Why book prizes matter more than ever

The pandemic and lockdown have affected the book industry from the fate of distributors to the closure of independent shops to the drop in individual book sales, and many literary prizes have this year postponed their announcements. But the Desmond Elliott Prize, for the first time under aegis of the National Centre for Writing, is keeping to its schedule: the selectors read hundreds of entries, and presented the judges, Sinéad Gleeson, Sonia Sodha and me with ten new voices, from which we will choose a shortlist of three, and announce a winner in July. Going ahead may seem contrary, but a Prize is meant to help bring a book to readers, and so feels even more necessary while other important debut rites of passage are now being missed.

I remember the excitement of holding finished copies of my book for the first time, and the happiness of publication day. There used to be taking yourself to see your book in bookshops, and a launch in which people you know and some you don’t, look at you while you read out loud the words that sounded so right in your own head. You want to see someone reading your book on a bus or have a friend send you a picture of someone reading it on a beach. If your book has financial backing, you might catch a poster of it in public spaces; there might be readings at festivals at home and abroad.

Although all of this year’s longlistees were at pains to say that this moment is much bigger than them, current conditions will affect them and the reach of their work. As Love and Other Thought Experiments author Sophie Ward told us, “Everyone warned me that it is very quiet after a book comes out, but no one expected it to be as quiet as this!”

Those with more recent publication dates face even more challenges. Reviews for Jessica Moor’s Keeper ran the week the lockdown began – this would be tough for any book; but particularly for a debut. “People have other things on their mind now and that is absolutely as it should be, but I’m not going to be Panglossian about it – this wasn’t what I hoped for,” she explained. Meanwhile Abi Daré, author of The Girl with the Louding Voice, has not even had a chance to see her book in a bookshop yet.

Alex Allison (The Art of the Body), Oisín Fagan (Nobber) and Okechukwu Nzelu (The Private Joys of Nnenna Maloney) are among those to have had events cancelled. For Alex this was particularly pertinent given the protagonists in his debut are a carer and their disabled client. Foyles was due to host a special event that would be free to careers and people with disabilities, but it had to be cancelled as these groups are more vulnerable to Covid-19.

There are positives – Jane Rogoyska (Kozłowski) has had messages from people who’ve read her book in lockdown, for example, and Nzelu is using the time to work on his second novel after the “huge encouragement” of the longlisting.

A work can only speak for itself if readers can find it, and while some of the longlisted writers are following advice from Leena Norms’ online seminar ‘How to Launch a Book During a Pandemic,’ and others are gaining endorsement from more established writers who support new voices online, not all use social media or have large followings to begin with.

Prize longlists create a natural cluster for book bloggers, or booksellers with online stores to consider: the same for virtual festivals that are being organised now. These more formal debut showcases can not only place writers with their fellow newcomers (helping to connect them to ‘a tribe’ in a highly competitive market-driven world) but also to scouts for other prizes and online events. In fact, the potential of virtual support might help these books reach more readers than discrete or ticketed events alone would.

Still, one of my favourite of all public book rites is signings. It seems impossible now, that one after another, complete strangers queue to buy your book then hand it to you; you sign it, and hand it back. Whether I am getting a book signed by a writer I admire or I am on the other side of the table, no matter how long or short the queue is, that moment of exchange is electric. It’s as if I’m making a pact with the reader (or writer), both of us recognising that after years of work, this book has now found its home.

I want this year’s debut authors to be able to experience that moment of connection with their readers, virtually if must be, and literary prizes can encourage that - as well as supporting a writer's progress with financial aid and ongoing mentoring, which feels even more important right now. It remains a way of saying to writers, "We see you. We're reading you. Keep writing."