Tuesday, October 20, 2009


NZ POST BOOK AWARDS - GROWING DISMAY OVER LENGTH OF FICTION SHORTLIST

After the initial euphoria with the announcement of the overhaul of these book awards, previously long known as the Montana NZ Book Awards, there is a widespread growing sense of unhappiness and dismay over the fact that there is to be a shortlist of only three fiction titles , including anthologies.
We New Zealanders are a pretty polite and reserved bunch who tend to avoid disputes and confrontations, I find this especially so in the book trade. We are such a small, some would say incestuous industry,that people are nervous about expressing strongly held views for fear of upsetting others or potentially disadvantaging themselves in the case of awards.

This is proving to be true over the concern about the reduced fiction shortlist.
To date seven publishers, 12 authors, one librarian and three booksellers have contacted me expressing dismay but when I asked them if I may post their comments on my blog they all declined.
One of the advantages this blog has is that it provides a forum for free and open debate and it has proved useful in this regard on a number of occasions since I set it up three years ago this month.

One publisher who is prepared to let me share his concerns with readers of the blog is Fergus Barrowman, Publisher at Victoria University Press. Never known to shy away from matters that concern him he wrote to the organisers of the NZ Book Awards on this subject. He has now received a reply, with which he is not happy, and he has agreed to let me post this correpondnece on the blog.
Here are the two letters:

Dear Members of the Awards Advisory Committee,

I was very pleased with the new awards structure as outlined in the announcement of 1 September. I think that the reduction in the number of categories and the adoption of a simple pyramid structure will make the awards easier to understand and easier to promote.

However, I am dismayed at some of the details that were withheld from that announcement and only released last Friday. In particular, I believe that the reduction of the fiction shortlist to only three books, especially as anthologies are included (why on earth?), is a serious mistake. A shortlist of three is not big enough to do justice to the quantity, quality and variety of fiction publishing in New Zealand.

We have to take into account the fact that the Posties are not only our premier, but also our ONLY, book award for fiction. In Britain, if a book doesn't make the Booker shortlist, there are still the Costa and Orange Prizes, to mention only the most prominent. In Australia, as well as the Miles Franklin there are the various Premier's Awards. Canada and the USA are similar.

The result of this change is that an unnecessarily large number of deserving books will fail to get any national award recognition. Book award shortlistings are not just about sales; they are also important additions to a writer's CV, and open up future publishing, publicity, performance and grant opportunities.

No reason has been given for the change, but I have heard a suggestion that it will encourage booksellers to "support the shortlist". This of course will not happen; the days of significant blind orders are gone, never to return, and we have to live with the facts that booksellers will make very selective choices about stocking shortlist titles, and that almost all of the sales benefit will go to the winner. Indeed, UK media reports of Booker shortlist sales suggest that on a per capita basis we've not been doing badly! The benefits of the shortlisting process are that it draws attention to a few more books than just the winner, and that it creates a bigger splash for the winner when it is unveiled.

I think it follows, then, that the savage reduction of the fiction shortlist to three books will handicap efforts to generate media coverage. It will reduce the number of promotable authors included in the awards, and the number of angles for media to pursue.

(For the same reason, I was disappointed that the first book shortlists were done away with, although I was prepared on balance to live with that. Has there been a failure to distinguish between those excesses and complexities of the previous structure that hindered its promotion, and the richnesses that fuel publicity? The problem has never simply been "too many books".)

Is it too late for the Awards Advisory Committee to rethink its decision?
Why not four shortlists of five, which has worked perfectly well for the children's book awards? A change now wouldn't affect the submission process, and wouldn't impose any more reading on the judges.

If this organisation is determined to persist, however, then perhaps Creative NZ and the Book Council should withdraw and establish an alternative book award that more adequately serves the interests of the writers and readers who make up the NZ literary community?

Regards,
Fergus

REPLY:

The Awards Advisory Committee discussed the new structure at considerable length, taking into account the submissions made in the process. As you know the committee is representative of the Society of Authors, Publishers, Booksellers Creative New Zealand and the sponsor. I facilitated the last couple of meetings and if my memory serves me, having three finalists for fiction and three for poetry, was not an overly contentious aspect of the final decisions made, which had unanimous support. Clearly all aspects of the new structure will be reviewed after the first year and changes may well be made in light of experience but we would not wish to open up the design process again at this stage.

Regards
Lincoln

Fergus is annoyed at the refusal to explain or discuss, because he can't see any reason why it's too late to rescue the situation.

