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How the 2019 James Beard Book Awards Will Be Judged

The Book Awards subcommittee chair weighs in on new procedures

Andrea Weigl

October 12, 2018

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James Beard Award medallion photo Eliesa Johnson
Photo: Eliesa Johnson

Change is coming to the James Beard book awards.

In the interest of transparency and as the chair of the book awards subcommittee, I wanted to share how books will be evaluated this year and moving forward.

For more than a decade, the committee has sent boxes of books to the four judges in each category and had them fill out a ballot. Each category is overseen by a committee member who also fills out a ballot. All five ballots are tabulated by an independent accounting firm. Each judge makes their own decisions—independent of each other—on the best books in the batch.

As a committee, we began to think there may be a better way. There were always a couple of outlier books; one book or two books that one judge loved but the others did not. The outlier books never won but their inclusion was often a cause of concern for the committee. Would the judges’ efforts be better directed at the books that they all agreed were worthy of consideration?

This year, the committee has decided to change the judging to a two-step evaluation. The judges will receive their books in early January and have a few weeks to decide on the top nine or 12 books to make it to a final round. (The number of books chosen will depend on the total number of books in the category: some categories have 50-plus books, others have fewer than 15.) Based on that first round, the accounting firm will determine the six or nine books that judges agreed should be in the final round. (The number of books to be judged at this stage is again determined by the total number of books in the category.) In this final round, if the books are in a recipe-testing category, the judges will be required to test at least two recipes from each book. The judges will then evaluate the same books, using the ballot to determine their top five. Based on the scores, the accounting firm calculates the top three finalists and the winners in each category.

We have a lot of confidence in our judges, who are cookbook authors, food writers, chefs, academics, and culinary instructors. We are making efforts to improve the inclusivity and representation in our judges’ pool and on the committee. We also believe that the committee should always look for ways to improve how the books are evaluated and the winners chosen. After many years of deliberation and discussion, we believe this is the best next step.

One other note: the book awards’ entry period opens October 15 and entries are free until October 29. We hope this two-week free period will encourage entries from self-published authors, independent presses, and small academic publishers. We want to see more books from more sources and want more authors to have the chance to take home a James Beard award.

Learn more about the 2019 James Beard Awards.