Book Prize Judging
For the book prize, the judges evaluate the finished book, which will have benefited from the beautiful book design and strong editorial gloss we are famous for, within the much smaller field of published contenders. The book ranked the best by our judges is announced as the prize-winner in January of the following year. Our editors have very eclectic tastes, and those who are familiar with our list know that the books we ultimately publish are each exceptional in their own way but often very different from one another. So how do we go about judging which is the best full-length volume of poetry we publish in a given year? Isn’t it all a matter of taste? Yes...and no. Our system involves independent assessment and ranking by our judges combined with a simple but elegant algorithm. We believe this ultimately makes for the most perceptive and fair decision, no matter what kinds of books we are judging or how much we might seem to disagree on which is best.
Each year, usually in June, after all the contending books have been published, the judges are sent paperback copies. This is followed by four to five months of “reading for pleasure,” at which time our judges can relax with the work and be drawn to those books they personally enjoy the most, for whatever reason. Except for the prior year’s book prize winner, our staff judges have already examined the work critically in manuscript form, so now is the time to turn off the critic and simply enjoy the whole fruits of our labors.
Out of all contending books, the judges are asked to pick the five they liked the best and rank them on a scale of 1 to 5, with 1 being their favorite. The judges come to this decision in their own way, whether it’s by a scoring system of their own device or just by gut feel. Judges do not compare notes. We want each judge’s opinion of a book’s value to be uncontaminated by the views of the other judges. How a book compares to the other contenders for a particular judge, however, is an important part of the winnowing process. We think this means of ranking best reflects how books are judged in the real world of readers, critical or otherwise.
Each judge’s 1-5 rankings are entered into a simple spreadsheet that includes all contenders for the prize that year. Books not chosen by a judge receive a ranking of 0. For example (from 2013):
Because the number of raw votes for a book can be misleading, the rankings are given a weighted score (1=5.00, 2=4.00, 3=3.00, 4=2.00, 5=1.00) and entered into another spreadsheet. The number of votes for each book is entered and the scores are tallied. Sometimes, it is immediately obvious that one book stands head and shoulders above the rest, and that book is our clear winner. Other times, we may have to ask the judges to re-rank the top contenders if the scoring is running close. Here is the scoring for 2013:
As you can see, the rankings for 2013 were all over the place. But even though none of the judges picked the book as their favorite, the ultimate winner had four votes and a total score of 15.00. The closest second, with a score of 10.00, had three votes. If the scores had been similar, but the number of votes had been reversed (e.g., the initial point-leader had three votes and the runner-up had four), we would have asked all of the judges to pick their favorite from the two books and retallied those votes. In such a case, because not all judges initially selected these books, a final scoring could well change the initial result. The winner, however, in this case (and usually) is clear on first ranking. In case of a tie—like the 2016 three-way tie—the judges hammer it out until one winner is chosen.