When Marjorie Sandors short story compilation Portrait of My Mother, Who Posed Nude in Wartime collected the National Jewish Book Awards' fiction prize in December, nonprofit literary publisher Sarabande Books was ecstatic. But the win was more than an honor—the press can trace increased sales to the award.
"The award took us utterly by surprise," says Nickole Brown, director of marketing and development. She dispatched news releases to 250 Jewish-interest media outlets, 154 Jewish bookstores and other targeted contacts. At least three colleges adopted Portraitfor courses, and libraries picked up the book. In all, Brown credits the prize for about 500 copies sold.
Still, when it comes to adult faith fiction awards, publishers may be pleased to slap on those gold stickers, but often the sales effect is not so easily seen.
In the Christian marketplace, fiction awards don't translate into consumer awareness, says Dan Balow, director of international and domestic rights and licensing at Tyndale House, which published Jerry Jenkins's 2004 Christy Award-winning Soon. Balow, a Christy board member since the awards' inception, says tributes "tend to be more a closed-industry type of thing," impressing authors, editors and publishers more than consumers. Though Tyndale highlights its awards on its Web site and books, Balow says, "Often the consumer has no idea of what that particular award is." Balow says it's difficult to pinpoint whether Soon, which already had a softcover edition and sequel out by awards time, reaped any sales benefit.
At WestBow Press, the Thomas Nelson fiction division where Ted Dekker's Thr3e won both in the Golden Medallions fiction category and a Christy Award last year, acquisitions editor Jenny Baumgartner says the biggest reason people buy books is word of mouth. Awards can lend that type of impression, she says—"a group of people think this book is definitely worth reading."
Still, awards can boost an "unknown author and a difficult book," says Carl W. Scarbrough, spokesman for Godine Press. Godine published A Love Made Out of Nothing/Zohara's Journey, a pair of Barbara Honigmann novellas translated by John Barrett from the German that tied for first in Koret's 2004 fiction category. Says Scarbrough, "Translations in general are very difficult to position for the American market. And any recognition we receive makes it easier to place a book in the bookstores."
Prizes enhance an author's credentials and attract authors to an award-winning press, says Steve Oates, Bethany House's v-p/director of marketing. Two Bethany books, The Light of Eidon by Karen Hancock and Fire by Night by Lynn Austin, won Christies. "By nature, if you're going to have annual awards, they're going to be last year's books," Oates says. "I think awards work better when it's more like classic children's literature that has a longer shelf life." Balow and Oates both say it would help if booksellers did more promotion for award-winning books.
But Tim Way, senior buyer for books for Family Christian Stores, says past experience has shown that to be unproductive. The judges don't always pick winners appealing to the general public, he says. "I don't think the awards move the needle for the buyer of Christian books."
Fred Isaac, buyer at Afikomen Books and Judaica in Berkeley, Calif., positions prize-winners face out and says some customers are awards-conscious. "I've been in the library business for 35 years and now I'm on this side. The notoriety an author gets from an award carries over. Their next book will likely do better." He also says awards can stimulate backlist interest.