Recognizing Excellence - and Independence

The "IPPY" Awards, launched in 1996, were created to bring increased recognition to the deserving but often unsung titles published by independent authors and publishers. Established as the first awards program open exclusively to independents, the IPPYs recognize Ten Outstanding Books of the Year in categories such as Most Inspirational to Youth and Most Likely To Save the Planet, and to a winner and two finalists in 65 different categories, ranging from non-fiction categories like Architecture and Religion, to fiction categories like Multicultural and Horror. Our new Regional Awards honor books published with a regional focus, and recognize Best Fiction and Best Non-Fiction Book in eight U.S. and two Canadian regions. Last year's Tenth Anniversary awards attracted entries from all 50 U.S. states, seven Canadian provinces, and 17 countries overseas. 1,510 independent authors and publishers submitted 2,040 unique titles, 874 of which were judged in the inaugural Regional Awards contest. Category size ranged from 12 (Architecture) to 178 (Inspirational/Spiritual).

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Book Award Winners - and Judges - Speak Out

Does Your Book Have What It Takes?
Editor's Note: Back in 2003, then I.P. columnist Carrie T. Rivera interviewed some of the winners of the Writer's Digest National Self-Published Book Awards, and later, three of the contest judges, about what they look for in a great self-published book. Along the way, both participants and judges commented about some of the pros and cons of self-publishing, marketing, and author appearances.

In anticipation of our own Independent Publisher Book Awards, we thought it would be appropriate to re-run these interviews, and help you answer the question, “Does my book have what it takes to be an award winner?”

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A Conversation with the Award Winners

First Place Children's Winner:

Matthew Gollub for The Jazz Fly. Here is the story of a fly who "speaks" through the universal language of jazz scat music and was inspired by Gollub's experience with various languages and cultures and his frustration with California's "English Only" ballot proposition. The book is illustrated and comes accompanied by an audio CD.

First Place Cookbook Winner:

Jody Hirsh, Idy Goodman, Aggie, Goldenholz and Susan Roth for Tastes of Jewish Tradition. This book is a simple case of a fundraiser gone wild! What started with 15 mothers putting their heads together five years ago has evolved into a combination cookbook/activity book/Jewish holiday history book.

First Place Genre Fiction Winner:

John F.X. Sudman for Acts of the Apostles. Take a two-decade veteran of the computer industry, give him 24/7 access to a Ph.D. in molecular genetics (his wife), a wild imagination for nanotechnology and you get the inspiration for his book.

Independent Publisher: So, Winners, what do your books have that makes them winners?

Gollub: I think what makes my book so unique is the integration of all the parts: the storyline, musical narration, artwork and design. Very few children's books come with their own musical narration. When they do, too often, the music is uninspired. Aside from the CD, The Jazz Fly looks distinctive. The artist, Karen Hanke, not only illustrated my intent, but also added scores of her own tasty embellishments.

Hirsh: Originally it was "just" a cookbook-a project similar to cookbook projects in communities around the world. However, there are no books with the scope of Tastes of Jewish Tradition. It combines history, ritual, holiday information, crafts, family activities, stories and recipes. It is perfect for the person who has no background and wants to celebrate the holidays. All-in-all, there is nothing like it and it is for everybody.

Sundman: My book is a techno-thriller about computers, biotechnology and nanotechnology. A very high percentage of my readers come with high-tech backgrounds and they all comment positively that I did not "dumb down" those topics. On the other hand, I tried to make it so that a smart reader without a technical background could understand it as well. Basically, the book takes a skeptical look at our unquestioning faith in technology. Readers seem to like having their assumptions tested in this way, it challenges them to think.

IP: Ok, so you think you got something special....and so does Writer's Digest, but how do you get the word out? What is your marketing strategy?

Gollub: I submitted it to major library reviewers (as a rule, major newspapers won't look twice at small publishers). I marketed it to teachers through reading and librarian associations and submitted the book to various award committees. I also performed the story everywhere that I spoke, thereby selling quite a few copies direct to end customers. Finally, since the CD introduces jazz to young people, I sent the book to jazz radio stations and arranged interviews whenever I could.

