Book awards are everywhere and seem to have been around forever. They reward individual works, or lifetime achievements; they can be based on form, content or genre; writers are eligible based on gender, nationality or ethnicity. But what do we really know about the ins and outs of these myriad celebrations of authors, publishers and their works?
We dived headfirst into the world of book awards with a great panel – Robert Davidson – Sandstone Press; Heather Collins – Scottish Book Trust; Gráinne Clear – Little Island Books – to understand quite their place and power in the industry.
Everything can help.
Our chair Dr. Stevie Marsden notes that with the title of the event being ‘Do book awards make a difference?’, it seems a good place to start. Do they? For the Scottish Book Trust, the goal of their awards is to get children and young adults to read for pleasure. You can’t kid a kid, you can throw all the marketing at it but if they don’t like it, they don’t like it. A prize is a validation for parents and children alike.
In more general terms, yes, says Robert, book awards do make a difference but they don’t all impact in the same way. “I’m a great supporter and believer of The Saltire Society,” he says. They’re doing great work to support the literary scene in Scotland. Sandstone might have folded, but prizes lifted them greatly. They were long listed for the Man Booker and that was a real boost. Some raise success, others money – many are just credibility, but everything can help. Your publisher starts to get mentioned alongside Faber, Penguin, the big hitters.
Awards allow small publishers to punch about their weight, notes Gráinne. Books can often be bought by people who don’t read as heavily but see that sticker on the front and go ‘this is the one’. They haven’t really seen a return on sales, but it’s really important for assuring you that you’re doing something good.
Awards can result in more opportunities for authors, many great things, but ones that you have to pay to enter are problematic and exclusive. There’s something to be wary of there. But who are the awards really for?
Whose opinion are we trusting in?
Everything is directed towards the reader. Everything with the author, design, the whole process – the end game is the benefit of the reader. A good book, a nice looking book. Awards are a great guide for readers. Also the organisations behind the awards can find themselves benefiting greatly too. But is it worth it for the publisher? It can be. It lends credibility, but there can be some awards that to win means to have to cut back elsewhere. Where’s the balance? That’s the question.
Judges are curious. Do we ever look at exactly whose opinion is being lauded as the definitive one? Few question it, but that’s who people are buying into. There are so many prizes – the more awards going, the less exposure they really offer. It becomes increasingly important to scrutinise.
Is it a level playing field for indies? If they’re free, then yes, in theory. Quality gets its chance. But those with restrictions – whether it be paywalls, or letting larger publishers submit more books – it skews against it. Talent does rise to the top in many cases, as proven by Graeme Macrae Burnet’s His Bloody Project being shortlisted for the Man Booker, but many publishers and quality authors have missed out in the past.
In a broader sense, indies aren’t level on anything, says Robert. Shelf space, big authors being sniped, big agents, prizes – the Man Booker submission restrictions. There are horrendous rules that allow some to enter many to some prizes and others must pick just one. It’s extremely different to get yourself in sometimes.
It’s a mix of hard work and luck in many cases. The world of book awards is big and confusing. Some are great, others have areas that should be questioned. But back to the main question: do they make a difference? If you win – then absolutely yes, they can do.