How do you Solve a Problem like the RITAs?

The threads to the mondo-discussion in the previous entry that have caught my attention are: how would you revamp the RITA to solve your problems with it, and is there room for a reader-determined award, either from RWA or from another entity?

If readers are interested enough in the RITA and in the question of awarding the “best of” a year’s romance to titles they enjoyed, how do you accurately measure that? It seems to be as impossible as peer-judged awards.

Speaking solely on reader awards, we tried that last year with the BWAHA, a reader-nominated and reader-voted award. And based on our teeny-tiny sample, I have a feeling that word went out to more than one author’s rather rabid fanbase because two books got far and away more votes, and those votes were coming from email addresses and names I did not recognize as regular participants on our site. Plus, our referrals revealed more than a few links from those fanbase discussion boards. Coincidence? Hmm. And I don’t have a problem with fans awarding their favorite author. I just noticed the pattern. 

If, for example, the SBTB BWAHA award (and really, I’m not proposing Candy and I start taking ourselves too seriously, here. I’m speaking purely in the hypothetical situation of trying to build a reader-determined award) voting was restricted to only SBTB members, then we’d be excluding those who participate regularly (and at length) but have not registered themselves with our site for whatever reason.

But if we leave it open, we run the risk of an author with an organized fanbase peppering the voting tally once the call goes out that Their Author is up for An Award. It becomes less of a competition between books and more of a competition between organized voter fanbases surrounding a particular author. And thus the judging process comes into question.

So really, how do we do it? And for that matter, how would the RWA do it, if a reader-driven award were to be added to the annual ceremony? Would that address the difference in opinions revealed in our comments? I don’t think so. I think it would create more problems than solutions. Moreover, there’s plenty of venues from which to gauge what readers think.

As for addressing changes to the RITA, first and foremost: there needs to be an erotica/romantica award, and there needs to be a gay/lesbian award. Period. I’ll volunteer right now to do whatever needs to be done, and to judge it, too, though I’m not a published writer (except for every time I hit “SUBMIT” on this here site). I’ll put my available time where my (big) mouth is.

But beyond that, how does one address the apparent disconnect between the RITA and the readers? Altering the categories? Changing the voting pool to include booksellers and others involved in the publication and marketing of a book, much like the Oscars® solicit consideration from various professions involved in the process of making and delivering a movie?

(I think it’s time for the comparison to the Oscars to stop, though the RWA makes the comparison on the page that describes the RITA so I doubt it will end soon.)

I’m looking for a logical place to start addressing why there are audibly dissatisfied readers grumbling about the quality of those books winning the RITA each year. There are enough of the grumbling folks, even here, that it seems a large issue. Add to that the fact that, as many have pointed out, the RITA does not garner the same attention or respect that other awards receive, from cover stickers to prominent bookseller reshelving, and it seems that there is room to ask, in practical terms, what to do? Certainly I’m not the first to ask that question.

My first preference would be for the criterion, or the judging rubric in general, to be made public. What are the guidelines used for judging the categories? Is it up to each judge, and is each judge expected to know what constitutes a good romance in that category? Is that a reasonable expectation? Apparently not.

Candy is right in her statement that readers, though not published authors, do understand the genre’s expectations and requirements and aren’t necessarily “outsiders.”

If readers’ understanding of those genre standards is markedly different the standards revealed by the RITA-winning books, then then somewhere inside the chasm between them is a potential answer to a good many of our questions. Perhaps revealing the judging rules and standards is a good place to start finding out how to at least narrow the divide.

Comments are Closed

  1. 1

    I dropped out of the RWA because they don’t recognize many of us epublished authors. Since I didn’t see the benefits of being part of RWA, I left. It’s too expensive to join.

  2. 2
    Alessia Brio says:

    Virtually all forms of accolade are some form of popularity contest. It is incumbent upon those relying on the accolade to understand just what it measures. Disclosure of any judging criteria should be a requirement, whether said award is a masturbatory exercise or literary critique. Anything less makes the award (a) meaningless to the author, and (b) meaningless to the consumer.

  3. 3
    Sarah Frantz says:

    If I were on a RWA Revamp the RITA committee, I would think it vital to do a comparison of RITA process, categories, and criteria against the same for other awards.  So I’d want to evaluate how/why/what the Hugo, Nebula, Edgar, Pulitzer, RT Reader’s Choice, Oscar do what they do and then try to decide what’s good/bad about other awards, what the RITA is supposed to reward and build new process, categories, criteria from there.

    Thank God I’m NOT on that committee!

