Do Book Awards Matter to You?

Do book awards and best seller lists influence which books you read? If so how much?  Are you influenced by the recommendations of celebrities like Oprah or programs like Canada Reads?

The 2014 Canada Reads panel. Left to right Wab Kinew, Sarah Gadon, host Jian Ghomeshi, Samantha Bee, Stephen Lewis and Donovan Bailey.

The 2014 Canada Reads panel. Left to right Wab Kinew, Sarah Gadon, host Jian Ghomeshi, Samantha Bee, Stephen Lewis and Donovan Bailey.

Is your reaction positive or negative? Leave a comment or send me an email, I’d really like to know. I’m curious because the awards season is about to begin and The Spark is entered in several competitions.

Well, there is no awards season as such, but most competitions follow the calendar year and so books published in 2013 are now being evaluated. Long and short lists will start coming out in the spring. The various winners will be announced through the summer and fall for the most part. So now begins the long wait, leaving me to wonder if it’s all worth it? With the cost of books, postage and entry fees, I’ve spent close to a thousand dollars on competitions.

Lynn Coady, winner of the 2013 Giller Prize for "Hellgoing"

Lynn Coady, winner of the 2013 Giller Prize for “Hellgoing”

I had no idea there were so many book awards. Everyone knows about the heavy weights – the English Man Booker Prize, the American Pulitzer and Canada’s Giller Prize. These are open only to books from recognized publishers, such as Penguin, Random House, etc. You might also be aware of some of the second tier awards, such as the Hugo and Nebula Awards for science fiction and fantasy, or the Stephen Leacock Award for the short story. Most of these again are open only to submissions from commercial publishers.

The reasons for this are two fold as I see it. First of all, if the major prizes were open to everyone, they would be literally buried under a mountain of underserving manuscripts. There is admittedly a lot of second and third rate material, as well as outright crap in the self-published market. And there are also a few gems. This is what really worries the traditional publishers in my opinion.

The literary world is undergoing its biggest change since Gutenberg borrowed the idea for movable type from the Chinese, and invented the printing press. The e-book and electronic self-publishing revolution has set the publishing business on its ear. The big boys are struggle to hold on to their turf and find a viable new business model. A self-published book that won a major award would be disastrous for them.

A few competitions have embraced self-published works. One is the Toronto Literary Award, which is celebrated each year at the Word on the Street Festival in September. Another is the Arthur Ellis Award given by the Crime Writers of Canada.

The Arthur Ellis Award - I'd really like to have one of these!!

The Arthur Ellis Award – I’d really like to have one of these!!

Arthur Ellis was the pseudonym of Arthur B. English, Canada’s most famous hangman. Ellis is believed to have carried out over 600 executions. The award itself, a stylized hanged man, is probably the most unique in the literary world. For some reason I’d really like to have one of these on my shelf.

There are also a whole host of awards that have sprung up specifically to celebrate the works of self-published authors. The Next Generation Indie Book Awards and Amazon’s Breakthrough Novel Award are the biggest of these, with prizes in the thousands of dollars. Ironically many of the indie and self-published awards promise exposure to mainstream publishers as part of their prizes.

There is no question that book awards increase sales. If that weren’t so, publishers wouldn’t pursue them, nor promote their award winning authors so heavily. I’ve swallowed the bait and entered The Spark in eight separate competitions, large and small. You’ll be hearing the results as they’re announced during the coming months.

Do awards reflect the quality of a book? I think the answer is a resounding maybe. I think most people would agree that some books are better than others. The difficulty comes when we try to determine exactly what makes one thing better than another. In the end value judgements come down to matters of opinion and taste. These are influenced by a person’s age, sex, culture and many other factors. There is no doubt that many excellent writers go unrecognized and languish in obscurity. On the other hand many talented writers with wide appeal, such as Stephen King or J. K. Rowling will never win a major award. It’s a complex world open to criticism for elitism on the one hand and being a popularity contest on the other.

Word on the Street, Toronto's annual outdoor book festival.

Word on the Street, Toronto’s annual outdoor book festival.

So what do I think of literary awards? I’ll let you know after the winners are announced.


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