All the posts I mentioned at York Festival of Writing
Notes Made While Reading: books for writers

Being Published 9: Book Prizes

This is the ninth and last in a series of posts inspired by my new book, This is Not a Book About Charles Darwin, which was published in February. In each post I'll try to shed light not only on the practicalities of what happens when your book is being published, but also the sometimes surprising ways that each stage of the writing life can affect you and your writing. The whole Being Published series is here.

If book prizes have become an ever more visible feature of the literary landscape, that's partly just a result of the industry's ever more urgent need to cope with the shrivelling of book pages in the newspapers by gaining headlines elsewhere. But prizes are, also, a natural if not always benign expression of humans' drive to evaluate, and to formalise those evaluations by ranking and rewarding those who do something more successfully than others.

I've had my fiction long- and shortlisted for prizes, and I've also judged prizes on my own and jointly with others. I've never been near the Booker with either hat but I hope I can still clarify things a bit, so here goes:

WHAT DO WE MEAN BY JUDGING?

Prizes aim to promote a set of good books and reward the best - but what do we mean by good, let alone best? As with reviews, and other forms of getting feedback, at heart writers know perfectly well that one reader's Marmite is another reader's... well, Marmite (explanation for non-Brits here). We know, therefore, that the same is true of book prize judges.

When I've co-judged things I've been fascinated how we don't only differ in which book we think has the most gripping voice, or fizzes with contemporary resonance, or breaks the most boundaries. We also differ in which of those criteria we think matters most. Occasionally one book is clearly head-and-shoulders above the rest, for one judge at least; more often you're having to find ways to judge apples against oranges.

Even if I'm the only judge, choosing between two books which seem to have the same goals, do I reward a more cautious but wholly-achieved project, or a more exciting one which has significant flaws? An established subject brilliantly renewed, or a brilliantly new subject explored in a more predictable way? A slim, diamond-sharp dagger of a story of two people, or a huge, baroque panorama conjuring a whole world? How much do I acknowledge that a book that presses my own, subjective buttons for good or ill - or do you try to ignore that, even though objectivity is an illusion and my own reflexes are bound to affect how I read it?

Nor are book prize entries usually anonymised, so as a judge it must be hard to judge a newbie about whom you have few preconceptions but also no sense of what they're trying to do, against an established author whose work you already know and (usually) love. And if you need a tie-breaker, is it true to the spirit of prizes in their role of supporting and promoting literature to give it to a small, poor publisher of a writer who has yet to make a mark, or to a book which is strongly backed by a big publisher and a writer who shows every sign of doing well already? Or is it unfair to apply criteria of this kind, when they're nothing to do with the books themselves?

STAYING SANE

All of the above, I hope, encourages you to know that whether or not your work gets anywhere near a prize list says something about whether it's any good, but by no means everything. All the judges and filter readers I've asked agree that much of the time everyone agrees about which books - of everything published this year - are in the running: which are, as it were, the top layer, the possibles. What they differ about - often furiously - is which of the possibles are probables, and the order in which the probables should be ranked in, to eventually produce a certainty: the winner.

So, as my editor said as we left an awards ceremony at which I'd not-won a prize that she, with her novelist hat on, had not-won a few years earlier, the fact that a book wins a prize doesn't mean it's the best book: it means that of the probables in that top layer, it's the book that those judges, on that day, at that meeting, could agree should win.

I've heard enough and seen enough since to know that this is true. Which doesn't mean that prizes are pointless, or undeserved or that you shouldn't celebrate a long- or shortlisting, let alone a win. To reiterate: the fact that "good" and "best" are almost too complicated to compute doesn't mean that they mean nothing.

What's more, knowing that your publisher thinks it's worth entering your book for prizes is encouraging. Then there's what a prize listing or win might do for your ability to pay the bills, for your current and future writing, and for your future as an author: these are by no means all the same thing but can't help but be connected. 

