On (not) finaling in the RITA

Yesterday, as did hundreds of other authors, I sat by my phone, desperately hoping for a call. I didn’t get one. (Okay, my husband called to ask what color paint I wanted in for the dining room, but that didn’t really count. 😉 ) Slowly, I watched the finalists for RWA’s RITA award appear on my computer screen, and didn’t see my name.

That was a little sad. This was the first time I’d entered, and I’d thought RADIANT DESIRE had a shot. It didn’t sell thousands of copies, but it got really lovely reviews, and I had the feeling that if the judges read the book, maybe they’d score it high enough for it to final.

But at the end of the day, as I scrolled through the list of names, I had a little relevation. None of the names were from small presses. They were all Big Six publishers and imprints–Grand Central, Avon, Ballantine, etc. Being the analytic type, I mused on that a little, and why that might be.

Here’s what I came up with:

It could be a basic law of percentages.

I don’t know how many authors from small presses entered, compared to the Big Six, but I suspect we were a minority. Entering the RITA is expensive: $50 for the entry fee, and then you have to buy and ship five copies of the book. That can run you in the nature of $100, particularly when you have a small print run, so your book isn’t set to mass-market prices. Many of the Big Six publishers foot the bill for that. Small presses–and small press authors–can’t afford it.

But even if small presses are percentage-wise, a smaller portion of the entries, I would think percentages would put at least one or two small press books on there. So that doesn’t ring true for me.

It could simply be coincidence that there’s no small presses on the list. However, I think this happens every year. So I doubt that as well.

It could be quality. That’s the next most obvious answer. Those small press books just aren’t as good as the Big Six. The small presses get the leftovers that weren’t good enough for NY.

I tend to doubt that, as well. Without being too defensive, I’ll tell you about RADIANT DESIRE. I wrote this book for NY. My agent adored it and was eager to sell it. We submitted widely, and had a lot of the same response from editors: this is a lovely book, but it doesn’t fit the paranormal sub-genre. Paranormal readers want dark, alpha male stories, not stories about humans and faeries. We don’t think we can break it out of the midlist.

Determined not to leave my book under the bed, I went to Entangled Publishing, a small, boutique publisher with an eye for quality and a willingness to take stories that didn’t fit squarely into the mainstream. I had a fabulous developmental editor, Libby Murphy, who made the book shine. Entangled’s incredible cover guru, Heather Howland, created a gorgeous, ethereal, beautiful cover that has been universally adored.

So, modesty aside, I don’t think it’s quality. I’ve never believed that there happen to be exactly as many “top tier” books as there are slots for publication by the Big Six. I believe there are fantastic, wonderfully written books that don’t fit into an editor’s list, or may not have the potential for a huge, NY market. They may never find a home in NY. They may find it with a small press.

Yet after dismissing percentages, coincidence, and quality, what’s left? What about prejudice? Do the RITA judges mark down small press books simply because they’re from a small press?

Let’s assume right from the start that RITA judges are smart, well-read, well-meaning people, many of whom are themselves published by the New Publishing (e-books, small press, etc.). I certainly don’t think they deliberately mark down a small press book. I do think, however, that it influences their score–in several ways.

We judge RITA books with a single number. I believe that number really comes from our gut. I bet if you asked a RITA judge to mark a book after the first two pages, and after reading the entire book, the scores would be remarkably similar. And I think the name of the author on the book, the publisher of the book, and the look of the cover, has something to do with that gut reaction. I think books that were enormous hits, written by popular authors that received top scores from reviewers, get a better gut reaction than books no one has heard of. If you settle in with a book with “NY Times Bestseller” on the cover, you probably start out with a different scale in mind than if you settle in with an unknown small press book. Or if you crack the spine of a book from Ballantine, and you know dozens of people who were rejected from Ballantine, you probably unconsciously assume the quality of this book must be good, to have gotten past all those gatekeepers along the way to publication.

It’s natural. It’s inevitable.

And as you start reading, there’s a good chance that book is going to have emotional appeal. There’s going to be some quality to the book that attracts you the same way it attracted a NY editor and publisher. I don’t think it’s as simple as saying the book is going to be higher quality than a small press book–I’ve already said I don’t think that’s the case. But this book has been carefully chosen as one that has the highest likelihood of appealing to the biggest number of romance readers possible. So the deck is stacked in its favor.

And isn’t that the point of publishing?

The purpose of the RITA is to “promote excellence in the romance genre by recognizing outstanding published romance novels and novellas.” I think it’s natural for sales, gut feeling, and emotion to play into that determination. I don’t think the RITA can or should be some unemotional measure of “writing quality”– I think it must embrace feeling, emotional reaction, and broad crowd appeal. And based on this, I think an enormously popular book, and yes, a book published by a Big Six house, will have a better shot at winning a RITA.

So I’m not saying a book with a smaller audience can’t final in the RITA. Many of them do. I’m also not saying it’s not fair that a small press book is much less likely to final.

I’ve just realized it’s part of the nature of the contest.

