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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Read the rest of the What to Expect series
Jane: Recently 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.