Saturday, 28 July 2012
What Form Should a Prize for Self-published Writers Take?
OK, there are lots of prizes for self-published books already. There are even some prizes where the self-published can compete alongside the mainstream. This post was occasioned by the latest renewal of one of the book world’s most raucous and high profile events, the Guardian’s Not the Booker Prize.
Never short of controversy, as I know, having been the publisher, at eight cuts gallery press, of one of last year’s shortlisted books, The Dead Beat, Not the Booker is also a great platform for small publishers and edgy literary books. The rules of entry have always been the same as those for the Booker. But this year, for the first time, the competition’s infinitely patient organiser Sam Jordison has made reference to the elephant in the room:
“But leaving [self-published books] out does seem increasingly anomalous in the brave new world of electronic publishing”
and he even hints at more to come
“we've even discussed the idea of a new and separate award for self-published novels”
The reaction has been predictably mixed. On the one hand, commenters have welcomed the thought of a self-published prize run on such a high profile forum as the Guardian. On the other, concerns were expressed about the ghettoisation of self-published books. There has been, however, an amount of consensus behind the idea expressed by the commenter lemonworld:
“I’d love to live in a literary world where we don't spend so much time talking about HOW something is being published and instead talk even more about WHAT is being published”
I think that’s a sentiment all of us, except maybe for a few sub-editors, would concur with. The question is how to get there.
There are two issues involved here. First, and probably not foremost, we have to settle the issue concerning writers of whether the best scenario is to adopt an all-or-nothing approach (with self-published books only being considered alongside those from the mainstream) or whether to accept what’s on offer and try to win the doubters round. I can see the point of the former approach, but I don’t think it’s the way forward. If we want prizes seen by the mainstream, we can’t hold them to ransom. Things are changing, but the media holds the power. But even more to the point, there are many self-published authors who won’t cede the ground – and if we don’t join the bunfight, the sales-oriented, pushy-marketing self-publishers we want to take the media spotlight off will be the ones who shine. Also, as lemonworld also says, there’s no shame in being a fringe – in other branches of the arts, it’s a badge of pride. And I’ve experienced first hand how by taking your place on the fringe and grabbing the chance by the scruff of the neck and giving it your all, you can make your way into the mainstream. I was given the chance to do exactly that at this year’s Chipping Norton Literary Festival, where our New Libertines spoken word show delighted a full house as part of the fringe and will be part of the main festival next year.
Second, any competition has to engage readers, and that means addressing their concerns. When it comes to the threads on the Guardian, the principle concerns all focus on the same thing – the behaviour of self-published writers and their denizens of supporters. This, of course, is not a concern that transfers to all prizes – many are not accompanied by blogs, and many do not encourage participation in the way Not the Booker does. But it’s a concern I very much sympathise with.
How and how much to talk is such a tricky one for self-publishers. We are given so little air that whenever we are offered any we want to grab it and make the most of it. But everyone’s concern, going back to the start, is for it to be about the books. And for that to be the case, everyone needs to keep their end up. Prize organisers need to make sure those who shout loudest don’t get more read-time, and self-publishers need to make sure they keep their contributions focused on keeping the attention on the books and the unearthing of the genuinely best work – it’s the one thing that above all else will be in self-publishing’s interest in the long run. I am tempted to add that readers should ignore what is said and try all books equally – but I’m not sure it’s our place to make any demands of readers.
As writers, we have no control over anything but our own conduct. We can – and should – make a constant case to the organisers of prizes to run things in such a way that the best books have a genuine chance to shine. As self-publishers, we are constantly complaining about lack of media oxygen – for us then to in any way advocate a system that advantages those with followers or sales or platforms of any kind would surely be hypocrisy. More than that it would be an arrogation of our duty to place the interests of literary culture above those of our own books.
So what format would I like to see? Well, I don’t think you could better the Guaridan First Book Award. Anyone can nominate a book – their own or someone else’s. Only one nomination is needed for entry, and at least two readers from a panel then read each book and post their reviews. A panel of reviewers and Guardian columnists then come up with a shortlist that is reviewed by a staffer (or Sam) – reviews of each book are posted and discussion encouraged, but the winner decided upon NOT by a vote.