In simple terms, it meant you made it through a gauntlet of subjective readers who may or may not have had a criteria to evaluate the stories. It means that someone liked your story. It does not necessarily mean it is the "best story" or that it is really something that is "outstanding." It simply means it had the points necessary to get to the finals.
Now, please, don't get me wrong. As an agent, it would be completely great to run around and proclaim that my author is a RITA winner. As an author, it is great to be proud of the work you did. But, it is really important to stop and really think of what these accolades really mean. Let's walk through the judging of the RITA for example.
If you enter the RITA, you are required to judge the RITA awards. You cannot judge in the area that you entered, so this means that when you get your box of books, these will likely be in genres that you A) don't write; B) don't read; and C) maybe be genres you fully do not understand. Now, here is where it gets difficult.
The criteria is simply if you like the book or not. It doesn't have a rubric that focuses on character, plot, setting, voice, theme, conflict or anything. It is simply a subjective call.
As these writers read the books, they give it a ranking. Here are the official scoring guidelines:
Numerically, this might look great, but if you really have one judge who just doesn't get your genre, you are pretty much out. I have talked to countless authors who score 9's across the board, and then get a judge who saw their book as simply average.
What makes this even harder is that these books are coming to the readers have the covers still on them and we see who the authors are. These are not blind readings. Human instincts kick. It is hard not to see authors we know and immediately start to think the book will be good. Along the same lines, if we see books that have covers that might not be amazing, or from lines that we already think are "less than quality" we make those judgement calls.
Combine human instinct with subjective and vague criteria and you really don't have much to work with.
I know that as a judge for final rounds, I have often looked at those final projects and thought, "Is this really the best? Or, is this just the best of what was out there? Or, were these people who just got luck with the judges?"
Let me give you another example. I was listening to an NPR program before the Oscars and they were talking with some guy who had been nominated 21 times. This was for Sound Engineering. He noted that to be nominated, these came from people who were in the business. This meant that this was really a group of people who knew what went into the work. BUT, here was the twist. The final round was judged by everyone. Now people were judging who just went off of what they "thought" was going on, but more than likely, were picking the winner based on the movie that they liked, or the movie they thought was worthy.
The point of all of this is simple. Contest winners in publishing are just a snap shot of the industry. If you did not get called, it doesn't mean your book was not worthy. It might simply mean that you got a judge who just didn't get it. I would also add that this is not going to make or break your career. In the end, it all comes down to those book sales. THIS is where we really see who the winners are!
But for those of you who were nominated. Congrats!