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?