All About Book Awards: A Q&A with Doug Fogelson of The National Indie Excellence Awards

Among the questions authors often ask is, “should I apply for book awards?” They are interested in learning whether book awards are worth trying to get, what the submission process is typically like, how their book will be judged (and who does the judging!), what the longer-lasting effects of winning a book award may be, and much more.

Hoping to gain some clarity for authors, Smith Publicity spoke with Doug Fogelson, President of The National Indie Excellence Awards, to hear his behind-the-scenes knowledge of the book awards process, what authors receive if they do win an award, and how book awards ultimately impact an author’s brand. Read on to learn more… 

National Indie Excellence Awards

  1. The National Indie Excellence Awards is celebrating its 16th year! Please tell us a bit more about NIEA, its mission, and your role as President.

Yes, it’s sweet to be turning 16 this year!

The National Indie Excellence® Awards (NIEA) is the first contest my mother Ellen Reid created during her years as a consultant to authors who wanted to self-publish, establish their own imprint or brand, sell/distribute and market their titles and much more. Her companies included Little Moose Press, Ellen Reid’s Book Shepherding and Smarketing. Ellen truly believed in the mission of serving the independent authors that big publishing houses didn’t deem “worthy” and over the years she developed a track record in creating distinct titles that embodied their best aspects. Her own book, “Putting Your Best Book Forward: A Book Shephard’s Secrets to Producing Award Winning Books” provides a window to her methods.

My mom and I would work together on the contests. Myself, her associate Dawn Suskin, and even my young son would help receive, sort (unofficially assessing the entries ourselves) and do other work for the book contests. She provided me with her wisdom as I created my own arts focused imprint Front Forty Press, distributed by The University of Chicago Press, where we produced multiple award-winning coffee table books and various other projects. In early 2017 my mom unexpectedly passed away from an insidious and previously undetected blood cancer. It made sense for Dawn and I to continue the endeavor.

As president I handle the overall business dealings that range from keeping the website running smoothly, to communicating with entrants, marketing the contest and promoting the results, working with sponsors, locating and working with the jurors, scanning book covers, and the like. My coworker Dawn is our operations expert and she receives the entries, catalogs them digitally and physically, facilitates the shipping of awards, and importantly her home in Los Angeles is where the actual books are housed for the juror’s to work physically (we also do it remotely if need be via a library-like checkout system).

We decided to fold Ellen’s two younger contests into the flagship NIEA and focus all of our efforts there. As President of NIEA I have been fortunate to find amazing sponsors such as Smith Publicity! Awarding vital services such as Smith provides to our entrants is an example of our community’s values as we all help each other succeed in their endeavors. This is the ideal or mission we strive for, to facilitate and celebrate Excellence in the self/independent publishing arena for authors, publishers and all the people who bring great books to life.

  1.         How has the indie publishing space changed over the years, and where do you anticipate it going?

We have witnessed a sea change in this space over the last two decades. It used to be quite a specialty to produce a book, one that contained many hurdles and unknowns for lay people. As print-on-demand (POD) services, and increasingly template based POD, came to market it has grown in sophistication– however, we still see plenty of authors neglecting to fully engage the process for the best results. Our diverse juror’s have different opinions on aspects of the evolution of template based publishing but we find that attention to detail is still appreciated by everyone. Utilizing each aspect of a book to its fullest potential, even in an index or title page, counts toward the best user experience no matter how it got published.

NIEA celebrates the physical books in print. We all enjoy digital/eBooks too but we haven’t found a way to properly integrate them into our program yet. Directly experiencing the book product is still a key focus of this contest. Paper stock, size, hard or soft bound, book jacket or not, reproduction quality down to how the ink lays on the page, pagination, illustrations, the quality of the content and craft of the writing–all the component parts are considered from cover to cover. While I can’t predict the future of indie publishing I can say that we aspire to continue to assess and celebrate books in print across a rainbow of categories for many years to come.

  1.         On average, how many awards submissions does NIEA receive each year? Is there anything authors can do to help their submission stand out, or helpful tips for submitting? 

We refrain from giving out the exact figures for any one category but suffice to say that there are over a thousand total entries to The National Indie Excellence® Awards across all the categories. Some of the categories with higher numbers of entries tend to include Fantasy, Historical Fiction, Literary Fiction, Memoir, Mystery, Picture Books, Young Adult Fiction, and other categories are growing too such as Poetry. We’ve been pleased to see Poetry, Cookbooks, etc. grow significantly over the last 3-4 years. It seems people are finding out that we actually care deeply about all the categories! Variety is a big part of what makes this work so special and each genre has its own ways of showing itself to embody excellence.