Goodman: What started as a cookbook grew into a vehicle promoting one of our main missions: the transmission of Jewish traditions, values and rituals in the home.

Roth: Our story is different from other publishers because we are a non-profit. Over 200 people in Milwaukee contributed their talents for no fee or worked for a small fee. We hired a publicist when the book came out and we entered two contests and won both.

Sundman: As for marketing the book, I've done basically four things:
1) I've written to reviewers.
2) I go to conventions where computer people hang out and I hand-sell my book there.
3) I try to establish personal connections with reporters in the traditional media.
4) Finally, and perhaps most important of all, I put the first 1/3 of the book up on my website for people to read for free.

In addition, I've made friends with clerks at a few bookstores and they push my book for me. However, my book is not available in many stores so this is not a major focus.

IP: What are your plans? Will you seek an independent publisher or a large traditional publisher? Will you pursue the vast possibilities of the Internet, or is Hollywood calling you?

Gollub: I already am an independent publisher. I plan to continue to develop my own projects. In fact, I released a second book with a CD titled Gobble, Quack, Moon -- a top ten recommendation among independent booksellers nationwide. I didn't decide to self-publish because I couldn't sell work to a "real publisher." I self-published to have greater equity and control over my career. Given all the marketing and promotion authors must do anyway, I'm surprised more established writers don't choose this route. Sure it's a ton of work to self-publish, but I consider my books assets which will sustain my family over time. Hollywood is yet to call, but one can always dream. Catalog companies, new wholesalers and cyber-entities do call. I'd have to get an awfully big advance from a traditional publisher to accept just a simple royalty on this book.

Roth: A publisher has contacted us to purchase the book, but at this point we're not interested, but we will be in the future.

Sundman: I've published my second book, Cheap Complex Devices, which is kind of a postmoderny-artsy thing. You can read the first 1/3 of this on my website as well. I did not try to sell it to a traditional publisher, but I will try again with the next one. I would prefer to be a self-publisher, but given my finances, if somebody will give me a good advance I'll take it.

IP: Now that you've had your taste of victory, can you give a next year's hopeful a word of advice?

Gollub: Be business-like in terms of production; make the content a labor of love. Try to say something uniquely “you,” something by which you'd like to be known, something on which to hang your hat. Treat your collaborators warmly and as wonderful human beings. They call this self-publishing, but no one does it alone. I feel so celebratory upon receiving a new book from the printer that I immediately send signed copies for my art director, print manager, typesetter, proof reader, sound engineer, warehouse manager and their kids! Finally, and this is the hard part, market and promote with ingenuity, push with kindness and for all you're worth. Only then can you cut through the mountains of books which were produced as simple "next projects."

Goodman: Put your heart into your work, depend on others for advice and collaboration. Don't be afraid to edit, and lastly, dream.

Hirsch: Do what you love to do, and write about it.

Sundman: My advice is that you find at least one close reader to critique your outline and drafts. You want somebody who is a stickler for good writing and who is a cold-blooded, heartless, son-of-a-gun who will tell you "not good enough" again and again until, at last, it is good enough.

A Conversation with the Judges

Philip Lee
Publisher and Co-Founder of Lee & Low Books, he knew publishing was for him after taking a job in a B. Dalton bookstore when he moved to California from Hong Kong as a teenager. After meeting his business partner Thomas Low in 1991, they founded a unique company that specializes in multicultural children's books. To date, Lee and Low have published over 100 titles, with many translated into Spanish.

Bonnie Hearn Hill
An editor, teacher, journalist, speaker and author, she has published four non-fiction books (three specifically for writers) and six novels. Her latest thriller, Double Exposure, was published April 2005.

Mollie Katzen
A writer with over 5 million books in print and author of the timeless classic, Moosewood Cookbook, her latest work is Eat, Drink, and Weigh Less, a diet book that shows people how they can lose weight by adding delicious food to their diet and making simple changes in what they eat throughout the day.

