Confessions of an IPPY Judge

The truth and nothing but the truth.
(Note: This column was originally posted without my byline. Instead, I used the anonymous byline ďI.P. Judge.Ē But, once I spoke as a judge at the IPPY Awards celebration in New York on June 3, 2005, I decided it was no longer necessary to remain anonymous in print.)

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I am an IPPY judge.

Some of you probably want to take me out to dinner, or at the very least buy me a fabulous new car. The rest of you probably want to throw tomatoes at me, or at the car I currently drive.

In order to avoid any of these reactions, Iím going to remain anonymous.

Hereís what I will tell you: I have more than 25 years of experience in all of the areas youíd expect from a judge:

I have written a number of my own books which have been published by major and independent publishers, and have ghostwritten for other authors. Iíve written on nearly every subject you can think of, and specialize in a few, including the media and the publishing industry.

I edit fiction and non-fiction books, articles, essays, and even newsletters. Iíve written promotional material. I review books. Iíve worked in TV and radio. Iíve promoted my own books. Iíve mentored plenty of other authors, advising them on writing, getting published, and promoting their books. I am a voracious reader.

I could go on, but you get the point.

Most importantly, I love great books and the people who write them. I wish I could say the same thing about everything and everyone else in the publishing industry, but Iím not gonna lie to you.

We all know whatís wrong in the publishing industry and how drastically itís changed since ďthe good olí days.Ē Somehow, great books with great writing still manage to get published, though not as often as they should be. Unfortunately, most of whatís published these days is merely product.

For all of these reasons, I love great books and the people who write them now more than ever. Theyíre an endangered species.

All of this plays a significant role in why I also love being an IPPY judge.

I get to say ďNo thanksĒ to books that not only donít deserve recognition, but probably never shouldíve been published, at least not in the editorial condition they were in when they hit the shelves.

And I get say ďIím speechlessĒ when I read an IPPY contender thatís so incredible it takes my breath away, leaving me babbling to myself and to Independent Publisher editor and IPPY Awards coordinator Jim Barnes. Once I regain my ability to speak actual words, I let him know how much I love a book by making my usual threat: If this book doesnít win, Iím going to throw you out the window.

I judge a number of categories. I have very high standards. Iím supposed to. After all, Iím an IPPY judge, not a publishing house editor. (I see that tomato coming my way, and Iím going to duck now.)

Which brings me to my next confession: Iíve been pleasantly surprised by the number of excellent self-published books that have arrived at my door during judging season. Some have won or placed in their categories. I shouldnít have been surprised, though. Talent has to go somewhere, and since so little of it is appreciated by publishers these days, superb writers often end up self-publishing their work via any number of todayís many traditional and online options.

I do not discriminate. I donít care if youíre self-published or published by a publishing house. I donít care if youíre published by a well-known house or one Iíve never heard ofÖI only care if youíve written a book that knocks my socks off.

I donít care if youíre an award-winning, grant-winning, well-connected, always-reviewed, super author with academic degrees out the wazooÖif your book stinks, your book stinks.

I donít care if you never went to college, donít know any literary high mucky-mucks, and dig ditches to support yourselfÖif your book shines, your book shines.

I donít care if your book is the most well-researched piece of work the world has ever seenÖif you canít write, you canít write. And if you canít write, you shouldnít be published, and you certainly wonít win an IPPY award, or even place. Sorry, folks, writing talent isnít just part of the deal, itís the core of it.

Hey, people, wake up Ė these are books, and books are supposed to be well-written pieces of work. What does that mean? That means creativity, imagination, a strong voice, a way with words.

Books are not information dumped onto pages. At least theyíre not supposed to be. Get that? Let me say it again for those of you who may need to hear this again: Books are not information dumped onto pages.

And while Iím on the subject of what books are not, let me add this: books are not merely description. So many books, fiction and non-fiction (although fiction suffers from this disease far more often), are just endless descriptive passages. No real insight. Certainly no emotional impact. No point. Just description, description, description. Going on and on about what the sky looks like is not storytelling, itís just description. Do you hear that, novelists? Do you hear that, poets?

And another thing books are not: books are not a place for an author to open a vein and bleed onto the page. That would be the journal you keep so you can read it to your therapist. Books are a place for an author to creatively tell us about and show us his or her thoughts, opinions, experiences, feelings, you name it. The joy, the pain, and everything in between. Bleeding on the page is just another form of dumping information on the page. Perhaps thereís a fine line here, but readers know it when they see it. And so do IPPY judges. I fell in love with a lot of books this year while judging the IPPYs. Even more than last year. Plenty of times, while reading, I wanted to stop and call the author on the phone and gush. But, we judges canít do that. So, we call Jim and gush. Even if itís the middle of the night and we know heís not in his office. We donít care. We have to gush, so we gush to his voice mail, his e-mail.

Or at least I do. I canít speak for the other judges. I donít even know who most of them are. These are just the humble and not so humble opinions and confessions of one judge. But, I suspect that the others share most, if not all, of these. If they didnít, they wouldnít be judges.

We judges are independent. No one tells us how to judge or what to think. We donít have to contend with office or organizational politics regarding our choices. We arenít worried about pleasing anyone or offending anyone.

