#SYP2020: Book Awards in 2020.

BLOG STEVIEThe final countdown is on to our inaugural conference 2020: A Publishing Odyssey. So, we wanted to know what people thought different areas of the publishing world will (or should) be like come 2020. Stevie Marsden looks at the future of book awards.

It seems almost serendipitous that on the day I sat down to write a piece on where literary award culture will be in 2020, news broke of yet another award being shelved for the time being due to a lack of funding. It was on this very day announced that the Fiction Uncovered literary prize, which is organised by the Literary Platform and is ‘dedicated to rewarding the best British Fiction writing across all forms and however it is published’, will not be awarded in 2016. The prize of £40,000, which is divided between eight writers (list of former winners available here), was funded by Arts Council England between 2011 and 2013 and the Jerwood Charitable Foundation funded the award in 2014 and 2015.

The (apparently temporary, but watch this space) demise of Fiction Uncovered Prize follows a slew of announcements in 2015 that a number of other awards were on hiatus while they sought funding. The Folio Prize, Impac Dublin Literary Award and the Samuel Johnson Prize for Non-Fiction all stated that they would not be running because of sponsorship withdrawals (although the Samuel Johnson Prize has since struck a deal with the investment company Baillie Gifford to sustain the £20,000 award). At this rate, there won’t be much of a literary award culture in the UK by 2020…

If I’m honest, I have mixed feelings about the demise of these awards. As someone who has worked in literary award administration and researches the impact of literary awards upon publishing and literary culture more widely, I can’t help but feel disappointed when I hear of an award’s cessation. The fewer awards we have means there are fewer opportunities for authors to receive hard-earned kudos and cash from their peers, readers and experts in their field.

Although there are only a handful of awards that might lead to a staggering rise in book sales (see, for example, Man Booker pre- and post-award booksales stats), time and again I have heard authors, publishers and agents note that winning awards makes a difference to an author. Whether it’s a confidence boost, something to add to their CV or a much needed financial boost, no matter how saturated the literary award market might seem, winning one should always be cause for celebration.

However, literary awards are expensive. Besides the prize fund given to winning authors (which, in the UK, can range from anything from £1,000 to £85,000) there is also the cost of managing and promoting an award. You need people to organise the administration of the award: write entry forms, collect the entries, correspond with judges, publishers, agents and sponsors, organise a panel of judges, attend judging panel meetings (and pay expenses for judges, either in the form of a ‘readers fee’ or travel expenses, or both), distribute books to judges (and harass publishers for said books) and create marketing campaigns. This is before an award organiser can even consider having a glitzy award ceremony where they’re expected to serve guests canapes and fizz and host some of the most influential players in the UKs literati. Its little surprise then, that many organisations are finding it difficult to fund awards which some might view as a needless luxury within an already economically dubious industry.

I’ve always felt that literary award culture in the UK is too insular. The same authors often win all the major awards and the general public – including authors and publishers – have no idea how a book is adjudicated and selected as the ‘best’ from a selection curated by a judging panel who are under no real duty to explain why they chose Hilary Mantel over Will Self. A startling fact when you consider that a number of awards are funded with public money, either directly from city council arts initiatives, ACE or Creative Scotland, or indirectly through charitable bodies (who likely have a funding streams from major public bodies anyway).

This leads me to where I think literary awards will, or should be in 2020. I think there’s absolutely still a place for literary awards in the contemporary publishing market. Whether we articulate their purpose in terms of promotion, a celebration of literature or as economic gifts to authors is, in my opinion, something the industry needs to consider. Maybe it’s all three?

But, if we want literary awards to remain part of the vast and wondrous world of literature and publishing they need to evolve as the industry, reading habits and forms of authorship evolve. Having a small, elite group of journalists, academics, writers, or “celebs” secretly select their favourite books of the year and then taking to a podium to say ‘This is the book everyone should read right now!’ is old fashioned and, quite frankly, patronising.

Readers are being introduced to books in so many different ways now that merely suggesting a book should be bought and read just because some experts said so isn’t enough anymore. The organisers of UK based literary awards should be thinking outside the box when it comes to creating buzz and excitement around literary awards.

Some awards are doing this. For the first time in 2015, the Man Booker Prize introduced a ‘vlog book group’ hosted by 5 regular book vloggers and the Baileys Women’s Prize for Fiction (formerly sponsored by Orange) has made a concerted effort to create a community of book readers. Such initiatives make the processes behind literary award culture more dynamic and open to readers who, after all, are the people buying the books that are being celebrated. What’s more, if more awards project and promote themselves as bigger and better events, they’re much more likely to attract sponsorship and such investment will in turn allow them to develop further.

Although literary awards are by no means a perfect measure of a book, author or publisher’s credentials, they are one of the longest standing forms of cultural award in existence and integral to the marketing and promotion of contemporary literature. Like all other parts of the publishing industry they’ve had to endure peaks and troughs and perhaps we’re currently in the latter but I for one am hoping that this instigates investment and development within the sector that will come to fruition by 2020.

Stevie Marsden is currently completing her PhD Thesis entitled ‘A History of the Saltire Society Literary Awards 1936-2015’.

There are still tickets available for our conference on March 18th, the first Society of Young Publishers one to take place in Scotland. Book your place over here.


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