Small publishers protest 'elitist' Women's Prize fees

Small publishers protest 'elitist' Women's Prize fees

Small publishers have expressed anger and dismay over “extortionate” fees charged to enter the Women’s Prize for Fiction, which they believe risk the coveted award becoming “elitist” and exclusionary.

However, the prize organisers have defended the costs, which are not new and have been the same for the past few years, saying they represent "a fair exchange" with the publicity around shortlisted titles generating solid sales.

Lynn Michell, director of small women's publisher Linen Press, told The Bookseller she was cross on behalf of her authors that she could not risk stumping up the £5,000 +VAT fee should they be shortlisted for the prize, with the figure amounting to more than her entire annual budget. 

In a blog entitled "The Women’s Prize for Fiction excludes many women writers" published today (12th September) she blasted the prize for its fees which she argued "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". 

One of the press’ "irate" authors who had hoped to be entered for the prize has since taken matters into her own hands and said she will stump up the fee herself if her publisher couldn't afford it. However Michell, who told The Bookseller she could barely afford to pay herself a wage, noted not every author was in such a fortunate position and the prize was effectively "out of bounds” for many women writers. 

"As the director of Linen Press, now the only independent women's press in the UK, I am dismayed to read the entry requirement for the Women's Fiction Prize,” Michell said. "On financial grounds, it is elitist and excludes many women writers published by small, independent presses. The cost to the publisher for a shortlisted place is £5,000+ VAT and many extras. I have one good candidate this year but the cost is more than my annual budget for the next four books in the pipeline. Linen Press celebrates its 10th anniversary this year with an international list including Maureen Freely, president of English PEN, and many authors with (nominations for awards) including the Costa and The People's Prize and even more shortlistings. This award is now out of bounds."

The Women's Prize for Fiction, run by novelist and prize co-founder Kate Mosse, announced in March this year it is adopting a new, collective sponsorship model instead of a single headline sponsor going forward, after Baileys decided not to renew its support for prize in 2018 because of change of strategy. Diageo – which owns Baileys - will return as one of the sponsors, but the others will not be revealed until this autumn as part of the launch of the 2018 prize.

The contributions publishers are asked to make in monetary terms are £5,000 plus VAT if they have an author shortlisted, and another £5,000 plus VAT if their author wins. They are also asked to provide 10 copies of the entered book for administrative purposes if longlisted and a further 50 copies for promotional purposes if shortlisted, and to sell any additional books needed for promotional purposes at a 70% discount. The terms have been the same for the last few years. 

Concern around the fees for the award has resurfaced after a call for submissions was issued by the Society of Authors, the prize’s new administrators, at the start of this month. Patricia Borlenghi of Patrician Press said she had "deleted [the email] in anger" on 1st September when she received it, branding the costs “extortionate”.  

"In solidarity with Lynn Michell, I must express my consternation at the extortionate costs shortlisted publishers must pay for [the Women’s Prize for Fiction]. How can small presses like ours possibly afford such high amounts?” she asked. "When I was sent the original email from the Society of Authors on 1st September, I deleted it in anger."

Sara-Jayne Slack of micro-press Inspired Quill said she wasn't against paying fees for prizes. "Of course you should pay a fee because there's prize money and people's time is involved," she said, adding that she was not convinced the current state of affairs was “elitist”.

However, Slack does think the gap between small publishers and micro-publishers is "widening" and that there is a "lack of awareness" that for one-woman indies like hers and Linen Press, the prize's criteria poses a "prohibitive" barrier to entry. 

She went on to share her opposition to the insistence that publishers provide hard copy editions of their books rather than digital, estimating that 10 titles provided at cost price could incur her extra costs of between £70 and £100. She also pointed out that publishers not based in London might incur extra costs travelling to attend prize functions and ceremonies. 

"Intentionally or unintentionally - I like to give people the benefit of the doubt - I think it creates boundaries which is ironic because the Women's Prize wants to do the opposite, right? They want to break down boundaries and create opportunities," said Slack. "Part of it comes from not really understanding that not all independent publishers are created equal ... We are one-woman shows and the quality is incredible, but another independent publisher, say, like Salt, and who I look up to in many ways, may have up to 20 employees. I would quite like to be able to pay myself a part-time wage, to be honest. Everything we get goes back into the business at the moment."

However, despite the criticism, the prize organisers believe the charges represent "a fair exchange" given the sales and publicity generated for a shortlisted title.

Category winners of the Costa Book Awards must make a contribution of £5,000, with the publisher of the overall Book of the Year winner required to make an additional £6,000 contribution on top of this.

A spokesperson for the Women's Prize for Fiction said: "Publisher contributions are just a tiny part of the overall running costs of a prize of this scale - we rely on publishers to help us fund the marketing costs and would not be able to continue without this form of income.  

"We do however aim to keep the contributions as low as possible and the current levels have been the same for the last few years.  

"Shortlisting carries real benefits in terms of profile and sales and we believe it represents a fair exchange. We're always prepared to have a conversation with any publisher for whom this is genuinely prohibitive."