The Eccles British Library Writer's Award: investing in authors

This month, two new writers take up their positions as recipients of the 2018 Eccles British Library Writer’s Award at the Eccles Centre for American Studies: Stuart Evers, who is researching his new novel, and Tessa McWatt, who is writing a memoir that takes her from the Caribbean to Canada.

The award started in 2012 and has so far benefitted 14 fiction and non-fiction writers over seven years, taking the investment in them close to £300,000. They each receive £20,000 over the year they are in residence at the British Library, and more than that: direct access to the knowledgeable curators of the American collections, who can guide them to treasures they did not know about, an ongoing collaboration for as long as it is needed; and a much-coveted staff pass to the library. As there are two authors a year, they get to know each other, as well as the previous recipients, becoming mutually-supportive alumni.

The Eccles Centre for American Studies was founded in 1992, endowed by my American step-grandmother Mary Hyde, taking its name from her husband David Eccles, who had served as chairman of the British Library in the late 1970s. Its central purpose is to promote awareness of the American collections at the library, which, unsurprisingly, are the most significant outside North America. It does this in different ways: granting academic fellowships, holding conferences and events, supporting exhibitions and key purchases for the library, but both David and Mary had died by the time the Writer’s Award started. Mary especially would have been thrilled. A scholar and a bibliophile, she had no children of her own and followed the careers of young academics and writers with great attention. When we – the council of the Eccles Centre – started discussing the award in 2010, we were thinking of a literary prize connected with the Americas, but quickly ran to ground trying come up with one that would stand out. Once we hit upon supporting books in progress, rather than awarding them post-publication, it was immediately obvious that this approach was closer to the spirit of the centre’s origins.  

In the UK at the time, the only award that supported writers working on a specific project was the Jerwood Award for Non-Fiction, which has awarded either £10,000 or £5,000 to over 40 non-fiction authors since 2004. The future of the Jerwood was secured last year by a bequest from historian Giles St Aubyn, which means £10,000 and £5,000 respectively will continue to be offered to two writers a year under the name RSL Giles St Aubyn Awards for Non-Fiction. And now, this January, John Murray and the Spectator launched a prize which will see an essay published in the Spectator and a £20,000 non-fiction publishing deal with John Murray. One of the judges for the inaugural year is Andrea Wulf, 2013 recipient of the Eccles BL award for her work on Humboldt, The Invention of Nature. I’d like to think the Eccles BL Writer’s Award has had a bearing on this, and will continue to influence the idea of supporting works in progress in the UK.

In the US, where naturally everything is bigger (indeed it is American money that originally funded the Eccles Centre), the two standout awards that give ongoing support to writers are the New York Public Library Fellowship at the Cullman Centre, which offers 15 fellowships a year to “outstanding scholars and writers” with a stipend of $70,000; and the Windham-Campbell Prize, now worth $165,000 each, to a selection of fiction and non-fiction writers, poets and playwrights and for which there is no application process – it just comes out of the blue to around eight authors a year. In both cases, these awards are aimed at the writers in general, not at specific projects.

2012 was also a time, post the 2008 crash and before consequences of the disruption of digital publishing were clear, when advances, especially for literary fiction and serious non-fiction, had dropped dramatically. No better time to start supporting these writers, giving them the time, space and money to finish even better books. Indeed, many of the Eccles BL authors, from Naomi Wood to Ben Markovits, Alison Macleod and Will Atkins have told us it has done precisely that.

Our rules are not complicated: most importantly the award is open to fiction and non-fiction (hence being the only UK prize of this nature that supports novelists while researching their next work); authors can be of any nationality, but need to reside in the UK with access to the British Library during the year in question; the book proposal needs to be under contract or have strong evidence of an interested publisher; and in the spirit of the centre’s core purpose, the works awarded will require research in the American collections at the British Library (to date, this has meant the US, Canada and the Caribbean, but for 2019 we plan to extend it to all the Americas by including Mexico and Latin America). In return, the chosen writers are asked to help promote awareness of the Eccles Centre and the British Library’s American collections.  

Agents and publishers, if any of the authors you are working with fit the bill, please encourage them to apply. The closing date for 2019 is 31st August 2018. The standard of applications is always high; I and the other judges – including the recent incoming Eccles Centre director, Dr Philip Hatfield, and author and academic, Professor Sarah Churchwell – look forward to reading them.

Catherine Eccles is a literary scout at Eccles Fisher Associates and a member of the council of the Eccles Centre.