Shaun Duke — who was kind enough to do a podcast interview with me last spring for his website skiffyandfanty.com — recently wrote an essay — “Self-Published Books vs. Literary Awards: A Logistical Problem?” It was a post that I found … troubling.
The main point of the essay is that there are so many books being published, both traditionally and independently, that logistics do not allow all books to be considered for literary awards, and that the simplest way to narrow the field and make the administration of an award more feasible is to limit that award to traditionally published books. My experience is with science fiction and fantasy, and in our field awards tend not to have this limitation. I would very much like to keep it that way.
I understand both the urge and the need of an awards committee to limit the number of qualified books and qualified authors. Every annual award presumably faces this challenge every year, because just the number of traditionally published books alone is staggering, and there will always be far more possible contenders for any award than there is time to consider them all.
The awards that might have the possibility of getting closest to the ideal of universal consideration may be the publically-voted awards like the storySouth Million Writers Award for short stories or the Locus Awards — but it’s not as if those who participate in the voting have read all the books. That will never happen with any award. The likely result is that awards like these probably have a very long-tail effect, in which many books and stories get only one vote, while a few, by better known authors, do far better.
The way I see it, there are two main purposes to a literary award: (1) to bring attention to specific books and authors, and by so doing (2) to shape the genre. Whether (1) & (2) come to pass or not, neither purpose is harmed or diminished by consideration of a self-published work.
Shaun asks: “why would SPed authors want to win these awards anyway?” That’s an easy one to answer: for the publicity and for the credibility. Every writer – traditional or not – is desperate to be better known, to sell just a few more copies. Some awards are great for this purpose; others, I’m sure, don’t make much difference to the bottom line, but can still be a moral victory. As for credibility, Shaun notes that “There’s crap in traditional publishing, too, but my experience has always been that it’s much easier to find good things in traditional publishing, whereas the inverse is still true in the self-publishing world.” This is still a common assumption, so credibility is extremely important for a writer who chooses to publish her own work.
I’m an author of six traditionally published science fiction novels, but with my last three novels I’ve turned to self-publishing, not because I think my new work is inferior, but because the business model makes more sense to me, and having more control over the production of my work makes me vastly happier. I am not now and have never been a well-known writer, so winning another award would definitely be a boost to my career. But if the open nature of the awards in our field change so that only books that come up through “the system” can be considered — that would consign me and former midlist writers like me to an outsider status because we’ve decided to do things a bit differently. Then, the only way to be taken seriously as a writer within the genre would be to return to traditional publishing, giving up creative control, and in many cases, making less money.
All that said, the problem Shaun noted still exists: too many books are published to consider all of them for awards. But it’s always been that way. Only select books are ever truly considered for most awards, and especially for juried awards. How are those selections made? Traditional publishers might pick what they consider their best two or three books. Other books might get positive word-of-mouth or recommendations from respected authors, or they might earn a spot because the author has a reputation as a novelist or short story writer. This is the old way of doing things, and while it isn’t entirely fair either, it at least avoids arbitrarily disqualifying books simply because of the way they came into print.