Now come on booksellers, readers, librarians, publishers and authors if you feel strongly about this then have your say now or forever hold your peace.We do need to get this right first time round so that future comparisons of shortlists and winners are fair, and we owe it to the sponsors too.
If you feel that you for professional reasons you cannot put your name to your comment then on this issue, I am prepared to accept anonymous comments, provided they are not personal or libellous!
I look forward to hearing from you.

24 comments:

Anonymous said...

Jeez, talk about self interest and pushing your own barrow(!). Non-fiction has been trimmed by more than fiction has.

Keri h said...

Well done Fergus! I thoroughly agree with your arguments, and find Lincoln's reply disturbingly self-satisfied & unhelpful-

I think publishers should refuse to enter short story collections, novels & fiction anthologies until the fiction short list is extended to a minimum of 5. What with the previous decision only to select only 4 titles, the fiction award has lost a considerable proportion of tis mana- n/n Keri Hulme who has no self-interest in the award this year-

Anonymous said...

It has to be said the new awards are disappointing. They have pruned to excess. A shortlist of three for fiction is absurd. I understand the pov of wanting to amp up publicity for those few chosen, but the awards have to also function for writers who generally get very little attention for often years of work. The absurdity reaches a crescendo when we near nonfiction. The marvellous rich output is to be strangled at the throat. These awards risk being almost puritanically simplistic. As Fergus says, we have to acknowledge these are basically our ONLY adult awards. So few chosen....

Fergus said...

Ah what a grand country we live in! I was sure I'd be accused of being selfish by some anonymous coward. Maybe that's the fear that has frightened everybody else?

Anyway, VUP also publishes non-fiction, and I hope it's clear that my case, which could equally be made for poetry of course, is in no way a slight on non-fiction. I mean, good grief!

Bookman Beattie said...

And of course I don't publish anything, fiction, poetry or non-fiction, but I care passionately about books,and I believe this detail in the new awards set-up is a significant backwards step.I fully support the line being taken by Barrowman and admire his courage in standing up and stating his case.

Anonymous said...

And what about the poor reader? There are many of us who enjoy working our way through the short lists and find great authors we wouldn't normally have tried. We are not the stupid people of this world - we can deal with more than 3 books in any category! Also very often the winners are not to our personal choice but we discover gems amongst the short lists

Birkenhead Henry said...

Can someone tell me why Creative New Zealand is supporting these awards? They should never have been helping fund the Montanas - but these new abominations even less.

Rachael King said...

I did think it very odd that Fergus and I were the only ones to comment about the three book shortlist when you ran the announcement on your blog a couple of weeks ago.

Here's what I said at the time: "It's a shame there are only three fiction finalists. I wonder what the thinking behind that was? And I still think it's a little unfair to make the readers' choice come from the finalists instead of all published books. Other than that. I look forward to the new-look awards and good on NZ Post for all their support of NZ books."

I also mentioned it on my blog and got supportive comments not from industry types (apart from Fergus) but from people who love books.

I may as well declare my interest as I have a book out this year, but I would feel the same way if I didn't.

Heather McKenzie said...

Hello Graham, Is there any way you can post the anonymous comments you've received under headings like "Publisher Comments" and Librarian Comments", obviously without using their names? I think Booksellers NZ and more importantly, NZPost need to know the breadth of feeling.
Thanks, Heather. VUP

Rachael King said...

I also can't understand this decision given the outrage when only four finalists were chosen last year.

Anonymous said...

Fiction needs to go back up to five. Or we could have a longlist of five or (up to) ten books that could be announced a month or more earlier. In terms of buzz, that gives you some suspense over which of the longlist makes the shortlist as well as putting more titles before the public.

Vanda Symon said...

As a fiction writer I was dismayed to see the shortlist for fiction had been pruned to three, and that was to include anthologies.

The opportunities for New Zealand books to gain visibility are small enough, without our Premier book awards diminishing them further.

To me it also seems to send the message that New Zealand fiction isn't deemed robust enough or of sufficient quality to warrant selecting the traditional five finalists.

I'll put forward my plea to the powers that be to extend the short list to five books at least.

Kiwicraig said...

As a reader, reviewer, and writer about books (New Zealand and international), I'm happy to put my name (Craig Sisterson) in behind the comments of Fergus and others.

