Industry Focus: The Importance of Literary Awards


Mark Jervis, a fiction writer, explores the practical value of the literary award from the writer's point of view.

Literary awards are hugely important in today’s publishing world. Booksellers and publishing companies have been quick to capitalise on the publicity generated by awards such as the Costa Book Awards and the Man Booker Prize.

Tindal Street Press have been using prizes to raise the profile of their authors’ work since they began in 1999. Their publishing director, Alan Mahar, told me: ‘When Clare Morrall's Astonishing Splashes of Colour was shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize in 2003, the national interest in a tiny Birmingham publisher became a hurricane whirling at our door.’

So are awards simply a publicity opportunity? The recent addition of several sub-categories of the Man Booker Prize including ‘The Lost Man Booker’ and ‘The Best Of Beryl’ would seem to suggest so. Robert McCrum, writing in The Observer, called them stunts whose ‘chief justification must be ‘all publicity is good publicity’.

He blames the evolution of the literary marketplace for Man Booker losing its way: ‘Book prizes, like publishing, reflect cultural change. In the 40-something years since Booker started, the literary scene has morphed from serious to showbiz, from prose-conscious to promotion-savvy. That's simply The Way We Live Now.’

So what does this mean for writers trying to break into the industry who don’t have a fan base or established track-record? There are often tight restrictions on the books that can be entered for awards. The Man Booker Prize, for example, limits each publisher to two entries. To cover PR, they charge publishers £5,000 if one of their submitted books gets shortlisted and a further £5,000 if it wins. These figures drive away the smaller presses who are more likely to support new writers.

Gavin Freeguard, Administrator of The Orwell Prize – Britain’s most prestigious award for political writing – is cynical about many literary awards: ‘PR companies do very well out of prizes and there are certain companies who seem to be raising their profile through sponsoring or setting them up. I think those are questionable. The lack of transparency with many prizes is a problem.’

Independence and a disregard of market forces are important ideals to The Orwell Prize: ‘The Orwell Prize doesn’t charge an entry fee and we don’t charge for entries that get shortlisted or win. We want as many writers as possible to enter so we can give our judges the widest range to choose from. It’s very important to us to award the prize to the book that most deserves it – regardless of publicity.’

The prestige associated with the name Orwell certainly has an impact. Past shortlists have generated articles in diverse outlets, such as The Guardian, The Times, The Telegraph, The Mail, The New Statesman, The Bookseller, Waterstones and Penguin websites – even The Metro.

It’s not just the award itself that serves to promote writers, it’s everything that goes with it. The Orwell Prize publishes the shortlisted entries on its website, tweets to their thousands of followers and organises debating events around the country. Gavin told me: ‘We make a big fuss of the longlist and shortlist and try to give writers some platforms to talk about their work.’

In 2009 The Orwell Prize introduced a category for blogs: ‘So much political discussion is going on in the blogosphere. There’s some extremely good writing and an incredible range there. We’ve found this to be a particularly good platform for new writers. Many bloggers have got literary agents as a result of being shortlisted.’

Therefore, new writers don’t necessarily need a publisher to get noticed for some literary awards. The Biographers’ Club also rewards unpublished work with its Tony Lothian Prize. Anna Swan, the prize administrator, says: ‘The aim is to encourage and support first-time, uncommissioned biographers. The winner and shortlisted entrants have been selected by a panel of distinguished practitioners. It's a stamp of approval and promotes confidence that the writers are on the right track with their subject and presentation.’

This is a view endorsed by Matt Cox, the winner of 2011’s Tony Lothian Prize. The award has had a huge impact in giving him a foothold in the industry: ‘I have been given many fantastic introductions, some of which I am sure will prove hugely important. The Biographers’ Club has been extremely supportive and very tolerant. I enjoyed doing an interview with the BBC, though I think that was more of an indulgence than something which will further my career. I also enjoyed seeing my name in the Evening Standard. (..) It helps people to take you seriously. Because your writing has somehow been endorsed by the literary establishment, people think they aren’t taking too big a risk on you and feel happy to recommend you to others.

‘Most importantly, however, it provided the motivation for a career change. I resigned from my job this week and will be looking to make a living from copywriting by the end of the summer. I doubt I would have made such a radical change without the boost of winning. So, in a round about way the Prize will have had a huge impact.’

For new writers this is the most significant effect of being shortlisted or winning a literary award. It’s not the prize money or the marketability or the prestige or the public appearances; it’s the validation of your work. George Orwell said: ‘Writing a book is a horrible, exhausting struggle, like a long bout of some painful illness. One would never undertake such a thing if one were not driven on by some demon whom one can neither resist nor understand’.  A new writer must face this demon and fight against self-doubt, insecurity and lack of confidence. Having your work assessed by independent judges and considered worthy makes this struggle more bearable. As Matt Cox says: ‘These bits of recognition are a fillip, and make you think that you might just succeed as a writer.’

Mark Jervis is a fiction writer, freelance business writer, and graphic designer. He studied the MA in Professional Writing at Falmouth University before joining the teaching team for the MA and BA Creative Writing degrees. Mark’s award-winning stories have been featured at literary festivals and broadcast on radio.