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The Risk and the Reward

Are Prizes Worth the Cost?

Clare Howdle

Impossible terms and conditions, a narrow view of the industry, a gatekeeper to success. When it comes to small presses, mainstream prizes have a lot to answer for. But is it all bad? Clare Howdle explores the divisive nature of literary prize giving – and how for some, it’s a case of revolution from the inside out.

“Sorry, I didn’t check the number – I thought you were one of the judges.” James Tookey is apologising for answering the phone so urgently. He’s co-ordinating the shortlisting for this year’s Republic of Consciousness prize and its weighing heavy on his mind. “They’re right in the thick of it,” he continues. “I think we’ve got there and we’re proud of the shortlist, but it’s taken a while – they didn’t all agree.”

In its fourth year, the Republic of Consciousness Prize awards fiction published in English (including novels in translation) in the UK and Ireland. It’s free to enter, there’s no requirement to provide a significant print run and the prize covers costs for publisher and author to attend events. But there is one limitation. To enter the prize, you have to be a small press, with five or less members of staff on your team. When he announced he was starting the award in 2017, author Neil Griffiths was very clear about his motivations. “I want to support a cultural world that doesn’t get a great deal of attention,” he explained to a web cam, set up on his laptop, while drinking a hearty glass of red and listening to emails ping into his inbox. “Most mainstream prizes are quite similar, there’s nothing that’s particularly exciting.” For him, the small presses producing “brilliant and brave literary fiction” were being overlooked –and he wanted to do something about it.

Tookey came onboard after the first prize winner was announced in 2017, a ceremony he remembers fondly. “It was quite anarchic,” he recollects, “it felt like a proper celebration rather than an administrative process. There was this real buzz because we were trying to bring as many small presses into the public consciousness as possible. It felt important.” And although the Prize has professionalised somewhat since those early days, it still feels important today. The Prize highlights, recognises and rewards the work of small presses in an industry dominated by the big five and their imprints. It shares its prize fund between author and publisher, so shines a light on the industry behind the creative writing. It doesn’t rule out print-on-demand. And through its dedicated followers and the wider audience announcements attract, it introduces readers to innovative fiction pushing the boundaries of what storytelling can be.

“The risks are at their greatest where there’s a lack of understanding about what it takes for small presses to enter. I think it’s a class issue, really. There’s a lot of money flushing around The Booker Prize and there’s just not an awareness of what things cost.”
Sam Jordison, Galley Beggar

Money Talks

Which is vital in today’s landscape. Big ticket prizes like the Costa Book Award, the Women’s Prize for Fiction and The Booker Prize have terms and conditions that put up barriers to boundary-pushing small presses operating on tight budgets with limited print run capacity. Barriers including £5,000 contributions for “publicity and promotion”; supplying up to 100 copies of the novel; offering 70% discount on cover price; or ensuring print runs of 1,000 are available at the time of shortlisting are all difficult for small presses. Not to mention The Booker Prize’s bizarre prior longlisting criteriathat shows preference to publishers the Prize has already deemed worthy.

For Sam Jordison of Galley Beggar, the challenges of mainstream prizes go beyond the restrictive terms and conditions, which he takes on the chin. “We know what the game is and we follow the rules. You have to go into these things with your eyes open,” he says. “The risks are at their greatest where there’s a lack of understanding about what it takes for small presses to enter. I think it’s a class issue, really. “There’s a lot of money flushing around prizes like The Booker Prize and there’s just not an awareness of what things cost– sending writers around festivals and the writer not being paid, what that means.” For Jordison, it’s a risk worth taking because he wants recognition for the books and authors he publishes. “The only criteria for us in deciding whether to enter, is how much we love it. If we think, well this book is great, then we’re going to push it in every way we can. We owe it to our author and we owe it to posterity. I hope and believe quite a few of our books will be around for a long time to come. So you just put everything into it.”

“there are trends that work commercially right now and that’s just not what drives us. Fuck uplit, we’re interested in the truth.”
Sam Jordison, Galley Beggar

The passion for publishing stories that push our expectations and for authors that buck the trends and write in fresh new voices is a signature of small press publishing – whether they feel able to enter the big prizes or otherwise. They are the risk takers, the ones willing to put it all on the line for something they believe in, something that perhaps hasn’t been seen before. As Jordison puts in, “there are trends that work commercially right now and that’s just not what drives us. Fuck uplit, we’re interested in the truth.”

