What to Expect When You’re Expecting…a Book #4: Prizes

The fourth issue on our series for expectant writers is all about literary awards: how to get your book nominated, and how being longlisted, shortlisted or winning a literary prize will affect your career. Will you be rich? Will you be famous? Will you sell a squillion? Will you date celebrities? We share our own experiences (spoiler: we’re not rich, famous or dating celebrities) as well as the (slightly better) experiences of AS Patric and Pamela Freeman.

Right now it is awards season in the Australian literary world. Every couple of weeks a new longlist/shortlist gets announced and down the track we’ll find out who the winners are. If you have a book coming out you may be hoping that next year, your book might appear on one (or more) of those lists, that it might even win one. So how do books come to be considered for literary prizes? And how does winning or even being long/shortlisted affect a writer’s career?

Last year Susan Wyndham wrote a telling piece for The Sydney Morning Herald which revealed that entering books into awards was very costly for publishers and not necessarily justified by the return on investment in terms of sales. For example, when Geoffrey Lehmann’s Poems 1957-2013 won the Prime Minister’s Literary Award for Poetry in 2015, UWAP saw no impact on sales. On the other hand, sales of Charlotte Wood’s novel The Natural Way of Things tripled after she won The Stella Prize.

Jane

The general literature prizes are the Miles Franklin (if your book has an Australian component to it), the Stella (if you identify as a woman), and the various state premiers’ prizes. These aren’t the only prizes by any means – there are lots of genre prizes, prizes for kids’ books, prizes for particular themes, prizes given by libraries or independent bookshops and so on. Most of them have an entry fee and you also have to send them a pile of books (some accept digital copies). That means it can get expensive to enter them, which is why some small publishers will enter you in only some or none of them.

Your publisher may be entering your book in literary awards, but the only way to know for sure is to ask. I’m kind of obsessive about people paying attention to me (or rather, to my book) so I like to get together a list of which prizes might be a good fit, then talk to my publisher about which they’re willing to invest in.

Occasionally, first novels  win the Man Booker Prize (DBC Pierre, Arundhati Roy, Keri Hulme). But most first novels don’t win anything at all so don’t feel bad if yours doesn’t. A wrong turn at the Office of Unmade Lists was shortlisted for the Aurealis Award for best science fiction novel and won the Most Underrated Book Award. The MUBA definitely boosted its sales, but I think that was mostly because The Age and The Sydney Morning Herald ran a half-page news feature on me because they thought the prize was so quirky. Without that I doubt anyone much would have heard about the win. Formaldehyde was published because it won a prize – the Seizure Viva la Novella prize – but has sold fewer than 500 copies overall. It was still great to win the prize though, partly because my book got published – yay! – and partly because my co-winners and publishers were all such great people and now they are my friends.

Annabel

Because my first book came out before the internet was a thing (therefore before blogging and Facebook and Twitter) literary prizes were not part of any conversation I ever had. In Australia, I knew of the Vogel (for writers under 26) and the Miles Franklin and that was pretty much it. Imagine my surprise when I came back from my honeymoon to a letter telling me my book had been shortlisted for the WA Premier’s Prize for Fiction. I didn’t even know it had been entered! At this time, the WA Premier’s prize for fiction was only open to WA writers and that year I was up against some well-regarded writers so I was absolutely thrilled to be included on the shortlist. It did not seem likely to me that A New Map of the Universe had any chance of winning, but you can’t help hoping, so it was a little disappointing when the winner (she who shall not be named… okay, it was Carrie Tiffany) was announced. Luckily, because it was not a high-budget affair like the Oscars there was no global broadcast of my crestfallen expression.

When my second novel came out I was a lot more conscious of prizes, mostly because of the aforementioned internet. I was constantly emailing my publisher, Fremantle Press, saying, Hey guys, are you entering me for this? They diligently entered me for many many things, none of which I was shortlisted or even longlisted for. I felt really disappointed by this and found the announcement of all the shortlists painful. Much later, when I thought there was nothing left to be shortlisted for, Whiskey Charlie Foxtrot was shortlisted for the Small Press Network’s Most Underrated Book Award. While it was validating, it came so long after my book had been released that it didn’t impact sales at all.

