The downside of winning a big award

By Alice G. Walton     
February 26, 2014

From: Magazine

Photo by Dustin Whitehead.

Next time an award-winning book catches your eye in the bookstore, think twice before picking it up.

Assistant Professor Amanda J. Sharkey and her colleague Balázs Kovács from the University of Lugano have discovered that reading a book after it has won a prestigious award can spark very different opinions than if it’s read in its pre-award days. And while you’d think that a celebrated award might boost opinions of a book, the research suggests the opposite: readers tend to rate books more negatively after they win.

The researchers use reader ratings on the user-generated book review website, Goodreads, to evaluate readers’ opinions of books before and after they win awards. Sharkey and Kovács analyze thousands of reader reviews of 32 pairs of books. One book in each pair had won a prestigious award, including the Booker Prize, National Book Award, or PEN/Faulkner Award, while the other book had been nominated but hadn’t won. The research reveals a trend: “Winning a prestigious prize in the literary world seems to go hand-in-hand with a particularly sharp reduction in ratings of perceived quality,” write the coauthors.

Why? Sharkey and Kovács theorize that since a book’s audience increases considerably after an award is announced, diversity and personal tastes also widen. Therefore, 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 idea, the team created “predicted” ratings for each book. Using a reader’s past ratings of other books in the same genre, the researchers estimate how the same reader would rate a new book. They then study how a book’s predicted ratings change after an award is announced, by comparing earlier predicted ratings to postannouncement predicted ratings.

They find 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 the award is announced, that changes: 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,” says Sharkey.

Another reason that people may be more likely to negatively review an award-winning book is that popularity sparks a backlash. When books become trendy quickly, the researchers argue, the reader may feel less special, so may rate those books less favorably. The researchers created a statistical model of this situation, and according to Sharkey, “the negative effect of winning a prize vanishes after we’d accounted for the effects of shifting reader tastes and the rise in popularity.”

The results are likely applicable to other media, including film and music, according to the researchers. Consider, for example, what motivates people to see a popular film. “The types of movies that win Oscars may be very different from the types of movie we watch and like during the nine months of the year when it is not awards season,” says Sharkey.

Work cited

Balázs Kovács and Amanda J. Sharkey, “The Paradox of Publicity: How Awards Can Negatively Affect the Evaluation of Quality,” Administrative Science Quarterly, March 2014.