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...


SueG said...

Yes, another nail in the coffin of innocence. I knew this was true of everything having to do with big bookshops (Waterstones), but I didn't realize it was also true about the Booker. But I'm not surprised. We "indie" types know in our hearts that "art" and "commerce" don't necessarily go hand in hand. the frustrating thing, though, is that yet again, the reading public misses out. I wonder if there should be an award for best from a small press. But for that I'd rather there just be long and short lists but no outright winner. What do you think of that?

litrefs said...

Yes, small-press publishers are at a disadvantage in such situations. A poetry publisher once told me that getting a pamphlet "Recommended" by the Poetry Book Society is a mixed blessing - the PBS required their name to be on the winning cover (so re-printing might be necessary), and their mark-up meant that a small press could lose money on each copy. There's also the danger of publishing schedules being planned to suit deadlines, of page-counts being changed to fit the guidelines, etc.

Elizabeth Baines said...

Yes, good idea - you know I'm not that keen on the idea of overall winners because of the negative vibes it can seem to give the non-winners.

Elizabeth Baines said...

Sorry, last comment was in reply to Sue. Yes, Tim, there are rules in the Booker likely to discourage a small publisher.

Elizabeth Baines said...

Other rules, I meant, besides the one I've quoted.


That's appalling, I never knew that. It seems extremely mean-spirited and anti small publishers. Uck. I'm disgusted by that.

fiona glass said...

I knew publishers had to pay to get on the 'Richard & Judy' list, but I didn't know they had to pay to be eligible for the Booker. It makes sense, I guess, in a cynical sort of way - there's no such thing as a free lunch!

Elizabeth Baines said...

Well, I guess you could say, Fiona, that they don't have to actually pay to enter (ie there's no entry fee) but since they have to be prepared to fork out such a sum if they're shortlisted... (and then again if they have a winner).

Interestingly (and depressingly) news broke yesterday that for the first year ever there is actually an entry fee for the Guardian First Book award, which will most definitely discourage small poetry presses from entering. In a Facebook thread Jen H-E of Salt points out that it's always been an expensive prize for small publishers to enter, as a condition is that if shortlisted the publisher must provided 100 free copies for the reading groups involved - thus wiping out the profits on a book for a small press.

There are similar conditions on the Booker - the publisher must undertake to pay for a special leather-bound printing of a shortlisted book, for instance, and have available 1,000 copies within ten days of longlisting - easy for a a big publisher, but a considerable outlay for a small publisher on a book that may not sell (longlisted books don't necessarily sell, apparently). they must also undertake to be available for publicity meetings, again easy for a big publisher with dedicated publicity staff, but not for a small one.

It certainly is discriminatory, Nuala, and yes, seems completely geared to upholding the big guns and a commercial ethos.

Andrew Philip said...

The Michael Marks Poetry Pamphlet Awards include an award for the best pamphlet publisher. That's along the lines that Sue mentions, but there is an outright winner for the category.

The shortlists so far have all been small press publications. That's natural, of course, given the field, but Faber has recently moved in pamphlet publishing as well.

Jenzarina said...

This negativity detracts from the long/shortlisted entries, all of whom should be feeling rightly proud to be on the list.
Imagine if your book was longlisted and then you were told 'oh, it's just because you're commercial'?
If they had a very small (even for independent publishers) entry fee it would help fund the costs but not price out small presses and detract from the prize's original ethos.

Elizabeth Baines said...

Jenzarina, I would hate to be on a longlist and be told 'Oh it's only because you're commercial' but I would know that if I were it would be because of the way that the prize was being conducted and its implications, and not because commentators were just being negative for the sake of it.

As for an entry fee, how small were you thinking? Even the £150 entry fee for the Guardian first Book award is too much for some small publishers, and would hardly make up for the £5,000 the Booker is asking for for shortlisted books, and the £10,000 for the winner.

Elizabeth Baines said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Elizabeth Baines said...

PS And I hate the possiblilty of having one's books detracted from, and not even getting to enter (leave alone get on a longlist), due to prize rules, and being told by implication, via those rules, that one's book (or publisher) isn't commercial ENOUGH.

Angela France said...

It isn't only the Booker: the Whitbread/Costa has these conditions:

"iii 20 additional copies of shortlisted
books must be supplied by each publisher
for publicity purposes. A further 30 copies
of each Award-winning book must be
supplied by each publisher for submission
to the final judging panel and for publicity
purposes. All books supplied are not
iv Publishers of each of the five Costa
Award Winners are required to make a
contribution of £3,000 towards the general
promotion of the winning books. The
publisher of the Costa Book of the Year
is required to make a further contribution
of £4,000. These contributions will be
payable to Whitbread PLC."

My (small poetry press) publisher said they could never recover from an outlay like that - and it is pointless to enter something and hope *not* to win because of not being able to afford to.

Elizabeth Baines said...

Makes you wonder about the meaning of the word 'sponsor'.

This rule must be fairly new, as I'm fairly sure that small Manchester publisher Impress did not have to agree to undertake such expense when they entered Carl Tighe's novel, Burning Worm, which was shortlisted for the Whitbread/Costa first novel section.

New Writer said...

Sometimes I think I'd stand a better chance by printing copies out at the library and trying to sell them on a street corner.