Monday, May 19, 2014

As Easy as ABC: Awards, Best Sellers, and Critical Thinking

The author with one of his many awards.
Award-winning,* best-selling** author Greg Pincus here. I wanted to write a little today about the ABCs - awards, best sellers, and critical thinking.

This past week, Rush Limbaugh won Author of the Year at the Children's Choice Book Awards, an award sponsored by the Children's Book Council. Much as when his nomination as a finalist was announced, there was much gnashing of teeth inside (and outside) the children's book world with the award announcement, including many comments about how the award and even the CBC had lost credibility.

It's easy to feel outraged when there's a sense of being snookered or betrayed, but the reality is that the Author of the Year award has always been determined the same way - qualification is based on sales, then there's a popular vote to pick the winner. That didn't change this year.

So, if the award had credibility before, it has credibility now, even if the winner seems "unworthy" somehow. If you weren't aware of the criterion for the award and how it was picked, at the end of the day that's on you, not the award. And not liking the results doesn't change that at all.

If we ask who gave this particular award whatever credibility it has, I'd say that the answer is that we did, collectively. Perhaps, in this case, it's trust in the creators of the award or the fact that it's part of a mission that we love (celebrating children's books!) and that talented authors have won it before. Regardless, our celebration of award winning status in general definitely is a factor. And that, again, is on us.

Awards for creative endeavors are a tricky thing. In a blog post that's well worth a read, Emma Dryden touches on some of the challenges and pitfalls of them and how we value them. Yet it's not easy to change this - there's all sorts of psychology in play here (including confirmation bias, social conformity, and more), and it's hard to overcome. Awards should mean something, we've decided, so when we see an award (particularly from an organization that seems legit and good), we give it value.

And yet that's abdicating our personal responsibility to practice critical thinking and view each situation individually.

*For example, I honestly am an award-winning author. I'm not talking about awards for my debut novel The 14 Fibs of Gregory K. (which, I note, was a finalist for the Cybils and Crystal Kite... but not a winner) or my screenplays. Nope. I won an award in middle school at the Ready Writing Contest at Mansfield State College. My Punt Pass and Kick trophy from when I was eight could count, too - it's an award for me, after all, and I am an author. Context and critical thinking matter again, clearly.

How we view the status of "best seller" falls into this same arena, at least to me. Best-selling sounds "good" and "impressive," and it's easy to see why an author would link that to his/her name. And yet...

Best Seller!
**I can legitimately describe myself as a best-selling author: upon release, my ebook of poetry, The Late Bird, topped Amazon's Kindle Children's Poetry best seller list for over a month.

I also know that my sales during that period tapered off rapidly and included weeks of single digit sales. (10 of you feel free, as a social experiment, to buy The Late Bird and watch me top the same chart again. Go for it. I'll wait here :-)).

So, does Best Seller by itself really carry any weight? Again, we collectively have given it status and credibility, but perhaps we've done so without always considering context.

It's very easy to accept that statuses like "award winner" and "best seller" are impressive and meaningful, but if we don't think critically - asking questions like who gave an award, what was the purpose, what were the qualifications, what was the process, how were "sales" measured, where was it a best seller - then we're following blindly and not thinking for ourselves. And that? Well, that's sad no matter who has won what.

What do you think? Do we trust awards, best seller lists, reviews, and the like too much? Is the recent outrage only political in nature and not about our responsibility to think critically? Or...? I look forward to your thoughts.


Ishta Mercurio said...

I think that the general public is ignorant of what those terms actually mean, in practice. Before I learned otherwise, I associated "best-seller" with the NYT Best Seller List. But the reality is that a) even books on that list don't necessarily have to sell hundreds of thousands of copies to make the list; and b) there are dozens, if not hundreds, of such lists. On Amazon alone, there is a list for every category imaginable. "Best-selling" and "award-winning" sound really good - not everyone who enters a competition wins an award, and not everyone who writes a book wins an award for the book, so those things sound hard to do, so they sound good. But because we're ignorant of the details, we place more value on them than they deserve.

Martha Brockenbrough said...

It's not a legitimate bestseller if bulk sales are counted. That makes it possible for wealthy celebrities to buy their way onto the lists, an advantage others don't have.

Greg Pincus said...

That might be true, Martha, but that's not about the credibility of the award. There are a ton of issues here (accuracy of book, whether a book is ghostwritten, qualification of sales, etc.) but they shouldn't be conflated, I don't think.

Diana M. Kightlinger said...

This is my first time at your site and it seems it won't be my last. Also,I will get to meet you at a SCBWI gathering in Pasadena today!