It should be — it’s part of the nature of publishing.


  1. I entered as well, and didn’t see my name 🙁

    I’m not disappointed, because I had NO expectation of finaling. Rather, I entered for another reason altogether (which I won’t share here)


    “…didn’t fit squarely into the mainstream” and “highest likelihood of appealing to the biggest number of romance readers possible”

    I agree with you that this is probably a large part of it. If we accept that quality isn’t the issue, it can still be reasoned that many small press books are published outside of the big 6 because they are considered “not mainstream” and it could stand to reason that these wouldn’t final because of that reason as well, especially when there are a TON of “mainstream” books to judge.

    It’s sad, and I look forward to seeing the tides turn. At the same time, I don’t think it’s going to be soon. Unfortunately, I think RWA and the majority of its judges are conservative readers. Just think about the categories themselves and the fact that in how many years, there is still not an LGBT category.

  2. Great blog Inara!!!

    I paid to enter Night Walker as well, and I also never heard the phone ring… Ah well…

    I think you hit the nail on the head. The perceived value in a NY book definitely weights it, but that’s true in the bookstore as well…

    All we can do is keep getting our books in front of readers and hoping that as publishing changes, so will the respect for small press books… 🙂


  3. ChristineWarner says

    Excellent post Inara! Very valid points and concerns. And I also agree with Lisa’s comments.

    Get those books out their to readers, their likes and demands will influence the publishers in the end 🙂

  4. Thanks ladies, for the thoughtful points. I wonder if what we really need is a separate category for small press? That occurred to me as one possible solution, though then you’d have lots of potential for other, unintended consequences (like emphasizing the message that these books are somehow different or less than the others).

    I also wonder if I’ll bother entering again, knowing the deck is stacked against you this much.

    Eh, I probably will. I’m a sucker for the long shot! 🙂

  5. You make some good points, Inara, and I’m not saying I disagree. Keep in mind, though, how many other books by Big Six publishers didn’t make it into the finals, either. Having a big publisher is by no means a guarantee that one will final in the RITAs.

    Personally, I have more of a problem with the same half dozen people being in the finals every year. The old guard; the ones that have been finaling in the RITAs for the past ten years. And while I know they’re good writers, there are others that are just as good, and I’ve read books by this handful that haven’t been as good as others of their books… yet there they are, every single year. And that’s where the name recognition comes in; not of the publisher, but of the author. “Oh, if So-and-so wrote this, it must be good.”

    I don’t think a separate category is the way to go. That’ll just be admitting that small press authors aren’t up to playing with the big boys, and that’s not the message that should be sent at all. On the other hand, I could see a digital-only category being helpful. We could get some of the Indulgences in next year… 😀

  6. Hi Inara,
    I entered my debut Harlequin Desire in Best First Book, and alas, no ringing of the phones for me, either, and I wondered if a category book ever does make it to Best First Book, and if not, if that’s because some people assume categories are ‘less’ than single title.

    On the other hand, I got a printed-just-for-the-Ritas collection of novellas from Carina Press–no cover art, flimsy paper. Visually, it was very disappointing (that first impression) but the novella I judged was wonderful. However, it didn’t make it to the finals, either, and you have to wonder if the packaging hurt it.

    All good questions, and good luck to you next year!

  7. Very good analysis, Inara, and good comments, too.

    Like Jenna, someone else pointed out some of the authors who didn’t final…like Brenda Novak, Roxanne St. Claire, and many more just in the romantic suspense category.

    I don’t think it’s any one factor that stacks the odds against us, but all of them combined. Still, there have been books published by “small press” since the late 90s. We’re talking well over a decade of non-recognition, and this is the first year it’s really starting to bug me.

    I’ll also point out that none of the digital imprints of major publishers had finalists, either. Carina is part of the biggest romance publisher in the world and only had one finalist.

    There’s always next year! 🙂

  8. Brooke Moss says

    I have to say, Inara, it felt really good to see that there was another author who felt the same way that I felt about the RITA’s.

    Like yours, my books have been picked up by indie publishers because I toe the line between WF and Rom Con. And since my books don’t fit easily into any one genre, big house publishers steer clear of them. My books are a risk, and I’ve found that the big houses don’t appreciate a good risk. But I’ve been pleased with my indie publisher experiences thus far.

    I just never expected the prejudice I’ve found within the RWA association. I had to provide a copy of my contract, and was met with some pretty substantial resistance when I entered the RITA’s. It was pretty humiliating, but I was willing to do it, because I truly believed that my book was strong and moving enough to–at the very least–final. Like you, my numbers weren’t astronomical, but they were consistent, and my reviews have been 90% stellar.

    I can honestly say that I’ve avoided entering contests before because of this exact scenario. I didn’t feel like my book would get the attention or chance it deserved, I felt like it would be overlooked and disregarded because it wasn’t with a big house publisher, and I feel like my concerns were confirmed.

