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BY KATHERINE PICKETT, POP EDITORIAL SERVICES

Over the past decade, the publishing industry has become glutted with book awards for indie publishers. Authors and publishers are invited to compete in contests that range from the Pulitzer to the Pushcart Prizes. Yet the Benjamin Franklin Awards, begun in 1985, continue to be some of the most respected in the industry. What is the story behind these awards?
“When our awards program started,” says Terry Nathan, chief operations officer (COO) at the Independent Book Publishers Association, “we were one of the only ones around.” That was back in 1985, just two years after Publishers Marketing Association (PMA) began. In 2008, PMA became IBPA, but the awards program retained the name it had been christened with nearly 25 years earlier: the Benjamin Franklin Awards.

“Since then, many other programs have come and gone,” Nathan says, “but we are proud to report that our awards program continues to do what it did when we started, and that is to help our members improve their publishing programs.”

To be certain, the Benjamin Franklin Awards have achieved this and much more.

 

THE AWARD

April 8, 2016, marked the close of the 2016 Benjamin Franklin Awards, with the winners honored at IBPA’s annual education summit, Publishing University (PubU). Nearly 1,400 entries were received in 55 categories, with one gold winner and two silver runners-up selected in each category. PubU, itself an industry-leading event, took place this year in Salt Lake City, Utah.

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A Gold Benjamin Franklin Award trophy showcased next to the winning book

The mission of the awards is simple: to recognize excellence and innovation in independent publishing. Unlike many other awards contests, the Benjamin Franklin Awards demand both editorial and design excellence. For Donald Tubesing, this has been a guiding force in how he publishes his books.

Tubesing, cofounder of Whole Person Associates and Pfeifer-Hamilton Publishers, entered the first-ever Benjamin Franklin Awards more than 30 years ago. His book, Kicking Your Stress Habits, won gold. The book is still selling, with total sales around 500,000 copies, according to Tubesing. Over the years, his companies have won a combined 29 awards. “I think of the Ben Franklin Awards as an interesting way to set a standard,” Tubesing says. He cites three criteria that his company used when deciding whether to acquire a book and how to package it:

“Would Pfeifer be proud? Would Hamilton be proud?”
“Will it make a positive difference?”
“Will it win a Ben Franklin?”

“The driving force was not that ‘oh, we want to win,’” he explains. Rather, at staff meetings, they would ask themselves, will this book win a Ben Franklin? “And we would all look at each other and say, ‘No, I don’t think so, it’s just a book!’ Okay, what are we going to do to break the boundaries of ‘just a book’?” The company would then attempt to make a product worthy of the award. Some won and some didn’t, but the awards drove the company “to a higher standard,” says Tubesing. “They were influential on the product we developed.”

Administering the annual awards program is a huge undertaking. More than 150 book-publishing professionals, culled from seemingly every segment of the publishing industry, are involved in judging the awards. Each entry is assigned three judges, two assessing editorial aspects of the book and a third reviewing the design.

“One of the keys of our awards program is the fact that we share the judging forms with the participants to provide feedback on how to improve future publishing projects or revisions of these,” says Nathan. Indeed, this is one reason many small publishers enter the Benjamin Franklin Awards over other programs, and the feedback can be valuable.

Anthony Pomes is vice president of marketing/PR/rights at Square One Publishers. “We had a pregnancy/parenting book called Pea in a Pod published in a sepia two-color format,” he recalls. “One of the judges remarked that the book would have been that much more consumer-friendly had we gone with full color instead. Well, we remembered that comment when we were moving toward a second edition on that book. Lo and behold, we switched to full-color format at that point. That came about as a direct result of the comment on the judging form.”

Another reason people choose IBPA’s awards program is the esteem that comes with winning. “We are so humbled by the awards,” says Linda Jackson, publisher at PESI Publishing in Eau Claire, Wisconsin, “and so happy for our authors. … [It’s a] great bio builder for the authors, too. Being a published author elevates creditability, and to be an award-winning author moves them into coveted air.” The company has won three gold and three silver awards in the past three years.

“It’s such a great recognition and we proudly display our winnings,” Jackson adds. “It’s really quite a big selling point to get future authors, too.”

According to Pomes, “the caliber of titles” and emphasis on originality are what have brought his company back to the Benjamin Franklin Awards over the years. Square One Publishers has won five times since the company’s inception in 2000. “Three of our five awards were for health books. … [For a company whose niche is health books,] that was validation that we’re on the right track.”

Allena Hansen at the 2015 Benjamin Franklin Awards Ceremony in Austin, Texas

Allena Hansen is the author of Chomp, Chomp, Chomp: How I Survived a Bear Attack and Other Cautionary Tales, which won gold for Autobiography/Memoir and silver for Best Inspirational Book in 2015. “Getting the award,” says Hansen, “means a great deal because it was sort of validation. Every time I pass my bookcase and see it sitting there, I say, ‘Yeah, that’s pretty neat.’”

