An Award, Sort Of
Tonight is the Chicago Writers Association’s annual book award ceremony, held each year at the end of January at a local independent bookstore. I look forward to this event each year, and this year especially so because my book, The Men Who Made the Yankees, received an honorable mention in the “non-traditionally published nonfiction” award category. The book came out last summer, just before the application deadline for the 2014 CWA book awards. Two-thousand-and-fourteen: now that was some summer. It was some summer because I did something that I had never done before: I hired a publicist. I had a little extra money from a family inheritance and thought, Well, if ever there were a time to blow a couple of grand, this was it.
And blow a couple of grand I did. I can’t say that it was a total bust though. I learned an awful lot. First of all, I learned that you don’t need a publicist; that is if you’re willing to do a lot of the leg work yourself, which I am. What I can’t do by myself is get the list of contacts that my publicist can (at least not without blowing another grand). I mean she sent me a small book filled with contacts that she was going to contact, and then urged me to do the same. Wait, isn’t that why you’re paying her? No matter, we were a team; we were tight, we had each other’s back (until she had blown though my small fortune; then I didn’t’ hear from her again).
But while I had her attention she got me gigs on sports talk radio throughout the summer. I talked to radio announcers all over the country who were either local sports enthusiasts, ex-minor league players, or, in one case, an ex-NHL player from Canada. I talked to anyone interested in my story—the origin of the New York Yankees. I thought I had a pretty good slant: tie the origin of the Yankees to the rise of the American League. No one had done that before. Most stories about the Yankees start at three different places: 1903, when they came to New York as the Hilltop Highlanders; 1913, when they adopted the Yankee moniker while sharing the Polo Grounds with the National League Giants; or 1923, the year they moved into Yankee Stadium, claimed their third American League pennant, and won their first World Series title (beating their crosstown rival).
So, I had a good story. And since it was summer—when professional baseball permeates everything—the book generated a lot of interest with the live sports talk radio crowd. But, then, this is their business: fill up airtime with relevant content. And I was—in the summer of 2014—relevant content.
But I had a dilemma: everyone wanted me to use my landline phone and not my cell phone for the interview (“better reception” was the usual response). It was a dilemma because I like to pace around my office and flail my hands when I talk about myself…I mean, my books. Cell phone, no problem (just use my ear buds). But landline? I didn’t have a headset—and I wasn’t about to buy one for a few radio interviews. So, after thinking about it, I came up with an idea: I would duct tape my handheld landline phone to my head. Say what? Yes, I would duct tape my phone to my head. That way I could pace up and down the length of my office and flail my hands all I wanted to. Luckily, I came up with the solution before my publicist called with the first lead.
Publicist: “Hey, WGN wants you.”
Me: “What? WGN? Isn’t that Cubs radio?
Me: “They want me?” (Remember I live in Chicago. I used to grade papers in the leftfield bleachers when we first moved to Chicago. I was there when Steve Bartman caught the foul ball that Cubs’ leftfielder Moises Alou should have caught in Game 6 of the 2003 NLCS. Yes, I know the Cubs—and I know WGN.)
Publicist: “Think you can handle it?”
Me: “Ah, yeah, sure.”
Publicist: “Good, because they want you now.”
Publicist: “Yes, there’s a rain delay in Colorado, and they need to fill airtime.”
Publicist: “Hang up and keep your line free. They should be calling you in five minutes.”
Me: “Five minutes!” (Turns out that she was right. In five minutes the phone rang. It was WGN. It also turns out that five minutes is just about enough time to duct tape my phone to my head.)
WGN: “Hey, WGN here. We’re on the air at Coors Field in Denver. We’d like to ask you a few questions about your book, The Men Who Made the….”
So that was the start: on the air with five-minutes’ notice and I’m talking to Cubs’ announcer Steve Stone. But that doesn’t tell you why I joined the Chicago Writers Association, which is really what I want to talk about. I joined because I was mad at the SCBWI. What’s the SCBWI? The SCBWI, by anyone’s reckoning, is the largest, most influential, professional organization for writers and illustrators of children’s books. Hence the name: The Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators (and the acronym). I was mad at the SCBWI because I thought they were too cozy with leaders of the industry (publishers, editors, art directors, and the like). The result of this coziness is most visible in the SCBWI’s PAL policy (PAL, as in Gee, aren’t we great pals?). But PAL, which stands for “Published and Listed,” is a decidedly unfriendly policy, especially for independently published children’s book authors. Here’s why: PAL authors get to do things that non-PAL authors don’t.
They get to list their books in certain registries.
They get to sell their books at certain events.
They get to submit their books to SCBWI awards and contests.
Non-PAL authors don’t (or at least haven’t been able to up to the last year or two). And what really burns me up is the fact that non-PAL members pay the same membership dues as PAL members. Now, that really gets under my skin. But first: how do you become a PAL author? Easy (at least that’s what the SCBWI website says), just have your book, article, poem, short story, illustration, photograph, film, and/or television show for children published by one of the organizations listed in the SCBWI Market Survey and you’re in. Oh, and if your publisher isn’t listed in the Survey’s drop-down menu, no problem, simply enter the name of your publisher in the space provided and, just like that, you’ll be added as a full member. Easy? Right. Fair? You bet.
