Monday musings on Australian literature: The Banjo Prize

I have just caught up with a new literary prize – the Banjo Prize – which is not to be confused with the Banjo Paterson Writing Awards I guess it’s to be expected that one of Australia’s favourite bush poets might be honoured by more than one award being named for him.

Before I get to the new one, I’ll briefly mention the older one. The Banjo Paterson Writing Awards were established in Orange in 1991 “to honour Banjo Paterson [of course], a great Australian writer and favourite son of Orange.” They seem to be run by the Orange City Library, the Central Western Daily and ABC Central West Radio, and have three categories: Short Story, Contemporary Poetry and Children’s Writing. The entries, they say, don’t have to be written in Banjo’s style, but must be Australian in content. Fair enough. The winners receive cash prizes ($2000 for each of the first two, and $200 for the children’s award.)

The Banjo Prize is a different thing altogether. Firstly, it’s a manuscript award, and secondly it’s offered by a publisher, HarperCollins. The winner will receive a $15,000 advance and a chance of a publishing contract, while two runners-up will receive written assessments of their manuscripts which could also result of course in their books achieving publication down the track.

Most of the articles I read about the award seemed to be based on HarperCollins Press releases or came from HarperCollins itself. The articles announced the prize in March, the shortlist in August, and then the winner at the end of August. The winner, from 320 submissions, is Tim Slee with his manuscript, Burn. HarperCollins’ Head of Fiction Catherine Milne, whom you’ve met here before, said of the winner:

Burn is a novel that sneaks up on you, and takes you by surprise – and before you know it, you’re deep in its world and don’t want to leave. Burn is a thought-provoking, heart-warming, quintessential Australian novel like no other, and I’m just thrilled that it is our inaugural Banjo Prize winner.

Tim Slee, Charlie JonesThe two runners-up were Ruth McIver for Nothing Gold and Gregory James for Bordertown.

It’s unlikely that any of these authors will be well-known to us because the whole point is to discover new Australian storytellers. However, Adelaide’s The Advertiser provides some information about Slee. He is an “Adelaide-born expatriate writer”, and has previously self-published science fiction and historical novels. The Advertiser says that “he was thrilled that the book that ‘broke through’ for him was one about the ‘unbreakable spirit’ of Australian people.” He’s apparently lived abroad for more than a decade – they don’t say where – but “has returned regularly” to Australia. His author bio at Amazon.Com tells us he’s also won the 2016 US Publishers Weekly BookLife Prize for Fiction and was a past winner of Allen & Unwin’s INK prize for short fiction.

Anyhow, Burn was apparently inspired by a father and son he met five years ago during a family camping holiday in southeast Victoria. The two had sold their farm and the father was heading to Melbourne to look for work because

making a living on the land was too bloody hard. I remember the pain in his eyes. Watch any news bulletin about the drought today, you’ll see that pain.

Burn starts with “the death of a bankrupt dairy farmer who sells his herd and sets fire to his house rather than hand it over to the banks.” Slee calls it a warning that “a lot of people in this country have had a gutful and it’s ready to go up in flames.” Sounds like a book that grapples with some confronting contemporary issues. We’ll just have to wait now for it to be published …

The write stuff

Before I leave this prize, I’d like to share some points made by Denise Raward in the Sunshine Coast Daily in an article titled “Have you got the write stuff?” She wrote it in April after the award was announced. I like that she took the press release, did some research and produced a thoughtful commentary. She notes that Australia is undergoing “something of an amateur writing boom.” Evidence for this includes, she says, the Sydney-based Australian Writers’ Centre [AWC] saying that there’s been “a huge surge in interest in its online and classroom writing courses in just the last five years.” AWC’s national director Valerie Khoo, she continues, attributes this “to the very thing that was supposed to kill the written word as we knew it, the internet.” Khoo said that “people have discovered it’s easy to tell their own stories on platforms like Facebook, Instagram, blogs and so on … It’s given them a voice – and an audience.” It has, in other words, encouraged the art of storytelling.

Raward responds with a note of caution, reminding us that “if it’s the lure of fame and fortune spurring the growing ranks of part-time writers, they may well be disappointed. A 2015 study of 1000 Australian book authors found the average income from their writing was $12,900 a year.”

She then goes on to say that unlike some of its rival publishing houses, HarperCollins hasn’t accepted unsolicited manuscripts for some time because the strike rate was too low. Allen & Unwin, for example, accepts unsolicited manuscripts, receiving about 1000 a year. Publishing rates for first time authors in Australia, Raward says, “are infinitesimal but it doesn’t seem to deter the punters.” HarperCollins’ Milne wants to open the door, hoping that the prize “will become a fixture on the writing community’s calendar and give new authors something to work towards every year.”

Raward then asked – logically – what publishers look for in a manuscript:

Milne says there are some definite pointers but there’s also some magic involved.

