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What price literary prizes?

5 July 2010

The literary world is awash with literary prizes, with new ones being set up every year. But what effect do these prizes have and do they actually sell more books?

The answer is mixed. Some of the biggest prizes do have a major effect on sales but others have surprisingly little impact. The €100,000 International IMPAC Dublin Literary Award, which bills itself as the world's largest prize for a single novel, was won recently by a novel in translation which will probably not sell in really significant numbers. Dutch author Gerbrand Bakker's The Twins is not likely to have the kind of bestsellerdom granted to other lesser prizes.

The Nobel Prize for Literature is an immensely prestigious and valuable prize (worth slightly more than €1million, or $1.4 million in 2009), but winning it has a rather mixed effect on the winner's sales, perhaps because the writer who is chosen is often worthy and literary rather than readable. Winners are often writers in non-English languages, which limits their appeal in the English-speaking world (see News Review 31 May). Doris Lessing was a recent exception to this rule and the great advantage of the Nobel Prize is that it is generally awarded to a writer towards the end of their career, so there is a wealth of backlist for readers to rediscover.

There's recently been a bit of a dust-up between the Man Booker and the Orange Prizes in the UK, with the Orange winners being shown to create more sales. The top seller of all the Orange winners was Andrea Levy's Small Island, which sold 834,958 copies in all in the UK, well outselling this year's massive Man Booker winner, Hilary Mantel's Wolf Hall. In terms of Booker winners, only the million-selling Life of Pi has sold more copies than any of the Orange Prize winners. In some ways this is not surprising, as the Orange is usually awarded to something at the more popular and readable end of the literary spectrum. Submissions for the Orange Prize must be by women writers and the books do usually have a big female audience, and are beloved of reading groups.

Why is it that these two big prizes in the UK sell so many books, whereas there is nothing like the same effect for winners of America's highly-regarded National Book Awards? The answer seems to be promotion and integrated promotion at that, which brings the shortlists and winners to the attention of a large audience through more sympathetic and often extensive media coverage, tied in with strong in-store promotion.

Even in terms of poetry, the T S Eliot and Forward Prizes get more coverage in the UK media than any poetry prize in the US does in that country, although the well-supported Griffin Prizes in Canada do also make it into the news.

It looks as if the key things are the amount of media coverage a prize can garner and the actual size of the potential audience for that kind of writing.

Next week: New prizes - do they benefit unpublished writers?