CONFESSIONS OF A SCREENER:
SIX THINGS WRITERS SHOULD KNOW ABOUT MYSTERY AWARDS
By Michael Bowen
In early 1993 I got a message to return a call from someone at the Mystery Writers of America. Gut-flutter. A mystery of mine had come out the previous year. Could this possibly be . . . . ? Uh, no. The MWA caller just wanted some free legal advice.
That’s as close as I’ve come. I hope for a nomination each time I have a book published but, so far, hopes are all I have.
Unlike most other authors, however, I’ve also seen things from the other side. I’ve screened numerous times for the Edgars and the Hammett Award. I’ve been one of the handful of people you’ve never heard of who take all the books submitted for award consideration and whittle them down to five or so nominees from which judges whom you have heard of will select a winner. I’ve thus played my own small part in dashing the hopes of, cumulatively, thousands of writers.
Based on that experience, here are six things writers might want to know when awards season rolls around.
- Screeners matter more than judges.
Screeners don’t pick prize winners. One or more famous and amply credentialed people will do that – but they will pick those winners from a very short list that a handful of screeners have created, and will have no practical ability to expand it. Screeners may not pick winners, but they pick lots of losers – and from their decisions there is no appeal.
- Job One for Writers: Make the screeners want to read page 21.
Someone screening for a major awards category will receive between 250 and 500 submissions. These will come in unevenly over the eligibility period, with only a trickle at first growing to a raging flood in the last twenty days or so. The Edgars try to mitigate the backloading problem by requiring staggered submissions. According to a recent Edgar screener I spoke with, however, this has only a limited impact if it has any at all.
To read all of those submissions a screener would have to plow through four or five books a day as the deadline approaches. Ain’t gonna happen. Screeners end up actually reading less than 30 of the submissions, and only sampling the rest. “Sampling” means, say, twenty pages. Can I base a thoughtful and nuanced assessment on twenty pages? No. What I can figure out is whether I want to read page twenty-one. If I don’t, then it doesn’t make my short list. Period. So an award aspirant’s first job is to make me want to read page 21.
- You have a shot even if you’re not already famous.
From 2008 through 2019, books by sixty-one authors were nominated for the Edgar Award for Best Novel. Fifteen to twenty of those – a quarter to a third – were authors so well known that anyone with any business serving as a screener should recognize their names. That’s not a trivial percentage, but it isn’t prohibitively disproportionate either. A substantial majority of the awards went to authors who weren’t exactly household names.
In some ways, in fact, a well-known writer can actually be at a disadvantage. Head-grabbing success invites an unconscious self-indulgence on the part of authors. Even if an editor has the guts to tell Superstar A that he should cut eighty pages, Superstar A doesn’t have to listen. The fans of a successful franchise series revel lovingly in trivia like what the protagonist has for lunch – every day. Non-famous writers can’t get away with stuff like that – and as a result write books that are more craftsmanlike.
- Job-Two for Writers: Get your book to the screeners early.
Screeners have plenty of time to read submissions thoughtfully in June, and they’re looking for reasons to like a book. In December, surrounded by a daunting pile of processed pulp, screeners are consciously or unconsciously looking for reasons to reject the book they’re sampling at the moment so that they can move on to the next one: Excuse me, prosecutors do NOT issue search warrants. Hasta la vista, baby. My notes for a June submission can run to 250 words. In December, my notes for sampled stories are much more often telegraphic and dismissive: Romance novel with corpses; or If I’m going to read pornography, I have to have more fun than this.
Many publishers assure their authors that they submit every mystery they publish each year at least for Edgar consideration. Some are telling the truth and some are kidding. Many publishers who do submit everything treat submissions as an author-placating crap-shoot that they will take care of when they get around to it – typically very late in the process. All too often they simply dump five large cartons with twenty books each on a UPS truck the Monday after Thanksgiving.
Your best shot is to get your story to the screeners by June or July, and regardless of which camp your publisher is in the odds are overwhelming that this will not happen if you leave things up to a marketing department staffer. Do it yourself. Send a copy of your book to each screener the first moment you physically can. Don’t bother including a resumé summarizing your many and great accomplishments in the mystery field, or a capsule bio, or reviews of this or prior books, or a link to your website, or a personal note sucking up to the screeners. We won’t read them. We simply don’t care. Your book has to stand or fall based on what’s between the covers.
Even if you do this, of course, the odds will still be heavily against you. So what? You miss a hundred percent of the shots you don’t take.
What happens if you submit copies and then five months later screeners get an additional copy from your publisher? Nothing. Publishers often submit duplicate copies and it doesn’t make the slightest difference. The screener recognizes the duplication immediately or, worst case, within three pages, and discards the second copy. No harm, no foul.
- Fratricide is a myth.
Some publishers fear “fratricide.” They think that if they actually submit all their books, screeners will assume the publisher wasn’t being selective and will discount all of that publisher’s submissions accordingly.
This is baloney. Screeners don’t expect publishers to pre-screen their submissions. When I’m screening I’m not particularly conscious of which house published the book I’m sampling at the moment. Screeners exchange emails with each other about particular titles, but I can’t remember ever seeing a book-specific message that included a reference to the publisher. Your publisher shouldn’t withhold your title on the assumption that your story and another story will knock each other off if they’re both submitted. Not gonna happen.
- A good novel about a crime isn’t necessarily a good crime novel.
A key step on the road to the short list is convincing screeners that the book works for them as a crime story. A good novel about a crime won’t necessarily qualify under that criterion. Four-hundred word Proustian descriptions of clouds might exalt the souls of sensitive readers (I wouldn’t know), but they don’t get at the issues of good and evil, logic and causation, and passion and reason that make mysteries qua mysteries distinctive. Same thing with entire chapters describing the overlay of shimmering energy and squalid decadence animating New York or Los Angeles or whatever city is the flavor of the month in the Serious Writers bubble. To paraphrase Justice Holmes’ comment about the life of the law, when it comes to mysteries a page of G.K. Chesterton is worth a volume of Henry James.
So if you’re writing a mystery, write a mystery. Don’t kid yourself that tarting it up with literary pretension will turn it into award-bait. It won’t.
Chances are that neither you nor I will ever get that magical call from MWA or the Hammett chair or any of their younger brothers and sisters in the mystery awards business. Maybe the look above at how the sausage gets made will be some consolation each year when that call doesn’t come.
LET’S TALK ABOUT ME: Michael Bowen is the author of 21 published novels, most of them mysteries but including political satire and 1987’s Can’t Miss, a “gently feminist” (St. Louis Post Dispatch) novel about the first woman to play major league baseball. During 39 years as a commercial trial lawyer following his graduation from Harvard Law School, Bowen focused on dealer and franchise disputes but managed to squeeze in representation of the Milwaukee Brewers baseball team in complex litigation over proposed siting of a prison near County Stadium. (The prison went somewhere else, as did the governor responsible for the proposal.) His legal career extended to co-authorship of all four editions of the Wisconsin State Bar treatise on the Wisconsin Fair Dealership Law (paperback and movie rights still available) and pro bono representation of various clients, including one who until his execution was on death row in Florida. Scheduled for publication in October, 2019 is his next mystery, False Flag in Autumn, featuring the irrepressible Josie Kendall and electoral shenanigans in a sequel to 2016’s Damage Control (“Bowen’s ebullient antidote to election season blues” – Kirkus Reviews).