adapted from “And the Envelope, Please… How the Edgar Process Works”
by Marilyn Wallace, general awards chair for 1999 Edgar Awards
Congratulations to all the winners of this year’s Edgar Allan Poe awards. May that little ceramic statue bring you inspiration, and the knowledge that your work was deemed best in its category by… whom? And, how?
The Edgar Process isn’t really very mysterious. Hard-working writers read (sometimes hundreds of) books or watch films or videotapes in thirteen categories and give a single award in each. But before that moment, a lot goes on. First, the executive vice president appoints someone to chair the Awards Committee, subject to approval by the national board. That person must then find individuals to chair each of the committees, ideally reaching a balance of gender, geography and genre. Committee chairs must be active members of MWA, which means that they are all published writers, should have a real and deep knowledge of the category they are chairing (although not necessarily be published there), must be willing to do the work, and must be fair and ethical.
People do decline the invitation to serve because of time restraints, or because they have a book up for consideration in that category. A work by a member of a committee is ineligible in that category only; works by the general awards chair and the executive VP are ineligible in all categories.
As the committee chairs seek four active members to serve as judges, they, too, strive for gender, genre, and geographical diversity. This mandate makes the necessarily subjective experience of selecting a written work more balanced and less reflective of individual tastes and biases.
Letters then go out to publishers and producers, urging them to submit books, short stories, films, scripts, and videotapes to the appropriate committees, and informing them of the guidelines, developed over the years, for each award. Each committee member must receive a copy of the work, and a copy must be sent to Headquarters. Anyone, in fact, may submit a work to a committee. For example, if a publisher or producer declines to submit a book or videotape, the writer may do so. The names and addresses of the committee members are available from Headquarters.
New this year are the submission dates. Instead of sinking the judges under a deluge of work arriving at the end of November, periodic submissions will ensure that all works are given a fair reading. The new schedule called for books published January 1 through April 30 to be submitted by the latter date; books published May 1 to August 31 to be submitted by August 31; and books published September 1 through December 31 to be submitted by November 30. Because this is the first year for this procedure, all work may be submitted through the end of November.
The new system seems to be working quite well– the Best Novel committee received 88 books by the April 30 deadline. My personal thanks go out to all the publishers and produers for getting those wonderful mysteries to the committee on the new schedule.
As the work comes in, the judges read/watch and take notes on each submission. The committee chair checks that all members have received all work, and at the end of the year, determines by polling the committee who the five nominees and the single winner will be. (New procedures will likely be implemented standardizing the voting process. Watch for a report of the Edgar Guideline Committee’s recommendations.)
When the chair sends the list of nominees to Headquarters, that list is checked to ensure that all the criteria (publication date, first novel, etc.) have been met. Nominees are announced at the February meeting of the national board, and MWA sends press releases to the media and the publishers/producers.
Strict secrecy is maintained by the committees, to allow all nominees to have two months in the spotlight, with their publishers/producers and with their public. Press releases announcing the winners are prepared in advance, but are not sent out until after the annual awards banquet, when each committee chair toys with the audience, much as any good writer of mystery and suspense would, until the right dramatic moment arrives to tear open the envelope and say, “And this year’s winner is…”