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I am delighted to welcome guest blogger Michael Sears!
I had the pleasure of meeting Michael when he was kind enough to participate in an author event at my library. He graciously offered up a few Advance Reader Copies to readers of this blog last month as well.
CONFESSIONS OF AN EDGARS JUDGE
by Michael Sears
Though bound to secrecy during the reading and judging process, I am now free to share all the dirt, all the gossip, back-room wheeling-dealing, the bribes, the pressures from the big houses, the venality of all involved in the vetting, reading, and judging of the famed Edgar Awards for the Mystery Writers of America. Unfortunately, if I did tell you all that, this would be a very short essay.
A good friend contacted me and asked if I would join her team of judges for the 2014 Best Debut Mystery Novel for the Edgar Awards. It would mean reading over one hundred books in about nine months (No doubt an easy task for Oline Cogdil or Pam Stack, but a herculean task for a mere mortal,) rate them on a scale of 1 to 3, and engage in a polite debate as to the books that really stood out. Well, I was busy as Bourdreau’s one-legged pig at the time, writing SAVING JASON and caring for an aunt in mid-stages of dementia (she knew me, knew her name, but was capable of missing her birthdate by months, and the birth year by decades) so of course I said yes.
The books arrived in waves. There might be nothing for a week and then four would arrive in three days. As I already have a house full of books – and an unfulfilled promise to my wife of “one in-one out” – tension mounted. When my son came to visit he found his, as yet un-renovated, bedroom stacked with books. He has a dry and wicked sense of humor and flayed me with it repeatedly.
Early on, the judges made a soft commitment to read fifty pages of any book submitted. The authors deserved at least that much from us. This had unforeseen consequences, as the incentive for a publisher to send only the best work produced that year is nonexistent. From their perspective, the shotgun approach is much more sensible. As an ex-trader and student of game theory, I understand the incentives and the result. As a judge, I found myself on more than one occasion thinking, “Who in the world thought that this book was in the same league with ____. (Name your Edgar nominee.)?” There was not much we could do about it. Mystery Writers of America screened submissions only for the criteria stated in the rules. The book must be a debut novel. It must be written and published by an American author in the U.S. And it must have been published within the calendar year. A few that violated one or another of these rules managed to slip through, but one of us always managed to identify the problem and we set them aside.
One of the more tech-savvy of the judges created a spread sheet website where we could all post our rankings: 1 for not a contender; 2 for maybe; and 3 for contender. We also had a 0 ranking for the odd book that slipped in that did not fit the genre. Some of the 0 ranked books were very good, they just weren’t good mysteries.
Some of us kept notes on the side as to why we have voted as we did. It was the first line of what was to become an ongoing debate. By the time we were in the final two months, I felt like I was a part of the greatest book club ever. Imagine reading a ton of mysteries with a group of authors you admire. You hear their reasons for supporting a book and their reasons for dropping another from contention. We encouraged each other to go back and look again at certain books, to give them a second chance, as we all championed different authors.
Past judges had told me that the nominees become apparent at some point. The cream rises. That is true. But we agonized over a final list of nominees that was going to be either too short or too long. There were books that missed the cut that every one of us thought were a great read and that we would enthusiastically recommend. They just weren’t as good.
And it is, for better or for worse, a subjective call. No one insisted that we include both male and female authors, yet we did. No one pressured us to include (or ignore) entries from independent publishers. We had the freedom to simply cast our votes for those debut books that we found most deserving of a nomination.
Would I do it again? Most assuredly. Not right away; I have to get some work done. It might be fun to tackle another category. Best non-fiction? Best Novel? I don’t think I would do well with Best Television Script – to my wife’s chagrin, I manage to fall asleep halfway through every show we have watched together in the last ten years – or Best Short Story – I rarely read or write them. But I would gladly return to the last few weeks of debating good books with great minds. It was a gas.
About the book
The latest Jason Stafford novel from Michael Sears, author of the highly acclaimed Long Way Down and Black Fridays.
Jason Stafford used to be a hot Wall Street trader, went too far, and paid for it in prison. Now a financial investigator, he’s been asked to look into rumors of a hostile takeover of his firm, but he has no idea it will turn his whole life upside down. Suddenly embroiled in a grand jury investigation of Mob-related activities on Wall Street, and threatened by some very serious men, he is thrust into witness protection with his young autistic son. And then his son disappears. Has he been kidnapped, or worse? With no choice but to act, Stafford has no choice but to come out of hiding and risk everything to save his son, his firm, his pregnant girlfriend—and himself.
About the Author
Sears was a Managing Director for two different Wall Street firms, where he worked in the bond market for twenty years and, earlier, in foreign exchange and derivatives. Prior to returning to Columbia University for his MBA, he was, for eight years, a professional actor appearing at the Shakespeare Theatre of Washington, Playwritght’s Theater of Washington, New Jersey Shakespeare Festival,The Comedy Stage Co., and, in the course of a single year, every soap opera shot in New York City.
He is married to the artist and poet, Barbara Segal and is the father of two handsome sons. Born in New York City, he lived for more than twenty years on Manhattan’s Upper West Side and still misses it every day.