There is an account of this session at Beattie’s Book Blog but I think it is inaccurate. (Good comments, though.) What follows is not a fisking of BBB but my account of what was said – and what wasn’t. Graham Beattie wrote:
It was rather alarming to hear Stratford suggest on three occasions that he regarded book awards as largely a waste of time in terms of increasing book sales. To back this up he quoted his local bookseller in his country town and the Paper Plus chain.
I replied at BBB:
I did not say three times that I regard book awards as a waste of time. I did not say it even once. I would never say that, because I don’t think that.
What I said was that booksellers I have talked to regard the shortlist as a waste of time. I asked my “local bookseller in [my] country town” about what effect the book awards have so that the voice of booksellers might be heard in the discussion, because the chair was a publisher and everyone on the panel was a writer. I was being a journalist – not saying “this is what I think” but “this is what I am told by someone who knows more about it than me”.
Preparing for the session it seemed to me to be lacking the booksellers’ voice. Booksellers are the best people to talk to if you want to know what is happening in the book world. They see national sales data so they know not just what sells in their shop but what sells nation-wide – and they talk to customers, i.e. us. Booksellers know much more than publishers and authors do. Friends at Whitcoulls head office and at the brainiest of all urban bookshops also say privately that the shortlist is a waste of time. The question is: why?
I got grief at the session and at BBB for reporting this view which was not my own – I was being a journalist. Authors and publishers like a shortlist, the longer the better, because it is recognition. We all like to be stroked. A slot on the shortlist is helpful for a writer when putting in one’s next application for Creative NZ funding. There are lots of warm fuzzies – but if a longer shortlist doesn’t increase sales, it is not unreasonable to ask what is the point of it.
The children’s book awards are quite different – that shortlist really matters. Bookshops automatically order from it the morning after it is announced, as do schools. I don’t know why it’s so different from the adult awards but assume it’s about trust in the brand – the children’s awards are seen to be reliable, the adult awards not so much. The Booker brand is trusted because it has been around so long (also the prize is a whopper) whereas ours keeps changing its name and format. I’m guessing here, like everyone else.
Jenny Pattrick suggested that one reason people don’t pay much attention to the shortlist is that they might already have bought the book – it had a burst of publicity at on publication and that’s when keen readers buy it. If a book came out in March last year and the NZ Post shortlist comes out in June this year, that book is old news and there have been tons more New Zealand books published since. Possibly most of its potential audience have already bought it.
My wife agrees. She used to be a journalist too so she asked the members of her book club about this. None of them pays any attention to the shortlist and a couple had never heard of it. That is a real problem – if you haven’t got the book clubs on side, you haven’t a hope.
The last question from the floor was from Dame Fiona Kidman – honestly, the room was full of dames – about the length of the shortlist which is now down to three. I had to front the media in 2010 when the shortening of the shortlist happened, and remember saying that this was a matter for the organisers not the judges, but that we hadn’t found it a problem. Authors might have, publishers might have, but the judges didn’t: if we’d had a top five, we all knew what the top three would be. So why bother with five?
After the session there were mutterings in the foyer about booksellers being unsupportive – but booksellers know their customers, and if the customers aren’t interested in the shortlist, why should the booksellers be? The shortlist used to matter, it should matter, and it could well matter again – but how can we make it so? I’m glad this is Sam Elworthy’s problem and not mine.