Author launches literary prize for 'risk-taking' indie publishers

Author launches literary prize for 'risk-taking' indie publishers

Award-winning novelist Neil Griffiths is launching a new literary prize to celebrate “small presses producing brilliant and brave literary fiction” in the UK and Ireland - in part because he believes the publishing business model is "terrible".

Griffiths said he wanted to use the prize to help support literary fiction and the kinds of publishers who are willing to take risks - unlike "bigger, richer publishers" whose commissioning strategy, according to Griffiths, is driven by "marketing advice and P&L sheets; very seldom on the imperishable nature of great writing".

The Republic of Consciousness Prize seeks to find the "best novel published by a small press", with a maximum of one novel to be submitted per publisher per year. Defining what is a "small press", Griffiths told The Bookseller the prize would be for independent publishers that have five people or fewer full time employees, excluding larger independent publishers, such as Faber and Bloomsbury, who "don't need the exposure". It will also bar admissions from self-published authors.

Griffiths has put up £2,000 of his own money into the prize and is hoping other writers will also be inspired to contribute to raise a total £10,000. The prize will be judged by independent booksellers with the prize money - amount yet to be confirmed - to be split between the author and press. A shortlist of five novels will be announced in December 2016, with the winners to be announced at an event in January 2017. 

A blog about the prize by Griffiths talks about the challenges faced by small publishers, with media coverage skewed in favour of mainstream presses, according to the author, and point of sale promotions in bookshops unaffordable for many.

Griffiths told The Bookseller he wanted to start the prize because "the best four books I read last year were from presses I had never heard of before," citing publishers Galley Beggar Press, Fitzcarraldo Editions and Coffee House Press in the US. He added: "I realised after having a conversation at a literary event that half of these publishers are vulnerable to going bankrupt half of the year. They don’t have big names such as Jamie Oliver or David Walliams to keep them afloat if their literary fiction either does or doesn’t work – but if they sell an extra 200 copies it can make a great difference. This is what I hope this prize will help to do. The business model is terrible so you would only do it if you love it.”

Griffiths, author of Betrayal in Naples which won the Writers’ Club First Novel Award and Saving Caravaggio, which was shortlisted for the Costa Best Novel Award 2007, has previously published by Penguin. However, he also admitted that his "selfish reason" for launching the prize was because he wanted his third novel to be published by an independent publisher. He said the "subtle" book, called Family of Love, was about faith in the 21st century, would be "difficult" for "a major publisher to get on board with". 

Independent publishers have welcomed Griffiths' new prize championing smaller presses.

Alessandro Gallenzi, founder of Alma Books, said: “I applaud and salute this initiative. Mainstream prizes – with a few laudable exceptions, such as last year's Man Booker winner – tend to be a name-driven, rather than quality-driven, preserve for larger houses. Rather than celebrating the writing, too many of these prizes are about big advances, hollow hype and large PR budgets. There's nothing literary about them at all.”

However, he added: "I worry that Neil's prize too will face an uphill struggle and remain nothing more than a grand gesture unless it is backed by proper high-street support."

Karen Sullivan at Orenda Books, meanwhile, said that Griffiths was right about the need to expand the literary marketplace to ensure that it maintains its "vibrancy", "not simply catering to existing demand".

She said: "Small publishers are able - or willing - to take risks that bigger publishers cannot or will not, and for that reason are responsible for publishing some gems that don’t neatly fit into genres or follow current trends in reading. Without the overheads and the accountability of larger publishers, we can explore new talent and invest in debuts that might be slightly off the beaten track – and stick with them until their work is recognised.

"It can be difficult to get books into the shops in significant numbers, particularly for the debuts, and with the chains. Ironically, we are often forced to agree the same hefty discounts that the big publishers’ give in order to get larger orders. The big publishers get the larger orders at the outset, and often with supermarkets (we have no luck there), so can print accordingly. We end up having to reprint frequently, with a higher unit cost, because of this lack of faith by the shops."

However, she added: "Good books will sell, regardless of their provenance, and I think we have to give booksellers and the public more credit. I don’t think everyone heads straight to the big names and the conglomerates. If you can achieve discoverability, no matter what your size, you are in with a chance!"

Griffiths also described agents as a "big problem" as part of his rationale for setting up the prize, because they are all about "big sales," according to the author. 

He said: "Agents are good at supplying the publishing industry with what it needs to keeping going, but more often than not it doesn’t vary much from what has been previously successful."

Lizzy Kremer, AAA vice president, commented: "The AAA welcomes any prize that recognises outstanding books, whoever publishes them. 

"Publishers acquire books. Good agents make commitments to writers, not to books. It is simply impossible to determine, at the point at which we offer representation, which of our clients will make us lots of money (whether in advances or down the line in royalties) and which will never earn a penny, despite our best efforts on their behalfs. For that reason, agents learn to take uncynical, passionate, stances on behalf of writers of talent whose work they love, developing and selling their work with equal optimism both to the risk-taking indies and to the marketing-driven heavyweights."

Agent Lorella Belli admitted that Griffiths' piece presented a "more or less accurate reflection of what usually happens", but agreed with Kremer that the starting point for agents was taking on project and authors "that they love", as well as those which will sell to enable agents to run a business and make a living - "just like people do in any other business".

She said: "Neil's piece is a more or less accurate reflection of what usually happens, but should this come as such a surprise? There have always been larger and smaller publishers, and always will be, just like companies in any other business (small ones often founded by people who used to work for larger houses).

"However, although smaller publishers might set themselves smaller sales targets, in my experience they still have to ask themselves 'how many copies will this sell?', not simply 'what is its value to literature'. They must do so if they wish to stay in business, unless they mainly rely on grants or similar subsidies or a wealthy benefactor that is, which it is a different situation altogether and one can't compare like with like."

She added: "We work with small publishers as well as the larger ones, and they can be incredibly successful both in terms of sales and critical acclaim. Different strengths; different is good."

The independent bookseller judges for the Republic of Consciousness Prize will be announced in due course.