‘You have a set of literary Russian dolls with some authors forever hidden in the last, tiniest one because they can’t meet the conditions that would confer advantage.’
Last year, Linen Press author, Avril Joy, won The People’s Prize Best Achievement Prize. This year, I’m withdrawing three good candidates because The People’s Prize, now ironically named, has joined other awards in charging a hefty sum for entry.
Avril Joy won the award for her mesmerising portrayal of a 1930’s river boat community in Arkansas. Sometimes A River Song chronicles Aiyana Weir’s spirited determination to break away from a brutal patriarchy. It’s a feminist narrative that rolls out its agenda with a quiet but insistent courage. Sharon Griffiths describes it as ‘Original and beautiful. A tour de force. The narrator’s voice sings. I can almost hear the insects and the dip of the oars.‘ It has had invariably positive reviews. We know it’s very good, but if it had been published a year later, I wouldn’t have been able to enter it for The People’s Prize.
The People’s Prize has changed its entry rules from free access for all publishers to a fee of £100 + £20 VAT for the first entry, £75 + £15 VAT for a second, and £50 + £10 VAT for a third. If an author is shortlisted, the publisher and writer are invited to a black tie awards dinner which last year cost £200 each. Add on travel and accommodation, and we’re talking a total of about £1000. That’s more than our entire year’s marketing budget and would mean neglecting all the other books on our list. Patricia Borlenghi of Patrician Press says, ‘I entered this prize for a children’s book we published when it was free. I certainly wouldn’t pay the fees and I never attend black tie events.’ Similarly in agreement is Sara-Jayne Slack of Inspired Quill: ‘While £100 (+VAT!) may not be the most expensive entry fee, it’s still prohibitive, especially when the People’s Prize is all about external voting rather than a judging panel looking through the work. There are, of course, website and other costs, but surely if they’re trying to be inclusive while still covering overheads, then £20 is a tidier sum? Of course, a big problem is the lack of transparency around where the money actually goes (a problem for most awards, not just TPP), and the fact that only a handful of awards actually translate to more sales anyway. It’s a tough balancing act.’
The People’s Prize website states: ’Tatiana is the founder of The People’s Book Prize. She came up with the idea for The People’s Book Prize as it is her ambition that new authors are given equal opportunity in the marketplace, based purely on their talent and ability. A perfect vehicle to discover writers’ talent voted by the public, raise the profile of libraries and celebrate reading.’ Derek Thompson, author of the five Thomas Bladen thrillers, says, ‘On the basis of the above, they have defeated their own objective.’
The rationale for this award is already somewhat open to question. Readers vote for their favourite titles and those with most votes are shortlisted. Voting then re-opens to decide the winners. So how does a reclusive author compete against an author who, with a workplace full of supporters, can pull off a massive voting coup? People who attended previous dinners reported that authors were boasting of voter lists that ran into thousands. Fortunately, they also award two prizes that are not dependent on votes but are chosen by members of the committee. Linen Press’s Avril Joy won one of these.
The other big prizes raise the same cost barrier. The Costa award requires publishers to pay £5000 and give 70 free copies of the book if their author is shortlisted. Further costs and copies are required if an author wins. Danuta Kean, an industry diversity advocate, argues that the big prizes are actually harming fiction by eliminating whole tranches of authors (www.theguardian.com/books/2017/jan/02/on-eve-of-costa-awards-experts-warn-that-top-books-prizes-are-harming-fiction). Adele Ward agrees: ’It’s such a huge cost that most small publishers can’t do it…I can only cover the fee, but some of the awards also charge a lot for the awards ceremony.’ Though her authors have had success with prestigious smaller prizes, including LGBTQ awards, she says, ‘hard calculations had to be made about which authors could recoup such investment.’ (www.thebookseller.com/blogs/womens-prize-fiction-excludes-many-women-writers-635481)
There’s a dilemma here, especially for small publishers. To take a very costly punt or not? In terms of marketing power, the prizes that can propel an author into instant fame are also those that are most expensive to enter: the Booker, the Costa and the Women’s Prize (formally Baileys). Their value in increasing sales was illustrated when The Essex Serpent by Sarah Perry was shortlisted for the Costa novel of the year and chosen by Waterstones as its book of the year. It then topped the best selling charts. And the spotlights shines not just on the author but on the publisher. For a small press, this means an instant visibility and promotion they usually only dream about. When the 2017 Booker longlist was announced, a Guardian article celebrated the represenation of ‘tiny publishers’ who were in with a good chance alongside the Big Five. Juliet Maybe of Oneworld says, ‘When you’re a small publisher up against the big five or six, it’s hard to get the attention of reviewers, and of bookseller promotions. But this makes it a more level playing field…It’s especially great for indies. They already publish with heart, and it’s great to get commercial rewards as well.’ ( www.theguardian.com/books/2016/jul/29/crazy-but-fantastic-man-booker-prize-pitches-tiny-publishers-into-big-league).
Linen Press has moved in the opposite direction by offering open and equal access to all writers wanting to submit their work. For about three months we experimented with asking writers to buy a book from our list as part of the submissions process. The reason? I read all the unsolicited manuscripts that come in. Many are completely inappropriate for our list, so buying a book gives writers a feel for what we publish. £10 seemed a fair price to pay for me to read a letter, writing CV, synopsis and 1000 words. When Percie Edgeler joined the company recently, she objected on the ground that it ruled out writers on low incomes or no incomes, and I concurred. So we announced a waiver for those who couldn’t a book purchase. This struck a chord. On Twitter we had over 352 likes and 170 RTs.
As the only independent women’s press in the UK, we publish books that are beautifully written, daring and diverse. We publish authors who have been rejected by mainstream publishers because their books don’t fit the publishing zeitgeist of the moment. We take risks. We like novels of ideas and books by minority writers. This feels like putting a foot on a down escalator when we want to go up. Given the current trend of mainstream publishers throwing marketing money at a limited number of crowd pleasers and we’re walking up that descending staircase. Factor in the prohibitive cost of entering our authors for the prestigious prizes and the lost chance of publicity, and we’ve broken into a run up the down escalator to keep going at all. Wish us luck. And please buy a book from our website! www.linen-press.com