What Makes a Book Good Enough to Win Awards?

While reading Garret McCord’s post on writing a book review, I thought about the criteria I apply while judging a book for the James Beard awards or for the International Association of Culinary Professional’s (IACP’s) annual cookbook awards. I’ve judged books for years, and the  system between these two groups is  different.

james-beard-awardJames Beard is a little more fluid than IACP.  The committee sometimes creates new categories if necessary. One year a photo book was the overall winner. Judges look at the publication as a whole, including the graphic and typographical presentation, the research, the writing style, and the reliability, but there aren’t a ton of guidelines.

I emailed Kathleen Purvis, head of the Charlotte Observer’s food section, who handles the awards, and asked her what constitutes the most important criteria. She hesitated to say. “You should write the best book you can, not the one you think will please judges,” she suggested I advise. “In my years of working with books,” she continued, ” the books that come from the heart, the ones where you can tell the writer has something he or she really, really wants to share, are the ones that always stand out. Passion shows. Look at a Julia or a James Beard or a Laurie Colwin or a Richard Saxe and that’s what stands out every time: One person’s voice, one person’s mission to share something.”

Now that’s good news, because it’s the nature of blogging: your thoughts on a subject that obsesses and delights you.

imagesIACP, on the other hand, uses written guidelines to help judges decide. I looked up the criteria from the last time I judged, a few years ago. It might have changed, but here’s what I have for writing cookbooks: Is the choice of subject meaningful? Is the perspective or point of view noteworthy, original or distinctive? Is the research thorough and accurate? Is the information presented in a way that is easy to follow? Is the writing clear and direct? Is the writing voice distinctive? Are the ingredients listed in the order in which they are used? Does the recipe tell you everyting you need to know to make the recipe successfully? Are there hints about timing, variations, do-ahead steps or substitutions? If there are headnotes and tips, do they enhance the recipes? Does the book speak meaningfully to its intended audience? Does the book deliver what it promises?

There’s another section on judging design, which authors don’t control. Then overall: Consider the quality of the book in comparison to other books of its type. Does it accomplish its goals? Does it have major flaws? Would you buy the book for your own library or recommend it to friends? Does it make a major contribution to the subject?

Now of course you’re not going to write a book simply to win an award, because that’s not a sustainable proposition. Writing a book is too hard. But the next time you come up with an idea, apply this criteria and see if it stands up. For more on what constitutes a good idea for a book, see this piece on my website.