It’s time to bring literary awards into the 21st century

It’s time to bring literary awards into the 21st century

A few days ago, the Sydney Morning Herald reported that University of Western Australia Publishing has decided to stop submitting its books for literary awards, after spending A$10,000 on prize submissions in a single year. Several other publishers estimated that they spent thousands of dollars on entry fees and postage every year; among them Scribe and the Australian arm of Pan Macmillan.

This is a surprisingly loaded topic, and it kicked off quite a debate in Australian literary circles – as I believe it should here in the UK. At play are a number of important issues in the literary economy: what is a fair administrative cost for prizes to charge per entry? How far should publishers and prize managers be expected to accommodate one another’s preferences? And do prize judges really need all those hard copies, or are they just being print snobs?

The entry fee side of the equation is a big discussion, and cuts to the heart of the delicate balance between cultural and financial capital which keeps the prize ecosystem alive – so I won’t wade into that today. The cost of printing and posting thousands of physical proofs, however, would be very easy to bring under control.

‘Self-Portrait with Booker Reading’, photo courtesy of Daniel Hahn

The photo you see above is courtesy of Daniel Hahn. Daniel is a judge for the 2017 Man Booker International prize, and the books pictured are about 100 of those he’s received so far – all of which he must read and assess. If you’re a digitally-minded publisher, looking at this photo you might share my initial assumption that digital submissions would be welcomed by both publishers and prize judges.

However, both Hahn and Veronica Sullivan – the manager of the Stella Prize, an Australian award for women writers – argue that physical submissions remain the best option. Hahn notes the ‘flattening’ effect digital reading has on text, and points out that physical aspects of submissions help distinguish them from one another. Meanwhile, Sullivan believes switching to digital submissions would actually increase workloads for prize managers, since different judges would request a mix of print and digital copies – and publishers might provide low-quality digital editions, such as heavily watermarked PDFs.

These practical difficulties shouldn’t be underestimated. However, there are plenty of upsides to introducing partly digital or even digital-only submissions. One of the biggest is opening prizes to self-publishers, as the Arthur C. Clarke award did a few months ago. Anything which helps break down arbitrary distinctions between traditional and indie publishing – and challenges the assumption that self-published writing is necessarily low-quality – has to be a good thing, although of course not everyone will agree. Another is the freedom digital submissions will give prize managers to broaden their judging pool, and influence, beyond national boundaries. Literary readerships are increasingly international, and prizes should be able to reflect that.

My Tilted Axis Press colleague Deborah Smith has benefited enormously from the Man Booker International Prize she won earlier this year for her translation of The Vegetarian. Not only has the prize raised her profile as a translator, but the money has indirectly helped fund Tilted Axis. This is how prizes should work. But when, in order to satisfy another prize’s entry requirements, I had to typeset a book and print expensive, urgent proofs nearly six months before publication, I wondered whether the expense was really necessary – and further, whether prize managers were even aware of the burden their demands placed on small presses.

A good first step would be a prize submissions portal: either a non-profit funded and run by the prizes themselves, or a business targeting what seems like an obvious market opportunity. Precedents for organisation like this exist. By now, NetGalley must have saved publishers millions of pounds in postage and print costs. Submittable has rescued more than a few magazine publishers from being buried by piles of essays and short stories – and indeed, many short-form prizes are already run with it. The technical challenges are not insurmountable: as always in publishing, it’s mostly a question of will. So if you’re a publisher or prize manager who’d be interested in using a service like this, comment below or email me.

The proliferation of prizes in recent years is undoubtedly a boon for authors and readers, but it’s time we had a serious think about how they can be made more efficient and effective for all involved. It may be fairer for the choice of submission format to be made by the publisher concerned, rather than judges or prize managers. To begin with, if we can make printed submissions the exception rather than the rule, we’ll have taken an important step forward.