'The Women's Prize for Fiction excludes many women writers'

It seems that only big mainstream publishers with their massive marketing and advertising budgets can enter women writers for the Women’s Fiction award. The prize, previously the Orange and the Baileys, now in a new incarnation administered by the Society of Authors, effectively bars, on grounds of cost not merit, small presses and independent presses who are not funded by the Arts Council or by other means. This elimination of most small, independent presses has the inevitable knock on effect of ruling out many women writers because the current trend towards low risk publishing by the mainstream guys sends debut and minority and innovative writers to the indies or into self-publishing.

Let me spell out the costs of entering the Women’s Fiction Prize 2017, whatever it is called.

  • To enter: 10 hard copies + 1 electronic copy + print ready PDF file
  • If longlisted: 10 more copies + an agreement to sell further promotional copies at a 70% discount + e-book for Royal National Institute of Blind People
  • If shortlisted: the publisher pays £5,000 plus VAT "for general promotional activities" + 50 extra copies "for publicity purposes" + author and publisher obligatory attendance at expensive award ceremony + extract for website + cooperation on interviews + 70% discount continues to apply
  • In the event of a win: another £5,000 plus VAT.

The winner gets £30,000, for maybe five years work, a nice hand-out, but the cost along the way for the publisher is £10,000 plus VAT, plus the cost of 70 copies of the paperback, plus other expenses. The award ceremony for those shortlisted usually costs in the region of £250 with the publisher paying for "relevant expenses for bringing authors from overseas" and accommodation in London. They must "do their best to ensure their attendance".

I hope that most of my authors understand that I operate on a shoe-string and when I say I don’t have £5,000 + VAT should they be shortlisted, it’s the truth. My total budget for publishing four books a year is less than £5,000. I don’t pay myself and plough back into the next publication all revenue that comes in from those already on our list. I worry that some authors might not believe me. Maybe I’m making this stuff up to avoid paying for something that is going to be a gamble.

I can hear others saying that if I have so little money to spend on authors and prizes, I shouldn’t be in the book business. I refuse to accept that. I’m taking risks with women writers whose books would be unlikely to find a home with mainstream publshers. I’ve published exceptional writing by a 94-year-old. I have Nigerian, Indian, and Chinese-American debut authors on my list. I offer close, collaborative editing, chapter by chapter, at a level I doubt can be found these days in many other publishing houses because it involves time and investment. Mainstream publshers prefer to spend their money on advertising. One of my authors deserted her mainstream publisher and came to Linen Press because of an atmosphere that was "anti-intellectual and anti-literary". She described the editing team as "a bunch of Tesco sales boys".

And remind me, wasn’t there a time when publishers reaped the benefits from prizes rather than financing them?

Linen Press is no novice. This year we’re celebrating our 10th birthday in a book world that is dominated, manipulated and squeezed by price-cutting, crowd-pleasing monopolies like Waterstones and Amazon. We have authors who have won the Costa and the People’s Prize. They have been runner up and short-listed for Richard & Judy, The Paris Prize for Fiction, the Raymond Carver, Bridport, Bristol, Manchester, Lucy Cavendish and Scotland’s Robert Louis Stevenson award. One has been listed in the Sunday Times best books of 2016. We do good books.

I’m not alone in condemning the cost of entering books for the three big prizes, the ones that can change an author’s reputation and career overnight - the Booker, Costa and Women’s Fiction. On the eve of the Costa, Danuta Kean wrote in the Guardian: "The associated costs of entering the biggest awards mean independent publishers willing to take risks on ‘difficult’ works without obvious marketing potential are being shut out of contention." Adele Ward of the independent firm Ward Wood said: "It’s such a huge cost that most small publishers can’t do it. I can only cover the fee, but some of the awards also charge a lot for the awards ceremony."  She added that her authors have had success with prestigious smaller prizes, including LGBTQ awards, but that the three top book prizes were the only ones that really affected sales. When books by independent presses showed up in the 2017 Booker long list, there was a certain jubilation in an article that highlighted small presses "bringing indie gems such as His Bloody Project and A Brief History of Seven Killings into the spotlight". But there are indies and indies, some with funding and some that have grown into sizeable businesses with a number of paid staff, and then there are those of us who are truly tiny and can’t compete at this level.

And does the gamble pay off in terms of sales? Supposing I had £5,000 + VAT to spend should my author be shortlisted for the Womens’ Fiction prize, and supposing she won and I paid another £5,000 + VAT, would I get that investment back in massively increased visibility and sales? Not necessarily. "One independent publisher whose books have fared well with the three awards said hard calculations had to be made about which authors could recoup such investment. 'If the shortlisted publisher also has to fly their author over from, say, Australia and put them up in a hotel for a few days to take part in the events in the run-up to the awards dinner, it is possible that the costs exceed the financial benefits.'"

The only alternative is to add a clause to my submissions requirements: "Only authors with a healthy bank account need apply."

Michell is the director of Linen Press, the only independent press for women in the UK. Her latest novel The Red Beach Hut is published next month by indie publisher Inspired Quill.