Being longlisted encourages you and your publisher to feel that this book is going somewhere and that readers are likely to love it - and that's good for both of you, and will encourage your publisher to go on putting their energy into publicity and marketing.

Being shortlisted says so even more strongly - and all those things will help your agent and then your publisher to sell the next book, and hopefully for the same, or perhaps more, money. Doubled in spades, obviously, if you win.

Even if you don't win, it's still useful to have in your writerly track-record: thanks to a throwaway comment by my agent, my biog notes for events and articles can say that The Mathematics of Love is almost certainly the only novel ever to have been listed simultaneously for the Commonwealth Writers' Best First Book, and for the Romantic Novelists' Association Book of the Year. Which, if you know the literary landscape at all, is a surprising enough conjunction to be funny - and therefore intriguing.

But, as with anything judgy, even the thought of such scrutiny may be fuel for your Inner Critic - and the further your book gets in the lists, the higher-octane the fuel becomes. You might choose not to know what your publisher has put your book in for at all - or you might be able to shrug off a "got nowhere" with an "Oh, darn it. Oh well.". But if it's longlisted, the rather more realistic hopes begin: only fifteen on the list! And if it's then shortlisted, the hopes get stronger again: a one-in-six chance of winning begins to feel painfully possible.

Of course it is an accolade to be "in the top six", but as behavioural economics explains, nice clean maths rarely gets to control how humans feel or act: when you're further up the ladder of hope it's harder not to feel the dashing of hope as a more painful plummet. As the John Cleese character says in Clockwise: "I can cope with the despair. It's the hope - that's what's killing me."

And even if you win, the creative stakes probably feel raised again for the next book. An author I know, having done well in smaller prizes with her debut, was long- then shortlisted for a Very Big Prize, and though she didn't win, it was an amazing way to start her career... Only, of course, as she was writing Two she couldn't help focusing on what she should do move from shortlist to winning Very Big Prize: the struggle to do everything that One had done, only differently and more so, seriously messed with her writerly compass.

But I hope by now you're getting a sense of how, and why, it's a good idea to pin as few of your writerly hopes and self-esteem on prizes as you can. And to that end, a run-down of the practicalities might help. 

HOW PRIZES WORK

There's a good list of UK prizes here, and in what follows I'll stick to the UK as I don't know much about the scene elsewhere, though I don't suppose the feelings involved change all that much.

Genres: Most of the big-name book prizes are awarded to books that, for want of a better term, are roughly at the literary end of the spectrum - although the CWA Daggers, the HWA Crowns, and the RNA's RoNAs are all rooted in their respective genres, as are the Speculative Fiction prizes, while the British Book Awards, being the industry's own, range widely.

But book prizes are not handed down from heaven as bags of free gold. Someone has to pay for it all, and the cheque and perhaps trophy which are put into the hand of the writer is the least of it.

It's not only the judges' expenses and fees, which are miniscule in proportion to the amount of reading and arguing they have to do (believe me, the Booker judge I was talking to the other day has done the maths). There is also an immense amount of time (= money) involved in the administration. And neither the founder, nor the sponsor, nor the publishers and booksellers, will have achieved their aim if the prize doesn't get lots of entries and lots of publicity for the various stages, so the bill includes a big publicity effort at every stage, up to and including the Awards party.

The thing is, in the end, prizes are about selling more books directly (those stickers on the shortlistees) but also indirectly by raising the books to greater visibility in the wider media. They are also important within the industry, particularly with literary fiction, which is notoriously difficult to sell at best and impossible at worst; to some extent prize-prestige makes up for lower sales and borderline profitability. So agents, editors, imprints and publishers all benefit from being associated with a prize-successful book: these are people who've backed a winner at least once.

So although, for example, the Society of Authors has a set of prizes, mostly based on endowments (and a well-set-up office used to wrangling authors and publishers) most prizes need sponsors. And the sponsors do it for several reason: partly to make headlines in the industry and hopefully more widely, partly to support culture and literature, and partly from the desire to be seen doing that. Universities, literary festivals and charitable bodies also establish and sponsor prizes for similar reasons - and there may be lesser sponsors of different parts of the costs, from the website to the flowers on the award-dinner tables.

