Ten Tenets for Literary Panels

Literary Panels – The Ten Tenets

Thank you to the literary community for the open and constructive discussion following our recent blog post, Are Literary Panels a Bad Idea?

This is still being discussed and I was inspired to think a bit deeper about book judging and literary panels. I am not saying that it is a perfect system and there are a number of stress points where it can fail. However, my opinion is that it is the best approach.

From the feedback on the blog and socials it is clear that there are many examples where panels have to identify the “best” in a competition that requires a judgement about outcomes that may not be objective e.g. HSC markers for Music or English. We can learn from the approaches that these other sectors take.

Also, even though there are exceptions, there is a general view that there are overwhelmingly good outcomes from literary panels over many years. To quote Jackie: “The amazing thing is that there is so often consensus, surely a sign that they work and no doubt because of all the hard work that the panel puts into it”.

We need to be open to continuously improving. I am not saying that I have all the answers but I have been fortunate enough over many years to have experienced superb literary panel judging experiences that have been well resourced with a thorough process that delivered great outcomes. I thought that it may be helpful to share my learnings of what could be an optimal approach to help others and to provide a platform for all of us to contribute to create best practice. I have integrated various comments and links provided by readers to the blog, and have drawn on the business and process management experience of my husband.

I have thought through this by considering the key elements that make a literary panel work.

Here are my Ten Tenets for Literary Panels.

1.Values and principles and funding from the right sponsor organisations

There needs to be a sponsoring organisation e.g. Government, library, arts charity, philanthropist with sufficient cash and in kind resources to fund prizes that are attractive to authors and publishers, and to provide appropriate administrative support and promotion. Generally wining prizes of at least $10k would be warranted but I note that CBCA has no monetary prize but there is a direct fillip to material book sales with their awards sticker on the book cover.

The sponsoring organisation will set the selection criteria and select the panel. This means that the values of this organisation will be key to the ‘brand’ of the award. As a panellist do my values align with these values and brand?

At the outset all the panel should discuss and understand the values e.g.: confidentiality, honesty and openness, equal voices, meeting deadlines, declare conflicts e.g. friendships with authors.

All the panel should discuss and understand the selection criteria and judging principles e.g. what is literary merit; what is a crime novel; what is a debut book.

If the values and principles aren’t well understood, or there is not sufficient funding and resources by the right sponsor then don’t start.

2.Submission of book entries

How do we get the best books entered? Is the award sufficiently publicised and are the publishers and authors sufficiently diligent to submit?

There is no right answer but if you don’t receive at least 40 – 140 relevant entries then it is unlikely that there will be a sufficient pool of known and unknown quality books to make a quality shortlist. The panel is often given the opportunity to call for books before the final cut-off date if there are obvious gaps in the books submitted.

Using your experience and based on your overview of the books submitted, is there sufficient quantity and quality of books?

3.Selection of panel members – how do we get the right number of best qualified members with the right voices and that can operate as a team?

The sponsor drives this process. Typically there are three to five panel members including the chair reviewing 40-140 books. The members should be selected based on their relevant experience and current capacity to judge.

My personal experience is that being part of a well-run team is a wonderful experience that provides a richer and better outcome. In a good team diversity of opinions and voices are welcomed. 

Get the panel mix and size right for the task from the outset. If it isn’t right let the chair know.

4..Sufficient support and administration to enable an efficient and effective process

Administration is key but not that interesting so I will only make a few observations based on where things haven’t gone well:

* the need for sufficient copies of the submitted book to be provided to each panel member as early as possible. If there are PDF copies then there needs to be one source (chaos ensues when there are multiple versions from authors, publishers etc)

* a clear timetable and targets for the number of books to be reviewed and when the panel meetings will take place

* clear and regular communication especially about pending deadlines and meetings

You need strong support for a smooth process.

5.Quality of the chair and team interactions

The quality and experience of the chair is critical. They set the tone and run well organised meetings. They ensure every voice is heard and robust debate is handled positively.

