Tuesday, May 25, 2010

The Best Novels or the Best-Off Publishers?

You know those vanity moments a writer gets? It's coming up to what I thought was the deadline for submitting books to the Booker, and I allowed myself to wonder: what if my publishers were thinking of putting my novel in for it? After all, my first novel was entered by the publisher I had then... I even went so far as to look up the rules. Well, the first thing I discovered was that although books have to be in by the end of June, publishers must submit an application form by the end of March, so now is too late anyway. But I also discovered this:

Any eligible book which is entered for the prize will only qualify for the award if its publisher agrees:

a) to contribute £5,000 towards general publicity if the book reaches the shortlist.

b) to contribute a further £5,000 if the book wins the prize.

I don't know if this rule has always existed, but I suspect not, and that it shows not only how far the prize has moved towards marketing and away from the pure principle of literary merit, but has come to discriminate against books from small publishers. I know it's generally recognized that, since certain winners - James Kelman, I think - failed to sell in the expected numbers even after winning, the prize has moved towards the principle of saleability, and one could argue that this applies to all publishers, large and small alike, and all publishers are thus likely to enter their more saleable literary books. One could argue about the rightness of this, in the broader literary-cultural terms, but, assuming that any prize is allowed to set its own principles, let's for the moment accept it. Yet it seems to me that plenty of books that look wildly saleable turn out to be mysteriously not so, and while that £5,000 payment for a shortlisting may look like chickenfeed to a large publisher, it's nothing of the sort to a small publisher on a shoestring. And even if shortlisting is going to bring them returns many times over they may simply not have the ready cash to make the payment upfront...

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