Thoughts on awards

In the publishing world the turn of every new year raises discussion of marketing strategies for possible literary awards. Marketing strategies for awards, you ask? Indeed yes. Let it not be thought that even in a juried award that some tacit form of opinion lobbying doesn’t take place. And if the award is a people’s choice, well, let loose the mavens of marketing.

It doesn’t seem to matter if the literary award is the Giller or the GG, the Booker or the Nobel, or lesser known regional awards to be found in every geographic region imaginable. All awards are merely an opinion poll, sometimes well-considered, sometimes not. And it would seem literary awards, not unlike film industry awards (in particular the Academy Awards), are not necessarily indicative of recognition of the best. What they are indicative of is the best marketing strategy.

Heresy? Most likely. But then I’ve never shied from heretical statements and actions. The very existence of this publishing house if proof enough.

So why do publishers seek out awards for the books and novels they publish? Some will say the bestowal of a major literary award is a direct pipeline to profits, that procuring a Giller or Governor General’s award will dramatically increase sales because of the sudden perceived public profile that title receives. And in the short term I can see how that assumption may ring true. Booksellers will want to create luscious displays of award-winning books because, let’s face it, there is a bit of a snob in all of us; we like the perceived glamour and prestige that goes along with an award-winning whatever.

I have to wonder, however, 45 days after the hype has died, and major book store chains assess their stock and numbers, how many of those award-winning books get returned? An average novel a publisher originally targets to sell out a print run (say for even figures a run of 3,000), and expects a pretty low return of 20% (or 750 books), might find itself in very perilous logistical and financial waters as a result of snagging a major award.

Just look at what happened to Gaspereau Press the year Johanna Skibsrud’s novel, The Sentimentalists, took the Giller. Gaspereau simply could not meet the demand from booksellers. That’s what we heard through the media. I have to wonder, however, what happened after the honeymoon? How many copies of The Sentimentalists came sailing back to Gaspereau even a year after they had been sold? (Yes, booksellers do return books a year after having purchased them, and the publisher is expected to give refund in full. I’ve seen that cripple more than one small press.) And as a result of those returns, what were, in fact, the net sales of that award-winning novel? Add to that many of the major awards require an entry fee, which is earmarked for marketing and promotion of the winning title. In the case of the Giller, that fee is $1500.00.

Now, for a small press, that’s no insignificant sum of money, especially in light of the fact many small publishers scramble to come up with $500.00 to support an insignificant award (by comparison) like Canada’s Sunburst or Prix Aurora. In fact, I know of several excellent and significant small publishers which, after returns, have realized as little as $250.00 to $500.00 for a year’s sales. A year’s sales.

Then, as a small publisher, one has to wonder just how likely is it that your titles are going to get a fair and equal hearing as titles submitted by one of the Big Five? Time and time again I watch as colleagues wring their hands and rage at the heavens because not one of their worthy titles makes the long list, let alone the short list, of an award in their field or genre. So, the publisher has not only forked out a sum of money for an entry fee, if there is one, but also thrown more money after that bad by way of cost of books (sometimes up to 10 copies depending on the award), and cost of shipping.

Then I have to ask: Does the average reader really care about literary awards? Do they even know about them? I think you’d be appalled to discover the majority of readers don’t know, don’t care, and just want assurance they have a safe bet of a good read for their bucks. I’ll lay odds that were you to poll readers regarding the SF equivalent of an Academy Award (i.e. the Hugo or Nebula), they’d shrug.

In the end, it’s my belief it’s mostly only writers and publishers who care about these awards. Which is sort of like having an award for plumbers published in a plumbing magazine. Who cares but plumbers? Will Mr. Joe care when he goes to hire a plumber that the plumber won the P-Trap Award? Likely not. Mr. Joe wants to know the total price for the job, and does the plumber guarantee his/her work. Nerts to the award.

I suspect it’s pretty much the same with book-buyers. Cost is an issue. So if the Big Five price their books too high, Mr. Joe simply isn’t going to buy that book until it’s on deep discount, which means the book has likely been remaindered because the publisher has cut their losses and are selling off the returned stock just so they don’t have to warehouse it and try to find new booksellers. Awards won’t make a difference when faced with the reality of the buying public.

And then you only have to look at the books that have hit the blockbuster best-seller lists, breaking all sales records. Did any of the books in the detestable Twilight series win literary awards? Yes, Publishers Weekly‘s “Best Children’s Books of 2005, and School Library Journal‘s Best Books of 2005. Neither of these awards are of any significance, and neither are likely to have impacted sales that much. Have any of the erotica books in the Grey series won awards? Yes, the Specsavers Book of the Year, which is a popular vote. No surprise there. But, again, one has to wonder what did these awards do to impact sales or further sway public opinion, given the books were already run-away popular reads.

And writers, well, sure writers like to have their egos stroked a bit, which is what the awards thing is all about. It’s supposed to be about recognition by your peers. But the award really isn’t about recognition by your peers. It’s about which house has the best marketing machine that can lobby well enough to sway public opinion, even on a juried board.

All one needs do is look at another arts awards category, the Academy Awards, to see that marketing machine in action. In the history of the Academy Awards two extraordinary actors, arguably the two best male actors of the 20th century, both failed to bring home an Oscar despite being nominated many times. One of those worthies, Richard Burton, was nominated eight times. One year he lost to Lee Marvin for the film Cat Ballou. It leaves any thinking person gob-smacked. And Richard Burton died before any of the Academy woke up and realized one of the power-houses of the industry was no longer with us, to grace us with his art, his presence, his absolute mastery of his discipline.

The other worthy is Peter O’Toole, another dynamo of performance brilliance who was finally given a token recognition in 2003, more like an apology from the Academy, also after eight nominations.

So you see, awards are not about excellence. They are about the opinion of a select group of people, who may, or may not, be swayed by the marketing machine of powerful arts-mongers.

So, does or will Five Rivers chase awards? A few, yes, mostly to please our authors, but without any thought of winning, and certainly without any expectation of financial success. In future years? Not so much. We will, as we have from the outset, seek to redefine what it means to be a publisher, and a more tangible, rational definition of success.

1 Comment

  1. I recently talked to a GG award nominee who told me her nomination had been a disaster for her because when nominated, the stores had all ordered and stocked her books, but when another book won, all the unsold copies of her book were immediately returned, so that she ended up with a negative royalty statement! She didn't have to pay anything, of course, but negative numbers have to look bad to the publisher when considering whether to take her next book.

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