Tips for entry would include knowing exactly which categories your book fits into as many titles are hybrids of a few areas, sometimes an author can get confused which ones to enter. The way books stand out is through their content, the written matter is tantamount but also by paying attention to all the details from the title to the bio, the blurb to the testimonials, the pagination, even the author photo is important- it’s surprising what some authors use (or neglect to use) for that and how large/where they place it and what they choose to say about themselves. Entering is simple enough via our website’s online form and then simply send the books to us with that form printed out for each category entered. We only accept titles with pub dates from the two years prior to the deadline and the three months of that current year (deadline is always March 31st). Submitting is easy, creating the book that receives the win is where all the work is really.

  1.         It must be difficult to choose winners from so many viable projects! What is NIEA’s judging criteria and process?

We consider the entire product from all aspects and angles. Written content is weighted as the main factor however as mentioned above all aspects from the cover art/design, title, subtitle, blurb, testimonials, edition page, title page, contents, dedication, preface, chapter titling, interior design, typography, illustrations, reproductions, interactive/educational aspects, infographics/figures, paper stock, pagination, epilogue, acknowledgements, references, bibliography, appendix, notes, author bio/photo, even the colophon should work together like a symphony in making a winning book.

We require our jurors to assess entries based on all of these data points or aspects of a well-crafted book product and to then discern each submitted title relative to a category’s genre specific exemplar. For example in the Cookbook category, our jurors are all familiar with incredible cookbooks that blend the instructional aspects of cooking with both an education and history of the food and culture, presented in stunning designs and with mouth watering photography. With an understanding of what’s best in each genre our juror’s must assess all the component parts of the submitted titles in that particular category against each other as well as relative to the aforementioned “ideal” in determining Winners and Finalists. We always have three jurors so there is never a tie (except when all agree).

  1.         How does NIEA choose who is on their panel of judges?

Our judges have always included various professionals who work with book creation and publishing. We have some that we tend to work with year over year but we also like to mix it up and bring in fresh faces! We make sure to keep it representational and spanning across age spectrums as well– we do not discriminate in any way and we have a process in place to check for bias or related hang-ups toward any category. With a contest that covers a range of categories as we do it is imperative that our juror’s can remain impartial to political, religious/spiritual, sexual, triggering, or other sorts of content that is submitted. We typically work with people who are experienced publishers, copy writers/editors, book industry marketing experts, award-winning authors and omnivorific readers (have to be both), and they are often teachers or professors in writing departments. We do not share the names of our jurors publicly to avoid authors from reaching out to them directly, but we do include names of our juror’s who award the Juror’s Choice Award (one of the features I added as President starting in 2017). 

  1.         Why should authors consider submitting their books for awards?

Once an author completes a book, then what? That’s when Phase Two begins.

It can be daunting for self/indie authors or publishers to receive their books and have to “pound the pavement” to find avenues to get them seen. Distribution is incredibly hard and so is conveying the merit of a book to a potential reader. Sales and marketing of books, as you well know, is continually challenging even with great websites and loads of reviews (purchased or not). Having your title recognized by a competition that is well run and has a historical impact or track record in the industry such as ours is no small achievement. That little gold sticker (or file to print on your cover, or accolade that is listed in your book, cover letter, website, postcard, etc…) let’s the reader, book buyer or reviewer know this title has real quality between the covers.

  1.         What types of prizes are typically offered to award winners?

Winners and Finalists not only have the status as an award-winning publication but they are eligible for a variety of other prizes such as the aforementioned Sponsorships like Smith Publicity, The Process, Dartfrog Books, or NewPages provide. We give away two unrestricted cash prizes through our Juror’s Choice Award. Winners may also order stickers, certificates or medals to aid in the celebration and promotion of their books. Our contest does a fair amount of promotion and we distribute the news of our contest results as widely as possible. Also we pride ourselves on having a great website that showcases all the Winners and Finalists with large cover images, clear crediting info and direct click through access to the books URL for all to see. Author’s websites tend to see some increased traffic each time the contest is announced and as other Winner/Finalists share the good news to their networks.

  1.         What are the lasting effects of winning an NIEA (or other) award for authors, their platforms, and the success of their books?

Having your work recognized by a reputable book award contest is an honor that doesn’t really fade with time, it points to the timeframe of a publication’s release and commends all that led up to it. Hopefully each book’s impact grows over time and it’s resume/CV gets better like a fine wine! Self-published/Indie authors who create books to support their expertise benefit by having “Award Winning” associated with their title. Validation is a powerful thing in any field.

Many of our entrants become familiar to us as they create new volumes, trilogies, deep-dives into History, Science Fiction, Holidays, Caregiving, Faction, Horror, True Crime, Health or whatever they are into. We are so happy when we see all of the entries come in, we feel a shared sense of pride for ALL the titles we receive–including those that ultimately don’t win anything (so it goes, this is a competition). Authors have the drive to complete a book so in comparison this next step is easy! Simply share that book with the world as best you can, use all the tools at your disposal, until you’re too busy with the next one.


Thank you, Doug, for joining us and for offering valuable insight into the book awards process!