Tuesday, May 5, 2009

To judge or not to judge, is it really a question!

I belong to a number of writing-related organizations and one is the Windy City Chapter of the Romance Writers of America (RWA). I’m also the program coordinator for this chapter and one of the many activities that our group organizes each year is a writing contest. Important to this contest is having enough people from the group to actually judge the contest. It’s a lot of work but it is very rewarding work and each year the contest becomes more challenging because the entries are better every year.

After reading the entries I was assigned this year I just have to say that there are many talented and creative writers out there and it was a great pleasure to read their work. I’ve been feeling this more and more each year. I’ve always enjoyed reading contest entries and there have always been a fair number of gems but this year there were quite a few. In fact, I hope many of these entries become published so I can actually read the entire story.

For our contest, we receive the first twenty-five pages so we don’t have the opportunity to see where the story goes and how the characters are further developed unless the contestant contacts us separately or the manuscript is published.

So, why do so many talented and creative writers rarely or never join the ranks of the published? This question can probably be asked of any of the creative fields of study including music and art. Many a talented musician or group of musicians has released only one album, even successfully, and then faded into obscurity.

And, yes, writing is an art, especially when the writer is creating the book, novella, short story or whatever form his/her creation takes, but the actual production and selling of these works is a business and because it’s a business it’s a matter of supply and demand - and costs. So, if a publisher doesn’t believe he/she will recoup the money invested plus profit it’s difficult to justify taking on the project, especially to the marketing and sales departments.

Some of the latest surveys have indicated that more people want to write a book than want to read one. The last such survey showed a slight upswing in those who indicated they actually want to read a book but the gap is still a very narrow one, especially with regards to fiction. But what about all those big name authors receiving multi-million dollar advances and cranking out books like a factory? Well, they are few and far between resulting in a small number of authors pulling in the majority of the money and readers thus leaving a smaller pool for the rest of the authors to swim in. Add to this the narrow distribution channels controlled by a small number of players and the situation worsens.

It’s possible that the internet will help level the playing field, particularly with regards to distribution, but one of the concerns about an environment where just about anything can be thrown up and posted is that it creates a different type of challenge for the truly talented writers to endure. Now instead of wading through editor and marketing obstacles, a writer must wade through a plethora of words and works that may do more to turn off a searching reader before that truly talented writer is discovered.

In theory we all want the reader to be the judge of our work, but in reality reaching that reader isn’t so easy to do. Measuring it is even harder - and measure it the publishers do via such databases as the Nielsen Book Scan. The saying goes that an author is only as good as his/her latest Nielsen Book Scan numbers. Touted as “The worlds' largest continuous sales analysis service,” Nielsen’s Book Scan is a costly database utilized mostly by publishers, booksellers, librarians, and the media. For more information go to www.bookscan.com

So, weather or not a writer is truly worthy of a reader’s time ultimately is up to the reader but connecting with that reader is where the business side of writing is most profound. The question is finding a balance between the publishers and editors and booksellers filtering the readers choices and these same people actually assisting the reader by filtering out the dregs. Just how and when should this be done? Well, you be the judge.


Rebecca J. Clark said...

I judge a lot of contests. The ones I've judged lately have been fabulous. Usually, you get one or two gems, one or two duds, and the rest are just mediocre. But the last few contests I've judged...wow. I'm very impressed.

I think everyone who enters contests should judge them. And everyone who judges should remember that someone's blood, sweat and tears went into that entry. Judge someone's entry as you would want to be judged.

Ooh, that turned into a bit of a soapbox, didn't it? Sorry.


Deb Larson said...

Hi Terri!
I too enjoy judging - and helped with 3 categories - 2 contests this year. It was fun, exhausting, but I hope some how, some way, I've helped a fellow writer receive the encouragement they needed. I wish I had tried contests in my younger years... maybe I'd be further down the road with my career.
Great blog!
DL Larson