AS Patric

Alec Patric was 2016’s Miles Franklin winner. He won with his debut novel, Black Rock White City, but it was far from his first book – he’d published two collections of stories and a novella previously. Black Rock White City was published by Transit Lounge, and it was the first time a really small publisher had won the prize. Alec and Transit Lounge’s win should give (probably unrealistic) hope to us all! Jane spoke to Alec on the phone and here’s what he told her:

The literary economy is geared to prizes. Awards and prizes can open doors and get projects published – my collection Las Vegas for Vegans was published after the publisher saw I’d won the Ned Kelly award for one of my stories. But how much difference a literary prize will make to you depends on your own psychology. While the money can be helpful, it isn’t really life-changing – Patrick White famously spent his Miles Franklin winnings on “a hi-fi set”. For me it meant I could work one shift less at my bookstore and that I might afford a root canal if I went to the dentist. Essentially, it’s a deep validation. A writer can be published and still feel isolated, but winning a prize can be a passport to the Australian literary community.

The passport might be temporary – Frank Moorhouse has won many prizes, but in a recent panel said he feels like he no longer has real literary recognition. That might be his perception because many writers like myself hold him in high esteem and do feel he’s a groundbreaking Aussie writer. So a prize can be life changing, but even the satisfaction of winning the Miles Franklin might not last a lifetime. For me the real satisfaction is producing work which has found a wide range of readers, that speaks to their experience as well as mine. As Mark Rothko said, the only genuine satisfaction comes from genuine human reaction.

Pamela Freeman

One award listing which has significantly affected my sales is being shortlisted (twice) for the Children’s Book Council Book of the Year Awards. First of all, your book immediately sells a lot more copies (often thousands more) and then you are established in librarians’ eyes as an author to purchase for their library, so both sales of your other books and your ELR/PLR payments go up. My latest book, Desert Lake: Kati Thanda-Lake Eyre, won The Australian Standing Orders Librarian’s Choice Award for Non-Fiction. It will be interesting to see what the effect of that will be.

Though other shortlistings are exciting they don’t affect sales (although I am waiting to see if a Romantic Novelists’ Association shortlisting in the UK will have an effect on sales. My fingers are crossed!)

When it comes to winning awards, the ones which make a direct difference are the Premiers’, which have a dollar value. Getting an Aurealis Award is lovely, but winning Best Fantasy Novel did nothing for Ember and Ash’s sales, as it’s very much an ‘in-the-know’ kind of award which doesn’t attract much media. Whereas winning the Premier’s Literary Awards’ History Prize for Young People got my bathroom renovated!

It’s also worth bearing in mind that any money you ‘win’ through prizes is taxable income, so the government gives with one hand and takes with the other.

Previously in ‘What To Expect’…

Issue #1: Getting a blurb

Issue #2: Book Launches

Issue #3: Publicity

JaneRecently my fourth book – a novel – was published. I’m with a small independent publisher, and they’ve previously published another novel of mine, and a non-fiction book about climate change that I co-authored with an environment journalist. My other book, a novella, was published by a different, even smaller independent publisher. None of my books has been published outside Australia, and I’m not represented by an agent.

Annabel: I published my first two novels with small independent publishers. My second novel was sold by my West Australian publisher to a small(ish) independent publisher in the US, where it has gone on to sell more than 60,000 copies. My third book, an interactive digital novel/app was self-published. I am currently in talks with a North American agent in relation to my fourth novel, the first in a trilogy.

9 thoughts on “What to Expect When You’re Expecting…a Book #4: Prizes

  1. Thanks another great post.

    Goodness, I didn’t realise the winnings are taxed – I assumed they fell under some kind of arts/royalties exemption category. I know there are some protections around this in the music industry.

    The costs associated with entering all these prizes, as discussed above, certainly does hit the smaller and academic publishers hard. And they’re (arguably) more reliant on them to assist with exposure and ultimately sales.

    A small part of this that’s fascinating to me is how much notice a publisher/author has that they’ve won the award. They differ, so I’ve been informed, (some give warning to the winner and some don’t), as they want all the short-listed authors to turn up to the awards night). And some expect the authors to cover their costs to travel to the awards, etc.

    I remember hearing Helen Garner talk (at some festival, some time) about how foolish she felt when she was shortlisted for her first award. She went out and bought a new dress and wrote a speech (just in case) and got all flustered and nervous. Then she didn’t win, and – if memory serves – found out the winner had known for a week.

    I suppose though that a bit of stress and potential cost is something most authors would take on the chin for a chance at some recognition. It’s a tough gig.