I would think the idea of Book Awards is to celebrate New Zealand stories. In some ways we already place so many constraints on encouraging, supporting, promoting and celebrating New Zealand writing (of all types) - and now we're basically saying that only 3 New Zealand fiction books deserve to be highlighted each year?

Huh?

I can't think of a single rational reason to have only 3 books on the fiction shortlist, especially as (as some others have pointed out), the NZ Post Book Awards are (currently) our only notable book awards for adult fiction in this country.

Is the Committee basically saying they don't think they would be able to find 5 deserving New Zealand adult fiction books each year, so we'd better just celebrate 3?

Shame.

David said...

7 comments? That's it? My biggest concern with the Montana Awards over time has been how little dust they raise - I was sure last year's clipped fiction shortlist would be worth at least a middling media storm, but it was barely a one day wonder. And this business isn't getting the response I'd expected either... Are you not letting comments through, Bookman B, or are you just not getting them?

The year I judged Montana there were non-fiction categories where we really struggled with the limitations of the shortlisting process - we could only have three titles per category, and that year we all felt there were more than three shortlist-worthy books in some areas. We wished we'd had the freedom to extend shortlists on an ad hoc basis. Likewise, though I didn't agree that last year there were only four fiction titles worthy of shortlisting, I don't doubt there's going to be the odd weak year for fiction. What bugs me about the 3 titles ceiling, aside from the basic problem that it seems to serve no one's interests, is the sheer inflexibility. Pick your judges, give them the freedom to shortlist however many books they like the most, and then encourage people to argue with their choices.

Barbara Larson, Publisher, Longacre Press said...

The present three titles seem extremely short-sighted. How many fellowships, grants, writers in residences, Prime Minister Awards for Literary Achievement etc etc are awarded to writers of fiction? Surely we could do better by our fiction writers and their publishers. A change now may inconvenience a few, but it’s not too late.

Best wishes, Barbara

Anonymous said...

Not having a shortlist for first books is also very negative for new writers. The run up to the awards is one of the few times you see mainstream bookstores promoting NZ Fiction, especially by unknowns. How are newcomers going to build a profile when there is no opportunity to highlight them, nor any indication to bookstores which ones might be worth extra promotion?
A 5 book shortlist in all categories would be preferred, and shouldn't cost anything extra for NZ Post, while making a significant difference to the writers themselves.

Andrew said...

Again, not a person in the industry except as an avid reader and buyer of books, but I, too, am very disappointed with both the curtailed shortlist and doing away with the Best First Book shortlist altogether. I feel the latter is very unfair to both the new writers and readers who are interested in seeing a focus on the new authors coming through. And, just to join the chorus, with so few opportunities to celebrate our home grown literature, cutting the NZ Post opportunity off at the knees seems a great and inexplicable shame. Bookman, if you were to post the address of those responsible for this decision, I would happily send them an email or even (so last century!) write a letter.

Bookman Beattie said...

Andrew, you should write to Anna Burtt
Awards Administrator
email: anna.burtt@booksellers.co.nz
or mail to:
C/-Booksellers NZ,
P O Box 25 033
Wellington

M.Gee said...

Hi Graham,
I can't improve on Fergus's letter. I support him in everything he says.
Maurice

maggie@at-the-bay.com said...

It is my understanding that NZSA recommended the retention of five for the shortlist.

Anonymous said...

And further [as a reader, librarian, former bookshop worker, and general grumpy opinionated older person], there is another facet - general disgruntlement and dissatisfaction and discourse on short lists , winners and runners up does create interest. But maybe publishing a notable list- as Storylines do for children's books - would do more good - on posters, on stickers, whatever - inside bookshops and online sellers.

Anonymous said...

As an editor and a writer I think the three book short list seems strangely miserly and un-festive. Surely our only only adult fiction awards should be as rich a celebration of the diversity of local authors and styles as possible? Compare to the Booker - 5 shortlisted fiction titles; the Whitbread/Costa- 4 best book, 4 best first novel; the Orange Prize - 6 short-listed novels (with an extensive long list published too); The Guardian fiction prize: 13 novels shortlisted. The NZ Book Awards has to be all of these rolled into one - and a shortlist of three novels seems unrepresentative of a broad field.
There is nobility in admitting a mistake: I think the decision should be revised.
Emma Neale

Rachel Fenton said...

To have only three books on the shortlist suggest that there is but a pittance of talent in NZ - this is so wrong!

Anonymous said...

Late to the discussion, but: will the new-style awards still have a category for books pages and book reviewers? If not, that would be a loss, too.