Monday musings on Australian literature: The cost of literary awards

Queensland Literary Awards LogoI must get better at noting who posts links on social media that I later take up and use on my blog. Today’s post was inspired by an article posted on Twitter (I think) early last December last (and I now thank whoever it was who posted it!) The article is by The Sydney Morning Herald’s literary editor, Susan Wyndham, and was itself inspired by an announcement by the University of Western Australia’s publishing arm to not enter books for awards in 2017.

Terri-ann White, the director of UWA Publishing, said that the “expense (of entry fees, books, and postage) and the time involved in entering books for literary awards and prizes” exceeded their resources in 2016. Wyndham explains that there are at least 60 annual awards in Australia, and this is growing. Most require an entry fee of $50-100 plus the provision of up to six copies for each book entered. In addition, as one publisher noted, there’s the rather substantial cost of attending awards ceremonies. Do you or don’t you, she said.

But, don’t awards result in more sales?

Well, not necessarily, apparently. White said that short listings and wins do not, in their experience, automatically translate into increased sales. For example, when Geoffrey Lehmann’s Poems 1957-2013 won the Prime Minister’s Literary Award for poetry in 2015, Lehmann received $80,000 but UWA “saw no results whatsoever [in sales].” My immediate response was that this is probably not surprising with less “popular” literary forms. However, White’s argument regarding sales is confirmed by other publishers. Donna Ward of Inkerman and Blunt told Wyndham that “literary prizes are expensive and don’t add to the bottom line of a boutique press trying to build its business.” Giramondo’s Ivor Indyk essentially agrees too, saying that “you don’t do it for sales, you do it for your authors, and for the reputation of the publishing house”.

Allen & Unwin, by contrast, said that sales tripled for Charlotte Wood’s The natural way of things after its Stella Prize win. And another big publisher, HarperCollins, said that sales of Stephen Carroll’s novel The time we have taken went from 3000 to 26,000 after winning the 2008 Miles Franklin Award, and Stephen Conte’s debut novel The zookeeper’s war went from 3000 to 13,000 after winning the first Prime Minister’s Literary Award for fiction.

So, here’s the rub: although over 60 literary awards are offered now, publishers told Wyndham that only the Miles Franklin, the Stella and the Children’s Book Council of Australia awards significantly affect sales. I’m guessing other awards might, like the above mentioned Prime Minister’s Literary Award, but on a more case-by-case basis?

Wyndham interviewed several publishers and found that while most plan to continue to support their authors by entering their books, there is a move, particularly among the smaller presses, towards being more careful, more targeted. Ventura Press, for example, said they are “highly selective”.

What to do?

Wyndham asked publishers how things could be improved. They suggested

lowering the fees, or removing them for small presses; reducing the number of categories to focus attention and cut fees; accepting digital copies, possibly without the author’s or publisher’s name to reduce a perceived bias towards big publishers; announcing shortlists and winners earlier so books are still in shops, and promoting those lists better.

Some good ideas here. I’d be interested to hear what authors say, particularly regarding the “blind” submission of their works; what the awards managers say about the fee/cost issue; and what booksellers say, particularly about the timing issue.

The timing issue seems tricky because books can be eligible for awards up to a year, and sometimes two years with biennial awards, after publication. I can’t see how timing can suit all books eligible for a particular award. However, it is certainly the case that some awards close their entries long before the process of long and short listing, and then awarding of the prize, takes place. Take the 2016 Prime Minister of Australia Literary Awards as an example. To be eligible books had to be published in the 2015 calendar year. Entries closed in May 2016, but the shortlist wasn’t announced until October and the winners, finally, in early November, making it nearly 2 years after the earliest eligible books could have been published. You can see their point can’t you?

The promotion issue is an interesting one – because it’s something that we bloggers can help with. I must say that I have felt a bit silly just reiterating long and short lists as they’ve been announced, figuring those interested in books will have seen them anyhow. I tend just to do a select few. But perhaps I should rethink this? Of course, my blog is small bickies in the scheme of things, but maybe it all contributes to a useful critical mass.

It sounds like, whatever we do, we need to do something, because, as the above-named Donna Ward told Wyndham:

publishers are very selective and many small and micro publishers don’t even bother. And thus, Australia misses out on hearing about its most extraordinary, vibrant writers.

And that’s a sad thing.

I’d love, of course, to hear what you have to say on this issue (and I do recognise that some readers here would rather there be no awards at all.)

