First and foremost, Best Electronic Book is a weird category, and for me at least it was one of the hardest to judge. You get a lot of different products that qualify, and many of them are of completely different types. It's really like a mini Product of the Year category, none of the other categories even come close to this level of diversity.
The reason for this is that other categories all have a theme. For Best Writing I look at text, for Best Rules I look at mechanics, For Best Game or Best Supplement I look at playability. Best Electronic Book has to take all of that in consideration. In my opinion that makes it one of the hardest awards to get, and I really think it should be up there with Product of the Year as being representative of some of the best that gaming has to offer. It tends to get a bad rap because many are put together without the same production standards as many top of the line print books, and that serves to keep them from being exceptionally competitive in the other categories (though at least one came very close), but really these things have to compete on a lot more levels than the printed products in other categories. Never assume that just because a product is a PDF it doesn't have great production values. There are some extremely well laid-out and attractive PDFs out there. The strengths of PDFs are different, not worse..
So, what makes the cut and why? That's the tough part, and it relates a bit to what I said above, Most of the products that got my vote were basically competitive in as many categories as possible. Good production values, exceptional writing, interesting mechanics, etc. That unfortunately means that several products that may have really stood out in one or two areas tended to get overlooked in favor of those that had a bit more to offer across the board. It's the same argument I make for why Ptolus got nominated for Product of the Year, but not Best d20. It hits on so many different levels, but when it comes down to the more specific playability categories it falls just a tiny bit short of the products that don't try to be everything. That's not a universal truth, and it may not be what the other judges were looking for at all, but that's what I was going for in nearly every case.
Of course, the hardest thing to justify is that some products just didn't grab me. There are two books in particular that I'm thinking of by the same company that were beautifully made, with great art and good writing, but they seemed... a bit formless. I don't know any other way to put it. One made my personal first list, but I just couldn't find room for it in my short list because I never managed to define it. I know I'm being vague, but it's intentional. I'm not a reviewer. It's not my place to condemn entries. People submitted their products hoping that we would share the best of what they had to offer, not point out every little flaw. The judges already provided the only judgment we had to offer that really means anything.
That's not to say that everything that didn't make the final cut was flawed in some way. In fact, before I posted my final 5/7 I had the list narrowed down to 9 products, and I couldn't figure out how I was going to decide which to drop. In the end it was a combination of the other judges' lists and what few online discussions I could find that narrowed it down for me. I already said I wouldn't give out my actual votes, but because a couple of products were asked about specifically I'll talk about some of my favorites that didn't make it.
In Harm's Way is a fascinating game based on naval warfare in the Napoleonic era. It's fantastically written, and contains tome great evocative text from a period source, which I loved. It actually made my list as an alternate, but it dropped off because its narrow scope aimed at (and squarely hit) a single, very specific type of roleplayer. If it's your type of game I whole-heartily recommend it, but I just couldn't find room for it in the top 5.
Blood & Guts: In Her Majesty's Service 2 is one that I'm not entirely sure why it didn't make it. I wasn't the only one with it on my list, so I suspect it only lost out because the five that did make it were just too hard to displace.
E-RPG is one that fell victim to that lack of theme for this category that I spoke of earlier. Mechanics and writing aside, it's very straight forward and to the point, not allowing much room for things like art and layout concerns. That doesn't make it a bad book, but it can hurt it when stacked up against some of the other great entires.
Finally, there's the Echoes of Heaven, which is another one that came within a hair's breadth of garnering a nomination, and I can only guess that it didn't get it because of the other strong entries in this category. This is going to sound a bit like pandering, especially since the author himself asked me about it, but let me say that if I had to recommend one single line that didn't make the list, this would be it. This line does a whole lot right, and I can't believe I didn't mention it earlier in the blog. I would say that my favorite part is that it is written for four different systems, meaning those who hate one particular game don't have to do the conversions themselves, but that wouldn't be true. I loved the setting. Besides, this product doesn't really rely a lot on rules to make its impression. It's all about comprehensive description, interesting concepts, and great writing. This is a product that would have gotten a nomination any other year. In fact, had Battletech not entered its line as a single product, or had this line been entered together, I think it would have made it easily this year.
Really that's something I should have thought about under advice for publishers. If you have a strong line of products that all tie together well, enter them together and let them feed off each others' strengths. It might cost you the ability to get multiple nominations in the same category, but it really reinforces the strength of the combined entry.
Well, I guess that's about it. I've been writing this thing for three hours now, trying to remember everything without access to my CDs. If you ever want to know why I make a better judge than writer, there it is. I can read a 256 page sourcebook in 3 hours, but it would take me years at the rate I type to write one.
The entries that made the list deserve their slots. They're well-rounded, yet exceptional in their own way. That's not to say that everything that deserved an award made the list however. It just means that we were limited in our number of choices, and the things that are there mostly represent things that we couldn't imagine not making the list. Had I included Echoes of Heaven on my list and left off Nevermore or Shadowcrag I'd be here lamenting their loss just as loudly.