PROSE Awards Chief Judge, Nigel Fletcher-Jones, Discusses Judging Process, the Future of Publishing
The 2020 PROSE Awards has recognized the best in professional and scholarly publishing since 1976 by honoring distinguished books, journals and electronic content. With the November 15 submission deadline approaching, AAP sat down with Nigel Fletcher-Jones, 2020 PROSE Chief Judge and Director, The American University in Cairo Press, to discuss what PROSE judges look for, international publishing, the future of publishing and its impact on our culture.
Submit your professional or scholarly work for a PROSE Award by November 15. More information on www.proseawards.com.
You’ve been involved with the PROSE Awards for a while now. What’s your favorite thing about the awards program?
Although a lot of work is done behind the scenes by AAP staff and the panel of PROSE judges in the last months or weeks of each year, my favorite part of the process is the concentrated effort during the judging days in January when we come together as a group. The purpose of those days is to determine — across a vast spectrum of submissions and in our best collective judgement — what were the ‘best’ print and/or digital scholarly or professional products published in the previous copyright year.
What kinds of conversations do the judges typically have during deliberation?
There is a tremendous sense of personal excitement in those days. Every one of the judges believes that they have a potential winner of the R.R. Hawkins Award in their grasp — and this is across a vast spectrum of subject areas from astrophysics to zoology by way of business studies, engineering, philosophy, medicine, mathematics, classics, and biology (to name but a few categories). What each judge has to do is lay out the case for an entry — first at a subject level, then at a higher level (for example, social sciences), and then, ultimately, for the final accolade.
The discussions are at their most intense over the final few hours when we attempt to determine the Hawkins Award winner. We have had some very close decisions over the years, but I don’t remember a time when judges disagreed vehemently with the final vote.
Generally speaking, what are the judges looking for when selecting category winners?
The concept of the ‘best’ scholarly or professional product is a highly elastic one in the minds of the judges. When I first started working as a PROSE judge, the overriding consideration was the production values of a book. While high production values or a good user interface may still be influential, the judges are primarily looking for products that constitute, in some manner, a significant shift in a scholarly or professional field, or — much rarer — a remarkable publishing innovation.
How do finalists and winners benefit from the PROSE Awards?
The visibility of the PROSE Awards — already influential for many years — continues to increase worldwide. The non-fiction reading public takes notice and publishers who win in the various categories report increased sales and global awareness of their titles.
Authors and editors are also keenly aware of the awards. Some of the most precious moment we have experienced as judges have been when an author responds to the awarding of the Hawkins Award as a recognition of a lifetime’s scholarly endeavor. It is also particularly good to hear from younger members of university faculty that they consider the winning of a PROSE Award as the tipping point in their tenure process.
Any tips or words of wisdom for a publisher who plans on submitting an entry?
One of the key questions to be answered is why the publisher proceeded with the project, and why they submitted it to the 2020 PROSE Awards as a potential best in its field. Supporting material — particularly from the relevant editor — is hugely beneficial in helping the judges understand that underlying thought process.
Every year, we are surprised by how many entries are accompanied only by a form which simply contains the cover copy of the book, or the introductory text on a landing page or app description. Unsurprisingly, all the judges can find this material quite easily in its original location, and this minimalist approach is a lost opportunity for the publisher to make the relevant judge sit up and take notice!
As an international publisher, you’ve got a unique perspective into the worldwide publishing industry. As you see it, what part of the world has had the most growth in its publishing industry?
The relationship between publishers with a global outlook and China has always been complex — perhaps never more so than at present — but it seems to me that there are new opportunities arising there every day for the entrepreneurially minded.
Understandably, I am also excited by the opportunities emerging in the Arabic-speaking world – though, again, this is a highly complex environment within which it sometimes takes years to make a significant impact. Some of the most interesting current developments are occurring away from the traditional homelands of publishing in the eastern Mediterranean.
In your opinion, how important is publishing to our culture?
In common with many, I believe there has been a general diminishing in critical faculties — the basic mechanisms of assessing what is likely to be true — across society in recent years, together with an increasing tendency to scoff at expertise of any kind.
I see the role of scholarly and professional publishers, and their partner authors and editors, as vital in combatting these hugely deleterious trends.
The human selection processes in our industry involved in deciding what to publish, the validation of expertise, and the use of readily accessible form of dissemination, remain the frontline in combatting ignorance worldwide.
Has the role of publishing changed over time? Does it play a different role now than it has in the past?
I like to recall the mid-1990s when pundits predicted that with the advent of the World Wide Web publishers were doomed — everyone was going to be their own publisher and the cream of content would magically float to the top. Nearly twenty years later, every visit I make to Frankfurt or London Book Fairs confirms that not only are publishers still here, but that we remain a vibrant and inventive community, and that we are generally perceived by society as such. While the dynamics and economics may have changed enormously, I take comfort in that the trusting relationship between readers and publishers seems to have largely remained as it has been for decades.
There was a period, not so long ago, during which I would caution recent graduates about entering publishing if they had a lifelong career in mind. With some caveats, I am now cautiously optimistic about the long-term future of publishing, and I have changed that advice.
What do you see as the future of publishing?
Personally, I read almost everything in digital format (many of the PROSE Awards entries are an obvious exception!). I seldom buy or read a physical book, and, perhaps consequently, I find the current — seemingly counterintuitive — dynamics of print versus digital buying behavior fascinating.
It seems to me that true digital innovation has largely stalled in our industry for the time being —we are largely continuing to focus on variations of rapidly-aging themes. Some of the ‘novel’ ideas which we see as PROSE judges are simply reworkings of concepts which had their first outing in the late 1990s and early 2000s. Perhaps, they were simply forgotten for a time, and then reinvented.
I look forward to a quantum leap in digital publishing at some point, but I have no idea what it will look like!
What advice would you give to the author of a work submitted for a 2020 PROSE Award? To the publisher?
To the author or editor, I would say if you believe that your work truly contributes something transformational in your field, then encourage your publisher to submit.
To the publisher, apart from any direct benefit from winning a category, I would suggest that the PROSE Awards are an important means by which we can make widely visible what we contribute to society.