28 thoughts on “Monday musings on Australian literature: The cost of literary awards

  1. Are there 60 awards, or just 10 awards each with 6 categories? I don’t follow them but I would guess the answer tends towards the latter. I know everyone got mad when Queensland dropped its awards, but perhaps Campbell Newman was right, state awards don’t matter. Sure, authors love the money, well hey, let’s just give it to them. Every January get photos of each premier awarding an annual residency to his favourite author and everyone will be satisfied.

    • Actually, Bill, I think 60 awards is more like it. I have more than 10 just in my side-bar. There are many awards e.g. Poetry awards, Short story awards, the National Biography Prize, not to mention Crime writing awards, Speculative fiction awards, and more that I haven’t listed. An individual author won’t be eligible for all 60 plus, but a publisher is likely to have authors eligible for many of them.

      Still, why not throw your idea into the mix!

  2. I don’t read books because they win awards because the hype becomes monotonous after awhile. Maybe they should submit the manuscripts for the awards before they are published and offered to the public and then advertise them when released as having won such and such award. That might be interesting and it would all be packaged together. I like the idea of it being blind. I know publishers have their favourites and sometimes the favourites just are not up to standards. I am not sure but I would like to hear more from the small publishers as some of those independent ones are very interesting. My 2 cents.

    • Thanks Pam. Awards can play a role in whether I read a book but a fairly small role. They are often not the first thing I look at, but particularly when choosing our reading group books they will be an additional factor in choosing between this book and that. We will mostly read the Miles Franklin for example, though have missed some over the years.

      I agree that small publishers are producing some great books, and we do need to hear more from them in the mainstream than we do, though it’s been great to see more and more of them featuring in awards shortlists in recent years.

  3. As a reader I take an interest in some Australian Awards, like the Miles Franklin and Stella. I will try to read the short lists for both. However, other ‘awards’ don’t encourage me to read the award winning book. For me it is the publicity of the book or the author which will influence my decision to read the book. I never used to read the publicity of books and or blogs, but the digital age has changed my ways. Yet, I do love to go into my library and trawl the shelves and choose a book without any influence from others! It does seem that there are too many awards. Cutting out some awards and or combining award events would help to reduce costs.

    • Thanks Meg. I crafted a reply to this this morning on my iPad and whoosh off it went somewhere but not here. I think I said something about liking your comment about the digital age changing your practices. Publicists would find that interesting I expect.

      As for awards affecting my reading I’m a bit like you. I do like to check out Miles Franklin and Stella – and I’m intrigued by the Prime Minister’s one – but my reading is usually driven my other factors.

  4. As a small independent publisher I agree with Susan Wyndham’s article. Awards seem to have become a money-making venture that’s a bit of a lottery, with very little reward for the participants. After being enthusiastic and spending many hours and dollars on submitting various titles over a few years, I have decided it’s just not worth the effort.

    • Great to have your perspective here Anna. Do any of your authors decide to go it alone and submit themselves? It’s all such a game isn’t it? The prize money is valued by many of the authors who win because – well, we all know why – but I must say I wasn’t aware of just how costly the whole process was. I can certainly understand why small publishers in particular need to be very circumspect about it or not do it at all.

  5. There’s university research that indirectly backs this worrying problem for small publishers: I can’t find it now but basically it showed that the big publishers win the awards, often with less innovative books, leaving it to small publishers to take the risk of publishing more interesting writing from less well-known authors. (I found this research in the wake of AS Patric winning the MF with Black Rock White City from small indie publisher Transit Lounge, which was clearly a welcome and long overdue exception). If the reason, as Anna and Susan suggest, is that small indie publishers can’t afford to enter, then clearly something needs to be done, especially by the Miles Franklin.
    Surely it’s not beyond the power of the publishing industry to rationalise the situation somehow? They could, for a start, get rid of those expensive award ceremonies that involve authors flying in from all over the country, mostly to go home without an award. Even with an award it might not be worthwhile: an author from WA could lose a lot of a $5000 award just in fares and accommodation, even if they take the ‘red-eye’ flight). I have been invited to some of these award ceremonies at no cost to me in a rent-a-crowd capacity, and what with the dinner, the vast quantities of wine flowing and the so-called entertainment, it seems to me that it amounts to an expensive get-together for publicists and publishers to frock up and party. (And none of those at my table at the last one I went to, had read *any* of the books). Now I realise that it’s the entry fees that were paying for my seat at the table I am embarrassed…

    • Thanks Lisa … I”d love to see that research, not that it surprises me but it would be interesting to read the whole argument/research they did. In recent years I’ve felt more Aussie small publishers are appearing in the shortlists, but it’s clearly expensive for them and if they feel they can’t take part that’s a worry.

      One of the respondents to Susan Wyndham in particular mentioned the awards ceremonies. As you say, coming from WA to the east would be a particularly expensive proposition.