  4. 4
    DebR says:

    I’m not even venturing an opinion about the awards. I’m commenting to say this was one of the best post titles EVER. :-D

  5. 5
    sybil says:

    sbsarahlikesbooks,

    To fix the RITA’s… well one would need to be an author or a publisher.

    Other than that I think we are all taking this just a touch too fucking seriously.  The best of the best of the best… is whatever the reader wants it to be.

    Write the best book you can and poof you are a winner.  Get it published and poof you are a winner. 

    The rest is subjective and well I can’t really say cuz I didn’t read past the part about ‘gosh people were voting who aren’t reg’s and omg teh fangirls’…  I got freaked out by the llb channeling.

  6. 6
    Victoria Dahl says:

    There are reader awards. The National Readers Choice Awards have been around for over a dozen years. The Gayle Wilson Award of Excellence is judged by readers (and booksellers?).

    And the Ritas aren’t mysterious. The category guidelines are posted on the website. Writers choose the category they want to enter according to where their book fits, one would hope. Judges choose the category they want to judge. The judges are anonymous published authors. They READ THE BOOKS (see previous topic about the Hugos OHMYGOD!) and give each book a number score on a scale of 1 to 9. That’s it.

    Yes, some categories could be combined and some added. I totally agree. But the series guidelines are taken right from the publishers, whether they’re arbitrary or not, so I assume readers are familiar with those.

  7. 7
    SB Sarah says:

    I thought I was clear about that part. I don’t care who votes for our reader award. I don’t care if one author opens sixteen thousand hotmail accounts and votes for him- or herself all night. I’m labeling the pattern as a potential problem for any reader-based award that the RWA might hypothetically create. The outcome of organized fanbase vs. individual readers is as flawed an honor of quality as some are alleging the RITAs are now.

    So geez, before you start getting freaked out that I’m channeling someone I don’t read, try, I don’t know, READING the rest of what was written.

  8. 8
    SB Sarah says:

    Victoria: Looking at the RWA National site’s Category Descriptions and Judging Guidelines, which I’d looked for and missed the first time I went, I don’t think the judging guidelines are enough.

    Best Long Contemporary, Contemporary Single Title, Long Historical, Paranormal, Short Contemporary, and Short Historical all have the same guideline: In this category, the love story is the main focus of the novel, and the end of the book is emotionally satisfying.

    Granted the description varies appropriately, but superficially, that guide seems to me to give the judges too many variables in evaluation and doesn’t nearly qualify as a satisfactory rubric against which to gauge a series of entries.

  9. 9
    Janine says:

    I agree, Sarah, that the way other awards are given should first be evaluated.

    With the caveat that I haven’t done that, here are my thoughts:

    1. Reduce the number of award categories

    2. Bring back the “Best Romance of the Year” category.  I don’t know what the problems with it were, but I just went to the RWA’s website and looked at the list of books that won that award.  It is as follows:

    Best Romance of 1989
    Morning Glory by LaVyrle Spencer

    Best Romance of 1990
    The Prince of Midnight by Laura Kinsale

    Best Romance of 1991
    Outlander by Diana Gabaldon

    Best Romance of 1992
    Come Spring by Jill Marie Landis

    Best Romance of 1993
    Lord of the Night by Susan Wiggs

    Best Romance of 1994
    It Had To Be You by Susan Elizabeth Phillips

    In my humble opinion, this is a pretty good selection of books.  I’ve read the Spencer, Kinsale, Wiggs and Gabaldon and thought the first three of those were quite good. The Gabaldon I didn’t care for but I can certainly understand why it won.  And the two books I haven’t read are by authors I’ve tried.  Landis I read so long ago that I don’t remember her writing.  I would need to read her again to venture an opinion.  But I’ve read Susan Elizabeth Phillips more recently and I certainly think she is a skilled writer.

    I also think this category is important because it’s the one that booksellers, librarians, readers, in other words, people outside the industry, are most likely to be interested in.  Therefore, I think this category should be brought back.

    3.  Ultimately, I think the best way to rejuvenate the RITAs is for the romance community to embrace criticism and reviews.  As I said in my response to the original RTB post, the Oscars are preceded by a slew of critics’ awards which is where the movies that end up being nominated for the Oscars first get attention.  I think the Oscars are more respected partly because the Academy respects the opinions of film critics and its members take those opinions into consideration when voting.

  10. 10
    dl says:

    Yeah, catagory revamp is probaly in order, but my monday mush brain is not capable of intelligent suggestions. 

    IMO a reader award catagory has merit, as does critic, and even peer/author divisions.  Each appreciates different merits of a novel.

