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.

PANZ Book Design Awards 2011 shortlist

Shortlisted titles for the Publishers Association of New Zealand (PANZ) Book Design Awards 2011 have been announced:

HarperCollins Award for Best Cover
No Fretful Sleeper: A Life of Bill Pearson (Paul Millar, Auckland University Press) cover design by Keely O’Shannessy. Eep! (Joke van Leeuwen, Gecko Press) cover design by Spencer Levine. Lives of the Poets (John Newton, Victoria University Press) cover design by Greg Simpson.
Mary Egan Award for Best Typography
Classic: The Revival of Classic Boating in New Zealand (Ivor Wilkins, Random House NZ) cover and interior desgin by  Kate Barraclough Hauaga: The Art of John Pule edited by Nicholas Thomas, Otago University Press) design by Fiona Moffat (cover) & Wendy Harrex (cover and interior). Stunning Debut of the Repairing of a Life (Leigh Davis, Otago University Press) cover design by Christine Hansen.

Random House New Zealand Award for Best Illustrated Book

Group Architects: Towards a New Zealand Architecture (Julia Gatley, Auckland University Press) design by Spencer Levine (cover) & Katrina Duncan (interior) Blue Smoke: The Lost Dawn of New Zealand Popular Music 1918–1964 (Chris Bourke, Auckland University Press) design by Spencer Levine (cover) & Katrina Duncan (interior). It’s in the Post: The Stories behind New Zealand Stamps (Richard Wolfe, Craig Potton) design by Sarah Elworthy.

Hachette New Zealand Award for Best Non-Illustrated Book

Chancers and Visionaries: A History of Wine in New Zealand (Keith Stewart, Random House NZ) design by Katy Yiakmis. The Great Wrong War: New Zealand Society in WWI (Stevan Eldred-Grigg, Random House NZ) design by Pieta Brenton. No Fretful Sleeper: A Life of Bill Pearson (Paul Millar, Auckland University Press) design by Keely O’Shannessy (cover) & Katrina Duncan (interior).

Pearson Award for Best Educational Book

School Journal Part 3 Number 3 2010 (Learning Media Te Pou Taki Kōrero) design by Jodi Wicksteed.
Leprechaun Ice Cream ( Learning Media Te Pou Taki Kōrero) design by Liz Tui Morris. Principles of Accounting 4th edition (Murray Smart, Nazir Awan & Richard Baxter, Pearson) by Marie Low (cover) & Esther Chua (interior).

Scholastic New Zealand Award for Best Children’s Book

Hester’s Blister (Chris Gurne, Scholastic NZ) design by Sarah Nelisiwe Anderson. Hill and Hole (Kyle Mewburn and Vasanti Unka , Penguin NZ) design by Vasanti Unka.
The Moon and Farmer McPhee (Margaret Mahy, illus by David Elliot, Random House NZ) design by Sarah Elworthy & David Elliot.


The winners of this year’s awards, as well as the winner of the Young Designer of the Year Award, will be announced at an awards ceremony at the National Library in Auckland on 25 August.

See more information on the shortlist here.

‘The Finkler Question’ by Howard Jacobson wins the 2010 Man Booker Prize

The book world was, it has to be said, taken a little by surprise by the announcement on Tuesday night, London time, that Howard Jacobson has won the £50,000 (A$80,000) 2010 Man Booker Prize for his novel The Finkler Question (Bloomsbury).

The Finkler Question beat a shortlist that included Parrot and Olivier in America by two-time Booker winner Peter Carey (Penguin) and the bookies’ favourite C by Tom McCarthy (Jonathan Cape).

London author Jacobson has been longlisted twice for the prize, in 2006 for Kalooki Nights (Vintage) and in 2002 for Who’s Sorry Now (Vintage), but has never before been shortlisted.

The prize organisers described The Finkler Question as ‘a novel about love, loss and male friendship, and explores what it means to be Jewish today’.

Andrew Motion, chair of the judges, said The Finkler Question was ‘a marvellous book: very funny, of course, but also very clever, very sad and very subtle. It is all that it seems to be and much more than it seems to be. A completely worthy winner of this great prize’.

Each of the six shortlisted authors, including the winner, receives £2500 (A$4000) and a designer-bound edition of their book.

The prize organisers said sales of the books longlisted for the 2010 Man Booker Prize have been stronger than ever before, with sales over 45% higher than last year.

The Slap, by Australian author Christos Tsiolkas (A&U), was among the titles longlisted for the prize.

