First Novel Awards

Sunday, 05 June 2016 23:38

by ABoR guest writer, Elspeth Rushbrook

These prey a little on the hopes of every aspirant who’s not yet found a publishing deal.

Surely a £15-25 entry fee is a snip compared with the prize money and the joy of being published at last, and by a real publisher?

Well, I’m going to argue the reverse. Not that there shouldn’t be competitions, for artists of all kinds can gain recognition and attention and some money through these.

It’s the size of the fee and the terms which I object to. And how they’re choosing.

Sorry these are all British, but I hope that international readers will find the points helpful and maybe someone else can review other countries?

The Daily Mail − beloved British tattling and moral majority rag for over a century − recently closed its 9th annual comp. Did it gain a copy of my forthcoming Parallel Spirals? Nope, and I’ll tell you why.

One, being associated with the Mail is not something I wanted for me and my work. I don’t believe in its editorial policies. I doubt too that many of its readers will be mine.

Second, the terms pretty much gave over the novel I have so long crafted − and edited, typeset, even designed the cover of − to the control of someone else’s sole discretion.

Another condition was withholding publication until the judging, in the hope that I may get chosen. I would be angry if I was one of the thousands who didn’t win and that I’d lost another few months.

Would the £20k offered (shrunk by a third since 2008) have been worth the other things I would have sacrificed?

There’s the Bath Novel Award who happily did double its prize money this year, but its fee is still too high, especially in proportion. Like the inaugural Daniel Goldsmith agents competition who has yet to learn, it began by offering a top prize of only £1000 − but you pay £25 to enter! Daniel Goldsmith's award automatically opts you into marketing, takes more information than it needs, and forces you into opening a PayPal account.

I have a rough gut led calculation when I enter a competition, and the prize has to be at least 200 times the fee, and usually under £10. For those of us regularly entering comps, even those £3-8 fees for shorter work easily add up. It’s like travel insurance in reverse − for most of us, we get nothing, but instead of the relief of an incident free holiday, it’s the lack of even sometimes the courtesy of being told that you weren’t successful. Or an email all about who was and would you like to buy their work?

Let’s take the median entry fee. £20 is a lot to many of us. It’s the standard hourly rate for professional work, although as unpublished authors, we won’t have earned that for our probable years of work. So why should we pay an adjudicator more than we’ve earned for doing less work, and make a prize pot for other people? if I wanted to contribute to a foundation, I’d make my own − when I was wealthy and had established myself.

The Deborah Rogers award began this year, offering free entry and £10,000 from the hand of Ian McEwan at the famous Hay Book festival for those who need financial assistance to complete their first book. My hand went straight up. But the award went to someone who already had received significant assistance, such as a scholarship − her third − to a much vaunted creative writing degree to which requires the completed novel to attain it, so I felt that not only was the parable of the talents was at work there, but that it apparently went against the ethos of the award.

How much did the biographical note asked for influence the judges? Surely that space should be for why this award important to the applicant?

I know that may sound sour grapes, but for one who’s suffered huge cuts to my income and has continued on my own steam − like I’m guessing many readers will have too, whatever your creative outpouring − it feel deeply unfair as well as disappointing. Well, I can un-hide my online reviews of Ian McEwan now.

The McKitterick prize is another ostensibly free award who offers £4,000. You have to be over 40 for this one.

But like at least one regional award I know, it asks for physical copies of the book to be sent at the publisher's own expense - a big disadvantage for independents. The sales of the 5 non-returnble books required would give me a week's basic income. It would cost me half that to purchase and send them. Unpublished works may enter, but they need only send 30 pages - the rest will be asked for if shortlisted.

The Lucy Cavendish award from Cambridge University for women finished last year, but much of that was about a deal and a lunch − so joining the system so to speak.

Many of these awards don’t recognise self publishing − such as the Booker prize (see below).

The ones that do seem to be seeking self as well as unpublished for their own portfolio − publishers and literary agents soliciting effectively for paid submissions − which in any other scenario, would be a scam.

Is it in this one?

The big prizes − the ones that get displays in bookshops and broadsheet column space, like the Baileys (former Orange) − are a bit of a swizz. I enquired (this isn’t on the website) and found that a publisher has to put up £3 grand to enter (£5,000 for the Man Booker) − suddenly £20 doesn’t seem so bad. So where’s the £30−50k prize money coming from? Large publishers with authors they already believe are hopeful. And that makes a two tier system within publishing houses: those books they like enough to publish, and those authors which they're really prepared to champion.

The Guardian's reader led first book award is £150 to enter. And it requires an ISBN - a subject for another discussion, but effectively worth over £200 to obtain.

That isn’t just unfair, it affects the world of publishing.

The judges are often writing very different things to me, and some are very young − so I do wonder about their judgement and experience. One I saw was an ex-City broker who’d aggressively pushed for a very quick publication of his first novel. Would these choose my work and would I choose theirs? The prize seems to be about “exposing work to leading publishing professionals.” But would that always be a good thing?

Watch out if they want to publish it in part as it may preclude you from winning other competitions. I do think that that’s a mean rule, and perhaps a subject for another piece.

What of those of us who’d like the money and the public attention, but who have decided to self publish already and don’t want an agent or outside publisher? That again is something for another piece, which I’ll be offering to this site.

But as to my overall thoughts on the competitions:

I note nearly all are related to a publisher or agent or literary organisation. They have their ideas of what’s good, what will sell, and what they’d get money from. I note that the late agent Deborah Rogers represented several University of East Anglia creative writing alumni, as was the prize winner. Is her definition of 'literary' perpetuating what has already been produced from the same stable?

Are those of us not producing in the style of the existing house going to get picked up by these award? And therefore might we do best to save our £20+?

That seems a huge travesty for new writers.

Though if I do win any awards, I’ll be sure to let you know.

Elspeth Rushbrook, regular guest contributor on ABoR, has published her first novel Parallel Spirals in July 2016.

It is available from here