Tuesday, 11 April 2017

Wales Book Of The Year In Review


Literature Wales is currently looking into how to run its publicly-funded Wales Book Of The Year award. The review is being outsourced to a PR/marketing firm called Mela (cost unknown), and their review is scheduled to be completed by the end of April.

In case the topic seems familiar, I have discussed this prize in the past. See these posts for background:
In summary: this prize used to be open to all books published in Wales or by Welsh authors (which you'd expect from the name), but things changed in 2013. For the 2014, 2015 and 2016 awards, Literature Wales discriminated against independent authors and changed their eligibility criteria, so a book could only be entered if the author transferred their rights to a trade publisher. It's not clear where this prejudice came from - presumably some person or group within the organisation - but it seemed rather dishonest to continue to call the prize Wales Book of the Year when it arbitrarily excluded many works that might have actually been the best Book of the Year. It's a disservice to authors and to those following the prize, as well as having other deleterious effects; for example discrimination just reinforces prejudices ("oh, only trade-published books win, so only trade-published books are good quality"). It would have been more honest to call it Wales Trade-Published Book of the Year.

It's a shame the controversy about this prize is still unresolved, as it shadows many of the good things about Literature Wales, and the many staff at (and connected to) the organisation who do good work, who are helpful and friendly, and who I've been happy to share a pint with. Along the way I have attended some of their excellent courses, and promoted them to other writers. I want it to be clear that today I'm only grumbling about this one issue of discrimination.*

Photo: Some famous authors and some soon-to-be-famous authors.
Plus some whingy bloke with a funny surname.
And as if on cue:

[*Though Literature Wales are the only funding source for writers in Wales and they turned down my application that was backed up by statistical and qualitative evidence when I was in desperate need of financial support, and I worried that it was because I mentioned being published in various places, including independent - but hey, shut up Karl! I've had cake and chocolate since then! And it's past, and I'm still alive as Pearl Jam sang, and I try to be thankful for all the good things rather than focussing on the worst. But I suddenly felt an overwhelming urge to splurge. Sorry, normal service is resumed. ... Then again, they still haven't returned my evidence - a copy of one of my books - despite my postage-paid envelope ... Sorry, moving on ...]

So! What shall I add that wasn't in the posts I've already linked to above? In no particular order:
  • I love this: the Romantic Novelists' Association has many respected prizes. Some of my favourite author friends have been honoured on their lists. Well, for the first time in the awards’ history, the shortlists included both traditionally and independently published authors! This year Kate Johnson was named winner of the first Paranormal or Speculative Romantic Novel Award for Max Seventeen: and Kate was also the first self-published author in the award’s 57 year history to win one of the prestigious RoNAs. That is amazing.
  • There’s a brand new Arnold Bennett Prize which specifically states that all authors are welcome, however published.
  • Another exciting prize that is open to all authors, regardless of how their books are published, is The Jhalak Prize
  • The £40,000 Folio Prize has relaunched, not only taking self-published titles, but also opening up to non-fiction as well as fiction.
  • Do non-discriminatory prizes get too many entries? No. Can it be managed? Of course. An insider told me it's really not hard to do - the Folio prize starts with a form submission about the book and goes from there. My contact said some prize bodies are initially terrified of the perceived extra work involved, but the feedback she had from another really huge prize (that is also open to independent authors) - the Young Writer of the Year Award - was that despite massive publicity they struggled to get any indies to enter.
  • Also: if an organisation was worried about the number of entries, they can implement quality controls – this is far better than arbitrary exclusions. Apply the same criteria to all books, trade-published or independent. Personally I'd exclude books with more than one typo or error (grammatical, printing, formatting): that would get the list down pretty quickly, without prejudice. But they could be more lenient than me and still have a manageable list with poor-quality works excluded.
  • What a prize should NOT do (if it wants to be open) is charge fees to enter. Costs that can be swallowed with no problem by a large publishing house such as the Big Five (Hachette, Macmillan, Penguin Random House, HarperCollins, Simon & Schuster) would be impossible for an independent author or small publishing house. This is why independent authors could not win the Costa Book Awards (the prize requires a £5,000 fee from publishers if a book is to be shortlisted), or be part of the Richard & Judy Bookclub ("publishers have to discount their books heavily – typically by around 65 per cent – to get them into the front of book stores, and are also required to contribute towards steep marketing costs").
  • If Literature Wales remove the unfair discrimination, I promise to promote their open prize on this website.
  • Someone recently described Gladstone’s Library to me as “stuck in the 1950s” because its smallprint was so old-fashioned and included prejudice against independent and hybrid writers ("We do not accept self-published authors of any kind. No correspondence can be entered into."). I don’t want Literature Wales to get permanently tarred with the same brush, I want my national literature organisation to be at the forefront of modern culture, relevant, where it belongs to be.
  • My article linked to above, "A World Of Writers And Readers: Understanding Modern Publishing" makes it clear, but independent publishing is not vanity publishing. Vanity publishing is generally paying a third party an inflated sum for a poor service, all smoke and mirrors trading off the lure of being able to say "Wow! I'm published!" before realising that it isn't being published at all. It is basically paying for a printer. Maybe with unethical rights grabs in the process. Self-publishing means being in charge of it all yourself. This encompasses the range from unprofessional (no quality control, amateur, perhaps for personal fulfillment - which is great but which won't trouble national prizes), to professional independent publishers. It's the range of quality and diversity that confuses things, especially for those who only know about traditional publishing. At the professional end of independent publishing books go through all the same processes that they would at any publishing house (and sometimes more), but with the difference that the author chooses who to hire and use for each job (beta readers, literary editors, copyeditors, proofreaders, interior designers, cover designers, distributors etc etc), and the author has the final say on blurb, marketing, cover etc. The author foots the bill for all those services (usually £1-3,000) but retains all ownership and copyright and can publish in any formats, languages and territories they wish.
  • The Arts Council For Wales (ACW) distribute public money set aside to support literature. They pass it all on to Literature Wales, making Literature Wales the only source of funding for writers in Wales. Literature Wales has annual bursaries for developing new works, but does not set aside any money for a hardship fund (as some other organisations do). So the only option is the once-a-year bursary application, even if it is an immediate and desperate need. There is no flexibility in this. The Arts Council For Wales could stipulate that some is reserved for a hardship fund, but they choose not to have any such guidelines. (It is similar to how ACW treat the Wales Book of the Year - totally hands-off - and why, when I first asked them why they were funding a prize that excluded Welsh writers, and not stipulating that Literature Wales should consider all Wales-connected books, ACW had no interest at all). It was no surprise then when I recently discovered that The Arts Council For Wales invite comment on their Facebook page but delete/hide any questions they don't want to answer (with no explanation or response). They do the same with Tweets, so obviously miss the “social” bit of social media, and think it is just a one-way system to do self promotion. It's a shame, because how can an organisation improve if it doesn't listen to those it represents? Though ACW does have a reputation for being a quite old-fashioned and small-c conservative institution. Sorry, another aside while I'm talking about official organisations connected with writing. I get distracted easily.
  • 5 Famous Books That Were Originally Self-Published
  • I just found this excellent piece by Joanna Penn: Am I Good Enough? The Validation Of Awards For Writers
  • And this by Roz Morris: A plea for reviewers – can we open up a dialogue about self-published books? 
I'm going to stop. That is some first class waffling and haranguing, and a lot to take in. At the end of the day we will hopefully see fairness as things become more open and inclusive again, for the benefit of all authors and readers, who are the two central pillars without which all of publishing collapses. I try to be positive, and in this world that's sometimes hard, but By The Power Of Greyskull everyone working for good can continue to shape things to create a fairer and more compassionate world. And I'm not even talking about books any more! Peace and love!

