Monday musings on Australian literature: The cost of literary awards
I 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.)