Your publisher is in charge of entering the big-name prizes; for others, you may be able to enter yourself, though it would be sensible and courteous to discuss it with them first. Indeed, your agent may want to agree what prizes the book will be put in for before you sign the contract, and s/he and you should certainly talk to your publisher about what it might be put in for.

There are scam prizes out there, as Tony Riches points out in the comments. If you're trying to decide whether it's safe to enter, look for a decent ratio of entry-fee, if any, to prize money: someone has to pay for the prize but it shouldn't be a directly money-making scheme for the organiser. Google the prize's name + "scam" and see what you get. Look too for evidence that the prize is well-established, and the winners' books are available and, as it were, proper books. Then, what bodies are supporting the prize? Arts Councils, universities, big publishers are all badges of respectability. So are, probably, the names of the judges: are they writers you've heard of, or can google and see out and about in the industry? This is not entirely reliable: it's not unknown for a writer to mis-judge the credentials and motivations of a prize-organiser. If there's any whiff in the T&Cs of you giving up copyright, losing control of your work, or having to buy books, then run.

Many prizes limit how many titles a publisher can enter - and big-name authors may have it in their contract that they'll be entered, in which case pray that your publisher's stars Marjie Attree, Salmon Rich-Tee and Felicity Cloak haven't all got a new book out the same year as you. And give thanks for debut novel prizes, if you're a first-timer, and being with a smaller publisher for whom you're a bigger fish. 

Having said that, some prizes also give the judges the option to "call in" other books that they feel should be considered, and publishers may be able to submit a list of eligibles for that. The fact that industry considerations constrict many aspects of many prizes doesn't mean that judges and organisations don't care about good books and new voices: they do, and they do what they can.

Though the smaller prizes are increasingly open to independent authors, few of the big prizes accept self-published books, though the Alliance of Independent Authors is campaigning for this to change, and prizes specifically for self-published books are on the increase too. Indeed ALLi are the place to go for support and advice on everything to do with establishing yourself in this field.

All prizes want copies of the books, chiefly for judges to read, and most charge an entry fee of some kind.

The big-name prizes may cost your publisher serious cash. If your book is shortlisted for the Booker, Costa or Women's Prize your publisher will have to stump up a contribution of £5000 and more if it wins. Last year the Women's Prize, suffering from a dip in funding, had to introduce a £1000 fee for a longlisting, although the T&Cs said that publishers for whom this longlist fee would be a problem could ask for help.

The theory behind these fees - and often the reality - is that even though it's the writer who pockets the prize cheque, the publisher can hope to recoup all this money and more in sales. But these sums are still daunting or even prohibitive for the small publishers who lack the resources for big publicity and marketing pushes, and would otherwise hope that a prize win would alert readers they can't easily reach.

Then there's the cost of a table at the awards ceremony - which can be significant - and travel and accommodation for the author, which is your publisher's bill. In a related problem, there are dozens of prizes for children's books, and I have heard that publishers are increasingly reluctant to fund their author's expenses for attending the awards ceremony of smaller ones, when neither publicity nor sales are likely to be worth it.

And what of what gets on the list, of that top layer of possibles?

Prize lists usually want to represent the spread of what's going on in that part of the book world at the moment: that's to promote books in general, and to catch as many readers' interest as possible. A crime prize list which is all police precedurals would not be giving psychological thrillers an airing, for example, and general prizes will want a mix of genres, settings, forms and styles for the same reason. This may mean (ignoring for a moment how messy the whole "good and best" call is) that if yours is the fourth best police procedural, it might be sacrificed to get the three best psych thrillers on - but there's nothing we can do about that. And I reckon not trying for a good spread would be in the longer term worse for all of us: what if, for example, publishers started not buying psych thrillers, because they "never seem to get on prize lists"? 

