Sunday, June 12, 2011

Five books good, three books bad

Or not. It’s the NZ Post Book awards shortlist great debate again. To recap: two categories, general non-fiction and illustrated non-fiction, have five titles on their shortlists. Fiction and poetry have only three on theirs.

In today’s Sunday Star-Times books editor Mark Broatch writes that media coverage of the shortlists has seen:
General quiet clapping, which is quite appropriate, though understandable grumbles about having only three fiction finalists . . .
Understandable? Why?

At O Audacious Book, novelist Mary McCallum writes that:
there’s a groundswell of dissatisfaction about the list of only three books for both the fiction and poetry awards. Five, why can’t there be five? That way more books would get their time in the sun . . .
Mary’s evidence of a groundswell of dissatisfaction is a link former publisher Graham Beattie’s blog, where he writes:
I do however feel especially sorry for this panel having had their fiction and poetry short-lists confined to three titles [ . . . ] Let me say again – two non-fiction categories with five short-listed titles in each category, fiction and poetry short-lists confined to three titles each. Where is the fairness or logic in that?
I think that all three are completely wrong about this, for three reasons: proportionality, sales and ageism.

1. Proportionality
I don’t know about this year’s entries but they won’t be too different from last year’s, when I was a judge. In 2010 there was a total of 178 entries: 25 poetry, 26 fiction, 46 illustrative non-fiction and 71 general non-fiction.

For each category, here is the (rounded) percentage of eligible titles that were shortlisted:
Poetry: 12%
Fiction: 12%
General non-fiction: 11%
Illustrated non-fiction: 7%
So you can see that fiction is not disadvantaged at all by the new system. If anything, illustrated non-fiction is the loser here. If anyone wants to argue that fiction should be over-represented with 19% of its entries shortlisted, they should make the case. 

2. Sales
The numbers of entries in each category for the 2010 awards reflect what is published in New Zealand and what is stocked in bookshops. Because, like it or not, this is what people read. Publishers publish what readers read. Last year there were 117 non-fiction titles entered and 26 fiction: we buy and read massively more non-fiction than we do fiction. (I can’t explain the high number of poetry books published, other than insane optimism on the part of publishers and, let’s face it, subsidies. I am the only person I know who doesn’t write poetry but buys it.)

Booksellers know about this – they see it every day. I have talked to several, both chain and independent, over the last few years and all agree that  the shortlist has no effect on sales. Zero, zip, nada. Winning the award can make a huge difference but being shortlisted doesn’t – and more titles there are on the shortlist, the less being shortlisted means. Our local independent bookseller says that this year’s shortlist has made no difference in any category. He’s really good with his customers, knows most of them, and says that not one has come in to ask about any shortlisted book. Of the fiction shortlist, he bought two copies of one last year and still has both.

3. Ageism
No author or publisher would admit this, but the shortlist is old. These books are all from 2010, so some would have been published in February or March, so well over a year ago. Each one has had what Mary McCallum calls its “time in the sun” and if we didn’t buy it then, we are not likely to now. If it wins, maybe. But we are halfway through 2011 so we have all been bombarded with information about this year’s new books and no doubt bought some. Last year’s books are, somehow, so last year.

I really can’t see that a longer shortlist would change any of this.

There’s a thoughtful response to the above at Vicbooks, the excellent blog of the Victoria University Bookshop. 


Zirk van den Berg said...

Publishers and booksellers get excited by awards, because it might increase sales. Authors have the additional stakes of prize money and making their parents proud. Readers... not sure. Nothing this side of the Booker or Nobel Prize has ever moved me to consider buying a book I wouldn't have been interested in otherwise.

Fergus Barrowman said...

I disagree with you on this, Stephen. First of all, I think proportionality is irrelevant at best, and begs the question of whether it makes sense to have such different literary forms shoved together into one award structure.

The arguments for three-book fiction and poetry shortlists would be stronger if we also had other awards with different judges and criteria, as there are in every comparable publishing territory. As it is, three books can't do justice to a year's output.

It is true that shortlisting makes only a small difference to a book's sales -- the days of substantial blind orders are gone for ever. But the accolade is nevertheless valuable for the publisher, and especially for the author as it opens up future opportunities.

A longer shortlist also gives everybody more to talk about. And the miserable media coverage of this shortlist tells us something isn't working.

Anonymous said...

Fergus writes, "A longer shortlist also gives everybody more to talk about." Who's "everybody"? It's a book award. Not a hell of a lot of people care. Fergus also writes, "And the miserable media coverage of this shortlist tells us something isn't working." No, it doesn't. The "miserable" media coverage is the same as it ever was, back when there were 5 shortlisted books; it'd be the same if there were 50 shortlisted books. The plain truth is that books and publishing and literary awards don't add up to much more than a hill of beans. Nothing wrong with that. We've all got lives. Even Fergus!

JustSaying said...

If readers don't appreciably buy more books by award winners, and writers don't write books with the intention of winning prizes, whose interests do book awards serve?

Would anyone notice if book awards vanished entirely?

Stephen Stratford said...

@Fergus, "And the miserable media coverage of this shortlist tells us something isn't working" - it tells us something but this could be simply that the book editors are more interested in new books than last year's lot. I don't know. You ask Guy S, I'll ask Mark B.

@JustSaying, yes readers would notice if there were no awards because the winners do generally see a rise in sales. Perhaps the real question is: if the shortlists don't achieve much more than making the authors and publishers a bit happier, would anyone notice if the shortlists vanished entirely?

Not saying they should, just think it's worth asking.

Bill said...

I wonder if interest would dwindle in the Oscars if they abandoned the nominee system? I would hazard to say yes, after all not much interest can be built around a media release that already says who won. But a month or so of speculation over who will win does make more interesting press. Let's not go into the media obsession with the actors' dress sense.

The format of shortlists and nominees before the awards works all over the world in everything from literature to sport. Why do we think it won't work here? Just because the NZ book industry is relatively small doesn't me we can't recognise those people who have done exceptionally well and those that have also done exceptionally well, but narrowly missed out because, as The Highlander put it so deftly, there can be only one.

Jeff Grigor said...

I totally agree with everything you say Stephen.
Thank god for some sanity.

Guy Somerset said...

The Listener has quite a bit of coverage of the awards in the pipeline in one way or another. We are interested - for the very reason that the books ARE finalists. Sure, we covered a lot of them last year, but there is always a fresh way in (and there are always ones we didn't cover or did no more than review). Isn't that part of the point of awards? They ought to be a good subject for the media, if the media would only play along and recognise the dramatic mileage to be had out of them. Asking me or Mark B about the "miserable media coverage" is to focus on the wrong part of the media. Sure, there is a role for book pages; but this is a time when there is a role, too, for news and feature pages.

Anonymous said...

As a contrast to the person who never buys shortlisted or finalist fiction; - I select practically all my fiction reading from various shortlists and very rarely impulse buy from what a book looks like in the shop or library. If I don't select it from shortlists then it is from personal recommendations or if there are 3 or more positive reviews - online or in the various media - I'm not wasting time with the rest of them - those are my filters.