Say It Ain’t So, Christy

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.


6 thoughts on “Say It Ain’t So, Christy

  1. Fred,
    I’ve been following this discussion all week. It has impacted some friends who were nominated for the Christy and felt that it was a slap in the face the way the discussion had been framed. I think your take on things was so much more thoughtful, diplomatic, and all around helpful than the link that started the topic.

    I really appreciate the way you state clearly and up front how it is a real award and doesn’t diminish the quality of the finalists/winners. Yet you point out real problems with the Christys regarding how the industry has changed and how they haven’t adapted.

    It is one thing to write a post that is sensational and divisive. It is a rare thing on the internet to have a thoughtful critique that doesn’t bash. Thank you for taking the time this issue deserved.


    1. Thanks, Jason. I actually discovered this issue a couple of years ago as Splashdown Books was expanding its line and looking at putting some stories up for awards, including the Christys. We collided with that $1000 provision, and besides the fact we *literally* couldn’t afford to win, it just seemed wrong on its face, though we didn’t make any fuss about it at the time.

      I was taken aback. I’d heard nothing but good things about the Christy. It was the marquee award for Christian fiction, but this looked like something straight out of the vanity press playbook.

      In prepping this article, I was struck by how much effort the Christy board has put into ensuring their judging process is both thorough and above reproach. That’s what saved it for me. There may be some argument about individual outcomes, but nobody can say the nominees aren’t properly and thoroughly vetted.

      The marketing stuff isn’t smart, particularly from a public-relations point of view, but I never got the feeling it was an intentional scam. Other more prestigious awards have found ways to fund their programs that don’t involve penalizing the winners or erecting barriers to cash-strapped small publishers, and I’m sure the Christys can find a way to follow that example, if they try.

    2. My post wasn’t intended to be divisive, nor was it intended to be sensationalist.

      Nor was it intended to be a slap in the face.

      Nor was it intended to invite patronizing comments on my own blog or backbiting comments on other blogs.

      Any reading of the comment thread will show that the contention came about when Jeff Gerke reframed my words as an attack on his nominated authors and argued against that false premise.

      I am appalled at the way I have been repeatedly mischaracterised as you all have circled the wagons.

      I am utterly relieved that I do not wrote and no longer work in this space.

    3. Katherine, I’m glad you brought up the topic, because it’s just been sitting there for a long time now without much public comment, and nothing will change if we ignore it. The title of your post was provocative–and that’s a good thing. I think it captured the essence of what the wider perception of the Christy Awards is in danger of becoming if they don’t fix this.

      I also agree that some people jumped to the wrong conclusion about your post. I can understand their fear that the accomplishments of their friends who have won or are in nomination for a Christy might be diminished, but the focus of their ire should have been directed at the Christy committee’s obliviousness to the implications of how they were doing business rather than at you for pointing it out. I did see a lot of comments supporting your position.

      Once emotions come into play, it’s hard to continue a rational discussion, which is why I posted my perspective here, besides the extra length I needed to break out all the issues.

      Mr. Gerke has a vested interest in the legitimacy of the Christys because, despite his insistence that it’s had little financial impact on his company, his success at the Christys has boosted his reputation within the Christian publishing community as the premier small-independent and provided a foot in the door with booksellers. He has two authors nominated for the award this year. It’s natural he’d come to the defense of the award and his writers, though he would have served his position better by simply debating your argument on its merits rather than veering into an attack on what he presumed was your motive.

      His comments also indicated that he *is* unhappy with the structure of the award, and he admits it was designed around a purpose that is no longer relevant–the Christys are established and well-known, and the major publishers are on board. There’s no need to keep kickstarting a program that’s been running for years.

  2. I knew about all the financial costs of the award, and agree they are extreme. I definitely think awards should pay winners for winning, not the other way around. And I totally agree about the disregard for ebooks being used for the judging–these days with basically every industry professional toting around an ereader or tablet there is just no excuse.

    I had not, however, read all the stuff about the rights they claim. This just strengthens my belief that the Christy’s intent has more to do with marketing themselves as “the award to win” than it has to do with honoring great fiction. I know the difference is subtle, and I don’t know how to explain it better nor do I have another example to give. It’s just that gut feeling I get when I see all the puzzle pieces in one place.

    I can’t comment on the judging procedure itself. I’m sure the judges do all they can to ensure they pick what they feel is the best quality and representation of Christian fiction out of all the entrants. The problem, though, is the entrants are limited to those who can afford all the fees, which means it’s not a complete representation of Christian fiction available. Granted, all contests are limiting in one capacity or other, whether it be entry fees, method of nomination, or lack of popularity of the award itself (if authors don’t know an award exists, they can’t very well enter it, eh?). But this limitation on a popular and well-known award is something I feel isn’t justified.

    1. I found that rights paragraph a little breathtaking, as it flew in the face of every guidance I’d ever read or heard about literary contracts and set a bad example for inexperienced writers. “Oh, this looks just like the Christy contract. It’s probably okay.” It’s not much of a leap to perceive the Christy marketing program as more about using the books to market the Christys than vice-versa.

      You’re right–the entry costs in essence make “ability to pay” an unwritten criterion for choosing the eventual winner.

      I really think these awards live or die on their credibility. If an award purports to identify the very best fiction of whatever flavor, it had better do so, and not as a means to some other end.

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