Publishing Thoughts: Lynn Austin, Roger Federer, and the Christy Awards

Around 2006-2007, Roger Federer broke men’s tennis. He won six out of eight Grand Slam titles, often with a dominance that seemed otherworldly. It reached a point where you admired what was happening, but it also brought up an uncomfortable thought: this wasn’t particularly exciting anymore. Half of the fun of sports and competition is that the outcome, supposedly, should be in question. We watch a game to see who wins. It is much less fun to watch a game assuming the outcome . . . to watch simply to see how Federer would win. And so men’s tennis had a unique problem. It had the greatest talent the sport had ever seen, and yet he was so good that he actually made things less compelling. And a number of people feared that he’d actually ruin the sport.

The 13th annual Christy Awards were held in Orlando on Monday night. Overall, the event is a wonderful chance to celebrate Christian fiction for its growth and breadth and depth. It’s a chance to dress up and break bread together. To sit in a room of fiction nerds and talk about Jesus, the ultimate storyteller. It’s a great evening that, I think, has a growing problem on its hands. Things get tricky when it comes time to announce a winner.

“It’s an honor just to be nominated.” We say the words and we try to mean them, but c’mon, if that were true we wouldn’t bother with announcing a winner. And so we do. And when the announcements are made…

Steven James, winner in Suspense for the third time for The Queen.

Julie Klassen, winner for the third straight year in Historical Romance, for Maid of Fairbourne Hall.



Anne Elisabeth Stengl, first ever winner for her first two novels, for Veiled Rose

And Lynn Austin, winner for the eighth time (and fifth in a row) for Historical, for Wonderland Creek.

Eight times.

Lynn Austin is the Christy Award’s Roger Federer. On one hand, she’s everything that’s right with Christian fiction–talented, insightful, spiritual, creative–and yet she’s almost rendered these things meaningless.

The folks at the Christy Awards, Donna Kehoe and the board, know this. In fact, Donna went out of her way before the winners were announced to talk about they had taken steps this year to address concerns that the same authors keep winning. Judges were switched to new categories. New judges were brought it.

Then the awards were announced and . . .

This year may have tipped the balance. Changes are likely going to be forthcoming. In the past, organizations like RWA have addressed this issue by inducting multi-time winners into a “hall of fame” of sorts. Three wins and you can’t be nominated in a category anymore. That’s certainly an option . . . though it presents its own problems. And it impacts Bethany House  and Baker Publishing Group disproportionately.

My (totally unsolicited) suggestion is to try and make the “Just being nominated is an honor” mean something a bit more. I recommend shrinking the categories–Contemporary, Romance, Suspense, Speculative, Historical–and honoring three books in each. Then, from those fifteen books a single “Book of the Year” would be named. It’s probably a terrible suggestion and it might not change anything. Maybe Lynn Austin would win that every year, too. But I doubt it.

Or maybe you do just stop naming “winners.” Historically, publishers have not seen a large sales uptick from being named a winner. You might risk all publicity though, if you simply try to honor twenty-seven books are whatever it would be.

A final option is to simply hope for what happened in men’s tennis to happen for us. Before men’s tennis could overreact and make Federer play blindfolded or something, the unthinkable occurred. The greatest tennis player of all time started getting beat. And not because he’d gotten old, but because someone improved. Rafael Nadal, a bull of a Spaniard, rose to the challenge and suddenly the entire sport had to gather itself. We’d gone a century in creating a player as amazing as Federer, and yet now, a mere three years later an even better player had appeared. Nadal arrived in all his relentless brilliance and just as folks agreed, “No, THIS, is the best player of all time” Nadal started to lose to gritty Serbian Novak Djokovik. Could he really be the GOAT? And Federer is still around (he just won Wimbledon) and poor Andy Murray is the greatest player ever who has no shot at being the greatest player ever. It’s an embarrassment of riches. (And a plain old embarrassment for US tennis. We stink.)

Tennis’ darkest hour turned out to be its finest. From 2008 to the present, if you love men’s tennis there has simply never been any better played. Federer’s brilliance forged Nadal who in turn created Djokovik. None could exist without the others. None would be as amazing without the others.

I’d love to see that in CBA fiction. There are truly amazing writers writing. Find your best story. Find your deepest inspiration. Lynn Austin is across the net from you right now, looking at you and saying, “Bring it.” *  Heed that challenge and may we all be better for it.

*Lynn Austin is a wonderful person, one of my favorite in the industry. In no way is she doing anything like I’m implying. She’s humble and grateful for her success and the praise bestowed upon her and really doesn’t seek any of it for herself. Sorry, Lynn, for turning you into Roger Federer for the sake of this post.


19 responses to “Publishing Thoughts: Lynn Austin, Roger Federer, and the Christy Awards

  1. Who knew you were a tennis nerd, Dave? 🙂 I am, too. Love the Fed but was so hoping for Murray to pull out the upset this year at Wimbledon. Interesting comparison to the Christy awards. It makes you stop and think. I’ll be looking forward to seeing if and how they change things up next year.

