It’s apt that the session on book prizes takes place the morning that the Man Booker shortlist for 2016 has been announced. Steven Gale chairs a panel featuring Dotti Irving (Deborah Rogers Foundation Writers’ Award), Louise Lamont (Montegrappa Scholastic Prize for New Children’s Writing) and Stephanie Zia (Blackbird Digital Books) to explore the field a little further.
“Awards are the great platform for quality writing.”
So, the obvious one: what do people look for? For Stephanie, as a publisher, every one of her books is very special – they fall in love with the title, have an emotional attachment or journey as they read. When entering for a prize, judges are looking at loads of entries, so a strong opening and grabbing them from the start may have a great impact.
“Awards are the great platform for quality writing,” she continues. People look for books that they don’t want to put down. It’s like falling in love – it doesn’t happen often but you know when it does.
To the process itself, what are the major milestones? For the Montegrappa Scholastic prize, Louise explains that they were looking to find exciting new talent in children’s writing. You won a publishing contract with Scholastic, an agent, holiday in Italy – so much. They wanted to find someone who had potential, not necessarily a finished piece, and someone they could work with long term, who had the promise of a career.
People submitted a 10,000 word extract and synopsis, which encouraged entrants to think of a complete book, not just the extract. The 850 or so entries were divvied up between 20-30 people across the companies involved, each with different points of view and tastes. They pulled their top picks, and that became the longlist. A smaller group read them to deduce the shortlist, which then went to the judges. Each of these stages felt important.
The only criteria for those reading was that they wanted to find a new middle grade author, as it can often get overlooked in lieu of YA, which is currently abundant. That was the only steer for the initial readers; the judges then had to consider the writing and talent, the full manuscript (as those at that stage had to work on the full piece), and the potential within the prize and finding the right person. While it’s always subjective, you have to trust those you’re working with. She ultimately believes that good books will come through in the end.
Integrity is key.
To the awards themselves: what makes a ‘good’ book award? Dotti prefaces her answer by noting that prizes matter. They matter to sponsors, supporters, publishers, authors – there’s a level of engagement. The Man Booker prize, for example – being shortlisted could change the author’s life. Marlon James, winner of last year’s prize, has had his life changed immeasurably by the win.
Thirty years ago the prize landscape was different: the Man Booker was apparently one of the only big ones around. Now there’s almost too many. But the integrity is what matters: judges have genuine discussions, they read each title and fight for what they believe while considering others’ opinions. Sponsors support the prize, but have no say or influence on the winner, and that’s key.
Judges know one title has to be picked, and will often find that their favourites don’t always win. Sometimes they’ll admit that the winner wasn’t their choice, but they understand that it has to be unanimous and can’t just stick to their own opinion without moving when needed.
Keep the prize at the front of people’s minds.
What’s in it for sponsors? Well, for the Man Group, it was a way to associate their company with a quality product, with the judges and events. They get 200 places at the dinners, which goes down well with their own clients. Compared to traditional advertising costs, the benefits from sponsoring a prize can be fairly small in comparison.
Interestingly, a US prize with a big money award wasn’t getting much traction and they couldn’t work out why. There was to be no judge announcements, no long or shortlist, just a submission process and winner announced. You need to have announcements and events to keep it at the front of people’s minds. The prize fund matters a lot more to the winner than it does to the media.
What about advice for new writers on this front? Don’t give up. It’s a very long journey, full of great highs and awful lows. Prizes for first time authors offer a fantastic boost. But be canny about the prizes you submit to. Know what you’re signing up for – make sure you can commit to it if you do win, and that it would work for you. Is it the right time? Are you going to be locked into something? Be wary of those who make you pay a lot to enter, and check the small print.
An interesting insight into the workings of book prizes, for the judging experience, the benefits for all involved, and more.