Friday, January 2, 2009

Awards as forecasts

A while ago I conducted an exercise with some interesting results. I wanted to know how well awards reflected enduring enjoyment by the reading public. This was not an exercise in criticism of awards. I think they are a critical part of the annual cycle of events among the literate public and they play an important function of bringing attention to new works in a fashion somewhat separate from the marketing hoopla of publishers. But how good are they as forecasters of future popularity? Pretty good in the short term, so-so in the medium term, and not so much in the long term is the answer.

I decided to look at a couple of different aspects of this. First I made the assumption that the degree to which books are still in print some years after they were initially published, reflects, at least imperfectly, enduring popularity. Second I decided to compile a list of most cited books in terms of popularity. I compiled this from some 80 sources made up of library lists, academic texts (dealing with the teaching of children's literature), awards, and independent lists (informed amateurs, newspaper contests, etc.). I then looked at how often the most critically popular books had actually received awards.

In order to answer the first question (how have past winners fared?), I looked back 75 years, 50, 25, 10 and 5 years to see how many titles picked as winners or runners up by six national awards (Newberry, Caldecott, Horn Book Fanfare, Kate Greenaway, Carnegie and Bank Street awards, not all of which were in existence for the full duration) were still in print. I did this at the end of 2007 and looked back to 1932, 1957, 1982, 1997 and 2002. Up to ten years after they won an award, between 80 and 90% of the titles were still in print. There then was a plunge to 45% still in print for the periods twenty-five and fifty years after receiving an award. At the seventy-five year mark (only the Newberry was then in existence), only one of the seven (15%) Newberry Honor/Medal winners for 1932 was still in print. It wasn't the Medal winner, Waterless Mountain, but rather an Honor winner, Calico Bush by Rachel Field. In fact, among the authors represented and aside from Field, I suspect only Dorothy P. Lathrop would garner a glimmer of recognition outside the most rarefied of experts.

So only 15% of winners from seventy-five years ago were still in print.

How about the second question, (how many of the most popular books were award winners in the year of their publication?) This was an interesting exercise and I will publish the results in more detail shortly.

From an overall perspective, Awards lists were the least accurate pickers of the most enduringly favorite books compared to academics, libraries and independents. Roughly 30% of the top 100, 500 and 1000 books failed to receive a single award (recognizing that some of the favorite titles were published before the earliest awards were given).

Finally I looked, not exhaustively, for any other titles from way back to see what other books published in 1932 (but which did not receive an award), were still in print. Among the books I found were:

Freddy the Detective by Walter R. Brooks

Angus Lost by Marjorie Flack

Little House in the Big Woods by Laura Ingalls Wilder

The Little Family (now out of print) by Lois Lenski

So what does it all mean? Well, the sensationalist headline might be "Fewer than Half Award Winners Still in Print After 25 Years."

However, to an extent, it just quantifies what you might expect. Trying to sort through all the books of a particular year, to identify which are the most exciting or engaging works is a difficult task with incomplete lists of books, sharp deadlines, and all sorts of pressures, fads and influences. It is not quite the same as identifying at leisure which are likely to be the most loved books over time. If journalism is the first draft of history, then awards are the first draft of enduring popularity - somewhat hit or miss, but getting a reasonable number of the winners right and overlooking just enough to keep bibliophiles fussing and fuming.

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