March 3 – 9: “With the huge numbers of books published, is it possible to identify the “best”?

thriller-roundtable-logo5The awards season is in full swing and ITW Members Brad Parks, Keith Deininger and Amy Shojai are playing along too as they answer the question: With the huge numbers of books published, is it possible to identify the “best”?


marrows_pitAn award-winning writer and poet, Keith Deininger is the author of The New Flesh, Fevered Hills, Marrow’s Pit, and Ghosts of Eden (Nov. 2014). He grew up in the American Southwest and currently resides in Albuquerque, New Mexico with his wife and their four dogs. He is a skeptic and a bit cynical.


Hide and Seek by Amy ShojaiAmy Shojai, CABC is the best-selling award winning author of two dozen pet books and channels her “inner pet” to write dog-viewpoint THRILLERS WITH BITE! Her critically acclaimed debut thriller LOST AND FOUND launched her fiction career in late 2012, followed in 2014 by the sequel HIDE AND SEEK. She specializes in stories that prompt an emotional response in both herself and her readers, and loves to write “furry” medical thrill-rides that leave readers gasping with delight. She’s currently writing SHOW AND TELL, the next book in the series.

The Player by Brad ParksBrad Parks is the only author in history to have won the Shamus, Nero and Lefty Awards. A Dartmouth College graduate, he spent a dozen years as a journalist, working for The Washington Post and The Newark Star-Ledger. He is now a full-time author who lives in Virginia with his wife and two children.



  1. We all know writing awards are utterly meaningless beauty pageants whose highly subjective results should be regarded without any real seriousness…
    … Unless you happen to win one, in which case they are incredibly sage validations of your readily apparent genius.
    I’ve been fortunate during my career to win three awards: the Shamus, the Nero and the Lefty. So perhaps it doesn’t come as a surprise that I believe awards do a fairly credible job of identifying the best of what we do.
    But let’s be clear: I say this not because I’ve won them—that, obviously, is some kind of fluke—but because I’ve judged them.
    As a proud member of International Thriller Writers, Mystery Writers of America and the Private Eye Writers of America, I have served as a judge for the Thriller Awards, the Edgars and the Shamus.
    Each organization asks judges to keep their deliberations confidential. So I can’t go into a lot of details here. But in each case, I was surprised at how easy it was for my fellow judges and I to reach a consensus, at least when it came to which books should be on our short list. There were simply a few works that rose above the others, and it wasn’t hard to pick them out. They were the titles that all three (or four, or five) of us had ranked highly—in our top tens, if not our top fives.
    Now, once the shortlist is in hand, things can tend to get rather tight. In one case, the difference between the winner and second place was that one had judges ranking it first, second and third; while the other had rankings of first, second and fourth. That slim, one-ordinal difference determined who got the prize.
    So, yes, obviously there’s a bit of luck involved (case in point: the guy writing this post). But I came away from all three of my judging experiences feeling like we had done our awards proud and selected a work highly deserving of the prize it won.

  2. Having never participated in an award for writing, or for that matter anything, I guess I can’t comment on the validity of a book’s recognition. Perhaps I’m cynical but I find it hard to believe that any book, whether it’s mine or my Aunt Bessie’s can be considered the ‘Best’. It’s kind of like awarding someone for the best cake or spaghetti sauce; it’s all in the view of the taster, or in this case the reader.

    Consider this: how many of us have been through numerous literary agents before finding that one who took a chance on their book? Was it five? Ten? Two-hundred and ten? Are we to believe that each one of those rejection letters was a reflection of our story or did it turn out to be the whim of the agent? And what if those agents who provided rejection letters only liked thrillers of a spy nature and not a scifi thriller? The ‘Best book’ is subjective and shouldn’t be a judgment on our talents.

    When I used to do community theater I played Otto Frank in a production of ‘The Diary of Anne Frank’. The critics panned it. The boy who played Peter was naturally upset and said that they only liked one actor. I told him that the critics were a bunch of Bon-bon eating clowns who didn’t know a good performance if it hit them in the face. He smirked and said, “The one they thought was good, was you.” I didn’t skip a beat and replied, “See what I mean?”

  3. It is not possible. It can’t be done. In order for anyone to even have the information necessary to fairly judge what is “the best” book in any category, that person would have to have read every single offering from that group. Obviously, this doesn’t happen. And then, what that person considered to be “the best” is going to be different than the book someone else would choose.

    So, come award season, committees are formed to do the judging and campaigns are born to get the committees to read certain books. It becomes a political scramble. Sometimes, feelings are hurt and there is much debate over the fairness of this award system or that.

    There are, of course, certain titles that always sift to the top in popularity. These titles may or may not be those that win awards. Often, I’ve found, it’s those titles that almost win the awards that have the most lasting value.

    Just remember, awards do not necessarily distinguish which works are “the best” or even better than others. Please do not be overly swayed by the results of awards. It is certainly an honor to win an award and to be recognized, but, ultimately, it should always be readers who decide which titles are their favorites.

  4. Contests are always subjective. I judge a lot of writing contests, from unpublished work that asks judges to provide feedback, to published entries that—by having already been published—already are “winners.” I’ve been incredibly humbled to judge for the Thriller Awards, and as Brad says, details can’t be shared, but I found it to be a wonderful experience. Choosing the best for me personally comes down to several things.

    First, I ask myself how well an entry follows the defined (or perceived!) criteria of that particular contest. A warm-and-fuzzy amateur sleuth puzzle may not fare well in a contest known for gritty noir winners, for example. Lots of strong language and graphic violence won’t play well in the sandbox in a contest for cozy mysteries. That doesn’t make these books any less brilliant, it’s just not a fit for that particular contest. For entrants, it comes down to the author understanding and knowing how to define a book’s genre to choose the best contest fit.

