Why book prizes matter more than ever

From The Bookseller:

The pandemic and lockdown have affected the book industry from the fate of distributors to the closure of independent shops to the drop in individual book sales, and many literary prizes have this year postponed their announcements. But the Desmond Elliott Prize, for the first time under aegis of the National Centre for Writing, is keeping to its schedule: the selectors read hundreds of entries, and presented the judges, Sinéad Gleeson, Sonia Sodha and me with ten new voices, from which we will choose a shortlist of three, and announce a winner in July. Going ahead may seem contrary, but a Prize is meant to help bring a book to readers, and so feels even more necessary while other important debut rites of passage are now being missed.

. . . .

Although all of this year’s longlistees were at pains to say that this moment is much bigger than them, current conditions will affect them and the reach of their work. As Love and Other Thought Experiments author Sophie Ward told us, “Everyone warned me that it is very quiet after a book comes out, but no one expected it to be as quiet as this!”

Those with more recent publication dates face even more challenges. Reviews for Jessica Moor’s Keeper ran the week the lockdown began – this would be tough for any book; but particularly for a debut. “People have other things on their mind now and that is absolutely as it should be, but I’m not going to be Panglossian about it – this wasn’t what I hoped for,” she explained. Meanwhile Abi Daré, author of The Girl with the Louding Voice, has not even had a chance to see her book in a bookshop yet.

Alex Allison (The Art of the Body), Oisín Fagan (Nobber) and Okechukwu Nzelu (The Private Joys of Nnenna Maloney) are among those to have had events cancelled. For Alex this was particularly pertinent given the protagonists in his debut are a carer and their disabled client. Foyles was due to host a special event that would be free to careers and people with disabilities, but it had to be cancelled as these groups are more vulnerable to Covid-19.

. . . .

A work can only speak for itself if readers can find it, and while some of the longlisted writers are following advice from Leena Norms’ online seminar ‘How to Launch a Book During a Pandemic,’ and others are gaining endorsement from more established writers who support new voices online, not all use social media or have large followings to begin with.

Prize longlists create a natural cluster for book bloggers, or booksellers with online stores to consider: the same for virtual festivals that are being organised now. These more formal debut showcases can not only place writers with their fellow newcomers (helping to connect them to ‘a tribe’ in a highly competitive market-driven world) but also to scouts for other prizes and online events. In fact, the potential of virtual support might help these books reach more readers than discrete or ticketed events alone would.

Still, one of my favourite of all public book rites is signings. It seems impossible now, that one after another, complete strangers queue to buy your book then hand it to you; you sign it, and hand it back. Whether I am getting a book signed by a writer I admire or I am on the other side of the table, no matter how long or short the queue is, that moment of exchange is electric.

Link to the rest at The Bookseller

PG isn’t an expert on the British retail book business, but Mrs. PG gave up bookstore signings a long time before she went indie. Too much time and effort for too little return.

For most authors, PG suspects signings are a waste of time. If they’re really good for sales, send someone from the publisher’s marketing department out with a bag full of tchotchkes and a cool rubber stamp with the author’s signature on it. You could even color-coordinate the ink color of the stamp with the cover.

For authors who are introverts, signings can feel like two hours of hell.

After spending several months buying books from Amazon online or borrowing ebooks from their local library online, some readers will undoubtedly be happy to return to physical bookstores.

However, PG suspects that Amazon has gained a lot of permanent customers who find the online purchasing experience satisfying and filled with a lot more information sources than any physical bookstore is.

Making a special trip to a physical bookstore may seem a bit more archaic than it does now.

9 thoughts on “Why book prizes matter more than ever”

  1. For indies, there is another Catch-22 in literary/mainstream writing: without an award, books don’t get seen by those readers, but indies are either not allowed (‘no self-published books’ is common on award application pages) or can’t afford to keep paying prize entry fees.

    The division persists on venues such as BookBub, where novels sent out to readers compete with heavily discounted novels put out by publishers with major awards listed on their covers with the little gold badges-of-specialness.

    Some of us will breach those barriers eventually, but it has to be with high-quality work to change the minds of those who think traditional publishers are the only ones who can vet this category.

  2. where novels sent out to readers compete with heavily discounted novels put out by publishers with major awards listed on their covers with the little gold badges-of-specialness.

    Publishers are price competitive with independents?

    • Among those who care about “little gold badges of specialness”.
      A very specific market and a subset of the “only tradpub ships real books” by “real authors”.

  3. My initial reaction to the title of the post was “WTF”. However, PV is a polite blog, so I’ll just say that I gravely doubt whether the multiplicity of prizes now on offer result in more than a handful of extra sales, though I’m sure that they make the prize committees and authors happy.

    In the SFF field it seems that everyone in the world is giving prizes and hardly a day passes without a prize announcement. As an avid SFF reader I ignore them all. At one time – 20 years ago maybe – I did try to read all the Hugo nominated novels but they are now a tiny subset of the mass of published books, and pretty much ignore anything that’s not traditionally published (which is to say most of the new SF I read).

    • Once upon a time (Pre-Star Wars, to be exact) when SF&F were niches focused on a subculture os STEMers and the imaginative, it was actually possible for a person to aspire to read (and often to afford) all new SF&F in a year. Nowadays a single day’s releases are beyond most people’s budgets and that doesn’t factor in the better part of a century’s backlist.

      Add in the inherent tribalization of online communities and it is only natural that the once universal awards have ended up dominated by cliques and gangs. They’ve all become ever more special to ever less people. And so the people who still care about awards have set up their ownto cater to tbeir own tribe. Each of which is about as big as the entire field in the 60’s.

      Growth leads to segmentation in pretty much everything.

      • — and then what happens, and has happened for some time actually, is that the awards are only given out to people who attend cons every year and socialize well. I’ve read so many disappointing SF books whose author blurb features ‘community involvement’ prominently.

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