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How book awards can negatively affect the evaluation of quality

Why is publicity a paradox when it comes to book preferences? Looking for a good book? Stay away from the award-winning section of the bookstore or library. New research from Amanda Sharkey of the University of Chicago Booth School of Business finds that a book read after winning a prestigious award will likely be judged more negatively than if it’s read in its pre-award days. Sharkey's study, "The Paradox of Publicity: How Awards Can Negatively Affect the Evaluation of Quality," is forthcoming in the March, 2014 issue of the journal Administrative Science Quarterly.

How book awards can negatively affect the evaluation of quality: Publicity paradox.
Anne Hart, fiction book and photography.

You can check out the abstract online. In "The Paradox of Publicity: How Awards Can Negatively Affect the Evaluation of Quality," Sharkey and colleague Balázs Kovács of the University of Lugano analyze thousands of reader reviews of 32 pairs of books. One book in each pair had won an award – like the Booker Prize, National Book Award or PEN/Faulkner Award – while the other book had been nominated but hadn't won.

"We found that winning a prestigious prize in the literary world seems to go hand-in-hand with a particularly sharp reduction in ratings of perceived quality," Sharkey says, according to the February 13, 2014 news release, "Books rate more negatively after winning award, study finds."

The researchers theorize that a book’s audience increases considerably after an award is announced, as do the diversity and personal tastes of readers

Researchers think that a larger sampling of readers is drawn to a prize-winning book, not because of any intrinsic personal interest in the book, but because it has an award attached to it. To test this theory, Sharkey and Kovács created "predicted" ratings for each book based on the readers' past ratings of books in the same genre. They then studied the how a book's predicted ratings change after an award is announced by comparing earlier predicted ratings to post-announcement predicted ratings.

They found that before an award is announced, the predicted ratings of a book about to win are equivalent to the ratings of a book about to lose. But after an award is announced, that shifts and award-winning books have lower predicted ratings than books that don't win.

"This is direct evidence that prizewinning books tend to attract new readers who wouldn’t normally read and like this particular type of book," Sharkey says, according to the news release. These results are likely applicable to other media, including film, according to the researchers. "The types of movies that win Oscars may be very different from the types of movies we watch and like during the nine months of the year when it's not awards season," says Sharkey in the news release.

Increase in status results in less favorable quality evaluations, says the study

If that's what happens to award-winning books, imagine what the fate is of a self-published novel, play, or story collection that not only wins no awards (other than what the author may be given by the great grandchildren). What the study found revealed that although increases in status often lead to more favorable inferences about quality in subsequent evaluations, in this paper, the researchers examined a setting in which an increase to an actor’s status results in less favorable quality evaluations, contrary to what much of sociological and management theory would predict.

The researchers compared thousands of reader reviews on Goodreads.com of 64 English-language books that either won or were short-listed for prestigious book awards between 2007 and 2011. The finding showed that prizewinning books tend to attract more readers following the announcement of an award and that readers’ ratings of award-winning books tend to decline more precipitously following the announcement of an award relative to books that were named as finalists but did not win.

Is the literary consumer different from the shopper of fine art, entertainment, education, science, healthcare, or technology?

In the study, the researchers explained this surprising result, focusing on two mechanisms whereby signals of quality that tend to promote adoption can subsequently have a negative impact on evaluation. First, the researchers propose that the audience evaluating a high-status actor or object tends to shift as a result of a public status shock, like an award, increasing in number but also in diverse tastes.

The researchers outlined how this shift might translate into less favorable evaluations of quality. Second, the researchers showed that the increase in popularity that tends to follow a status shock is off-putting to some, also resulting in more negative evaluations, according to the study's abstract. Interestingly, the researchers revealed that their proposed mechanisms together explain the negative effect of status on evaluations in the context of the literary world. Looks like the more things change, the more they stay the same when it comes to award-winning books or other achievements.

Then again, would you read the books written by Nobel Prize winners before you'd read the books written by unknown self-published authors with no permanent job experience other than unpaid volunteer work? Sure, you would, especially if you identify with writers similar to your own familiar experience or environment, if the values in the book were similar to your own values, dreams, or imagery.