, and found many quotes from the publishers of award-winning books which went something like this: "It's nice for the author to get a pat on the back with an award, but overall we didn't experience a sales increase." Also, many of the books that win major awards already have a good track record of sales at the time they win.
2. "A book award will ensure I'll be a bestselling author." If myth Number One isn't true, then this one can't possibly be true. There is no doubt that award-winning books have gone on to become bestsellers, but was it because of the award?
3. "A book award will help make my book become more well-known." If you didn't know the answer to the question I asked at the beginning of this post, is that really true? How many people browsing for books at your local bookstore specifically look for award-winning books? I don't, and I'm willing to bet you probably don't either.
Here are a few truths about books awards:
1. "I can incorporate my award into my marketing plan." Sure you can. You can include "Winner of the XYZ Award" in your press releases and on your book's web site. It sounds impressive, even if people haven't heard of the particular award your book has won.
2. Most people don't pay attention to book awards. Other than the major awards, such as the Pulitzer, most people outside of the publishing industry don't pay much attention to awards. This includes the person you are trying to impress the most: the one who buys books. Case in point: when I worked as a journalist, I won many, many news awards. When I first started winning news awards, I thought to myself, "This is it! I'm ready for the big time!" The fact was other than the radio station I worked for (and the ones I beat), nobody really cared.
Think of it this way: who won the Oscar for best actor this year? C'mon, almost everybody watches the Academy Awards, right? Besides, we're talking about movies. Everybody watches movies. Give up? It was Sean Penn for the movie "Milk."
3. "I can make some money by winning an award." This is true, but not in the way you might think. Many awards result in the winning author receiving some kind of cash prize. Even though the award may not sell a bunch of copies of your book, you could still get some money if you win.
Also, you have to be careful about which book awards competitions you enter. Some "competitions" are outright scams. Authors enter an awards "competition", send in an entry fee, and wait to find out if they won. There may not even be an awards committee or an awards ceremony. The person running the competition could be somebody who built a web site, came up with a name for an award, charged a $50 entry fee and got 5,000 entries, and printed 5,000 certificates for the "winners." Stick to established awards competitions from reputable groups.
Book awards aren't a bad thing. If you are an author proud of your work, by all means enter an awards competition, but keep in mind what book awards are not: a guarantee of increased book sales. There are no guarantees in the publishing industry.
By the way, the winner of the National Book Award winner for Fiction this year was "Let the Great World Spin" by Colum McCann, who was already a bestselling author.