(And if my national prize doesn't open up then dammit, I'm moving to Scotland.)

Update 29th April 2017

Strangely, the consultants, Mela, haven't replied to (or acknowledged) any of my emails, sent to info@mela.cymru on the 12th, 20th and 28th of April. I wanted to check that they had all the evidence I'd provided, and offered to answer questions on any of the issues raised. I find it hard to believe that they'd ignore information and evidence (otherwise, what kind of consultation would it be?), but it is worrying. A "communications agency" that doesn't communicate.

No reply from Literature Wales either, who were contacted on the same dates.

Share:

11 comments:

  1. Somehow I'd missed this first time round - quite an eye-opener for me! I've gone with a publisher but don't see why the prize shouldn't be open to all, that is pretty disgraceful. I'll be sharing this, it's good to start a conversation.

    ReplyDelete
  2. Thank you for writing this post Karl. As discussed, the Alliance of Independent Authors will be including the information in our "Open Up To Indie Authors" book and campaign. In the meantime, I invite your readers to sign our petition and make their feelings known in any way possible. Thanks for the flying the flag for indies. https://www.change.org/p/bookstores-libraries-literary-festivals-reviewers-time-to-make-room-for-indie-authors-in-your-programs

    ReplyDelete
  3. Good work! Where do you find the time to do all this research?

    ReplyDelete
  4. It eats into time when I should be penning! But I do have three books with editors at the moment, all of which have been a long time coming, and a struggle, but which I am excited about. (One is a new edition of an existing book.)

    ReplyDelete
  5. Chwarae teg! I didn't mean it as crit, I was impressed. Just want to say thanks for all the info you share, especially on Twitter (my usual haunt).

    ReplyDelete
  6. Only just seen this. I agree that it should be open to all books in Wales. I'm a reader, and I want to know what's the BEST, not have a load of books missing that might have been ones I'd love. Disgraceful, to be honest. I never even realised they didn't allow all Welsh authors to enter.

    ReplyDelete
  7. It's actually very rude when people don't reply or acknowledge you.

    ReplyDelete
  8. Apologies, I try and reply to all comments and emails but don't always succeed! I do read them all though. :-)
    Unless you mean Mela and Literature Wales were rude?

    ReplyDelete
  9. No, I didn't mean you - you always respond to people quickly on social media! I meant it was rude of the people you emailed not to even reply. To me that kind of silence makes me think of sulking.

    ReplyDelete