“My first piece of advice is to read, read, read,” she says. “Have a notion where your work is going to sit within the genre you’re writing in. Be familiar with the well-known authors and how they’re telling their stories and also the niche authors. Know the territory.”

And then:

The next tip is one she can’t emphasise enough – to make sure the beginning is compelling. Milne says she can often tell whether a manuscript is going to captivate her just by reading the title, first paragraph and synopsis.

There’s more, but you can read it all in the article. Raward does report though that Milne says they’re not looking for science fiction and fantasy, but are for other genres that are currently very popular: “great historical fiction, romantic comedies, family sagas, gritty crime – domestic noir and psychological thrillers.”

Milne, however, makes the point that in the end

it’s always the more intangible qualities that make manuscripts leap out of the pile: a unique voice, passion in the writing and good old-fashioned story telling.

She wants to be “kept up late at night because I can’t stop turning the pages. I want to feel the passion that went into writing it.”

Burn must have done that!

It’s an interesting initiative from HarperCollins, if only because it represents a very public commitment to reading manuscripts. A prize to watch – will it continue, and will it unearth some exciting new storytellers?

What do you think?

43 thoughts on “Monday musings on Australian literature: The Banjo Prize

  1. Forgive my cynicism, but it looks to me like a marketing ploy. For the princely sum of $2000 they get to read a curated slush pile of debut novels that have already been edited to be the best they can be (and that conform to their idea of ‘popular’) and they can market the resulting book as ‘winner of the Banjo award’ with a gold sticker on the cover.

    • Sure, Lisa, I appreciate of course that it’s a commercial thing … and they seem to be looking at the popular end … but I always like to give things like this the benefit of the doubt. So I kept my cynical self under wraps and tried to look at it more openly, ie neither cynically, nor seeing it as the best thing ever!!

      I’m not sure what you mean by a curated slush pile – do you mean because they are entries according to certain criteria – or by the $2000? Re the former, I don’t blame them for being clear about what they are looking for – doesn’t waste their or the author’s time on manuscripts clearly not relevant to them or not presented as well as they could be. They are a business? Re the latter, they are offering $15000 advance and pretty much guaranteed publication to the winner. I don’t know what the usual advance is, though, so don’t know how good this is. I suspect the winners will be happy to have a prize sticker on their book as it’s likely to get them more sales too? In the end the proof of credibility, and the worth of the sticker, will be in the result, particularly this first one.

      • What I meant by curated is that serious debut authors looking for publication (i.e. the ones with PhDs or similar grads from a creative writing school) will submit a fully edited MS in hope of the prize compared to a regular slush pile of hopefuls. The real prize is of course publication, and a number of publishers do something similar, the difference being that these prizes are long established, and their origins were not with the publisher e.g. the Vogel and the TAG Hungerford.
        I guess my cynicism comes from having read somewhere that buyers are attracted by prize stickers-or-blurb on a book. So if a publisher’s books don’t win major prizes, and (correct me if I’m wrong) HC’s don’t even get shortlisted in the major prizes because they don’t publish LitFic, why then the solution is to have your own prize, which is basically a sticker which means no more than that this is the one book that was chosen for publication out of the slush pile. Good luck to them I say, but buyer beware!

        • Thanks for that. Yes, fair points, all. I don’t have a problem with “serious debut authors” from those courses seeing this as an opportunity. Whatever we might think about those courses, those writers have spent serious time learning their craft in order to give themselves the best chance. There are many ways to upping your chances but courses and workshops and seminars are important parts of them.

          As for the sticker, yes of course buyer beware, as always. I pay no attention to Women’s Weekly Good Read or whatever they are stickers, but do to other obvious ones. But even then you have to be aware of those “Miles Franklin winner” stickers for the author not for that particular book, though that sticker will tell you something about the author’s credentials. I don’t think being aware of stickers is anything new. Look at all those wine label stickers … understanding them takes quite a bit of nous!!

          Overall, my feeling is different publishers will initiate things that they can afford or justify and that suit their market. I’m looking at this prize in terms of that, not in terms of whether it will result necessarily in books suiting my particular tastes or world view. It could very well bring new authors to prominence who will give pleasure to a lot of people. After all, HC publishes Robyn Cadwallader for example.

          BTW this year’s winner doesn’t seem to be a book out of a course but from a working self-published writer, though I don’t know for a fact?

        • BTW Lisa, I forgot to comment on the LitFic question. HarperCollins does publish LitFic, particularly in their Fourth Estate imprint, though perhaps not the edgy edge of it!! McKinnon’s Storyland was theirs for example.

        • Oh, yes, *smacks forehead* so it was! I’d forgotten about Fourth Estate, and yes, Storyland was a lovely book. I was so pleased when it was nominated for the MF.