They may also want a spread of authors - age, gender, ethnicity, origin - again as part of encouraging diversity in an industry which has historically been very white, middle-class and in prize-terms male, and which knows that the literary culture it underpins is the poorer for it. Year after year, the Vida survey shows that men still win the prizes, even though women make up the majority of readers and published writers, and I'm sure similar surveys would say even more embarrassing things about the disproportionate under-representation of writers of colour, say. And yet year after year some writer moans to me that of course you have to be [insert name of at least three under-represented groups] to win anything, ever. It simply isn't true.

Longlists and shortlists are partly born of an honest desire to declare and reward (with publicity, at least) really good books when only one will ultimately win. But they are also born of the need to keep the prize in the literary headlines as much as possible.

The publicity department would also like a list with at least some titles which readers will argue furiously about; and it would be no bad thing, they can't help feeling, if the prize is given to a writer whose name readers will recognise - because they're more likely to notice, remember, buy the book, and be ready to notice the prize next year.

You can say that all this stuff, which is nothing to do with which books are good and which is best, is the industry's fault because they don't care about books, only money. Or you can say it's the industry's economically necessary subservience to the tiresome reality of human beings: that we have a habit of thinking that we know what we like, when it's actually that we like what we know - and we are only willing to go a little way into the unknown and potentially unliked.

So, even assuming that your book is in the top layer of possibles it may, or may not, cheer you up to realise just how many factors affect its chances of going further. You may feel bitter that the hope and the struggle built into the book, all the glowing love for it that your agent and publisher sing, all the dreams of what you could do with the money and your enlarged future, can so easily be destroyed. Or you may feel guilty or even "childish" at how much you mind when there are people starving in the world - and besides, you always knew you were an imposter and rubbish and all the rest.

But, in the end, I think the mistake is to be too binary about this: you can be cheered up in general by knowing how chancey it all is - and still fed up when no news is no listing. You can be honestly delighted for a friend when they win - and equally honestly painfully disappointed for yourself when you don't. You can mind hugely that your incompetence has been found out - and then pick yourself up, dust yourself down, and have another go. Ambivalence is built into human nature, and you'll always do better by letting yourself feel both for a while, than blocking your mind to one or other.

The only real mistake - the damaging one, the one which will really mess with your head - is to put all your plans, all your self-esteem, all your confidence in your writing and your creative energy and your future, into the frail craft of prize hopes. That's when real, long-term bitterness can start to get a grip. Of course, the day you didn't win, or weren't shortlisted, or weren't longlisted, may not be a good day. Chocolate, gin, tears, swearing and pounding cushions may all be in order. Plus - perhaps avoid social media while you're still sore and maybe not sober. It's a small industry, everyone in the end hears everything, you are not your worst tweet but they can be horribly hard to leave behind, and libel and slander are still libel and slander.

Even years later when things aren't going well you may think "If only...", and find it hard to be cool and kind when a book you think undeserving wins something you might have won. But if you let bitter feelings  corrupt your long-term relationship to your writing then you're beginning to let external criteria control the intrinsic, essential nature of your creativity, and that's where the real failures will be waiting for you.

As to prize money - a few awards give the runners-up, aka the shortlist, a cheque. One of the little know facts, however, is that if you enter an award, then any prize money is taxable as income. If your publisher or agent enters the prize for you (note: I am not a tax expert) I gather the assumption would be that they did so with your knowledge and agreement, so it still counts as income. Only if a prize is awarded out-of-the-blue, as it were, like a medal with no entry process, is it not taxable.

But whatever the size of cheque, and however vast your overdraft, may I suggest that you keep a little back for a pure reward for yourself? Even before that, you might eat baked beans for a week and buy something to celebrate a listing: one thing - however small - that you really love, and would not have let yourself have otherwise? That way whatever happens in the future you can touch that lovely brass lantern on the mantlepiece, or curl your hands round that much-better cricket bat, or recall Prague, and know that you earned it by writing a terrific book that knowledgeable people agreed is terrific.

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