  6. Thinking about this a bit more: I do my best (and fail miserably) to keep up with all the awards, but maybe the most useful thing we can do for the small indie publishers and their authors is not necessarily to blog about the awards – because if their books are not entered they don’t made it to the shortlists anyway so that doesn’t help them at all. Maybe what we should do is to review as many of their books as we can…
    In Susan Wyndham’s farewell post from the SMH, ( she says that “Every [author] income source has been chipped away: publisher advances, royalties and (non-existent) lending rights on ebooks, government grants, and sales of all but top bestsellers”.
    So. All of that applies to publishers as well.
    What’s left is sales, and we know that research proves that word-of-mouth generates book sales. Well, blogging is a 21st century form of word-of-mouth with a possibly international megaphone. I know because I have an affiliation with Fishpond just how many sales have been generated from my blog, and it’s *thousands* of dollars, and that’s just one from one bookseller that sells mainly within Australia and New Zealand because it charges postage to anywhere else. It doesn’t include all the sales generated at The Big Behemoth, other online Aussie booksellers, at bricks-and-mortar indie book shops or direct from the publisher. It also doesn’t include books borrowed from the library which generates income for an author too through the Public Lending Right program or the Educational Lending Right program.
    Just this week I have seen on Twitter a London bookseller very excited about getting rights for Lucy Treloar’s Salt Creek – and they said that they found out about it and other Aussie titles via bloggers.
    So while I don’t wish to be self-aggrandising about what we do, I do wonder if even as ‘small bickies’ we can have an influence that can actually help.

    • Yes, I think you’re right Lisa … blogging probably does play a useful role. The number of hits we might get per individual title on our blogs isn’t always huge, I think, but each listing on each blog must add to the critical mass and that’s important – to readers and to Google’s algorithms!

      • Oh yes, and don’t forget that the stats/hits don’t include all the people who read the review by subscribing to email. Sometimes a review gets reblogged elsewhere, and who knows then how far it goes!

        • True … unless they click on the email and come to the blog which I usually do to make sure the hit gets recorded, even if I don’t always comment. Most people don’t realise that, but I like the blogger to get the hit.

  7. As a soon-to-be author (but someone not well-versed in the practices of publishing houses) I would hope that a publisher would tell its authors early on in the piece whether or not the publisher was going to enter their work in prizes. Or, if only for some prizes, which ones. Then, if the author wanted to enter a prize but the publisher did not, I would hope the publisher might give the author the opportunity to pay for the entry fees and out-of-pocket costs.

    • Most competitions can be entered by either publisher or author. The authors are usually better placed to keep track of specific awards that their book would suit, and they’re welcome to make the submissions. Unfortunately there isn’t just one resource that lists all the competitions/awards so it takes a bit of time searching them out.

      • Thanks Anna. Wikipedia has a reasonably good list, but you then have to check each one out to find its details and off course it’s not a perfect list. I also find whenever I research awards that some of them maintain very good, informative websites and some are absolutely hopeless, with a lot falling in-between.

    • Good questions Michelle. I would say it doesn’t hurt for authors to be aware of what prizes they might be eligible for and to have the discussion with their publisher. (Ah I’ve just seen that Anna says that too.)

  8. does indeed sound like a tangle of competitive interests… i’ve noted in the past that the more complex a procedure becomes, the more inefficient it gets… and almost always to the detriment of the smaller participants… greed and power taking their due, i suppose…

  9. Interesting! I never thought about cost to publishers for entering works, I guess I always just assume that books are nominated and the judges read copies that appear by magic. I can see how it could get expensive fast for small presses especially when the big presses are the ones winning. I don’t see how a blind submission could work, especially since there are going to be judges who can easily figure things out if they have read the book or it has been popular. A conundrum.

  10. Such an interesting post and discussion Sue. I hadn’t realised that it cost quite so much to enter awards, I can see how it would be prohibitive for the smaller publishers. I’d thought that I was noticing more smaller publishers being shortlisted and winning, perhaps that’s not correct. I do think that book blogging and the whole world of booktube is doing much to publicise books, I certainly find many books to read that way- the content is endless (as is the amount of time we can keep reading or watching it) whereas the book reviews in the weekend papers review what, maybe 10 or 12 books most of the time.

    • No, I hadn’t fully realised the costs either Louise. But yes, I think you are right about smaller presses. They have been being listed – I think they are building a critical mass. I think that submitting books blind issue is not really their main issue. It is the cost.

      It would be great to see someone do a PhD on the impact of arts blogs versus arts reviewing in the press wouldn’t it? Maybe someone is.

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