Sunday, May 13, 2012

AWRF - The Politics of Prizes

Under the lively and agreeable chairmanship of AUP publisher Sam Elworthy we experienced a vigorous discussion on the subject a panel comprising Stella Rimington, 2011 Chair of Man Booker Prize judging panel, best-selling and non-book award winning NZ author Jenny Patrick and journalist, editor and blogger Stephen Stratford.

Stella Rimington was especially interesting because of her Man Booker experience where five judges elected from 138 novels published in the UK first a long list of 13 titles and then a shortlist of five titles. There was considerable controversy at the time because the titles on both lists were regarded as being "too popular".
One of the difficulties with being a Man Booker  judge is that no criteria is stated for judging so Stella Rimington and her panel elected to select titles that would appeal to the average intelligent reader. I could have listened to her talking alone about this for the whole hour.

Jenny Patrick, (right), who was awarded the Katherine Mansfield Menton Fellowship but has never been shortlisted for awardds for any of her enormously popular historical novels talked about the secret disappointment of this. She also expressed the widely held view that a shortlist of three is too few for the fiction category compared to the five on the shortlist of the non-fiction categories.

Stephen Stratford whom the Chair introduced as the person who has judged more NZ book awards than anyone else talked about authors and publishers getting cross with judges if their books were not shortlisted. It was rather alarming to hear Stratford suggest on three occasions that he regarded book awards as largely a waste of time in terms of increasing book sales.To back this up he quoted his local bookseller in his country town and the Paper Plus chain.


Stephen Stratford said...

Graeme, that is a gross misrepresentation of what I said. I did not say three times that I regard book awards as a waste of time. I did not say it even once. I would never say that, because I don't think that.

I quoted the bookseller so that the voice of booksellers might be heard in the discussion, because the chair was a publisher and everyone on the panel was a writer. He is involved in the book trade at the national level so is in touch with a range of booksellers across the country, from independents to, yes, Paper Plus. These stores have different customers from the likes of inner-city stores like Unity and Scorpio, so their experience of the value or otherwise of shortlist is different. I was not saying "this is what I think", just "this is what I am told by someone who knows more about it than me". As I made clear, and others present at the event confirm.

Paul said...

First literary spat of the week; I am with Stephen on this one. He writes what I heard him speak. It is useful to hear some non-metropolitan opinion about books, for a change, and to hear of the booksellers' experience.

People to whom I spoke at the Festival were by no means literati but had come to see particular writers. Such readers do not figure in the metropolitan imagination - we have little idea what readers who are not part of literary circles want.

Jeremy said...

I doubt you can call it a literary spat but I am with the blogger on this one. Stephen Stratford said several times that from a sales point of view the prizes made no impact whatsoever.I wrote it down in my notes.But he did say that he got that info from his local rural bookseller.
Perhaps we should ask the publishers of the winning books what has happened to sales after their titles have won.And also ask city booksellers like Unity and The Book Lover and the university bookshops.
As a book buyer and not one in the book business I can say that I am definitely influenced by prize winning titles. Often of course I have already bought the shortlisted fiction titles as they are published the year before but if I haven't then I go and buy them when the shortlist is announced.

Mary May said...

I wasn't there but you do wonder at the point of prizes if they don't affect sales. I know they recognise authors but surely what authors want most is bigger sales? If all that money is going to be spent on prizes with no affect on sales then perhaps the money could be better spent marketing books in some other way?

Stephen Stratford said...

Jeremy, I did not say that prizes make no impact. How would I know? I quoted a bookseller - who is not a "local rural bookseller", a patronising description if ever there was, but a very smart one who is in touch with the entire industry, as I made clear several times. I hear the same comments about the shortlist from Whitcoulls HQ as well. And from at least one of the smart Auckland bookshops you cite. It's a problem for the awards, for sure. I will bang on about this a bit more at QUQ whenI recover from the AWRF.

Paul said...

Yes, but it is the sponsor's money and the sponsor usually is outside the publishing world. Dame Stella was talking about the Man Booker, which was sponsored by a food wholesaler and now is sponsored by a hedge fund. Stephen was taking about our awards, sponsored variously by a vegetable canner, a winemaker and the post office. Quite why these firms want to be involved with books is anyone's guess but the effect of their involvement does distort the publishing market, for good or ill. These sponsors probably are not that bothered by the effect on book sales in itself, but are interested in the publicity the prize gives them.

Mary May said...

Hang on a minute Paul. You are saying the sponsors involvemnt is distorting the publishing market but Stephen Stratford and his "very smart" bookseller are saying that the awards are not making any impact on sales at all so how can they be distorting the market?
And Stephen Stratford what is the QUQ?

Paul said...

I think awards distort markets because people choose award winners over other choices: it is not that they buy more books (or bottles, cheeses or anything else that has awards), it is that they pick winners. The reader would buy a book anyway but chooses the book that wins the prize.

Kiwicraig said...