Wrong. Read the fine print, dummy. A publishing house must meet the following criteria to qualify for PAL status:
- The author/illustrator shall not have paid any money or consideration for the publication of their work in any format. This would eliminate all vanity publishing and subsidy publishing.
- The publisher (whether traditional or new media) must have a professional editorial process prior to publication, at no charge to the author/illustrator.
- There must exist a means of broad distribution to the retail customer.
- The publisher must publish works from more than one author and illustrator, or family. Thus, if there are several illustrators but only one author (or vice versa) it will not qualify.
- The publisher must have published at least one prior list, or in the case of a digital publisher, have been in business for a minimum of one year.
- The publisher, whether traditional or new media, provides a means of marketing at no cost to the author illustrator.
In other words: NO SELF-PUBLISHED AUTHORS NEED APPLY! And that’s me (as well as a whole slew of other people). So, I’m hot under the collar. I’m steaming. I’m really mad and ready to write the SCBWI’s Board of Directors—and I did, several years ago. I wrote and told them how unfair it is that I pay full membership but don’t get full benefits—because I’m not a PAL author (actually, I am, just not lately). To my surprise, I got a response. Rather quickly, too: Hold on buddy. Be patient. We’re working on it.
So I do, I hold on, immersing myself in other things (which meant I completely forgot about my letter and the Board’s response). Then, several months later, the SCBWI Board of Directors made an earth-shattering announcement:
Hurry! Hurry! Read all about it!
SCBWI announces the first-ever SPARK Award
for non-traditional publishing!
That’s right, self-published authors just got an upgrade: now we’re called “non-traditional publishers.” I was ecstatic, euphoric: they listened (or maybe I was just riding a wave that had already crested). Anyway, now self-published authors…I mean, non-traditional publishers could get their due: their own book award from the SCBWI, one of the greatest, most generous, outstanding organizations in the entire world (okay, okay, maybe that’s a bit over the top, but then again I’ve been a faithful member for over forty years).
But I didn’t apply. I couldn’t. I didn’t have an independently published book ready to go by the 2014 application deadline. But I was working on one: my fifth, called The Men Who Made the Yankees. It was a classic “labor of love,” over a decade in the making (think Kadir Nelson’s We Are the Ship). I wasn’t quite finished with it to make the 2014 SPARK Award application deadline, but once it came out (one day after the cut-off date) I raced to the post office to put in my application. But not for the Spark Award!
The application I was hurriedly mailing was for the 2014 Literary Classics book award. If you’re not familiar with Literary Classics, it’s a new organization that caters to the needs of self-published authors. And it’s not alone in this capacity: it turns out that due to the rise of non-traditionally published books an entire marketplace of fee-based services exist to “service” this new sector of the publishing industry. Along with editorial, design, and marketing and promotion services, you can also buy book reviews and awards.
Reviews? Okay, I’ve heard of that (even Kirkus, one of the most esteemed book review agencies in the business, offers book reviews for a fee). But awards? Isn’t that going too far? Well, you really can’t buy an award from a reputable organization (though you can purchase award stickers online from some disreputable businesses). What you can do is throw your hat in the ring—for a fee. In other words, there is a plethora of literary organizations happy to take your application (and your accompanying application fee) on the promise that you might win an award. And, if you do win, here’s what you get: a glowing review, a brief mention on their website, and a handful of silver or gold medallions to stick on your book. Remember, that’s only if you win. Now, let’s do the math: $75 application fee (standard charge) times 3,500 applicants (a fairly typical amount, though I’ve heard that some awards garner more than 5,000 entrants) equals (I think you better sit down for this one) a cool $262,500. Yes, folks, that’s a little over a quarter of a million dollars.
So, guess who gets the real award? Anyway, as someone once said, there’s a sucker born every minute. And I guess I’m one of them because I dug into my pocket and shelled out $150 (that’s right, I entered my book in not one, but two categories), then I waited. And, low and behold, the next thing I know, I’d won. But, before I could pop the cork on a bottle of champagne, the phone rang. Nope, not at 5:00 a.m., when authors and illustrators get word that they received the BIG awards—the Newberry and Caldecott Awards. My call came around 6:00 p.m.—that’s 4:00 p.m. Pacific time—when Lin Oliver and Stephen Moser, co-directors of the SCBWI, called from the SCBWI’s Los Angeles office to inform me that The Men Who Made the Yankees had won the 2nd annual SPARK Award for non-traditionally published nonfiction. (You got it: even though I missed the deadline for the inaugural award, I didn’t sit on my laurels; I entered The Men Who Made the Yankees in the 2nd annual SPARK Award.)
Pop. Fizz. Clink. Gulp. After a glass or two of champagne, I told my wife that everything was cool between the SCBWI and me. Yep, I was no longer mad at them. I was mad, just not at them. I was mad at the Chicago Writers Association. I’m mad at them because at the awards ceremony, which I attended earlier this evening (and even got dressed up for), the moderator only mentioned the awardee and the runner-up for each category. There was no mention whatsoever of anyone who received an honorable mention, which means ME!
And I was all set to stand up and take a bow.