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22 July 2022

Why are so many literary prizes closing?

As several prizes are forced to pause or shut down, writers in the UK say they are losing a “lifeline”.

By Ellen Peirson-Hagger

British book publishing is more profitable than ever. In June this year the Bookseller reported that book sales in the first half of 2022 had been the highest ever, generating £19.5m more than in the first half of 2018, the previous record year. The same month Bloomsbury announced its highest annual sales, up 24 per cent on the previous year. Publishers including Penguin Random House and Simon & Schuster have also reported increasing revenues.

Yet the number of literary prizes is shrinking. This week it was announced that the Desmond Elliott Prize would be paused in 2023 while the organisers seek funding. The £10,000 award for debut novelists, which was launched in 2007 and named after the influential late publisher and literary agent, has been won by Derek Owusu, Eimear McBride and Preti Taneja.

The Sunday Times Short Story Award “may well have to discontinue” if another sponsor cannot be found, the Sunday Times literary editor Andrew Holgate has said. The prize rewards an author of a single short story with £30,000, the highest amount for a prize of its kind, but without the backing of the audiobook service Audible, which withdrew last year to instead fund the Women’s Prize for Fiction, its future is uncertain.

These possible prize closures follow the news from June that the Blue Peter Book Awards, which have for 22 years celebrated children’s fiction and non-fiction, will not be renewed for another year. The Costa Book Awards, which awarded books in five categories – fiction, poetry, biography, a first novel and a children’s book – as well as an overall book of the year, has also been closed after 50 years after its sponsor withdrew. Together these confirmed and possible closures suggest that philanthropic backers see diminishing value in their associations with the literary world.

Prizes can be a “lifeline” to writers, Keiran Goddard, a poet and novelist, told the New Statesman. Goddard has found success on prize lists: his first novel, Hourglass (Little, Brown), was longlisted for the 2022 Desmond Elliott Prize, and his debut poetry collection, For the Chorus (Offord Road Books), was shortlisted for the Melita Hume Prize.

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Winning a prize means a financial reward and increased public attention. In the UK literary advances tend to be paid to writers in two or even three chunks, leaving most authors with “tiny, unliveable up-front payments” and just a few with “eye-watering and life-changing amounts”, Goddard said. “The situation creates somewhat of a hollow middle. And that’s where prizes have a role to play, potentially catapulting a book from relative obscurity and giving it a chance to compete on more equal terms with those titles that are underpinned from the outset by large marketing budgets and high profile publicity campaigns.”

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Gaby Wood, director of the Booker Prize Foundation, argued that literary prizes are primarily not for authors at all – but for readers. “Prizes guide people in knowing what to read next,” she told the New Statesman. “Industry-wise that has become harder and harder: there’s less review space. It is a challenge for publishers to find ways for books to get to readers, and so prizes become a way to do that.”

There are still many prizes for British authors to enter. The Booker, the Women’s Prize and the Goldsmiths Prize (which runs in association with the New Statesman) celebrate fiction, and the International Booker highlights fiction translated into English. For non-fiction there is the Baillie Gifford and the Orwell Prize (which also has a fiction category).

[See also: Philip Pullman on the end of the Costa Book Awards: a blow for children’s literature]

But as some close or are paused, fewer prizes means fewer opportunities – for readers to discover books, and for authors to secure the money that may allow them to continue writing. A healthy literary culture would have many different prizes, Wood said. “All prizes are good for all authors. It’s incredibly sad that these other prizes are possibly closing. It makes me feel quite anxious. It’s really important to have an ecology of prizes: they all reward something different; they all have different judging panels. So much of the judging is subjective that of course you’re going to get different results depending on the panel, so I always think it’s good to have more.”

Sponsors have regularly changed over the years, as individual philanthropists have been replaced by companies. The Costas were previously the Whitbread Book Awards, named for the brewery and owner of restaurant chains, until 2006 when Costa Coffee, then a subsidiary of Whitbread, took over sponsorship. The Baillie Gifford, now named for its sponsor, an investment management firm, was until 2015 the Samuel Johnson prize and had been funded by anonymous benefactors.

The Booker Prize, so named because it was sponsored by the food wholesalers Booker McConnell from 1969, became the Man Booker when it was taken over by the investment management firm the Man Group in 2002. Since 2019 the Booker and International Booker prizes have been funded by Crankstart, a charitable foundation established by a British-born Silicon Valley billionaire. The lump sum Crankstart gives covers the running of the prizes, as well as other activities the foundation undertakes, such as literary outreach work.

Wood knows that often the purpose of literary prizes is perceived as being to increase book sales, but she understands it more as “expressing why reading is necessary and why books are important”. It is these social aims that best attract philanthropy, she said, suggesting that the agenda of the Women’s Prize in what was a male-dominated industry, and Discoveries, its writers’ development programme, may have made it a more desirable “cause” for Audible. That doesn’t necessarily make the Women’s Prize more valuable to readers, however. 

Julia Armfield won the White Review Short Story Prize in 2018. Her debut story collection, Salt Slow (Picador), was longlisted for the Polari Prize and the Edge Hill Prize; her first novel, Our Wives Under the Sea, was published earlier this year. She said that “it’s vital to point out that prizes are increasingly designed to spotlight small presses, diverse authors and underrepresented subject matters – all things which desperately need more air and support in the industry”. The fewer prizes there are, the fewer such underrepresented voices will be celebrated.

Other countries such as France and the US have state-funded literary prizes, raising the question of why the Desmond Elliott and Sunday Times awards – and the many other British literary prizes – have to rely on sponsors at all. Would the UK government ever dedicate public money to such an initiative? “Our Prime Minister would have been eligible for a Costa for his biography of Shakespeare had he ever finished it,” the author Damian Barr, who judged the final Costa awards this year, wrote in the Evening Standard. “He is forever quoting our greatest writers but his government does nothing to support them.”

Both Armfield and Goddard said there were problems with a literary scene that is overly reliant on awards. “Prizes and ‘prize culture’ mirror and arguably perpetuate a range of issues, not least a winner-takes all situation that accrues outsized benefit to just a handful of titles each year,” Goddard said, adding that literary awards are not a “perfect solution” to an inequitable industry.

“But in the here and now, prizes matter, and losing them is damaging. We all want a diverse, thriving literary culture, where writers can develop over the long term and produce work of lasting artistic and social value. And at their best, prizes have a function, albeit a fraught one, in helping keep that increasingly utopian vision alive.”

[See also: The best books for summer 2022]

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