Tuesday, July 28, 2009

The Pak'n Save Prize for Popular Fiction

With the Montanas over - people are back to talking about what the new Awards, sponsored by the NZ Post, will be like. Here's Rachael King's 2 cents worth which includes a recommendation that the award system makes room for acknowledging the popular NZ read more than it has done in the past. Writer Denis Welch would no doubt agree, calling the Montana fiction shortlist this year The Great Unread.

Having read most of the fiction shortlist(s) this year, I have to disagree with Denis' epithet. But I do agree that popular work needs more recognition in our book awards. In the UK , the British Book Awards are an eclectic counterpoint to the literary Booker Prize, and include among other things the Sainsbury Prize for Popular Fiction. Britain's Costa Award is also about readability, emphasising 'the most enjoyable books of the year' in five key areas [fiction, new fiction, bio, poetry and children's books. ]

The interesting thing is the Booker doesn't sell a lot of books in Britain compared to the popular stuff. This article points out that mega-selling author Katie Price's Angel Uncovered sold 54,362 copies in under a month, outselling the 2008 Booker longlist by more than 20 copies to one. Here in NZ, publishers say the Montana shortlist doesn't shift many books either because there are too many different types of books involved and the marketing effect is diluted.

Note the lack of interest in my Tea Cosy Fiction Challenge which was about buying and reading the fiction lists. The result speaks for itself! Or maybe no-one wanted a tea cosy....

Apparently, if a book is selling well while it's a Montana finalist it's because it would have done well anyway. A Montana win, on the other hand, does lead to increased sales, sometimes significantly so.

Can we have a NZ Book Awards for different genres including 'popular' fiction? Or are we too small to think about finding the sponsorship for such a thing? How about a Pak'n Save Popular Prize for Fiction? Or could we think of an award that concentrates on 'enjoyable reading' in the manner of the Costa? Or a Booker-type Prize that is only about fiction? You'd think an award that's solely about fiction would focus marketing and reader interest and lead to more sales.

Which reminds me that reading books isn't only about sales it's also about library readers who, I am guessing, are big voters in the Readers' Choice Award. I say this because these people are often HUGE READERS - getting through half a dozen books in a week -and the libraries are big promoters of books and of the Montanas. That's the only way I can explain The Blue winning the Readers' Choice given the size of its sales compared to some of the other books on the Montana shortlists last year.

Here's former publisher and arch defender of NZ books, Bookman Beattie's take on the vexed book awards issue:

The Montana New Zealand Book Awards were formed by a merger of the Montana Book Awards and the New Zealand Book Awards. The latter always had a more literary bias than the more commercial Montanas and in recent times more serious authors and publishers have occasionally voiced the wish that the two separate awards were still in existence to give those more serious writers more chance of recognition. This year the pendulum has swung strongly the other way with the more serious and literary work pushing aside the more popular. This clearly has much to do with the makeup of the judging panel headed by senior academic Dr. Mark Williams, Professor of English at Victoria University of Wellington.

And you can follow the comments on his post here.

Interestingly, Emily Perkins' medal-winning novel this year is a racy read as well as being terribly literary. Who knows it might have won a Pak'n Save Prize too ...


Rachael King said...

Hi Mary. Thanks for linking to my post. I disagree that I was emphasizing giving recognition to popular fiction _ I was just pointing out that all books should be included in the Readers' Choice category in order for it to really be the choice of the readers.

I find the whole 'too literary' accusation at this year's fiction shortlist baffling. At least three of those books have sold well and Perkins' book, for one, is a page-turner. I wonder which books Denis Welch was reading when he declared he couldn't get past the first few pages?

It is, after all, a literary award, and this year's list looked no different from any other in terms of the kind of fiction included, in my opinion.

By all means have a Pak & Save award, but it should perhaps be separate from the NZ Post award, which should be about awarding literary excellence, not sales.

Mary McCallum said...

Sorry Rachael - I wrote that badly in the middle of the night - I meant to say that your recommendations on changes to the award system emphasised/focused on the popular read and the need to acknowledge it somewhere. I've changed the post now so it says something like that [I hope]. Thanks for your clarification. And I agree with you about the readability of many of the short listees.... Thank goodness! Perkins is a case in point.

Anonymous said...

Mary - perhaps buying books (re your lovely tea cosy challenge) is more difficult in the recession. I read Perkins novel and loved it even though I am not usually a fiction reader. As a reader - thank heavens for libraries

Rachel Fenton said...

I do think that the recession has hit everyone's pockets hard, and books are not an essential in many households (sadly), so the chances of a prize for popular fiction alone seem rather slim. However, let the extra sales of the popular fiction be a prize in itself (for now), and let's hope that NZ keeps writing brilliant page turners and making the rest of the world notice it for its talent.