Tuesday, May 15, 2012

Judge not lest ye be judged

As promised, more on the “Politics of Prizes” event at the Auckland Writers’ and Readers’ Festival on Sunday. This starred Dame Stella Rimington, best-selling thriller writer, chair of the judges for the 2011 Man Booker award and former head of MI5; Jenny Pattrick, best-selling historical novelist and former chair of the NZ Arts Council; and, bringing up the rear, me. I was there because I have been a judge of our national adult book awards five times. The chair was Sam Elworthy, publisher at Auckland University Press and chair of the NZ Post Book Awards Governance Group. So, a reasonably well-informed panel.

There is an account of this session at Beattie’s Book Blog but I think it is inaccurate. (Good comments, though.) What follows is not a fisking of BBB but my account of what was said – and what wasn’t. Graham Beattie wrote:
It was rather alarming to hear Stratford suggest on three occasions that he regarded book awards as largely a waste of time in terms of increasing book sales. To back this up he quoted his local bookseller in his country town and the Paper Plus chain.
I replied at BBB:
I did not say three times that I regard book awards as a waste of time. I did not say it even once. I would never say that, because I don’t think that.
What I said was that booksellers I have talked to regard the shortlist as a waste of time. I asked my “local bookseller in [my] country town” about what effect the book awards have so that the voice of booksellers might be heard in the discussion, because the chair was a publisher and everyone on the panel was a writer. I was being a journalist – not saying “this is what I think” but “this is what I am told by someone who knows more about it than me”.
Preparing for the session it seemed to me to be lacking the booksellers’ voice. Booksellers are the best people to talk to if you want to know what is happening in the book world. They see national sales data so they know not just what sells in their shop but what sells nation-wide – and they talk to customers, i.e. us. Booksellers know much more than publishers and authors do. Friends at Whitcoulls head office and at the brainiest of all urban bookshops also say privately that the shortlist is a waste of time. The question is: why?

I got grief at the session and at BBB for reporting this view which was not my own – I was being a journalist. Authors and publishers like a shortlist, the longer the better, because it is recognition. We all like to be stroked. A slot on the shortlist is helpful for a writer when putting in one’s next application for Creative NZ funding. There are lots of warm fuzzies – but if a longer shortlist doesn’t increase sales, it is not unreasonable to ask what is the point of it.

The children’s book awards are quite different – that shortlist really matters. Bookshops automatically order from it the morning after it is announced, as do schools. I don’t know why it’s so different from the adult awards but assume it’s about trust in the brand – the children’s awards are seen to be reliable, the adult awards not so much. The Booker brand is trusted because it has been around so long (also the prize is a whopper) whereas ours keeps changing its name and format.  I’m guessing here, like everyone else.

Jenny Pattrick suggested that one reason people don’t pay much attention to the shortlist is that they might already have bought the book – it had a burst of publicity at on publication and that’s when keen readers buy it. If a book came out in March last year and the NZ Post shortlist comes out in June this year, that book is old news and there have been tons more New Zealand books published since. Possibly most of its potential audience have already bought it.

My wife agrees. She used to be a journalist too so she asked the members of her book club about this. None of them pays any attention to the shortlist and a couple had never heard of it. That is a real problem – if you haven’t got the book clubs on side, you haven’t a hope.

The last question from the floor was from Dame Fiona Kidman – honestly, the room was full of dames – about the length of the shortlist which is now down to three. I had to front the media in 2010 when the shortening of the shortlist happened, and remember saying that this was a matter for the organisers not the judges, but that we hadn’t found it a problem. Authors might have, publishers might have, but the judges didn’t: if we’d had a top five, we all knew what the top three would be. So why bother with five?

After the session there were mutterings in the foyer about booksellers being unsupportive – but booksellers know their customers, and if the customers aren’t interested in the shortlist, why should the booksellers be? The shortlist used to matter, it should matter, and it could well matter again – but how can we make it so? I’m glad this is Sam Elworthy’s problem and not mine.


Mary McCallum said...

Interesting, Stephen. As a bookseller albeit part-time, I find that NZ fiction is not an easy seller - those who want to buy it do so whatever's going on in the shortlists - they keep an eye on what's new, what's trending, what's reviewed well etc - therefore the shortlist probably does come too late for many of them.

The same is true of nonfiction too I guess although generally I find customers are more willing to buy a beautiful book on NZ gardens, and most certainly a beautiful book on NZ baking - shortlisted or not, than they are to buy a novel about an early settler in Canterbury.

Back to NZ fiction not being easy to sell... people are usually willing take a punt on buying a NZ book if the book wins -- that's when sales of my novel The Blue rocketed. However, they did improve markedly when it was shortlisted. Although that may have been due to some of the controversy around there being four rather than five shortlisted and no separate category for first novels.

The shortlist isn't enough of an endorsement I think for many people to spend money and time on a book. HOWEVER - some people do part with money when the shortlists are out although it isn't across all the books, and may hinge more on an excellent review (hard to say).

As you say, the shortlist above all else is important for writers as it shows their peers, publishers and funders that they're worth something ...

Toni Wi said...

This may be a silly question, but do we have a longlist for our awards?

Stephen Stratford said...

Mary - thanks for that. It would be useful to have more information on spikes in sales after the shortlists and then winners are announced, wouldn't it. Nielsen BookData must have the stats but I don't know if they would, or could, release it to a journalist.

Toni, not a silly question at all. The answer is no. We used to have a longer shortlist - years ago, I think, it was 10 in each category which meant that so many titles were shortlisted none of them got any special attention. Hence the current shortlist of three titles per category, which some feel is too short.

Toni Wi said...

Thanks Stephen. I can only comment as a reader, but I think the value of book awards is in raising awareness and boosting publicity for good books, as well as supporting the author. A shortlist is like a list of recommended reads. I wouldn't necessarily buy the book I think will win, but the book, out of all of them, that I'm most interested in. It's good to have options. Especially with fiction, and NZ fiction, because a lot of people don't really know much about it. Which is why I was surprised at our three book shortlist and no longlist.