Why are more books published than there are readers?

** 2/5
Bored of the Booker: Prizes, prizes everywhere

Battle for the Arts at Battle of Ideas
Barbican Centre
Saturday 20th October 2012

 
The decision of the Pulitzer Prize 2012board not to award the prize for fiction once again focused attention on the role of literary awards. Some praised the brave and unusual step of the selection committee for feeling they genuinely couldn’t choose between the novels of David Foster Wallace, Karen Russell and Denis Johnson. Yet, for others, it represented an opportunity missed in terms of boosting sales and raising the profile of any would-be winners. On the other side of the Atlantic, the perception that the 2011 Booker Prize privileged ‘readability’ over artistic merit provoked leading literary figures to devise the Literature Prize to ‘establish a clear and uncompromising standard of excellence’. Yet the Literature Prize merely joins an ever-expanding list of possible garlands for published authors, most notably the Women’s Prize for Fiction (formerly the Orange Prize), Costa Book Award, the Guardian First Book Award, the Warwick Prize for Writing, the James Tait Memorial Prize… Today, some argue, not being awarded a prize, or even refusing one, is more of a mark of distinction than winning an award.Critics of prizes generally dismiss them as cynical marketing ploys from publishers or as exercises in elitism, largely governed by literary cliques and fashions. For their defenders, they provide a vital role in developing and supporting new writers, while offering an essential dose of critical judgement in the public arena. Yet with judging panels increasingly made up of celebrities and other non-literary figures (and sometimes being done away with altogether in favour of a popular vote) there seems to be a certain unease from both sides over what role the public should play in proceedings, and a lack of consensus over what constitutes excellence and artistic value or makes a work challenging. The decision to award obscure Swedish poet Tomas Tranströmer the Nobel Prize for Literature in 2011 can hardly be said to have generated a popular interest in his work.

Are literary prizes part of a healthy critical culture, or do they risk becoming an unhappy replacement for it? While plenty are willing to criticise a culture of ‘all must have prizes,’ is it true that being unwilling to make judgements (on a variety of criteria) is just as corrosive to literature? Are some prizes better than others? Who are the real winners, and are there any losers?

Speakers

 
 
Damian Barr
writer and salonierre; creator and host, Shoreditch House Literary Salon; author, Maggie and Me
 
Miguel Fernandes Ceia
writer, critic and translator; editorial assistant, Writers’ Hub; contributor, Culture Wars
 
Professor Russell Celyn Jones
director, Creative Writing Programme, Birkbeck College, University of London
 
Alexandra Pringle
group editor-in-chief, Bloomsbury Publishing Plc.
 
Chair:
David Bowden
coordinator, UK Battle Satellites; poetry editor, Culture Wars; TV columnist, spiked
Produced by David Bowden coordinator, UK Battle Satellites; poetry editor, Culture Wars; TV columnist, Spiked
Miguel Fernandes Ceia writer, critic and translator; editorial assistant, Writers’ Hub; contributor, Culture Wars

Source: Battle of Ideas 2012

One of the main themes of the discussion centred around the question of how the Book industry gets the public to know which are the best new books to read and to generally read more. Alexander Pringle said that Book Festivals were particularly useful as they give the public get greater access to authors and vice-versa.

Booker Prize

When it comes to awards, all agreed that the Man Booker prize was the biggest prize out there, with huge benefits for the winner in terms of a massive sales spike and profile raising. Some panelists felt that in fact the main benefit of Booker went not just to the winner, but to all the authors on the short-list.

Smaller awards, such as the Orange Prize and Dylan Thomas prize were considered valuable too, as those in the trade will know of them and their award winners and so it’ll help a winning author, plus short-listed contestants by raising their profile, which will prove beneficial when it comes to releasing and promoting their next book.

A Bookseller in the audience felt there was a need for more book prizes.

A couple of audience members expressed disappointment that Hilary Mantell won the Booker prize this week (18th September 2012) for the second time. Not because it was a bad book, but because it denied a new, un-known Author an opportunity in the spotlight. Damian Barr challenged that by asking, “why not? Can not Usain Bolt have the opportunity to win 2 gold medals? Booker rewards excellence in writing and if someone wins twice or more so be it, they will have done so on merit.”

Alexander said that the Richard and Judy book club (pictured above) had just as powerful effect on sales as the Booker prize. Though it had far less influence after the show moved from ITV to Sky TV. Many felt there were now more writers than books.

Young adult/children’s fiction

The Young adult/child fiction genre was said to be a growing market. According to Alexander this was down to the Harry Potter effect, with everyone trying to replicate the success of this stratospherically succesful ‘cross over’ series of books.

50 Shades of Grey

There was near consensus that the 50 Shades of Grey phenomenon had not really benefited the wider book publishing industry for, as a couple of panelist said, what tends to happen is that people go into Book shops just to buy the book and don’t buy any other book and nor do stores tend to gain a repeat customer from the sale or any wider sales stimulus. That will have to come down to the Bookseller making recommendations to the customer.

Conclusion

As the organiser of the Black Comedy Awards it probably won’t surprise you that I support award ceremonies. With the recent Tiemo Entertainments awards, held in April 2012, I think Tiemo Entertainments helped raise the profile of less well-known comedians such as Kayleigh “Loudmouth” Lewis- Best Young Female and Nathan Caton – Best Young Male and Best Comedian Mainstream circuit.

Furthermore, we also helped cement and validate the reputation of well-known, highly regarded, seasoned Comedians such as Felicity Ethnic, Slim, Gina Yashere and Richard Blackwood, winners of Best Female, Best Male, Best International and Best Comedian Acting, respectively.

I believe the process was profile raising and beneficial for all concerned, winners and nominees too.

I am of the view that Book awards are very useful for the industry and general public. Without them, aside from published book reviews in the press, it’s rare for a non-celebrity author to get TV and radio coverage, so its crucial in that sense.

That said the bulk of the work of getting authors and their work noticed by the public has to be done year round, via working with the media, including social media, literary festivals, book shops, schools, colleges and universities.

I don’t find the awards process to be corrosive to literature at all. It’s a highly subjective subject indeed, with numerous different genres and thus markets to be catered for. There may indeed be a problem with over supply of books – “more books than readers” so that becomes an issue of tremendous marketing, PR and advertising to get one’s book noticed in an extremely crowded market.

It’s also about stimulating reading of and purchasing of new literature to a far wider audience. The situation really shouldn’t exist of more books being published than readers.

Recommended reading

The debate closed with each panelist recommending a book from an author the general public may well not be aware of.

Rock Crystal; a boys own story – Edmond Wright;

The light of Amsterdam – David Park

Collection of short stories – Chris Adrians

Tiemo Talk of the Town
20th October 2012

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2 Responses to Why are more books published than there are readers?

  1. The problem with literary awards is that the books that win sometimes turn out to be unreadable and probably don’t deserve the hype they have been given. On the other hand, if these awards didn’t exist, how would we ever know what is generally worth reading? Like you say, they are crucial for publicity.

  2. Tiemo Talk says:

    Thanks @A Little Blog of Books and Other Stuff. You’re probably right. I never read any of the award winning books. If that’s a wide spread industry and/or general public view then perhaps this needs addressing. Do you know who votes for these awards and who selects the winners of awards like the Booker and Orange Prize?

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