With more than 30 years of history behind them, the awards have evolved alongside the publishing industry. COO Nathan reports, “Early on, it was very rare for us to receive fiction titles because small and self-publishers back in the ’80s and ’90s were publishing mostly nonfiction. As such, we had only one general fiction category.” Today, genre fiction is catching up with nonfiction, and the awards have adapted to that reality. “We have expanded to include four separate fiction categories, and all four of these are among the most popular to enter.” The Benjamin Franklin Awards welcome entries from all sizes of independent publishers. That means companies ranging from Wiley to Cinco Puntos Press to self-publishers with one book to sell are all competing for the same prize. But when it comes to judging, size doesn’t matter. “I always love seeing a small publisher beat out one of the big guys,” Nathan says. “It doesn’t always happen, but when it does—super cool!”

Given its prestige, is there a bump in sales or increase in press following the awards? For most winners, it isn’t a one-to-one return on investment, but there are benefits. Hansen explains: “It’s hard to say which of the subsequent print interviews and TV appearances were a direct result of the award … but there was a definite bump in sales in the months that followed the ceremony—and I did get an audio book contract out of it.”

Tubesing, who is based in Duluth, Minnesota, comments on the intangible benefits: “The kind of joy that having something classy like the Benjamin Franklin Awards out there for little publishers like us who were nowhere … it gave publishers a chance to really look again at the quality of what they were making and a way to connect around and envision that they were part of something different.”

 

THE CEREMONY

The 2015 Benjamin Franklin Awards ceremony program

When the Benjamin Franklin Awards began in 1985, and for many years afterward, the awards ceremony was held in conjunction with BookExpo America. The move from there to various parts of the country, most recently Austin, Texas, in 2015 and Salt Lake City, Utah, in 2016, is a symbol of how far the awards have come. No longer do they require the prestige of BEA to garner a large crowd.

Jackson recalls the splendor of the awards ceremony. “The first time we entered, we had no idea what it meant to be a finalist and what a big production this is! Now we know if honored as a finalist, we come with a speech, just in case,” she says.

The atmosphere at the ceremony is another distinguishing factor of the Benjamin Franklin Awards, says Tubesing. “One of the memories I have of the awards is how much joy there was in that room for the various award winners. It was great to see so many other people so joyous. Which really is the whole point of the organization, to celebrate the incredible creativity and quality that people are putting into their books.” Each year, approximately 250 people attend the ceremony, which includes displays from exhibiting vendors, a catered meal, and finally, the announcement of winners. “It is a thrill to be announced as the award winner, and there’s a kind of a whoop that goes up in the room,” Tubesing says. “It never failed to lift me up when other people won the award.”

Anthony Pomes credits the collegial atmosphere cultivated by IBPA with his ability to make important business connections at the ceremony. “A few years back, our publisher Rudy Shur reconnected with a friend in the business sitting nearby—Stephen Mettee. We ate, we talked, and we really got to catch up on things in a nice way. … By end of the meal, Stephen had told us that we should reach out to his son Joshua over at AWB [the wholesaler American West Books] about carrying some of our bigger titles. Within a few months, we had our first placed order from AWB for some of our books—a relationship that continues to this day.

“We really feel like it was IBPA’s positive environment, with as much emphasis placed on people and shared stories as on commerce and projected sales returns, that helped us forge a path toward that new contact,” Pomes says.

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IBPA member Sharon Castlen accepts a Benjamin Franklin book award during the 2016 ceremony

Over the years, a number of funny, touching, and fortuitous events have happened at the ceremony. Nathan shares one: “IDG Books won so many awards for their For Dummies series one year [1997], we decided to give their founder [CEO John Kilcullen] a special award. He was very humble, and his acceptance speech connected with everyone in the room. Very inspirational!”

In 2015, Hansen attended her first Benjamin Franklin Awards ceremony. Believing her book to be a finalist in only one category, Inspirational, she wasn’t paying as much attention when the winner in the Autobiography/Memoir category was announced. “It didn’t register that my name had been called, so I was concentrating on my dinner when my tablemates started nudging me, then snapping their fingers in my face and barking, ‘Hey, Allena, you won! Get up there!’ … The MC [Angela Bole] had moved on to the next category before the lightbulb went off in my head. ‘Wait! Wait!’ I hollered from the far side of the room.” All eyes turned to watch Hansen run toward the stage and accept her award. “I don’t remember much that followed other than thanking the bear who mauled me for making it all possible.”

In another humorous account, Tubesing shares a story from when he was president of IBPA, a position he held from 2002 to 2004. As he tells it, he was reading the names of the winners and, although he had reviewed the titles ahead of time, he managed to mispronounce one. “I read it out proudly and I hear this whispering behind me. The author is standing behind me and Jan Nathan is standing behind me and I hear them saying, ‘Should we tell him?’ ‘Well, he is the president.’” They alerted Tubesing to his mistake and he said, “Uh, let me read that title again.” And what was the book? “This was a long time ago, and we didn’t talk about gluten,” he explains, “so I said, ‘The Glutton-Free Cookbook.’” The house roared.

For some, the Benjamin Franklin Awards are another marker of their success, and a fine one at that. For many others, however, they are more than validation of their hard work. They are a way to celebrate and be part of the publishing community. “One of the things about the Ben Franklins,” Tubesing concludes, “is that it’s an award for publishers. Not authors, not editors . . . It was a beautiful way to feel connected.”

Katherine Pickett is the owner of POP Editorial Services, where she offers copyediting, proofreading, and developmental editing services. She wrote the award-winning book, PERFECT BOUND: HOW TO NAVIGATE THE BOOK PUBLISHING PROCESS LIKE A PRO.