  2. If more prizes and opportunities lead to more Australian writers and books, I’m happy. Love the name too, the Banjo Prize. There is a bloke who travels into Melbourne on my train with a brushy-looking moustache, and wears a big brown overcoat and a hat similar to the one Banjo Patterson wore in the photo of him in his younger days. Whenever I seem him I wonder if he would like to change places with Clancy…

    • Haha, love it Rose. He probably would. I’m inclined to agree with you re opportunities for writers. Competitions have their own stresses but in a way unpublished ms may have less because no one knows you’ve missed out!

  3. Literary prizes highlighting new and upcoming authors seem to be a very good thing. I think that these folks are most in need of recognition. It is interesting but unfortunate that unsocited manuscripts have such a low success rate.

  4. To be honest, I’m very glad a previously self-published author has won this. Once you go down that self-published path, it is almost impossible to get mainstream publishers to take you seriously. They no longer consider just your manuscript but also start requesting proof of sales figures on your self-published titles. It’s a bar you’ll never reach, so to see that this has not held him back is heartening.

    • Thanks for that perspective Theresa. I really appreciate hearing from an author’s POV.

      I guess you can’t blame them in one sense but I can see that they’re comparing apples (a company with a publicity machine) and oranges (an author doing it all themselves and not necessarily with PR training). It would be interesting to know the backgrounds of the runners up too, wouldn’t it.

      • My main issue with it was that debut authors didn’t have to prove themselves on that level. An indie author should be given the same playing field, because when it comes down to it, they really are a debut author as well. A mainstream publishing house would never absorb their self-published titles and re-publish them, so you would be starting fresh with the new title.
        It would be interesting to know the backgrounds of the runners up.

        • Yes, I understood that, sorry if it wasn’t clear Theresa. I agree that new authors should have a level playing field. I was just commenting on the fact that publishers will use whatever tools they think they have to help make a decision, but it’s not necessarily fair to do so given the inequality in what they are comparing.

        • I might be wrong about this, but I think that Bernice Barry’s bio of Georgina Molloy, The Mind that Shines was self-published first and then taken up by Pan McMillan.
          PS #LisaWrongAgain: Robyn Cadwallader’s book is published by Harper Collins too. I hope that gets nominated for something!

        • Hi Lisa … yes, I mentioned Robyn Cadwallader in my previous reply! But I wrote SO much!!

          That’s interesting about Barry’s Bio. I seem to remember hearing a couple of similar stories but it sounds like they might be rare. Still, perhaps new authors of any type being published is rare!?

        • Oh yes, Robyn’s is a worthy nominee for something, I agree.
          It does happen Lisa, self-published titles being picked up and re-published, for sure, just not all that often! And it’s probably isolated to those novels that have broken through and gained notice, such as Wool, which was originally self-published in small volumes before becoming the book that it is now.

        • It came out a few years ago, dystopian, and made a bit of a splash. Originally, the author had self-published with Amazon in these smaller, a bit like a serial, which was a mode of release that self-published authors were being encouraged to do. Release your novel in bits to retain readership and sales while writing your next. I had a few friends who were into it and I suppose, that was around the time I was self-publishing so I was getting particular newsletters geared to that.

        • Definitely not a silly idea at all, but I do think it suits some genres more than others. Romance and dystopia seemed to be the targets for it. Earlier this year though, Kim Kelly’s Paper Daisies was serialised in the UK, can’t remember who with (nothing at all to do with Amazon), but she was pleased with the success of it. It’s historical, but this particular company specialised in that so I would expect all of the readers were used to reading their historical fiction in that way. I would be too impatient!

  5. You’ve certainly generated an interesting comment stream. Personally I think the name Banjo is wrong for a novel prize, he wrote ballads (mostly) but I guess for them it said “Australian”. I’m glad too a self published SF author got the prize, I wouldn’t be surprised if all novelists one day had to start with ebook self publication. The publishers might be wrong too to reject SF given, as we’ve discussed, how mainstream it’s getting.

    • Thanks Bill, it’s great when commenters offer different perspectives on posts isn’t it?

      Yes, you have a point re Banjo but I think it is the Australianness that they – as in that other prize too – want to capture.

      I wondered about the SF exclusion, too, because they mention other popular genres like crime and thriller. I haven’t looked at their catalogue but maybe they are more into historical fiction and crime as publishers and don’t really want to get into that area? It certainly is becoming more and more mainstream as you say.

  6. Carmel Bird publishes with Harper Collins too under the Fourth Estate imprint and so do Jessie Cole, Andrea Goldsmith and Steven Carroll. You know, *blush* I had just never joined the dots between Fourth Estate and HC, which I associate with genre fiction…

  7. Love this idea! And I wonder if it will spread to other HarperCollins outlets. Certainly that annual income figure could use a little boosting – even just for one writer!

    • Thanks Buried … you’ll need to watch out. I’m guessing it’s the initiative of Catherine Milne here, but her idea will surely be watched my other HC sites. (Maybe she copied it from one somewhere else too?)

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