Pure Gold

For Tim Parnell, it’s this spirit and energy and the work it leads to, that spurred him on to set up The Goldsmiths Prize in 2013. With the strapline, fiction at its most novel, he wanted The Goldsmiths Prize to be a (free-to-enter) prize that looked for novels really driving forward the form. Any publisher of any size can enter the Prize, but with its focus, it should perhaps be no surprise that a third of the Goldsmiths Prize’s shortlisted novels and almost half of its winners over the last six years have come from small presses. “We’re interested in adventurous fiction, fiction that is prepared to tread new paths,” Parnell explains. “Although we’re not exclusively for small presses, often we see some of the most exciting work coming from those publishers, because they can dare to take a punt on writing that – for whatever reason – has been dismissed from the mainstream.” Although that’s not to say the mainstream doesn’t take notice. When Eimear McBride won the first Goldsmiths Prize in 2013 with A Girl is a Half Formed Thing (published by Galley Beggar), it pricked up other publishers’ ears, in Parnell’s view. “It certainly felt like the start of some sort of a shift,” he continues, “where new audiences could suddenly be made aware of, get better access to and therefore be more receptive towards interesting, innovative fiction. When books win prizes and readers it changes other writers’ and publishers’ sense of what’s possible.”

“I do partly feel prizes are parasitic. It’s great to shine a light on books that might otherwise not be read, but I don’t like it when the prize becomes the story.”
Tim Parnell, The Goldsmiths Prize

Because like it or not, readers pay attention to prizes. We listen out for the winners. We pick up copies with rosettes on the covers, we read the headlines, we select from the shortlist to download onto our phones for the daily commute. Prizes have become the gatekeepers of what’s worth reading and there’s no escaping it. “It makes me a little queasy thinking about it, if I’m honest,” Parnell continues. “I hate the X Factor style ‘and the winner is’ aspect to it. I do partly feel prizes are parasitic. It’s great to shine a light on books that might otherwise not be read, but I don’t like it when the prize becomes the story. Still, if we can keep finding and sharing books that otherwise wouldn’t be looked at and make an effort to promote all our shortlisted writers equally, I can make my peace with it.”

The highly subjective nature of prize giving sits uncomfortably with Tookey too. He describes Republic of Consciousness as a prize that’s sceptical of prizes. “Prizes in general seem to have too much power and influence,” he explains, “us included. On a small scale and for a specific audience, we are a voice of authority, so by having a winner we’re saying this one is worthy and these ones aren’t. It doesn’t feel right.” But there’s no getting away from the fact that that’s what prizes do. Every year there are thousands of literary novels published and the average reader might get through 12 or 15. How else are we going to navigate that forest of books to choose what’s worth reading?

Value and worth = £££

The complex relationship between prize winning and publishing is something that’s fascinated academic and founder of the Contemporary Small Press project at the University of Westminster, Leigh Wilson for many years. “In today’s world, being able to have a sense of being noticed is hard,” she explains of the growing influence of, and dependence on, prizes as guides through the forest. “It used to be if you got a review in the weekend Guardian that was all you needed because a massive proportion of the people who might read a literary novel would see it. But now cultural fragmentation means it hard to get an index of being noticed that’s weighty enough. That’s what prizes have stepped into.” For Wilson this frames the paradox at the very heart of the publishing industry. The equation of value and worth with monetary reward – and its simultaneous denial. Wilson references James English’s The Economy of Prestige:Prizes, Awards and the Circulation of Cultural Valuewhere he highlights that both the power of and the problem with prizes converges in the way they equate “the artist with the boxer or thrower.”

Wilson goes on to explain that it’s the critic’s desire to distance art from commercialism that creates the paradox too. “Our standards and values of writing are fundamentally enmeshed with money. If it’s ‘the best book’ it wins thousands of pounds. If it isn’t, it doesn’t. At the same time, if a book is a huge commercial success it’s considered less worthy from a critical viewpoint. As the sociologist Pierre Bourdieu said in the 1980s, publishing is a field where its practices ‘can only work by pretending not to be doing what they are doing,’ and prizes are part of this.”

Alongside this, winning a major prize makes the public think a book must be worth reading, purely because of the financially-driven value system our society operates within. “The bigger the money in a prize the more press attention it will get, the more readers will hear about the books shortlisted. It’s fundamentally flawed, because mainstream novels are more likely to be entered and be shortlisted so the novels that are innovative and challenging – which often come from small publishers who can’t invest in the same way – don’t even get on the radar,” she says.

Most Prized

The problem goes deeper still. Because authors see prizes as necessary too. Wilson points out that in the British Council’s online profiles of writers of note, the accolades listed under each writers’ name are given as much prominence as the bibliographies. What you’ve won is as important as what you’ve written, it implies. “Authors feel they have to look for publishers that will invest in them, that will put them up for prizes, that will give them the chance to win, which gives bigger publishers a lot of collateral to play with,” she continues. “It’s a process by which the small, passionate publishers take a risk on work they believe in, then when it pays off, big publishers can swoop in and take the author away to more commercial success than a small publisher can offer.”