    Happy Monday.

  11. 11
    skapusniak says:

    Locus has a big list of Science Fiction awards, with some (but not in depth) info on how they work, along with historical winners.

    What I take from that is…

    - Award’s should, for preference, be named after beloved dead writers, or dead publishers/editors, well known in the genre.
    – Failing a suitable dead writer, second choice is a object/noun evocative of the genre.  So ‘The Mantitty’ sorta works.  The ‘RITA’, not so much.
    – For preference your Award should have been founded sometime in the early 1950s.
    – Award categories, must must must, be distinguished either by _form_ I.e. novel, novella, short story, film script, etc., or by _job function_, i.e best editor, best artist. NOT by subgenre. See also Oscars.
    – If you want to recognise a particular sub-genre, you create a brand new award, named after a different suitable dead author, with it’s own nomination, balloting rules, and sponsoring organisation.
    – Two round ballots, Aussie Rules ballots, or judged by a panel.
    – There is no ‘decided by ballot of any random person in the world who feels like voting’ award.  The Hugo, which is the most fan-based award, is nominated and voted upon by attendees or supporting members the annual World Science Fiction Convention.  This year’s convention is Nippon 2007.  So it’s much more like the BWAHA voted upon by registered smartbitches members, then the BWAHA voted on by anybody with a web-browser, except with more transfer of necessary $$ to the organisers of the convention become a supporting member, or inconvenient travel to Japan to be an attendee.  Nominations by any member or attendee, then Aussie rules balloting to determine the winner.
    – The Nebula is awarded by the Science Fiction Writers of America, which requires published qualifing works to join, and is apparently deeply unloved. So the RWA equivalent, I guess. However the nomination process appears to be both peculiar and non-anonymous enough to encourage the sort of thing likely what Julie’s friend was complaining about.  Then two-rounds of balloting among the membership to determine the winner.  The Nebula still obeys the split by form not by subgenre rule tho’.
    Award statuettes should, for preference, look suspiciously like high end sex toys.

  12. 12
    SB Sarah says:

    I don’t think the RITA is a high-end sex toy, but I do believe it was named after Rita Clay Estrada and her mother, Rita Gallagher, the co-founders of the RWA.

    But Ms. Estrada is not, as of the last time I saw her present, in the great beyond, though I do believe her mother passed on.

    And next years BWAHA will be decided on by live in-person voting in a very warm and luxurious locale to be determined by (a) Sarah, (b) Candy, and (c) how much money we’re able to spend.

  13. 13
    Nora Roberts says:

    Does anyone have the judging rules for, say, the Edgar? I’d be curious.

  14. 14
    Teddy Pig says:

    How do you catch a cloud and pin it down…

    hmmh mhmh mhmhmh mhhmhmh MARIA!

    How do you solve a problem like Maria?
    How do you catch a cloud and pin it down?
    How do you find a word that means Maria?
    A flibbertijibbet! A will-o’-the wisp! A clown!

    Many a thing you know you’d like to tell her
    Many a thing she ought to understand
    But how do you make her stay
    And listen to all you say
    How do you catch a wave upon the sand

    Oh, how do you solve a problem like Maria?
    How do you hold a moonbeam in your hand?

    Oh lord, it looks like an all day thing.

  15. 15
    Jules Jones says:

    The Nebula used to be highly regarded. These days, not so much (and there’s a nice little travelling flame war in the sf blogosphere about that very subject…). But Nebula is essentially nominations from your peers, followed by judging by a panel of your peers. Hugo is fan-voted, but under reasonably tight conditions that involve putting up significant amounts of money to buy extra ballot papers. No, there’s nothing to stop someone from voting for a book they’ve never read (and I’m sure it happens when someone sees a new work by a favourite author that they haven’t got around to reading yet). But I’d say that a more likely problem is people having read only one of the five shortlist items, and voting for that one without bothering to read the others.

    (If anyone feels a desperate urge to set up something equivalent to the Hugos, it would be worth talking to some of the people who administer the Hugo. The first piece of advice they will give you will probably be “don’t”.)

    between17—no, thank you, I’m not that greedy.

  16. 16
    Jules Jones says:

    Oh, and yes, the Hugo looks remarkably like a high end sex toy. There was one sitting on the table in Fan Alley just down from the one where I was working at Glasgow Worldcon. They tend to get a lot of “I’ll never get one, so can I touch yours?” attention. *I* resisted the temptation to give it a handjob, but the same could not be send of some of the other people who were fondling it.

    daily46—no, just…no.

