On Tuesday I finished my work as one of this year’s judges for the Costa Book Awards; I was a category judge for the children’s prize, and then joined the final panel to select the overall winner.

Here, before I get into the point of this post, is a photo of that final judging panel which I present here as evidence that writers can dress smartly when required to do so.
Left to right:
Mark Watson, Katie Derham, D.J. Taylor, me, Daljit Nagra,
Wendy Holden, Jenni Murray, Jenny Agutter, Sophie Ward
Everyone knows that it’s a really hard thing to decide not just between five books on a shortlist, but five different kinds of book, something that is unique to the Costa Book Awards, as far as I’m aware. To compare a children’s book with a poetry collection, a biography, a novel and a first novel is pretty tough. What is the ‘best’ book, when the books are so very different in their nature in the first place?
The final truth of the matter however, is this: choosing any winner of a prize is a somewhat arbitrary decision. Yes, there are books that most people would consider bad, and books that many people would consider good, but once you get to the upper end of the scale, what makes one book ‘better’ than another? At this point, all the arguments about style and skill and emotion and structure and language start to break down, because they are ALL good books. And what you’re left with at that point is no more than a feeling. Which book lived with you the longest, which affected you the most? That to me is as good a way of judging a prize as anything else, and therein lies the point – these are very much personal feelings, which may be shared by another judge, but which may well not be.
Having sat on around half a dozen judging panels now, I’ve had some experiences I would rather not repeat, and I’ve had some that were delightful, as was the case this week I’m glad to say. But one thing I have learned is this: if your book is shortlisted for an award, and you don’t win, don’t be too upset. How the book that ‘beat’ yours was chosen may not be as clear-cut as people imagine.
And there’s a inverse to that law – if you did win, don’t get too cocky. Don’t stand on the stage and KNOW your book was better than everything else published that year. The judges may know there was a little more, or rather less, to it than that.

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