    Second, it’s a given that the work has been carefully edited and vetted. In today’s publishing world where authors are able to bring their own books to the marketplace, this matters even more. When judging a large pool of entries and reading until my eyeballs bleed, I look for reasons to say “no.” Poor editing or formatting is an easy pass. Sorry, but there ya go. And really, there’s no excuse. Everyone today can have work polished to a high shine prior to publication, so nothing gets in the way of the story. Authors owe it to their stories. It shouldn’t matter how or by who the book was published—the story must stand on its own, and I want to be wowed no matter who wrote and/or published.

    Third, personal taste weighs in. As I said before, this is very subjective. I’ve never been “wooed” to favorably read an entry, as mentioned by Keith–(hint: I love chocolate!). For myself, I read for enjoyment and the minute that enjoyment goes away, the book is a pass. That may happen within the first few chapters (I always read at least that much), or it may happen further into the story. It’s difficult to say what I love—great turn of phrase and language, compelling plot, distinct “voice” of the author, surprises that may me gasp or laugh out loud. But it’s easy to say what makes me stop reading. In a word, boredom.

    The latest contest I judged hand more than 60 books, and after ready the first chapter or so, it was easy to drop them into the “no” or the “maybe” files. I think that I ended up with more than half in the “maybe” and read further. Of those, another 15 or so made the “YES!!!” file, truly contenders for the top honors. Cream rises.

    Choosing the sweetest cream is the most difficult and joyful decision of all.

    As an actor, I also understand Stephen’s comment. But here’s the deal. If you believe the RAVE reviews, then you also must believe the pans. *s* Or believe neither one, and keep your sanity. Awards are very nice, praise is lovely, but it’s most important we believe in ourselves and our work first. There are only a handful of awards each year, yet how many of us live our passion writing successful books? I’d call that a win.

    1. I gotta go with Keith on this one, getting published is a reward unto itself. Sometimes it’s bitter sweet when one thinks about the time and rejection spent getting to a ‘YES’. I never cared for reviews as an actor; I received favorable critiques all the time, I just never cared, never read them; I’d have preferred panning because it keeps you humble. But writing is different for me. What I appreciate would probably not register for many others, e.g. I’d pick a movie like 2001: A Space Odyssey over a Star Wars every time because realism is more important to me than being wowed – I want believability or I put it down. So would it be fair for me to judge people by MY standards? Nah, so I don’t get too wrapped around the axle when people don’t like my stories. As you said, it’s all subjective.

  5. You sound like an excellent judge, Amy. Your process sounds a lot like the process agents and editors go through when selecting which works to select for publication.

    I’ve never been involved in the judging process (sounds like a ton of work!), so all I see is the other side with people thinking that if they win awards their books will sell a million copies and they’ll be set for life. Awards, like blurbs, like reviews, can be an important part of a book’s promotion, but are not often the golden ticket many think them to be.

    If you’re like me, you’re happy just to have people who read your books and enjoy them. I think Amy is right: if you’ve had a book published, that’s already an award in itself.

  6. >Awards, like blurbs, like reviews, can be an important part of a book’s promotion, but are not often the golden ticket many think them to be.

    Well put, Keith. (Says Brad, from experience). And it’s funny — in that way that’s, y’know, not very funny — how often this year’s winners are dumped by their publishers two years later. Ultimately, the business side of publishing is about sales. No one, at least at the Big Five, is looking at awards when they make their decisions. They’re looking at P&L Statements.

    Which brings us to the awards that, in my mind, are often more important: the ones voted on by fans. The Anthony Awards. The Leftys. The Agathas. Some folks denigrate these awards because they’re voted on by fans — as if this somehow invalidates the results — and I’m always like, uh, excuse me? Who the bleep do you think we’re writing for here??

    Do the fan awards do a better job at distinguishing the “best?” I don’t know. But I do know this: look at the past winners of the Best First Anthony and then look at the Best First Edgars. The Anthony Award turns out to be a far better predictor of long-term career success than the Edgars. Maybe those readers aren’t so dumb after all, huh?

  7. Thank you Keith. I still feel very green when it comes to the “fiction” side of publishing and can only do what works for me.

    We had this discussion about awards on one of the readers/writers lists (mostly mystery authors and fans). And it was interesting that the awards didn’t seem to matter all that much to the readers. The winners of some major awards made the same comment Brad and Keith point out–other than an extra neato statuette to dust on the shelf, it made very little impact on sales.

    I think readers care more about a friend’s recommendation that a book is a MUST-READ-NOW! than any awards it might win. That’s not to say I would love to someday have my fiction recognized with an award.

  8. I usually try to enter any contest that comes along. It’s not whether you win or lose, but whether you get noticed and possibly develop a fresh set of fans. I know there’s contest that are highly thought of like the Edgar awards and of course a Pulitzer looks good on a resume. It’s always possible that judges decisions might be swayed by bias and personal political agendas. As a writer I’m always looking for stimulation and reasons to write. It keeps my mind working and keeps me in the game. To get any recognition at all, such as an also-ran or 10th place, are still okay for me.
    But I guess the question is whether it’s possible to pick the best book out there? someone said up above it’s subjective. Some people like romance, some people like science-fiction, etcetera. There are a lot of good writers out there and a lot of fantastic books that go unnoticed. It’s hard to get past the gate keepers, editors, the agents and of course the publishers. But again as someone said up above, it’s really the readers who will judge most accurately. They vote by buying and reading novels and telling others, and becoming fans of that author. But I think it needs to be said that a lot of people read what is being recommended by the media.

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