    • I peaked with Courier/Chang/Sampras/Agassi in the late 80s/90s when I was playing all the time, but the Nadal/Djokovic/Federer-thing has brought me back.

      This whole Christy issue is thorny. I like BHP winning. I loved celebrating with Julie K and Anne Elisabeth and Lynn and Ann Tatlock. I want to continue to celebrate with them and I don’t want them ineligible to submit, but it does seem to be weirdly problematic. Someone from another publishing house should weigh in. Maybe they don’t care.

  2. i whole-heartedly assert that lynn austin is the best in the marketplace. because she has a long-standing appeal. she knows how to connect with readers of all ages, she is impeccable when it comes to dialogue and verisimilitude and she excels at painting canvases which have a touch of romance; but which stretch beyond the confines of that genre. she is also remarkably talented in her breadth and range and her consistency. she is one of the few authors i have read ( in the christian or secular marketplace) who has never ONCE disappointed me. i think she holds the standard high and she wholly deserves all 8 christys because from a narrative point of view and considering her literary fervour and her ability to surge her work with great (but not condescending or preachy )spiritual views, she really is unsurpassed. however, i would like to see more edge in christian fiction and, thus, perhaps another winner in the historical category. a few years ago i read a couple of titles by geoffrey wood… an author who published with waterbrook and who was, most likely, a little too unique and different than what the CBA usually lauds, merits and accepts. what struck me about wood’s work was how impressively removed it was from the usual infrastructure of CBA material. he’s a fresh and edgy literary voice who really stood out for me (an avid christian fiction reader who reads probably upwards of 100 titles in the marketplace a year). siri mitchell, too, shocked me with her interesting narrative structure, playful dialogue and inherently intelligent literary voice. dale cramer. laura frantz. jody hedlund. there are some top-notch authors who are putting the LITERARY in christian fiction; beyond its well-deserved realm of popular escapist fiction. i echo that in order for lynn austin to relinquish her well-deserved roger federer run as champion, she needs to have sterner competition. i don’t at all blame the judges for choosing ‘wonderland creek’ after reading all of the nominated titles; but i do mirror your belief that changes would make the competition more interesting 🙂 this article is what drew me to the blog ( i saw it on twitter) and i look forward to adding it to my google reader 🙂

    • Thanks, Rachel. I don’t know what the end result will be next year. It will be interesting to see if anything comes of it. If Lynn is eligible though, we’ll definitely nominate her.

  3. First, I want to thank you for coming up with the best description of me (and my writing friends) ever: fiction nerds. I really like that!

    Second, you offer very interesting perspectives on what purpose does the award offer? As a writer striving for publication I was truly honored and naturally elated to have made it to the semi-finals in the 2011 Genesis. For me, that was a wonderful “credit” that I could include in my pitches to agents and editors. I would think the same for published authors–having Award Winning Author stamped across their covers would entice new readers, but it was interesting to read that publishers usually don’t see an up in sales. Yet, receiving an award must have some interesting rewards/perks for authors. I’d be very interested in hearing from published authors in this regard.

    Thanks for posting this piece.

    • Long term, I do think there are definitely sales and publicity opportunities that come from Christy Award wins. I know my own novel which won back in the day definitely got opportunities because of the win. But it’s not like they guarantee the NYTimes list or can fully transform a book. They are incremental and, again, often somewhat longer term.

      Now, I think there’s a rush of social networking and interview arrangements. Amazon and other online retailers often have pages where you can find the winners. I don’t know about any large retail promotions done with the winners though.

  4. I think a category should be judged by a fresh group of judges every year. Maybe that means rotating a group of judges through each of the categories and then retiring the judges. Or maybe it means recruiting an entirely new group every year. But, that done, if Lynn Austin has written the best book of the year in a category, then I believe she wholeheartedly deserves to win that category. She’s earned it. As you said, it’s up to the Nadals of the writing world to improve their craft and challenge her!

  5. Personally, I don’t pursue contests as I have too many concerns about them and feel led not to. My publisher, however, has entered me for the Carol in the past. I do think it’s good to have recognition for quality writing. I’m just not sure how that should be done/play out. Lynn Austin is certainly a worthy model of quality writing who sets the bar quite high. There are many authors out there who write beautifully and don’t get a nod. Contests and awards are interesting topics but I’m not sure the issues they bring will ever be resolved.

    • Good thoughts, Laura. And building on what you said, one thing that I left unmentioned is that a tennis match offers an objective winner. Federer was better than those other guys. Lynn is being named a winner…and there are a ton of variables in that.

