It’s May and we are well into the Book Awards calendar. We’ve already had the shortlist for the Women’s Prize for Fiction, The Man Booker International Prize and the Wolfson History Prize, amongst many others.
This month we will see the Orwell Prizes shortlist for political fiction and non-fiction, the Jhalak Prize winner, the winners of the Nibbies (the British Book Awards for the trade to identify the best books, bookshops and publishers) and The Daggers shortlist for the best new crime writing.
There are prizes for practically every category of writing from big players like the Man Booker and Costa to the very particular such as the age specific The Paul Torday Prize (authors must be 60+) or the International Dylan Thomas Prize (39 or under), the place specific Portico Prize for books that honour the strong literary heritage of the North of England or the Ondaatje Prize that best evokes the spirit of a place generally. There are even prizes for making a point such as Staunch – the international award for thrillers in which no woman is beaten, stalked, sexually exploited, raped or murdered.
Are there too many prizes – do we really need them all or do the sheer number devalue the books they are set up to acknowledge?
Well, consider this. Just to get published, a book must jump through a number of hoops, not to mention getting the attention of a publisher in the first place. The publisher then has to take a risk, given the production and publicity costs set against the uncertainty of sales. The book then joins the 170,000 or so books published every year in the UK – factor in all books published in English each year and that figure jumps considerably. How will the author’s words and the publisher’s investment get recognised?
And from the reader’s side, time is finite – how to discover that sometimes elusive next great read, or even where to start looking if you want to try something different.
Book reviews, word of mouth and websites all help but what is needed is a kind of quality assurance process that covers a much wider range of genres and tastes. This is where book awards step in providing something for everyone. Awards create a media buzz encouraging conversations about books and often advocating those writers who didn’t make the cut. And lucky the author who goes on to win several awards such as Maggie O’Farrell with Hamnet – winner of both Waterstones Book of the Year and Women’s Prize for Fiction and currently shortlisted for the British Book Awards Fiction Book of the Year 2021.
More awards also mean more diversity, something that is badly needed in publishing. The heavyweight Booker now has an International version for novels in translation. The Women’s Prize for Fiction was set up to address the under-representation of women’s writing in major prizes and is now one of the most prestigious awards in the literary world.
The Jhalak Prize confronts lack of representation and seeks to identify and celebrate the finest works across all categories by British writers of colour. Now in its fifth year, it has gone from strength-to-strength and this year includes a prize for children’s and young adult books as well.
Likewise, the Polari Prize was founded 11 years ago to celebrate emerging and established UK LGBTQ+ writers and promote works that explores the LGBTQ+ experience.
Awards are also beneficial for small independent publishers enabling them to punch above their weight. Without the Wainwright Prize for UK Nature Writing, the wonderful Diary of a Young Naturalist by 16-year-old Dara McNulty and its publisher Little Toller, may never have got the recognition they deserved.
So whether you’re in the mood for a intellectual workout, crave escapism, or seek to engage with the issues of the day (or yesterday), or appreciate books for their aesthetics, there is a book award out there that will help.
“Writers need validation” says the author Alys Conran, herself a winner of the Wales Book of the Year Award. Publishers need sales. And we all need great writing, whatever our tastes and interests.