Andrew Wilkins: Literary awards – what are they good for?

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.

Andrew Wilkins is the director of independent publisher Wilkins Farago. This post first appeared on Wilkins Farago’s blog.

Jon Page: On ebooks, the agency model and ‘predatory pricing’

Crikey posted an interesting article last week on the subject of agency pricing for ebooks and the sudden increase in some ebook’s prices. The article makes some very good points but it also overlooks a couple of issues.

The first one that ‘An international agreement between publishers has driven massive increases in the price of ebooks for Australian readers’ is not exactly accurate. Yes agency agreements have seen the price readers pay for some ebooks go up but the price of the ebook has not necessarily increased. Under the agency model retailers must sell the ebook at the price set by the publisher. Under the traditional wholesale model the publisher sets a list price (suggested retail price) and retailers can discount off that. Whether an ebook is sold under agency or wholesale the list price stays the same. To say an agency agreement has driven prices up is incorrect, the agency agreement just means the ebook is sold at is originally set price and cannot be discounted by the retailer. But it can be discounted by the publisher. You will not see flat pricing under agency (not if the publisher has half a retail mind). There will be days, weeks or even months when the price will drop, quite considerably in some instances, before going back up again.

The agency model is not new. Everything Apple sells is under the agency model from apps to music from Macs to iPads. In fact many electrical goods and kitchen appliances are sold in Australia under a similar agency model. Yes Apple instigated the agency model for ebooks when they launched iBooks in 2010 but it was not ‘a deliberate attempt by Apple to destroy Amazon’s dominance of ebook sales’. They achieved that just by entering the ebook market as did Kobo, Barnes & Noble, Google and every ebook retailer.

Apple does everything by agency. The reason the big major publishers jumped on board was because Amazon’s ebook pricing was destroying their business model. And yes there is a business model for book publishing both print and digital. There are costs that need to be recouped. Just because a book is in a digital format does not mean it cost 3 cents to make. An ebook does not exist in a separate world to the print book. They share the same costs of production as well as marketing.

Publishers’ sales of $US25 hardcovers were being eroded by Amazon selling the ebook a $US9.95 regardless of the price (retail and cost) that the publisher had set. The agency model allowed publishers to gain a 70/30 split (publisher/retailer) on ebook sales, much higher than the print book split which can be up to 45/55 for Discount Department Stores (usually 60/40 for bookshops). This meant an ebook at $US14.95 agency vs a $US25 hardback would be at a ‘price of indifference’ (indifference for the publisher NOT the retailer). Unfortunately there are some publishers who have not priced their ebooks at this ‘price of indifference’ and Crikey can rightly argue that they have ‘gouged the customer’ (both reader and retailer).

The real story is not one of ebook rip offs and global pricing inequality. The real story is that Amazon is actually predatory pricing (see ACCC definition). They are setting ‘prices at a sufficiently low level with the purpose of damaging or forcing a competitor to withdraw from the market’ and they are doing this with a proprietary ebook format and device. This has also made it next to impossible for new competitors to enter the market. If it wasn’t for the agency model there would be a lot less competition in the ebook market. Barnes & Noble would not have been able to claw back marketshare nor would Kobo have made the inroads it has made and I doubt there would be independent booksellers selling ebooks like you have in the US with Google or here via Booki.sh and ReadCloud.

While many consumers enjoy Amazon’s predatory pricing the end result is not good. Once competition is wiped out Amazon ‘can disregard market forces, raise prices and exploit consumers’ something that can be more easily done if you have already locked your customers in to a particular format and device. It is a complex issue and one that is far from over. But it is a lot more complicated than is being reported. What is at stake is a competitive market which ultimately is good for authors, publishers, retailers and most importantly readers.

Jon Page is president of the Australian Booksellers Association. This post first appeared on his Pages & Pages Bite the Book blog

Craig Cliff on ‘the trans-Tasman literary gulf’ and how to bridge it

In Melbourne, author Eleanor Catton and I appeared in a session called ‘New New Zealand Fiction’. If the session’s blurb in the program is anything to go by, the festival organisers envisioned us talking about our own work and its relationship to broader national themes. I don’t think they expected us to be grilled by the chair, expatriate Kiwi Sue Green, about why most New Zealand books ‘just aren’t any good’ (I did my best to disabuse her of this notion) and why Australians don’t read New Zealand writers and vice versa.

I left that session feeling as if I’d never got out of first gear. This isn’t to say there should not be discussions on either side of the Tasman about the lack of dialogue between our literatures, but that writers (however meagre their credentials) are best placed to come up with answers to broad questions when alone at their computers rather than on the fly and in front of an audience.

So what do I think about the trans-Tasman literary gulf now, secreted in my home office with several weeks to write this?

More can certainly be done to get us reading our neighbours. The internet is a woefully under-utilised tool in this regard. An Australasian version of the writing community Zoetrope.com would be a start (perhaps Peter Jackson could play the role of Francis Ford Coppola?). And  what about a trans-Tasman epublishing house that specialises in picking up all the zany manuscripts from MA and MFA students that over-cautious, overhead-burdened mainstream publishers shrink from taking on?

I also think the time has come to reconsider an overtly trans-Tasman literary journal, either in print or online, one with some real intellectual chops. Or perhaps expand the Best Australian series (Essays, Stories, Poems) to Best Australasian–though it may be easier to do a Dave Eggers and start a Best Australasians Non Required Reading.

Literature festivals can certainly play a bigger part, too. In Sydney this year, the only New Zealanders I noticed on the program were Bernard Beckett, the Goodbye Sarajevo sisters and me (and I was only there because if the Commonwealth Writers Prize). More New Zealand writers taking part in Australian festivals (preferably not cordoned off in a ‘New Zealand only’ section), and more Aussies coming here would be great. It’s great to see Kim Scott and Kate Grenville are coming to the Wellington Writers and Readers Week in March, but it’d be nice if you didn’t need to win a Miles Franklin to get an invitation. A few years of free events featuring new mid-list Australian authors (hopefully with some financial help from their Council for the Arts) should kick-start more trans-Tasman conversation and collaboration.

This article is excerpted from ‘The Festival Lowdown’ in the December/January issue of The New Zealand Author. Craig Cliff is the author of A Melting Man (Random House) and winner of the 2011 Commonwealth Writers’ Prize for Best First Book. He will be a guest of the Perth Writers Festival in February. For more from Cliff, visit his website or blog.