  6. Thank you, Dave, for addressing the problem that many of us have noticed! Like you, we all admire the quality of work that earns the Christy. The problem is that the Christys are supposed to be drawing attention to worthy fiction, but if one author wins a category for eight years in a row, it kind of implies the opposite–that there is no significant competition out there, that the pickins are so slim that no one else can compete. And we all know that’s not true. Lynn is a wonderful author, but inspy fiction has grown up so much in the last ten years that I could name at least five or six others whose work is just as outstanding, some of whom were nominated along with Lynn this year. What I’ve wondered is whether there is a standard rubric being used by the judges, and if so, whether that rubric somehow inadvertently favors one author’s style or content. I’ve also wondered about the fact that the awards are publisher nominated. The other two major awards with which I’m familiar–the Carol Awards and the Rita Awards–are author nominated, and that seems to allow in a lot more fresh voices. Opening up the Christys to author nominations would create a big headache, I know, because the volume would be so much higher and it would require more judges. But I know at least one friend who wrote an absolutely excellent novel but was not nominated by her small publisher for the Christy Awards, and in my opinion, that was a loss. It makes me think the publisher nominating system may be part of the challenge. If any award doesn’t showcase the true breadth and excitement that is developing across genres in inspy writing, it will become irrelevant. So I’m really glad that the Christy Awards committee is aware of this problem and working on it.

    • Good thoughts. Yeah, I have no idea what other publishers’ policies are for nominating books. It does add a different dynamic. Seems like ACFW and the Christys balance each other that way. I’m not sure our authors who aren’t in ACFW submit their books to those awards, so that ends up representing all the books either.

  7. I love the tennis analogy, Dave. But we can never have a literary Nadal if not all authors are “allowed” to compete.

    I agree with Rosslyn’s comments.

    The Christy books are entered by the publisher which limits the kind of books and number entered. The RITA and Carol are entered by the author.

    It goes to reason that if Lynn Austin keeps winning, then her publisher will keep entering her. We can’t know if there is a better book. hypothetically speaking, if NOT all books are entered.

    Will the publisher take a chance on a new author over a proven one? I don’t know. Yet that has to be a factor.

    In discussions about the Carol Awards at ACFW, we know judging is very subjective. We tried to create a score sheet that minimizes prejudice and produces the best winner possible. (I’m not sure how the Christy’s are scored.)

    ACFW broaden it’s judging field by including booksellers and librarians. Yet, even they have their favorite authors and genres. And I can’t help but think it sways their judging.

    I disagree limiting categories is not the answer. I don’t like that the Inspirational category includes all CBA books for the RITA. Contemporary romance IS not the same as historical. 🙂

    I’m not sure there is a right answer to the awards question. It’s fun to debate but in the end…

    …I really think I should win a Christy. Even if I’m not nominated. 🙂

    • Thanks, Rachel. The biggest “problem” with an award naming is a winner (and where my metaphor falls apart entirely) is that it isn’t truly a “winner.” Tennis allows an objective winner. You beat someone in tennis. So maybe a better comparison should have been with gymnastics because there’s scoring in that and sometimes we complain about it. No award, even with the most rigorous scoring, ever will guarantee a “best.” Art is subjective. So we’re stuck trying to make the best of it.

    • Maybe it’s because I’m a sports guy, but I prefer one winner systems. But you’re right it is almost impossible to compare historical with romance, etc.

      On the other hands, I’d offer that the Carol Awards and RITAs may have so many categories, often with quite a bit of overlap, that they may be diluting the impact of the award. Maybe? Contemporary fiction vs. Women’s fiction? Or the ever favored “Novel with a Romantic Element” from RWA.

      Versus say, “Pulitzer Prize for Fiction.” That’s it. That’s all you get. Argue all you want. (Except this year when they decided to be total buffoons and not award it to anyone.

      Two answers to the same question of trying to honor great books. Hopefully as long as we continue to examine the process (and change when needed), we’ll keep them meaningful.

      • I’ve learned this week that RWA is eliminating the Romantic Elements category in 2014. They probably came to the same conclusion you did, Dave. 😉

        As for the Carol, Contemporary Fiction is different that Women’s Fiction, IMHO. Lisa Samson writes contemporary fiction. Carla Steward writes contemporary fiction though it’s set in a different era than “now.” Wow… it’s hard to categorize. But for sure, they do not write women’s fiction.

        I agree we can have so many categories we end up diluting the waters. ACFW is working to be more effective.

        But you know, who ever said an award had to be “all inclusive?” If I want to set up an award for books with the word blue, than I can do that, right? LOL.

        So, it’s the Christy’s committees right to chose how they want to define their award. If it creates repeat winners, or if it excludes some categories/authors, then so be it. That’s perfectly fine. It’s still a great award and like I said, you can award me a Christy any day… even if I’m not nominated. I’d be fine with that… 🙂

        There are other awards in Christian publishing too: the Carol, the EPCA Award….

        BTW, I love sports analogies! 🙂

  8. I just want to add I’m not against any of the winners. I do at the core believe the best books win and the best are nominated! I am for the winners and congratulate them. No matter how many wins! I’d never deny anyone their win! Especially Lynn Austin!!

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