It’s exactly what happened with Eimear McBride in 2013. After Galley Beggar published Girl… and McBride won The Goldsmiths Prize, Faber took her on. Does Jordison see this as a necessary part of the prize-winning game too, then? “Absolutely not. Eimear’s was the second book we’d published and things were more difficult then, in terms of raising the finances to print in large numbers,” he says. “She’s agented by Wiley, so that made things harder, let’s just put that on the line. We don’t look back on it as a good experience and it’s not something we want to repeat.”

“It was very brave of Lucy Ellman to go with a small publisher but we hope she’s seen how different it is working with us, how much we give to the project. That’s the beauty of small press publishing, you’re in it as allies, standing back to back.”
Sam Jordison, Galley Beggar

Jordison is quick to point out that he totally understands authors decisions to go where the money is better because they need to do what’s right for them, but he doesn’t have to like it. Is there a risk that Galley Beggar’s recent success with Lucy Ellman’s Ducks, Newburyport(which was shortlisted for The Booker Prize 2019 and won The Goldsmiths Prize) could go the same way? “I certainly hope not,” Jordison continues. “We love Lucy. Everyone talks about the risk we took with that book, but she took a risk on us too. It was very brave of her to go with a small publisher but we hope she’s seen how different it is working with us, how much we give to the project. That’s the beauty of small press publishing, you’re in it as allies, standing back to back. It’s been great for us and we hope it’s been great for her.”

Out with the Old

‘Great’ is an unusual word to hear Jordison apply to the process of publishing Ducks, although most likely it’s not an adjective he’s using to refer to The Booker Prize aspect of the experience. Following shortlisting the press found itself on the brink of bankruptcy, thanks to a huge order from online retailer The Book People that subsequently went into administration. But the 11thhour bailout from a community of crowdfunders eager to ensure the press lived to fight another day pulled Galley Beggar back into the game, and revealed something interesting about small presses in the process. “People believe in small presses and align with them in a different way to other entities in the publishing industry,” Wilson says. “Small presses are creating ‘brands’ that people are loyal to, that people trust because they are not like conventional brands. They’re almost becoming their own gatekeepers in a way.”

Thanks to the community-building, open-access, instant-promotion capabilities of social media, small presses can enter into direct dialogue with their readers, can highlight injustices, can rally support when its needed. And that really has been shown to have the potential to change the game. For Jordison however, it’s not about replacing prizes’ spheres of influence, but rather augmenting them. “I’m thrilled that we have a loyal community of followers who will buy a Galley Beggar book because they trust us to publish work they will love, but I don’t see that as a replacement for prizes and prize culture. I’m probably far less cynical of prizes than you’d expect,” he says. “I love them and what they do and I think they are really important. Particularly because the more small presses are longlisted, shortlisted and win, the more diverse work is being shared and talked about.”

It’s true that with every prize list, small presses are grabbing the headlines. The recent announcement of The International Booker Prize saw nine independent publishers longlisted and a suiteof newspaper headlines heralding it as a victory for small pressesIt’s plucky upstart versus big wig, a classic formula for compelling column inches. “I’m a journalist and I can see the story there, which is no bad thing,” Jordison agrees. “The more we can talk about it, the more readers will see there’s a breadth to the publishing industry and the books worth reading extend beyond the top ten best sellers list.”

Indeed for Wilson, the one concession she’s willing to make about mainstream prizes is that they give us a focus for our frustration. “It feels like an annual moment for the dialogue around the flaws and issues in the system to be aired. We all get together and question the validity of prize culture and the way it works,” she says. And perhaps there’s potential in that moment – somewhere. “When we ran our first small press symposium in 2015, the thing small presses highlighted over and over was how infuriating it was they couldn’t access the same kinds of institutions and structures that existed for mainstream publishers. It’s easy to think of institutions as some sort of unchanging natural laws but we’re seeing now that’s not the case.”

It really isn’t. After The Book People fiasco last year, Galley Beggar was invited to meet with The Booker Prize and discuss how to make the Prize better for small presses in the future. “They’re becoming aware that there are things which don’t work and they want to improve,” Jordison concludes. “That’s progress.” Progress too, is the proliferation of prizes springing up for writers that deserve profile but all too often get overlooked. From The Jhalak Prize for Book of the Year by a Writer of Colourto The Barbellion Prize dedicated to the furtherance of ill and disabled voices in writing, there are organisations doing great work to highlight talent and perspectives that remain underrepresented in the mainstream but have incredible stories to tell. “It’s not the seemingly overwhelming influence of prizes but the fact that things are changing that we should be paying attention to,” Wilson concludes. It is happening and it is happening now. Small presses and their authors could be the catalyst and the beneficiary of that. Only time will tell.”

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