Setting Standards: Is it time for a UK Indie Book prize?

With all due respect to the rest of the world, the UK has a very reasonable tradition of literary prizes, both large and small, from the Booker Prize to the monthly competitions in Writing Magazine. But during a recent surf through the entry guidelines for the Women’s Prize for Fiction (formerly the Orange Prize), it became apparent how very large the gulf is that separates print from indie publishing when it comes to prizes.

Those guidelines make it very clear that in order to be submitted for consideration in the prize:

All entries must be made by an established publishing house. Self-published books are not eligible for the Prize. ‘Established’ is here defined as a house which publishes a list of titles by a range of authors with ISBNs, sells them in pounds sterling, and distributes its books nationally through recognised booksellers and online retailers. For the avoidance of doubt, ‘established publishing house’ does not include print-on-demand services or publishers which publish titles via a commercial arrangement through which they are paid by the author.

It’s a shame that a prize which has prided itself historically on promoting what it perceived as a minority in the author community has decided to marginalize part of that self-same community who happen to be self-publishing. It is likely that the usual arguments about diverse quality and staggering quantity of entrants would be presented in defence of such a decision, and for a prize which has struggled to find funding it is understandable that preservation of the existing prize was of more importance than adapting to the changing publishing scene. [It is though worth noting that various commentators (in the London Standard and the Telegraph among others) have debated the value of maintaining a woman-only prize in a publishing world which has changed radically since the it was established].

But the concern of this blog is that an opportunity has been missed, yet again, to find a way to build up the credibility of indie publishing and prove what quality and innovation is to be found. It’s not that indie books shouldn’t be considered in mainstream print prizes because ideally they should. And this blog hopes in the longer term that such equality make come to pass. But the truth is, we have got to find a way to sift through the quantity to find the quality, and a regular prize for quality indie books is a very good way of ordering that process.

So, let’s start small, perhaps in the manner of the Costa prize. A tree branch-style competition might be a good way to approach it, with categories by genre, for example, and distinct ways to enter a book into the system. The argument that there are too many e-books to make that viable doesn’t particularly hold up: Nielsen’s figures for 2011 show that almost 150,000 print books were published in the UK in that annual cycle, while Bowker noted that around 87,000 e-books were published in the US in roughly the same period. The key is to find a way to structure the prize that makes submission an orderly process. That could be by routing submission through other smaller genre-specific prizes or at the very least through genre categories, it could be through length categories, it could be through gaining a certain quote of ‘review points’ through a sub-system of approved impartial review sites, or through other approaches.

It might also make sense in the first instance to establish a prize that narrows the field by nationality, to writers from a particular country. That may seem outdated too in this era of globalization, particularly given the international nature of the indie-publishing community, but one could argue that there are distinct qualities still to creative work produced in particular cultural circumstances and, again, we have to start somewhere.

So what about having a British prize, supported by a credible institution (Guardian Books, this is your moment), with sub-category winners going through to a final round? Or maybe just having half a dozen prizes representing narrower categories is a good place to start, allowing each area to celebrate its difference rather than competing against each other. And the prize itself? Something that will help authors establish themselves (so maybe something as well as money?) like guaranteed reviews, author interviews, involving winning authors in other sponsor activities?  Yes, there’s a recession on, and sponsors are hard to come by. But for one thing, distributing e-books is going to be much cheaper than dealing with print, and this is an opportunity for any sponsor who wishes to be seen as trend-setting to put its money where its mouth is.

And what, I hear my gentle readers say, of the Amazon Breakthrough Novel Award? The prize is a publishing contract with Amazon. A print publishing contract. And while for some writers, print publishing is still the goal, for others it isn’t. And one might also argue that Amazon’s print identity undermines Kindle and the e-book format. ABNA could be seen as the gamekeeper telling the poacher he can only hunt on the estate if he gives the dead rabbits back to the lord of the manor. But it’s a prize and for many it’s a different place to start.

But, in the humble opinion of this blog, it is time to find a way to build the credibility of indie-published books, and a regular annual prize system would be a fine way to do that.

So, if you have some ideas for how this might be achieved, please leave a comment below and join the debate. The more the ideas, the better the prize. And if there are any sponsors out there, please make yourself known!

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