Culture desk

To Win Some Book Awards, Publishers Have to Pay

It can sometimes be costly to be a publisher of a potentially award-winning book.

In 2015, the fee to be shortlisted for the Irish Book Awards was €150, and the winner’s levy was €750.

According to the terms and conditions, the shortlisted authors must attend the awards ceremony. Publishers have access to promotional partner tickets priced €150 plus VAT each, or €1,450 plus VAT for a table of 10.

Some of that might change this year. “The future of the winner’s levy is due to be reviewed (along with many more elements of the awards) at the Irish Book Awards Advisory Board meeting his September,” said Alastair Giles, executive director of the Irish Book Awards.

But they do need to be funded, he said, and the levies help cover sales and campaign materials, which helps shortlisted titles get exposure.

Go a bit further afield, and the International Dylan Thomas Prize costs publishers even more. It’s £2,500 to get a book shortlisted for the prize — which, if won, nets the author £30,000.

The publishers of the Costa Book Awards winners have to contribute £4,000 towards the general promotion of the winning books. The prize money for the authors is £5,000, unless its the short story award which nets £3,500.

The publisher of the Costa Book of the Year — for which the author gets £30,000 — is required to make a further contribution of £5,000.

(Neither the International Dylan Thomas Prize nor the Costa organisers responded to queries about their fees.)

Does It Matter?

“It is expensive, there’s no doubt about that,” said Ivan O’Brien of Dublin-based O’Brien Press, who is on the board of the Bord Gáis Energy Irish Book Awards. But there are benefits and it’s worth it, he said.

“What they are is a great opportunity to talk about books, and reading, and to celebrate all the good stuff,” he said. “We regard it as a good investment in the industry.”

Awards are an important way for publishers to promote authors too, said Tramp Press publishers Sarah Davis-Goff and Lisa Coen, by email.

“We think awards are a very important way for a book to gain attention in a media culture where review space is shrinking, so we always work hard to put our authors forward for appropriate prizes,” they wrote.

Sure, it costs money to enter, but Dublin-based Tramp Press budgets for it, and awards shows are expensive to put together, said Davis-Goff and Coen.

Plus, the Costa buy-in is only if you’re short-listed. “So it doesn’t discourage us from throwing our hat in the ring in the first place,” they said.

There seems to be agreement among publishers that winning an award often doesn’t bring enough sales to cover the costs and levies. “Generally, it’s not justified by sales is the simple honest answer,” said O’Brien.

Only the Baileys Women’s Prize for Fiction really leads to a jump in sales, said O’Brien. “Women are the majority of readers,” he said.

Choosing Other Prizes

For those who generally choose not to enter the more expensive awards, there can be all kinds of reasons.

Many of the prizes Dublin-based Stinging Fly Press, which publishes short stories, would be eligible for are free, said founder Declan Meade. (He has put in one entry for the Irish Book Awards this year though.)

“And I suppose the economics of short-story publishing mean that publishers would be wary of entering a story collection ahead of a novel — in the same way that they might opt to choose to put forward a more established writer ahead of a newcomer,” he said.

James O’Sullivan, of the Cork-based publishing house New Binary Press, said he stays away from some awards as he thinks they’d be looking for more mainstream fiction than the books that he publishes.

If others are too expensive, he’ll just go elsewhere. “In that case, I’d simply choose not to engage with the competition,” he said. In the past, one author wanted to apply for a competition that required 15 copies of the book, and, as a small publisher that was a lot, he said.

Different prizes have different reputations, after all.

“The accusations most normally levelled at the Irish Book Awards is that they are biased towards the more commercial publishers,” said O’Brien. But he doesn’t think that’s true.

Books from more commercial publishers just tend to do well because of the voting system, which combines a public vote with judges’ input, he said. “That will inevitably bias things a bit in that direction, but it does engage the public.”

O’Sullivan of New Binary Press said he’d still be wary about applying, though. “Small publishers can’t take risks on large entry fees if there is any doubt in their mind over how decisions are being made. The only way to solve that is to improve transparency, and remove the commercial influences, where possible,” he said.

A couple of free biggie awards — the Frank O’Connor International Short Story Award and the Guardian First Book Award — have been discontinued. But there are still many others.

The Rooney Prize for Irish Literature, which has been going for 40 years, and sees €10,000 going to a writer under 40 years old with an oeuvre rather than a book, doesn’t have any associated fees and is one of the few to be funded by an endowment from philanthropists.

“There are so many awards now and prizes, it begins to be a bit confusing,” said Gerard Dawe, a poet and Trinity College Dublin professor who is co-chair of the Rooney Prize.

“Others might be more commercial, more interested in promoting what might sell and have a more popular appeal,” said Dawe.

But because the Rooney Prize is not a book award and is about a writer’s work to date, it’s about their potential. “It’s about literary value rather than commercial possibility,” he said.

You can see from the shortlist the calibre of the writers who have been granted the award, he said. Some of the attraction of the prize is the money, but it’s also about cultural prestige.

Lois Kapila portrait
Lois Kapila

Lois Kapila is Dublin Inquirer's managing editor and general-assignment reporter. Want to share a comment or a tip with her? Send an email to her at info@dublininquirer.com.

 

Comments

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  2. Mícheál Ó Doibhilín
    24 August at 12:13

    The exorbitant fees charged by these so-called awards amount to attempts to buy an award and mean that the award is not representative of any genre other than deep pockets. As a small – and most definitely non-profitable and non-grant-aided publisher, I cannot afford entering these competitions. This means my catalogue is automatically excluded so, in my field my authors will not be eligible to win because of lack of money. So the prize money is only going to those who already have it!!!! Surely that is against the perceived spirit of these awards? Can I suggest a better approach. How about an entry fee of, say, €100 per book with one copy of the book. If the book is shortlisted, then up to four more copies may be requested (if more are required, they will be paid for at the trade rate). End of story. This would level the playing field, while the relatively small entry fee will prevent the award being inundated with submissions, many of which will have no merit or be irrelevant. Or, if the sponsors are not actually funding the competitions at all – only lending their names and collecting the prize money from the entrants – take the competitions away from them and let national organisations (e.g. the Arts Council, Heritage Ireland) sponsor them instead. Do we need such big prizes? Yes, if you’re a struggling beginning author, but not if you are a major international best-seller. They should be about prestige, an award that can be on the cover of each book thereafter as a sales aid.

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