    Not that I had to be the top of the pack, or I was going to throw up my hands and pout…on the contrary. But I wanted to see at least *one* of the amazing indie authors I’ve met over the last few years final in the RITA’s. I wanted to see the mold breaking. I wanted to see new trends. It wasn’t about my book (though the disappointment was heartbreaking). It was about seeing at least *one* of the books that have made me laugh, cry, smile, and sigh over the past few years…prove to the RWA, and the world, that the world’s most amazing authors aren’t limited to the big houses.

    Some of the most amazing authors I’ve met and read, happen to be published by small houses. The RWA should recognize that, and embrace the change.

    As for me? No more contests. It’s not my style, and frankly, I wish I could have my money back. I could go to a conference to polish my craft for the amount of money it cost me to join the RWA, enter that contest, and send those books. And frankly, I think polishing and perfecting my craft is infinitely more important than the RITA’s at this point.

    Great post, Inara!


  9. This is a very thoughtful and measured post, Inara, and I agree with much of your analysis here. Thanks for posting and for kicking off a great discussion!

  10. Victoria Scott says

    Great post. I truly hope we get to a point where a book really is judged by the contents inside versus the cover/author status/publishing house status/etc. It’s funny that we grew up hearing, “Don’t judge a book by it’s cover,” when that’s now the industry (and cliche) we work in. It seems readers are becoming more open to books that come from less traditional sources, so perhaps those of us that work in the industry aren’t far behind.

    In any case, your post is wonderful. Very unbiased and fair.

    – V

  11. Jenna, you’re absolutely right–there is no guarantee for anyone that they will final! I think it’s interesting to see how many people double final in a particular category. The odds of that happening seem so long, yet it happens over and over. Makes you think there’s some sticky quality (to quote my guru, Malcom Gladwell, from his book The Tipping Point) that makes people anchor onto a particular author, at a particular time.

    Hi Sarah! I recall you put up a spirited fight in DABWAHA! That was a hoot, wasn’t it? It is hard to put category books up against single titles–they are so different!

  12. Natalie, I like your optimism! 🙂 I wonder how much Carina’s covers and the quality of their books affected their scores, like Sarah suggested.

    Hey Brooke–I feel your pain! But I would counsel you not to give up on RWA. I don’t think the membership is prejudiced against small presses. If anything, I think there are so many people going alternative routes, there’s a bit of a blacklash against traditional pubs. But I do agree that it may not be worth paying the money to enter the RITA. 🙁 Hate to say it, but it may be true!

    Hi Laura! Thanks so much– you know, I’m a pretty measured person. I find it hard to rant about things, much as I try. I always end up seeing the other side. LOL.

    Thanks Victoria–I was worried this would end up sounding like sour grapes! Really, I just love discussing and analyzing publishing and the industry. Always fascinates me.

  13. I judged this year and your post had me checking my scoresheet, wondering if I have a subconscious bias against small press books. Being a category author and an ebook fan, I think I’m open-minded, but let’s see. Of the 7 I judged, 4 were small press. I gave 2 low scores and 2 high scores. Of the 3 “big 6” books I judged, I gave 1 a low score and 2 high scores. The highest score went to an inspirational romance. I didn’t sign up to judge that category and don’t normally read them, but this one was good.

    Looking back, I did rate the big 6 books a little higher. I hadn’t read or even heard of any of the authors. They were all new to me. None of the books I judged finaled.

    It’s interesting to consider how author brand and publisher recognition come into play. It’s also important (to me) to note that the contest is now open to GLBT entries, but none of those books finaled either.

    FYI, there are a lot of small press books nominated. Kensington, Avalon, Sourcebooks, Carina, etc.

  14. HI Inara! Just wanted to let you know I thoroughly enjoyed this post, it was well measured and thoughtful! I agree with you on gut and initial reactions – we are all human and this is a part of the judging process. Also, quality is def not the problem with small presses – they continuously blow me away with the risks they take that pay off. Thanks for sharing!

  15. Two days later, I find myself on the opposite side of the argument. 🙂 Not that I don’t think bias plays a role, because with that many judges, it’s going to, in many different ways, whether most of us intend it or not.

    But I did the math, and only about 7% of the entries final. Gives a little perspective, huh?

    Also, I’ve read many of those books that did final and they ABSOLUTELY deserve it! While it’s true that many great books don’t final, I wouldn’t ever say that those that did final aren’t great.

  16. Jill–you make a great point. Though I don’t think I’d consider Sourcebooks or Kensington small presses, they are independent of the Big Six. And they do show up on the lists!

    Thanks Jennifer — and I totally agree with you on the risks the smaller pubs take. I’m so glad those options are out there for readers who are interested in something new or different. 🙂

    Natalie–haha! Now you know how I felt when I was writing the blog! I totally agree that the books that final deserve it. I hope I didn’t communicate something different in my blog. I always felt that way about the GH, too (a whole ‘nother blog!). There are incredible, wonderful manuscripts that don’t final, but I don’t think that takes away from the ones that do. You don’t final if you don’t have something special. I firmly believe that.

Leave a Comment