When I love a book, I want to tell everyone about it, and I do. I tell colleagues, friends, family, even complete strangers. And not just about the winners. The finalists and many of the wonderful books that didnít become finalists also move me so much that I canít shut up about them.

Plenty of great books donít win or place in their categories. Sometimes, itís hard to choose the winners and finalists because so many books in a particular category are deserving of such recognition. Sometimes, itís quite easy to choose because that year a particular category has just a few standouts.

But, no matter what, a winner makes itself known by one particular quality that separates it from all the rest: MAGIC. It has that special something you canít quite define, canít quite articulate, and then you realize that the word magic is really the only word that will do. The finalists have a bit of magic about them, too. Some more than others. But the winners donít just have a bit of it, they glow.

I donít think the judges choose the winners. I think the winners make themselves known. They stand up and shout, ďIím the winner!Ē

You canít ignore them. They wonít let you. They call to you from that pile on the floor. From the coffee table. From the desk. From your lap as you curl up on the couch, in your comfy chair, or in your bed. A winner grabs you by the gut and wonít let you go. And you donít want it to let you go. You want to celebrate it. You want to tell the world about it. And thatís exactly what weíve done.

I know what it takes to write a book, to get it published, to promote it. Iíve been there. I know the joys. I know the frustrations. I also know what itís like to be a reader. What it takes for a book to win me over. The joy when a book does that. The frustration when it doesnít.

TO THE AUTHORS WHOSE BOOKS WERE ENTERED IN THE IPPY AWARDS, I CONFESS THE FOLLOWING: Some of you have brought me great joy. Some of you have brought me great frustration. All of you have one thing in common: you have moved me in one way or another, whether thatís been to shout from the rooftops with glee or to rant about how low publishing has sunk, and renew my vow to do my part to change that.

TO THE PUBLISHERS WHO ENTERED THEIR BOOKS IN THE IPPY AWARDS, I CONFESS THE FOLLOWING: Thank you for the courage it took to publish books of superb quality. You have helped raise the bar. But, I have a beef, and itís a pretty big one, so listen up: Tell the world about the books you publish. It isnít enough to have your authors promote your books, you must promote them, too, or youíre really just a printer. Publishing doesnít exist in a vacuum. You canít complain about slow book sales while youíre not willing to do anything about selling and promoting.

Plenty of IPPY contenders and winners have been books I never knew existed, and wouldnít have known about if I hadnít been a judge. That is insane. Iím not your average reader. Iím in the publishing industry. I shouldíve heard about these wonderful books, and the general public shouldíve heard about them, too. I realize that about 180,000 books are published every year and I canít possibly hear about all of them, but I know and you know that you can do so much better when it comes to getting the word out.

Never say, ďOkay, weíll promote the book once we see that we have a lot of sales.Ē That makes absolutely no business sense. How do you expect to have those sales in the first place if no one knows that the bookís out there? You must spend the money to market and promote the book in order to make the sales. Every industry understands that basic business fact except the publishing industry. Stop the self-sabotage. Promote your product or get out of the publishing business and sell widgets instead.

And one more thing while I have your attention before you reach for another basket of tomatoes to hurl at meÖStop blaming authors when books donít sell. Books donít sell because publishing companies donít make much of an effort except for a couple of lead titles. We all know that. When your marketing department, promotion and PR folks, or your editors screw up, hold them accountable instead of taking it out on authors.

I guarantee you that plenty of this yearís IPPY winners have hardly sold any copies, and thatís clearly not because the books arenít any good. Itís because publishers have decided that itís not their job to market their own product. News flash: it is your job, publishers, and if you donít do it your sales will continue to spiral downward. And self-publishing will continue to rise. After all, if authors have to do all of their own marketing, and are subject to the distribution whims of their disinterested publishers, authors would be better off taking over the entire publishing process and benefiting from the control that comes with it.

TO THE WINNERS AND FINALISTS, I CONFESS THE FOLLOWING: Iím speechless. That is my highest compliment. Your talent and perseverance deserve more than just IPPY recognition. If I could throw you a ticker tape parade, I would. Would you settle for being showered with the wadded up paper in the little trash basket under my desk?

If I could book you on Oprah, I would. If I could have you all over for dinner and great conversation, I would. If I could personally travel the country and sell your book on street corners out of the trunk of my car, I would. If I could get your book on The New York Times bestseller list, I would. If I could bring you a million dollar advance for your next book, I would.

If I could spare you all the crap youíll probably have to go through to get your next book published, I would.

And what can you do for me? Write another amazing book. The world needs more authors exactly like you.

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Nina L. Diamond is a journalist, essayist, and the author of Voices of Truth: Conversations with Scientists, Thinkers & Healers. Her work has appeared in numerous publications, including Omni, The Los Angeles Times Magazine, The Chicago Tribune, and The Miami Herald.

Ms. Diamond was a writer and performer on Pandemonium, the National Public Radio (NPR) satirical humor program, for its entire run in Miami and select markets nationwide from 1984-1998. As an editor, she works frequently with other authors and journalists on both fiction and non-fiction.