I wouldn't dream of calling any of my romance-author friends today without first ascertaining that they have both Caller ID and Call Waiting. That's because today is the day the calls go out to the finalists in the mother of all romance-writing contests, Romance Writers of America's prestigious RITA Awards. Today romance novelists everywhere will bite their nails and mutter, "Ring! Ring, darn you!" to their silent telephones. And by tonight the romance-writing corner of the blogosphere will be buzzing with news of who did or did not get a call informing them that their book had advanced to the final round of judging.
What's a RITA? Simply the best-known, most prestigious award in the romance industry. Entered romance novels are judged by panels of published romance authors, and winners in thirteen categories are announced in an Oscar-style evening (glittery gowns, spotlights, presenters cracking lame jokes, trembling winners thanking their editors and their agents and their spouses and sometimes, God) at the close of the annual RWA Conference.
How do you win a RITA? First, you publish a romance novel. Then you fill out a contest form, write a check for $40, and mail five copies of your book to the RWA offices in Houston. They'll send your books to contest judges, all of whom are published authors and RWA members.
Does a RITA win mean your book was the best published all year in your category? Assuredly not. A RITA win means your book is very, very good. It does not mean your book is "the best" of anything. Here are some facts to back up that assertion:
1. If a book is not entered, it can't win. While books may indeed be entered by authors who aren't RWA members, it's a fact that not every author--member or not--will enter her books. So while this contest is a huge deal in the industry, it does not determine the absolute best romances published, but only spotlights some of the great ones.
2. If even one of the judges in the preliminary round gives your book a low score, you're out of the running. We authors like to believe we always behave professionally when judging books, but we're still human. We have bad days and we have personal biases. Sometimes those things affect our judgment even when we don't realize it. And a single judge can prevent your fabulous book from winning a RITA award.
3. If your book makes it to the final rounds and one of those judges gives you a low score, same deal. You lose. The RITA will be awarded to the author whose book scored the highest in your category.
As you can see, it is entirely possible for a wildly popular, beautifully written, gonna-go-down-in-history romance novel to be overlooked in the RITA contest. But what is not possible--and here's the real value of the awards--is for a poorly crafted romance novel to win. A book of inferior quality just isn't going to make it past two separate panels of five judges. But for argument's sake, let's say that in the crapshoot that decides which books are sent to which judges, one stinker of a book somehow ends up being evaluated in the preliminary round by five of the author's sorority sisters. Yes, the book will advance to the finals. But what are the chances of its being judged this time by five of the author's biggest fans?
What does a RITA win mean? It's a huge affirmation of a book's quality. This July at the awards ceremony in Atlanta, the entire industry will sit up and take notice of the thirteen winners as one at a time they climb the stage steps, their sequined gowns dazzling in the spotlights as the coveted golden statuettes are presented in front of more than 2,000 authors, editors, and agents.
Congratulations are definitely in order for the 75 or so finalists who will be getting those thrilling phone calls today.
Here's a list of past RITA winners.
U P D A T E, 3:06 p.m. Eastern Time:
As promised, RWA posted the list of finalists at 3:00p.m. Eastern Time.