It is my experience that any well run and chaired team will result in a superior outcome compared to the best that an individual can produce. These synergistic effects are also supported by academic studies.

Is there teamwork delivering great interactions and, in your view, the choice of the very best books? If not talk to the chair or organiser– get change as soon as you can.

6.Volume of books to be judged over the right review period is feasible

As I said previously on the blog the workload is significant and typically requires reviewing 40 to 140 books, narrowed down to a long list around 10-12, and then to a shortlist around 5 or 6, before a winner. However, this does not mean that the workload is unrealistic or results in a flawed process. Digesting the volume of books is feasible and has been achieved time and time again.

Often the books are initially allocated between pairs of judges to share the workload before books of likely potential are judged by all the panel. Also, the judges are chosen because of their relevant experience and realistically and reasonably can use their judgement to cull books without reading every word on a first read. If a book has not captured you by 20- 50 pages then surely it should not pass the grade of a great book worthy of the short list.

Start early, project manage, and collaborate so that judges can deal with the workload and give every book sufficient time.

7. The process for judging and selecting the shortlist then winner

This requires every book to be read initially by at least two panel members, and a series of three to four panel debates (as well as ongoing feedback or status reports) to winnow the books down to, say, 40 to12 to 5 to one. There is often a weighted scoring matrix adopted at the short list stage giving 5 points down to one for each panel members selection. The scoring is then used as a basis for discussion between the panel members to identify what everyone agrees upon, as well as to discuss the outliers and areas of disagreement. Often the discussion about the differences and outliers provides rich results.

This process is not random, and in my experience results in the best quality books being selected. However, clearly the process relies on the opinion of the group of judges on the panel assessing very subjective elements of the literary merit and other qualities of a book. I would estimate that 95% of the time I would personally agree with the panel’s decision of best book, and in only 5% of cases I personally think that they may have made the wrong choice, but I trust the process and the experience and opinions of the other judges.

Good process including a series of three to four panel debates and a scoring system leads to good outcomes.

8. The quality of the publicity and announcements

The impact of being shortlisted cannot be under-estimated. Although all awards are different, the impact of obtaining a CBCA short list nomination for children’s books is very significant. The awards may be announced 12 months after a book’s first publication date and the award means that the publishers often re-print at least the original run.

The process of then announcing a winner provides another opportunity to publicise great books. Sales of quality books are positively impacted at both the short list and winner stages of the panel process.

Leave the marketing to the professionals at the sponsor organisation but challenge them if you do not think that there is sufficient reach or impact.

9. Was it worth the effort?

At the end of the day a huge amount of time and resources goes into a literary panel process. We need to judge ourselves against outcome measures and improve based on a review of these measures each year. My suggested outcome measures to be used by repeat year panels and the sponsor are:

i)Recognition and reward to the authors

ii)Increased sales of the shortlisted books

iii)Overall level of interest and publicity of the shortlisted books increased

At the end of the process ask yourself – was it worth the effort? Would you want to be involved again or recommend another person be a panellist? What would you change in the process?

10. Serendipity – are there enough great books published in the relevant category in the judging year.

In most years there are exceptional books that would be a winner at any time. In other years there happen to be just very good books that we select from. What is important is that quality standards are maintained. I have never been in a situation where there have not been sufficient books that met the standard, but I am aware of situations where a literary panel has only shortlisted a reduced number of books because of this. We have to be open to this possibility.

Generally great panel members are available, the chemistry between the members click and it is a joyous experience.

A positive mindset is important – enjoy the ride and make a difference.

4 thoughts on “Ten Tenets for Literary Panels

  1. Thanks Joy for a great summary of literary panels. As a judge on the CBCA Younger Readers panel, I can say that it is my understanding that the CBCA Book of the Year Award does carry a monetary prize, a sum determined from year to year from the earnings of the Award Foundation.


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