Literary awards – what are they good for?


Newman!

By Andrew Wilkins, Director of Wilkins Farago

AS IT’S BEEN a while, regrettably, since Wilkins Farago published a book eligible for any of the state premiers’ awards, I don’t feel I have a vested interest in the future or otherwise of the Queensland Premier’s Literary Awards, which were summarily axed this week by incoming Queensland Premier, Campbell Newman.

However, one is bound to feel regret at the passing of any government support for the literary arts, given how meagre that support is in the first place.

But politics and state premier egos aside (Stuart Glover has written a helpful background to the Queensland awards), what are such awards good for?

We have a lot of literary awards in this country. One hundred and thirty three, according to the last edition of Thorpe-Bowker’s Australian Literary Awards and Fellowships (2007). Everything from municipal poetry prizes to short story competitions. Some offer a book voucher or medal; others offer cash, ranging from enough to buy you lunch to enough to buy you a decent new car.

Apart from the big international awards like the Man Booker, local awards that actually stimulate people to go into a bookshop and buy the prize-winning book are actually few and far between. The Miles Franklin Award (the ‘longlist‘ for which was announced last week) has an impact. So too do the Children’s Book Council of Australia‘s Children’s Book of the Year Awards (the shortlists for which were released this week). Most others are scarcely noticed by the general public, and do little to sell books.

Do actual sales of books matter if an award ends up putting some money in the pocket of a deserving (and generally impoverished) writer? I think they do.

While a cash grant or an award may buy valuable time for the writer, and give them vital encouragement and validation, ultimately what will give someone a long-term career as a writer is a readership for their work. That’s people buying, reading and discussing their books.

As Heather Dyer of Fairfield Books observed in the July 2011 issue of Bookseller+Publisher magazine

An award will help a book stand out, and it might penetrate the consciousness of the customer, but that in itself isn’t enough. A book still needs all, or some of: prominent shelf space, marketing, a ‘saleable’ author and endorsement from friends or a trusted bookseller.

Often, in the rush to bestow prestige on the recipient (and benefactor), administrators of literary awards can forget that giving out an award is only half the job; it also needs to be promoted. If an award falls to a writer and no-one notices, was it actually given?

This isn’t an argument for cutting awards, but more for funding them properly. $244,000 for the Queensland Premier’s Literary Awards sounds like a lot (not really when its divided between 14 winners), but think what could have been achieved if, alongside the prize money, an equal amount or more had been spent, with the involvement of publishers, booksellers and libraries, promoting the work of the prizewinners to the people who ultimately finance the award: Queensland’s taxpayers.

Books would have been sold and read in numbers, readerships created, communities stirred. (One could argue also that more marketing would have increased the Awards’ profile in the community, making them harder to axe.)

Actually, matters have improved since the days when, as a book publicist, both myself and an author heard through the grapevine a week after the announcement that they had won a Western Australian literary award. Some money is being directed towards marketing and I note that the current review of the New South Wales Premier’s Literary Awards is considering how to ‘maintain and enhance the prestige and authority of the awards’. Let’s hope the newly authoritative and prestigious NSW awards will take into account the importance of building an audience for the writer. That’s what will ensure they get publishing deals at home and overseas into the future.

Here, in no particular order, are just some of things that Australia’s literary award givers could consider doing to promote their prize winners. There are no particularly original ideas here, and some are already being employed by some awards already, but the point is to do things that develop readers, have long-term benefits and are properly resourced. I’m sure you’ll have your own ideas.

  • Author tours across the state or country
  • Wheel out the award judges for public talks, blogs and podcasts
  • Employment of a publicist to generate media interest in the award winners
  • Payment for prominent displays in bookshops (e.g. window displays)
  • Special promotional editions of the winning books to be sold at a special low price
  • Provision of stickers, bookmarks and shelf-talkers
  • Posters for display in bookshops, cafés, public transport and libraries
  • Advertising in local papers
  • Social media advertising
  • Travel, translation and promotion grants to assist with the promotion of the work overseas (this would help the development of an international audience for the authors’ work and amplify the work already being done by the under-resourced Australia Council)
  • Conditional marketing grants to publishers to encourage them to give the book another marketing push
  • Free sample ebook chapters
  • Order copies of the winning book(s) for every library in the local area/state/country
  • Pre-order copies of the author’s next book for every library in the local area/state/country

Finally, a thought on the funding for awards. Some Newman-applauding Queenslanders have helpfully suggested that if the literary community values such awards, it should finance them themselves. It’s actually the model followed by the two successful awards I mentioned at the top of this post: the CBCA awards and the Miles Franklin. After years of chasing transitory patronage and sponsorship, in the end the CBCA decided the only way to ensure its awards were sustainable was to set up a million dollar trust fund, which it built up painstakingly over many years. Of course, we owe our major literary award to the generosity and vision of Stella Maria Sarah Miles Franklin herself. This point was obviously not lost on the founders of the new Stella Prize for women’s writing, who have been busy raising money for their award.

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