Report: Prize Business: What’s the Impact on the Publishing Industry?

Words by Chris Russell, photos by Craig Simmonds.

Book prizes went under the spotlight at Byte the Book’s third April event, which brought together Dr Tim Parnell of the Goldsmiths Prize, author and critic Catherine Taylor and Amelia Fairney of Penguin Random House. The event was chaired by Neil Griffiths, founder of the Republic Of Consciousness Prize for Small Presses.

New and old friends: TV producer and author Kate Ansell with publisher and author Kay Hutchinson

The floor opened with a two-part question: why do people found prizes, and what impact do they have? “As advances and book sales dwindle,” began Neil, “prizes can function as bursaries for authors, buying them much-needed writing time”. Meanwhile, from a reader’s point-of-view, in an industry that publishes a huge volume of novels every year, “prizes are one of the filters you need”. Catherine echoed this point, arguing that, in light of shrinking review coverage, book prizes are now more significant than ever.


A slice of the frow enjoying the panel: author Hannah Renier, vlogger and PR guru  Leena Normington, Byte The Book’s, Rebekah Lattin-Rawstrone and Justine Solomons and our Writer-in-Residence the YA author Chris Russell.

Tim, who founded the Goldsmiths Prize in 2013, explained that his motivation was to cast sunlight on modernist novels that he had taught and loved, but felt were being ignored by existing panels. He cited the Turner Prize as an influence, reflecting on how it had brought once vilified artists into the mainstream, changing the art world forever. Amelia agreed that the bigger prizes can have a very significant effect on book sales, but also added that, from a publisher’s perspective, inclusion on award lists – which in many cases requires significant investment from the publisher – isn’t always a no-brainer. “We have a certain number of books to promote, and a finite marketing pot,” she explained. “Many prizes charge substantial levies for shortlisted or longlisted novels, and in some cases this can be the entire marketing budget for that book”. In other words, publishers are faced with a million-dollar question: will the publicity from the prize generate more readers than any other kind of marketing, or could that money be better spent elsewhere?

The panel in full flow from left to right: Neil Griffiths, Catherine Taylor, Amelia Fairney and Dr Tim Parnell

The discussion moved on to how the landscape for publishing prizes has changed in recent years, and Tim pointed out that social media has enabled many more to flourish, especially that those cater to specific niches. “Mainstream media only has so much space,” he reflected, “but social media can help you find an audience”. The flip side of this, of course, is that the market is now saturated, and as Catherine phrased it, “you need a very distinctive USP, otherwise you’ll disappear”. In the end, she said, it often comes down to money. “Unless you stand out, you’ll struggle to get sponsorship; and without sponsorship, you’ll sink”.

Author, Felicia Yap and TLS journalist and author Michael Caines

Looking forward, concluded Neil, how can prizes work with publishers to achieve more for writers? “It boils down to resources,” responded Amelia. “If your prize is high-profile enough to have a full-time publicist, then they need to be creating book tours around the country, keeping press attention, pitching angles to journalists”. In other words, book prizes need to hustle for their foothold in the crowded publishing marketplace – just like the authors themselves.

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