IP: What did these award-winning books have that so many did not?

Katzen: The books that stood out to me were those whose message and mission were not only original, but clearly conveyed. Sometimes people get caught up in the subjectivity of their creative process and have trouble communicating their ideas so that someone picking up the book is confused as to its purpose or its message.

Hill Hearn: Whether literary or techno-thriller, good fiction is character-driven fiction. Authors who stand out in this category have asked themselves two questions. Whose story is this? What does this person want? These are the basics of focusing your fiction, a topic I address in my classes.

Lee: In the case of children's books, I felt it was important that they not be didactic. They have to respect a child's intelligence, have believable plots, likable characters, and satisfying endings. In terms of design, the text shouldn't be too long so that there is a nice balance with the art.

IP: What words of wisdom can you offer writers who are debating between self, independent and traditional publishing routes?

Lee: I think self-publishing is probably the most difficult path, since it is difficult to get wide distribution and reviews from national journals and major newspapers. It is a viable option if there has been no success in getting interest from publishers or if the book has such a specialized niche that other publishers do not have the know-how to reach the intended audience (e.g., books that address medical issues). In comparing independents versus large publishers, one question often comes up. Does size matter? My answer is that it depends. I've addressed a few of the most common raised questions below:

1) Won't I get more money from a large house?
On paper, and in the beginning only, the answer may be yes.

2) Large houses sell more books, right?
Not necessarily. It's important to consider how your book will be positioned on a publisher's list. Will your book be one of 50 new titles in its season? Perhaps 20? If so, how much attention from the sales and marketing department can you expect for your title?

3) It's just more prestigious to publish with a large house, isn't it? That depends on your idea of prestige. Big-name studio actors, for instance, often go after roles in small-budget independent films in order to be associated with a more "prestigious" product. Book publishing can work much the same way. Lee & Low, as well as many other independent publishers have won many major national awards in recent years. Many authors and illustrators (especially those previously published with Large Houses) believe that the attention from manuscript to bound book they receive from a smaller, independent publisher can be more important to the final product than being part of a big conglomerate. The same is true for after the book is published. It makes simple business sense. A publisher with a very large front list might focus on selling more of what's selling. A publisher with an annual front list of 10 titles will make sure each of these books get into the hands of reviewers, awards judges, bookstore buyers, etc. (For more information on this check out,, and ).

IP: Can you give those writers who will be vying for the IPPY awards some words of advice?

Lee: Always do your homework. Research what's already been published and who's publishing those books. It may help the writer to understand if a certain topic is overdone or assist the writer in locating a publisher/editor who has a special interest in the subject being written. Be persistent. Just because a story has been rejected 10 times does not mean that a publisher cannot be found (though a writer should pay attention to editors' comments, especially if the same comments appear.)

Share your story with others and listen. It's good to get others' opinion about the story. A writer can take writing classes, join a writer's group, or get ideas from local booksellers or librarians. Stay positive. It's never easy to get rejections. But if a writer believes in the story, is willing to make revisions (rewriting is a big part of the publishing process), then the effort should eventually pay off. Good luck!

Katzen: The book's design is very important. It must be attractive enough to make us want to follow the instructions inside and then clear enough to accommodate the content. Too much design is distracting, too little is dry and boring. I believe that consumers react to books just as contest judges do. They pick up the volume, thumb through it, and will either keep on reading or put it down and look for something else just seconds later.

However, there is no formula to make a book work. There is just clarity and intuitive sense, good communication skills, and a desire to truly serve the audience. People can sense when a book is written for the audience, or whether it's just about the author's vanity.

Hill Hearn: Let your characters drive your story. In too many of the entries I judged the protagonist was just the author with a life. Ask yourself whose story is it? What does this person want? Then let it play out on paper. Learn how to control your point of view if it kills you. Break the rules only after you've learned to play by them. Learn how to craft a scene that shows instead of tells. Most of all, don't worry about trends. Write the story only you can write; the story that's in your heart. Let your passion drive you.