  17. 17
    Jen says:

    Totally off topic, but…

    You can register here?  It never occured to me that I could register a screen name here.  Ohhhhhhhh.  Time to go do that

  18. 18
    --E says:

    If, for example, the SBTB BWAHA award (and really, I’m not proposing Candy and I start taking ourselves too seriously, here. I’m speaking purely in the hypothetical situation of trying to build a reader-determined award) voting was restricted to only SBTB members, then we’d be excluding those who participate regularly (and at length) but have not registered themselves with our site for whatever reason.

    —>Speaking as an at least semi-regular poster who has not registered, I can say that I haven’t registered because I don’t know what the benefits to registration are. General internet safety and annoyance-avoiding rules say, “Don’t register for something for no reason.” This applies even when it’s as cool a site as the Smart Bitches.

    As for the RITAs…what is the voting mechanism? The Hugos (and I think the Nebulas, as well), have tiered voting. That is, a person votes for a first, second, and third place award. By the arcane process of many rounds of evaluation, it is theoretically possible for a book that doesn’t have the most first-place votes overall to be the actual winner. Of course, this system can also be gamed (all of Author Gameplayer’s fans vote for AG’s book in first place, but “no award” after that), but theoretically this system does minimize such nonsense.

    Also, just as a correction to someone else’s description of Hugo voting eligibility above: a person is eligible to vote in the Hugos if they are attending that year’s WorldCon, or if they attended the previous year’s WorldCon. I’m not going to Japan this year, but I can still vote, by dint of having been to WC in 2006.

    I should note, however, that even that system isn’t foolproof, if the voting membership for an award holds a particular skew. For instance, the World Fantasy Awards tend toward the literary (both in winner and in all books shortlisted). Contrast with the Hugo, which has literary works alongside popular commercial works, simply by dint of a broader, more populist-oriented membership in the convention. (I conveniently ignore that only a small fraction of all eligible voters actually vote…)

    From my perspective as an outsider, the RITAs have a million subcategories that seem (to me) to devalue them overall. Slice a cake too thin, and pretty much everyone can have a piece.

    wordver: “Lot51”  Where they park spaceships in Roswell?

  19. 19
    Candy says:

    E: The benefit of registering is that you can log in and skip entering the verification word. Other than that, Sarah and I occasionally send out a notice to all the members of the Bitchery about something special coming down the line. And by “occasionally,” I mean “once, maaaybe twice in the 2+ years we’ve been running this site.”

    Sarah and I are supremely low key about our mailing list.

  20. 20
    Chicklet says:

    Does anyone have the judging rules for, say, the Edgar? I’d be curious.

    Ask, and you shall receive, Ms. Nora!

    The overview for choosing judges is here. In short, a single General Awards Chair chooses one chair for each of the twelve categories (more on those below). Each category chair chooses four judges to round out the category panel. The Best Novel panel usually has eight judges total because of the volume of submissions. These judges read all novels submitted to them in the Best Novel category throughout the year. Last year there were 500 novels submitted. Dang.

    The categories and their qualifying criteria are listed here. As I noted before, the categories are based purely on format, not generic convention.

    Having researched this process last night and today, I must say I trust the Edgar Awards much more than the RITAs, if for no other reason than they have the guts to declare a winner in the, say, Short Story category, regardless of whether it’s a historical or contemporary or contains Inspirational elements or what have you. I think in this instance, with judges evaluating a wide array of plots/characters/etc., craft (style, grammar, plotting) become easier to judge across a category.

    I don’t know much about the workings of the MWA membership, or whether the non-generic categorization causes divisions among, say, writers of cozy mysteries and writers of edgier mysteries. But it seems to me that a group of adults should be able to accept a Best Mystery Novel winner that doesn’t come from their own category.

    My code word is able42—yes, I’m able to provide an answer. *g*

  21. 21
  22. 22

    The first thing the RITAs need is a score sheet.  Last year a friend of mine was so excited to judge, until she got the books and absolutely no criteria on which to judge them.  She made up her own score sheet and sent it in, which, to my mind, is total craziness.  How are you going to effectively run a contest without some uniform standard of scoring?

    On the subject of ebooks, though, why not, instead of making more categories, just allow them to compete in the regular categories?

    It seems like if making new categories is a problem, they should lighten up the restrictions on the existing categories.  The categories in the RITAs (and the Golden Heart, too, while we’re at it) need to reflect their standards for recognizing publication.  If you can write an erotic romance for Ellora’s cave and be considered published by the rules of the organization, there should be a place for those published authors to enter their work, end of story.

