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.