BOOK REVIEW: Lovesong (Alex Miller, Allen & Unwin)

Former acting editor Angela Meyer reviewed Alex Miller’s Miles Franklin-shortlisted novel Lovesong back in the November issue if Bookseller+Publisher magazine. Here’s what she had to say:

Alex Miller returns to the realms of romance and desire, longing and solitariness, transience and creativity in his new deep, yet playful novel Lovesong; sure to appeal widely through its astute charm and emotional essence. The bulk of the story features John and Sabiha, an Australian man and Tunisian woman who meet in Paris where Sabiha helps run a restaurant with her widowed aunt, Houria. The imbalances of even the most loving relationships are explored through John and Sabiha—longing for distant homelands, compromise, and difficulty conceiving. Miller’s soft, unhindered prose really comes alive when the complications of secret desires and longing are introduced. The secret inner life is a common theme in Miller’s work, which always holds fascination. The other parts where descriptions are apt, are expressions of solitariness—both loneliness and an aloneness that is by selection. What’s different about this novel is that the main story is told through another character, Ken, an ageing writer in Melbourne, who meets the couple later in life and is drawn to their story due to the ‘sadness in the depths of [Sabiha’s] dark brown eyes’. The author, Ken, is as such admitting that he seeks the story behind the story, the secrets behind the façade of everyday life. This structure is also cheeky in a way, as Ken quotes Lucien Freud: ‘Everything is autobiographical, and everything is a portrait’. Ken’s last book was called The Farewell and he wondered why critics never equated it with his retirement (Miller’s own last book was The Landscape of Farewell), but he does find that he can’t ‘not write’, and thus seeks (and constructs) the story of John and Sabiha. Ken, and also the reader, then get to live out someone else’s life and history, desires, and indiscretions. You could read it as a statement about fiction itself—derived from truths of the self, of people known and met, your own and others’ lives; but also from burning curiosity (the spark for the story being the sadness in Sabiha’s eyes). ‘My life is in my books’ notes Ken towards the end, an admission that the reader is free to interpret the work of the writer as coming from their own secret inner life. The intertwining stories are told with gentleness, some humour, some tragedy and much sweetness. Miller is that rare writer who engages the intellect and the emotions simultaneously, with a creeping effect.

Angela Meyer is a writer, blogger and former acting editor of Bookseller+Publisher magazine. This review first appeared in the November 2009 issue. You can read the April 2010 issue online here.

Miller and the Miles Franklin: Do we have too many awards?

From today”s Crikey newsletter, former Bookseller Publisher editor and literary blogger Angela Meyer writes:

Are there too many literary awards in Australia, and is our oldest one “slipping away”? If an Australian literary award was provided increased funding and focus, would the Miles Franklin be the most relevant?

Every year the Miles Franklin Literary Award attracts some debate and controversy, but the award’s prestige is waning, noted Alex Miller — a two-time winner and shortlisted author in this year’s awards — at the shortlisting ceremony yesterday. Miller, as reported in The Australian, said Prime Minister “Rudd the Dud” and arts minister Peter Garrett should have invested in the nation’s oldest literary award, instead of creating the Prime Minister’s Literary Award in 2008 (worth $100,000, to the MF’s $42,000), which he said “gets no publicity and will probably disappear when someone else becomes prime minister”.

Miller’s main point is that there are too many literary awards, and so it’s inevitable that there will be less focus on each. Besides the Prime Minister’s awards, there are various state Premier’s awards, and many other trust, media, festival, company and privately funded awards. Many are relevant for their individual fields and genres (such as the CBCA awards for children’s and young adult literature) but dispersing funding around for fiction awards when one solid, prestigious and attention-focused literary award could be developed, is a good point. Would the public pay more attention?

If this was put into effect, though, is the Miles Franklin really the award for the job? Sure, it was established in 1957, and has been won by culturally important, and stimulating, authors and books. Patrick White’s Voss was the recipient of the first award, as Miller noted. But the Miles Franklin’s criteria is stricter than awards established since: “It is awarded for the novel of the year which is of the highest literary merit and presents Australian life in any of its phases”. This is what Miles Franklin included with her bequest. What “Australian life in any of its phases” means, exactly, is something that comes up often in discussion of the shortlisted books. Continue reading

The new issue has landed!

Ah, there’s the new-magazine smell again. Yes, the May/June combined issue of Bookseller+Publisher magazine just arrived in the office.

This issue has a gazillion reviews of as-yet-unpublished books (okay, 75), including such highly anticipated titles as Rebecca James’ Beautiful Malice (A&U, May), Fiona McGregor’s Indelible Ink (Scribe, June), Peter Rose’s Roddy Parr (Fourth Estate, July), Leanne Hall’s Text YA prize-winning This is Shyness (August) and Benjamin Law’s debut The Family Law (Black Inc., June). (If you want to know what some of our reviewers’ top picks were you can read about them in this post.)

As well as all those reviews, the May/June issue includes Kalinda Ashton (The Danger Game, Sleepers) writing about how she got where she is today, Kabita Dhara on the publishing scene in India, author interviews with Susan Maushart, Ben Groundwater, Bill McKibben, Amanda Braxton-Smith and James Phelan and lots more besides.

Subscribers, it will be on its way to you very soon. Non-subscribers, you’ll find a list of places you can buy a copy here. (Or you could, you know, subscribe: $130 a year. Bargain.)