I spent the whole day on Saturday closeted with half a dozen book lovers from all over Montana. We got together at Chico Hot Springs to pick the 2010 Montana Book Award Winners. The process works like this:

Publishers submit books for consideration. About all that’s required is that a book be about a Montana setting or by an author who lives in Montana. Except for technicalities defining the details of publication and residence, that’s it. Past winners have included fiction (The Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet by Jamie Ford), non-fiction (Full Court Quest by Linda Peavy and Ursula Smith), and young adult (Hattie Big Sky by Kirby Larson.)

After a book is submitted, it is distributed to readers who vote via email. As soon as two of them endorse the book, it is fully nominated so everyone reads it. If two people reject the book then it’s set aside. This means each judge reads about 25 book a year—about a dozen or so that get fully nominated and another dozen that get rejected.

Because about half the submissions arrive in the last quarter of the year, readers have to scramble to get everything read. (My eyeballs literally ache sometimes.) But by the time the meeting at Chico rolls around, everybody has read all the nominated books. That makes for a marvelous experience—a full day of discussing a wide range of good books with avid readers who have thought about them carefully.

The meetings start with one judge introducing a book. After a brief group discussion, another judge introduces a book for discussion, and the process proceeds until all the nominated books have been discussed. Finding one “best book” in a diverse set  may seem like an impossible task, but by the time all the nominees have been discussed, four or five books emerge as leaders.

Then committee members cast secret ballots indicating their top four choices in rank order. We weight the votes (4 points for a first rank, 3 for second, etc) and tally them. The committee discusses the tally, eliminates the low scorers, and votes again. The process repeats until one book has five first-place rankings—and it’s the winner.

The committee then uses similar procedures to decide if there should be Honor Books and if so how many. For the last couple of years, entries have been so strong that number of honor books has been set at four—the maximum allowed. The one regret: many good books don’t get awards.

After the judging, there’s time left in the afternoon for a soak in hot springs waters and drinks in Chico’s cowboy bar.

And in the evening—dinner in the wine cellar of Chico’s five-star restaurant. Great food and great conversation with avid readers who love books. It just doesn’t get any better!

The Friends of the Missoula Public Library sponsor The Montana Book Award. Book lovers everywhere owe them a vote of thanks.

I can’t announce the winners until they’ve been notified officially. When that happens, I’ll provide reviews on this blog. I look forward to telling you about some really great books.

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— The Montana Book Award Logo is a woodcut by Claire Emory.

— To find out more about my work with the Montana Book Award look under the “Categories Button” on the right.

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