The bigger question, for me, after attending the session, is why are our NZ Post Book Award having little effect (or, at least, such little effect that people like the bookseller say such things to Stephen) on book sales, when the Children's Book Award lists promote better sales, and other prizes overseas (including the Booker, amongst others) also have positive effects on book sales.

What is it about our NZ Post Book Awards that is lacking, that doesn't promote the books in such a way that further readers - who haven't already bought the books - will use them as a gauge for more book buying?

And what can we do to change this?

Stephen - I'd be very interested in your thoughts on this, along with anyone else who would like to chime in...

Paul said...

The bigger question, for me, is what was Stephen doing during the miners's strike of 1984?

Fergus Barrowman said...

It's wrong to measure book awards solely by sales. A shortlisting is a significant career boost for a writer, and the profile and debate should boost the whole community.

I think children's book awards have more impact on sales because the buyers of those books don't read them themselves so rely on recommendations.

Sam Elworthy said...

Hey, looks like ours was the one panel at the Festival to get a good argument going--fantastic! We're doing some pondering on these issues on the Book Awards Governance Group right now, so keen to hear all ideas. Meanwhile, we all know that Stephen has been undercover MI5 for years and that accounted for his bonhomie with Dame Stella....Cheers, Sam

Stephen Stratford said...

Mary May, QUQ is my blog,

Kiwicraig, that's a good question. I dunno the answer but as I said I wonder if it's how much people trust the brand. The kids' award has maybe been more consistent, reliable, than the adult awards. Booksellers and librarians are probably best-placed to talk about this.

Paul, whereof I cannot speak, thereof I must remain silent.

Fergus, good point about recommendations being more important in kids' books. Still comes down to trust, though, so the question remains - why is one set of awards more trusted than the other? Fortunately that is Sam's problem, not mine.

Sam Elworthy said...

Yip. People agonise over the National Book Award's lack of impact on sales in the US in similar terms (while the kids prizes in US make HUGE difference), so the Brits are perhaps the exception with Booker, Orange etc having such an effect.

Jeff Grigor said...

I believe the reason that we sell far more books from the Children's Book Awards is because Librarians and Schools will buy virtually every title if they haven't already got it.And as the short list is announced at the start of the School Year they have the budget to do so.
Apart from institutions our in store sales of the short listed titles are much the same for both awards.Negligible except for the winners.
But don't take my word for it.
Just check out the sales figures on Neilsen Book Data which are computer generated figures from stores throughout NZ.
When the short lists are released some of the short listed titles don't even make it onto the list which is the top 300 selling books in NZ each week !!

Alison Wong said...

As a previous 'beneficiary' of the NZ Post Book Awards I am hugely grateful to the sponsors, judges and those involved in making it all happen. I cannot comment on whether the Awards result in greater sales of the shortlisted or winning books. I suspect that in some cases they do and in others they may not, depending on the book. However, every writer who is shortlisted would be grateful for the added publicity, recognition, and if a winner, for the financial bonus in an industry where few of us can make a living from our creative work and where we will probably have spent many years writing.

I understand that when the Awards were restructured a major reason for cutting the numbers shortlisted was to try to give greater publicity to the few books shortlisted, however, given the scarcity of awards for NZ writers (including the demise of the Commonwealth Writers Prize apart for first book) I would prefer that more were shortlisted and therefore recognised - certainly five fiction books and even up to five poetry books, if that year there are a large number of excellent candidates.

The selection of shortlists and winners are influenced by the judges' tastes, and therefore are always potentially controversial. It cannot be anything else when there are many excellent books, and this is reflected in the fact that shortlists for various awards are not identical. Having a few more books on shortlists at least allows a few more writers recognition.

In Australia there are many awards. As well as the Prime Minister's Literary Award and the Miles Franklin (which only some 'Australian' books are eligible for because the setting must be Australian), most states also have a Premier's Literary Award (just cancelled in Queensland by the new Liberal premier), and there are many others as well. I don't know whether this larger number of awards & the difficulty getting good publicity for them all is partly why my Australian publisher, Picador, said that getting shortlisted for one of these awards did not tend to make any difference to sales. Only winning books tend to sell more. Certainly, apart from a few awards like the Booker, Pulitzer, Orange Prize, etc, getting the media/publicity machine going for literary awards seems univerally challenging. Regardless, I think the Awards are a great encouragement for writers and publishers alike.

Anonymous said...

It's possible that those who are buying books have minds and special interests of their own and buy what fulfills those interests rather than look through lists of book awards. Those lists are not always easily available to the general public and there are an awful lot of them. Awarded books are often perceived by a middle of the range reader of fiction as a bit way out, too literary, etc. A pity as I don't necessarily find that to be the case with NZ Post Awards, although I am occasionally puzzled about their choices in children's books. I think it makes a little more difference to library users who will make use of assistance to find award winners and highly recommended books. It appears there is not much research on this field in NZ, maybe a publisher could enlighten us.

Anonymous said...

Oh and I ought to mention that I regularly search award short lists, read them and award winners - and buy them for a book club, as I figure life is too short to read rubbish. However I 'm a librarian and have the skills to search and the patience to wait for the many books which I reserve.