Poetry and illustrative book entries were among the highest calibre in this year's Montana Book Awards according to one of the judges.
The level of poetry entries was "outstanding" and the judges could easily have picked five finalists instead of three said judge and journalist Lynn Freeman.
"It was one of the killers, one of the ones (categories) we had sleepless nights over."
Ms Freeman said deciding on the illustrative category finalists was also "heartbreaking".
Meanwhile, there were only four fiction finalists chosen this year, there were normally five.
Ms Freeman said the four were "outstanding books and, while there were other great books, we did not want to dilute the Montana (finalist) sticker by promoting a fifth.
"Those four books were just so good that they really merited the finalist sticker."
She said there had been a lot of discussion about choosing just four and said the quality of all 35 fiction entries was good.
The fiction finalists this year were all women, including debut novelist Mary McCallum with The Blue and Alice Tawhai with her second story collection Luminous.
Ms Freeman said the books were judged on their topic, authorship and publishing.
She said many of the finalist books were "in danger of missing out (on attention)" before being chosen and said there were no obvious winners.
"There were many new writers chosen, even though there were some big names entered, which signals the awards are open to new and emerging authors and not dominated by very experienced writers," Ms Freeman said.
She said while this was not why the books were chosen it was an encouraging sign.
In total, the three judges reviewed 221 books from eight categories to decide on the finalists.
The winner of each category receives $5000 and is eligible for the Montana Medal for Non-Fiction, or the Montana Medal for Poetry or Fiction which carry a prize of $10,000.
The winners will be announced on July 21. The winner of the poetry category will be announced on July 18.
Last year, Lloyd Jones won the Montana Medal for Fiction or Poetry, the Readers Choice Award and the fiction category for his novel Mister Pip.
Audrey Eagle won the Montana Medal for Non-Fiction with her work Eagles Complete Trees and Shrubs of New Zealand.
The Blue by Mary McCallum
Edwin & Matilda by Laurence Fearnley
Luminous by Alice Tawhai
Opportunity by Charlotte Grimshaw
Cold Snack by Janet Charman
A Long Girl Ago by Johanna Aitchison
The Pop-Up Book of Invasions by Fiona Farrell
The Best Man Who Ever Served the Crown? A Life of Donald McLean by Ray Fargher
The Life and Times of James Walter Chapman-Taylor by Judy Siers
Waimarino County & Other Excursions by Martin Edmond
Age of Enterprise: Rediscovering the New Zealand Entrepreneur 1881-1910 by Ian Hunter
Devils on Horses by Terry Kinloch
Te Tau Ihu o Te Waka Volume II: Te Ara Hou - The New Society by Hilary and John Mitchell
Southern Alps by Alison Ballance
The Surface of the Sea: Encounters with New Zealand's Upper Ocean Life by Iain Anderson
Wetlands of New Zealand by Janet Hunt
Aberhart by Laurence Aberhart, with essays by Gregory O'Brien and Justin Paton
Bill Hammond: Jingle Jangle Morning by Jennifer Hay, with Ron Brownson, Chris Knox and Laurence Aberhart; designed by Aaron Beehre
Comma dot dogma edited by Aaron Kreisler
Lifestyle and Contemporary Culture:
InForm: New Zealand Graffiti Artists Discuss Their Work by Elliot O'Donnell
Mau Moko: The World of Maori Tattoo by Ngahuia Te Awekotuku
Shot In New Zealand: The art and craft of the Kiwi cinematographer by Duncan Petrie
Reference and Anthology:
Look This Way: New Zealand Writers on New Zealand Artists edited by Sally Blundell
A Nest of Singing Birds: 100 years of the New Zealand School Journal by Gregory O'Brien
The Transit of Venus edited by Mary Varnham