The Christy AwardAs I mentioned yesterday, there are some oddities about the structure of the annual Christy Awards for excellence in Christian fiction that have stirred some heated discussion in the Christian reader/writer community and deserve closer examination.

Let me begin by saying that I believe the Christy is a legitimate award which any author can and should be proud to win. It’s widely recognized in the Christian marketplace as evidence of quality writing. The problem is that its submission guidelines and requirements of award winners reflect an archaic approach, and one that shares several unfortunate characteristics with other awards programs and publishing schemes that are not legitimate, which could damage the Christy’s credibility over time as more people become aware of the details.

Here’s a link to “The Christy Awards Official Guidelines 2013,” which I will be referencing.

The stated purpose of the Christy Awards is to “recognize and promote fiction of exceptional quality and impact.”  It considers both novels and stand-alone novellas, newly published or republished by a new publisher (if not previously entered). No one can win more than four Christys, presumably to keep a popular author from dominating the award. At least ten books must be nominated in a category for that category to be considered for an award. So far, so good, though I’d like to see them add a short-story division.

Books must be “consistent with a Christian worldview and the historic Christian tradition reflected in the Apostles’ Creed.” This might be subject to individual interpretation, particularly as “Orthodoxy” is one of the judging criteria, but it seems a reasonable standard for an award focused on Christian fiction.

The competition is limited to English-language books or books republished in English during the prior year. This could be seen as dismissive of foreign-language writers, but judging across multiple languages is a significant logistical problem. Still, I think consideration of more stories from authors beyond the English-speaking world would be a good idea, and some responsibility for this falls on the publishers.

Books must be case-bound or paper-bound. Electronic copies or books published solely in electronic format are excluded, which, given the present ubiquity of tablets and e-readers, seems like an unnecessary measure which inflates the total cost of entry and distribution of books to judges.

There are 9 submission categories: Contemporary Fiction (stand-alone novels), Contemporary Fiction (novels in a series, or novellas), Contemporary Romance/Romantic Suspense, Historical, Historical Romance, Suspense, Visionary (science fiction, fantasy, futuristic, and allegory), First Novel, and Young Adult. There is significant overlap among some of these categories, but the guidelines make a reasonable attempt to distinguish, for example, Historical from Historical Romance. Books entered in multiple categories pay multiple entry fees and must deliver the required number of review copies for each category, a point which becomes significant later.

Self-published novels are admissible, but only if the self-publisher meets a set of criteria that make him/her indistinguishable from a small independent press (catalog of publications, professional editor, publishing multiple authors). It seems disingenuous to declare self-published books admissible while excluding the self in self-publishing.

Now we get to the entry process, where the problems start to appear. The entry fee for each title is $175, per category. This fee is nonrefundable, even if the entry is subsequently determined by the administrators to be ineligible. Seven review copies of each book must be shipped at the publisher’s expense to the award administrators, per entered category. For example, if a single book is entered as both Young Adult and Visionary, the entry fee is $350 and 14 review copies are required, so that increases the total price of entry to around $400, depending on the size and cost of the book.

For comparison, here are the entry fees for other top-tier literary awards:

Hugo Award: $0.00

Nebula Award: $0.00

World Fantasy Award: $0.00, plus six copies for judging

Newbery Medal: $0.00, plus two copies for judging

Caldecott Medal: $0.00, plus two copies for judging

Pulitzer Prize: $50.00, plus four copies for judging

For large brick-and-mortar publishers, the Christy entry costs are small potatoes. Small independent publishers, on the other hand, quickly reach a point where entering even one book is cost-prohibitive. There is no limit to the number of entries allowed from any single publisher or division within a publishing house, so deep pockets are a huge advantage in this competition—and there’s another shoe yet to drop.

Publishers must agree, in advance, to contribute $1000 per title “for marketing of Christy Award Winners via a specific Christy Award Marketing plan,” due within 30 days, should their entries win. That might be cheap marketing in the larger scheme of things, but again, it’s not pocket change for a small publisher, and it’s mandatory to sign up for this just to step onto the court.

To reiterate, should you win a Christy Award, you incur a 30-day deadline to pay the Christy Award administrators $1000 for the mandatory inclusion of your book in the Christy Award marketing program. You also gain the right to buy Christy Award emblems to stick on your book covers. And there’s one more thing—you sign away a variety of rights in perpetuity, as follows (emphasis mine):

“The Christy Award Advisory Board shall have the permanent right in any and all media to use and exploit all radio, television, merchandising, promotional and publicity rights that publisher and author may have in connection with their participation in The Christy Awards competition without further consent or payment. Publisher and author also release any claim they might have either by virtue of their participation in The Christy Awards for use of their respective photographs, names, likenesses, voice, or appearances in connection with The Christy Awards, and each consents to the permanent right of The Christy Award to publish or broadcast the content of the Christy Awards ceremony.”

Some of those provisions may be prudent and necessary for the Christy Award organization to manage its financial liability and carry on marketing of itself as an entity, but “permanent” is a very long time. Writers these days are continually warned against signing away any rights to their intellectual property or image for more than a couple of years, but forever? That’s the sort of contractual language we’re told to recognize as a distinguishing characteristic of the scam artist and the vanity press. I don’t think it’s the sort of image the Christy Awards wants to portray.

In summary, the Christy Awards, as currently configured:

  • Fail to acknowledge the realities of modern electronic publishing, limiting entries to books published in paper, and multiplying submission costs
  • Create an environment where small independent publishers and authors are unable to compete for recognition on a level playing field with large traditional publishing corporations and their authors
  • Establish a bizarre protocol in which award winners are forced to pay a premium for Christy Award marketing, or be disqualified
  • Require award winners to permanently relinquish a variety of rights in conjunction with their participation in the Christy Awards, including rights to use of names, photographs, likenesses, voices, or appearances.

So, there’s the beef. I don’t see anything fraudulent or malevolent going on here, mostly some mindsets and boilerplate in need of revision. The Christy Awards have a good reputation—it’s something you look for when confronted with a stack of Christian fiction, like the old commercial about looking for the Union label so you’d know a product was made with skill by people who cared about quality. That’s a reputation you want to protect at all costs, but it’s easy to lose through carelessness or by failing to keep up with the times.

A few minor changes to level the playing field for small publishers, reduce entry costs, and make the submission requirements look less like a one-sided marketing contract that protects the Christy Awards at the participants’ expense would go a long way toward calming suspicions and keeping this program as admirable and credible as its namesake.