    1. Yes, and what is even more outrageous is that if you win money from gambling it is NOT taxed! How wrong is that?

      The Helen Garner story is a perfect example of every writer at their first rodeo. You feel foolish later but you just can’t help having a little hope in your heart, because occasionally an outlier does win.

  2. Just a bookseller’s perspective again 🙂 – historically, the only prizes that I’ve seen consistently and significantly make a difference to sales are the Miles Franklin, the Vogel, the Booker, the Pulitzer and the CBC. These are heritage awards, which means they’re reliably newsworthy in themselves. Because that’s the key: the strength of awards is in the fact that they can draw media attention. (Obviously, there are other strengths in cash and validation, but I’m speaking in terms of sales).

    For other awards – well, they’re not newsworthy in the same way. They might get attention one year, and none in the years that follow. They may get attention in a local region – e.g., a local writer wins it, or a Premier’s Award gets noticed in its own state – but that might be it. And even if they do get attention, the award not resonate with the public, who might not buy into its narrative. PM Literary Awards are the classic example of this, I reckon (though at least the prizes for those are tax free).

    The really interesting exception to all of this is the Stella, which is the only recent award to make the grade in terms of attention and sales (though the Man Booker International might get there in time).

    The lesson for this might be that if you’re running an award and you actually want to build the winner’s sales, it’s not enough to just put up the cash. You also have to build a continuing narrative around it, so that the public knows where it fits. And if you’re an author who has won an award that doesn’t do this – and you do want to build sales – then you’re probably going to be responsible for that narrative.

    1. It’s always so valuable to get a bookseller’s perspective. What about The Baileys/Orange prize? Not much impact on sales? That is one I always pay a lot of attention to and it seems to have a bit of heritage attached to it.
      Do you think the PM Literary Awards will get more cred as time passes? I don’t think the debacle where the PM pulled rank over the judges helped with this one! Can you explain more what you mean when you say ‘the public doesn’t buy into the narrative’?
      The Stella is a super-interesting example. I think they’ve done a fantastic job in terms of visibility and their narrative is strong, and it’s obviously paying off.
      Thanks for sharing your insights.

      1. My sense is that the Baileys/Orange Prize used to be more important than it is now – at least in Australia – and that the name changes have hurt its brand. These days it’s a bit like the National Book Award in the US – it may gain a little traction, particularly if booksellers get behind it and label it etc, but it’s no longer a sure bet.

        And I think the debacle was great for the PM Literary Awards. 🙂 At least it drew attention to them, and it means that it has the potential to stick in people’s brains. Because that’s what’s important – it’s not about what literary peeps like us think, it’s about public recognition. But whether the PM Awards can grow over time is another matter; my first question would be whether they’ll continue for the long haul. Prizes like that always feel a bit precarious to me.

        In terms of the public buying into the narrative – in simple terms I just mean, does the publicity translate to sales? Does a news story on the radio, or in the paper, lead to someone thinking that it is an important book that people should read? Part of this is how the book is described, part of it is the narrative around the author, but part of it is the narrative around the prize itself.

        An example: I remember Rohan Wilson won a NSW Premiers’ Award for fiction. This had almost no impact on sales in Tasmania, his home state, even though I saw one or two news stories about it. Part of this is that many people would already have bought his book on the strength of the Vogel, but part of it is that a NSW Premiers Prize sounds like something external and “foreign” and perhaps even parochial – it sounds like there’s no immediate significance for a Tasmanian audience, even though it’s a local author. The imperative that is presented in the narrative around the prize isn’t as strong.

        1. Yes, I suspect you’re right about the name change. Baileys is the worst sponsor! It just sounds so crap and is the wrong association for the prize, I think. Such a ‘ladies’ drink. Diminishes the prestige of the prize. I hate corporate sponsorship that involves naming rights but I also understand without the corporate sponsorship there might be no prize at all.

          I see what you mean about the Premier’s Prizes – there might be a tendency to think the only relevant ones are those for your state. Thanks for taking the time to clarify your responses. Much appreciated.

  3. This is a great series, Annabel. It is a sobering reminder that few writers will be able to ‘give up the day job’ to make ends meet!

    1. Yes. For a long time I hoped I would reach that point and now it just seems like a pipe dream. But I actually feel better with realistic expectations, I think.

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