  23. 23
    Eva Gale says:

    The first thing the RITAs need is a score sheet.  Last year a friend of mine was so excited to judge, until she got the books and absolutely no criteria on which to judge them.  She made up her own score sheet and sent it in, which, to my mind, is total craziness.  How are you going to effectively run a contest without some uniform standard of scoring?

    Exactly. To what standard have these books been judged? By what I’m reading, none.

  24. 24
    Candy says:

    I’m all for having different categories for different beasties—and novel-length romances, series romances, novellas and short stories are very different beasties. I’m waffling in terms of the difference (aside from incidentals like plot and voice) between contemporaries and historicals. But some of the guidelines regarding sex and the like? What the fuck?

    Having a more detailed scoresheet might also be helpful. Perhaps have one section for fuzzy feelings inspired, and the other for crafty concerns? Am not sure how practical this would be.

  25. 25

    Also, just as a correction to someone else’s description of Hugo voting eligibility above: a person is eligible to vote in the Hugos if they are attending that year’s WorldCon, or if they attended the previous year’s WorldCon.

    Minor correction: Members of last year’s Worldcon (along with members of the current Worldcon as of the end of January) are eligible to nominate (the first round of the selection process, with the five blanks in each category described elsewhere).  Only members of the current Worldcon are eligible to vote on the final ballot with the five (sometimes more due to ties; rarely less if the category is very lightly nominated) finalists.

    Voting is, as mentioned elsewhere, done by “instant runoff” (sometimes misleadingly called “Australian”) ballot, where you put a 1 by the choice you want to win, a 2 by the choice you’d want if your first choice wasn’t on the ballot, a 3 for your next choice, and so on until you run out of choices or don’t care about the remaining candidates.  “No Award” is always a choice as well, and has historically won on several occasions, although it has been a long time since it last happened.

    Kevin Standlee
    Hugo Awards Co-Administrator 1993, 1994, 2002

  26. 26
    Nora Roberts says:

    ~The first thing the RITAs need is a score sheet.~

    I get a score sheet. In that I get a form, with the books listed, to fill in my score.

    I looked over the Edgar rules—and it’s late, I’m a little tired after the work day, so I might’ve missed something. But I didn’t see any specific instructions, rules, whatever, for judging. It seems to be up to the judge’s opinion and discretion—though the Edgar judges (still 5-8 people) discuss the entries with each other throughout the process.

    I don’t know, and don’t much care anymore (at least not right this minute), but while the judge selection process is different there, and there are certainly less categories (which may be part of why there is Malice Domestic and The Agathas), the judging process itself seems pretty much what I’m used to doing. Except I don’t discuss with other judges. I decide on my own. I don’t think either way is wrong, just different.

    As for reader-judged awards, I can’t think of any that don’t separate Romances into category. Historical, Contemporary, Romantic Supense, Series, etc, etc. I think, basically, the genre lends itself to this because of its diversity. I don’t see that as a bad thing. Others may.

  27. 27

    Yikes, when it comes to the RITAs (or the Golden Heart, for that matter), I don’t see a lot changing.  Multiple RWA chapters have reader-based contests (tho I think ours, the National Reader’s Choice Awards, are the longest running), and to my thinking, that’s enough for RWA.

    In the NRCA, we give our readers 4 books from the categories they’ve listed as “favorites”, and ask them to score AND rank them (to break ties).  It’s worked for 14 years, so I guess we’re doing something right *g*.

  28. 28
    jmc says:

    Tangent:  apparently not everyone in the SF community thinks the Nebula’s reputation is that great.  Check out the Galley Cat piece posted today on Scalzi’s write-in candidacy for SFWA prez.  I’m sure there’s more on it on the Interweb…

  29. 29
    KS Augustin says:

    I’m swiftly coming to the conclusion that *all* ‘excellence’ awards are bogus. Once, I too thought that, say, the Booker was superior to the Oscar. However, some recent articles flying around have nixed that.

    It appears (and I believe Galleycat had a good round-up of this) that each publisher has so many ‘slots’ (say, 2) for its literary entrants for a given prize. So, if you’ve written something worthy of a Nobel Prize for Literature (not that I respect the Nobels any more) BUT you’re third in submitting your prose, you miss out on a shot at the <

    >.

    Under the circumstances, RWA’s process—I feel—is no better or worse than anyone else’s.

    Rotten Tomatoes? Now, THAT’s the kind of award I can get excited about! :)

  30. 30
    Jules Jones says:

    jmc: that would be the current location of the travelling flamewar I referred to earlier. :-)

    (*Both* my genres seem to be in an uproar about awards over the last few days.)

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