Writing this between the announcements of the Booker Prize and the National Book Awards (not
to mention our current call for entries for the Benjamin Franklin Awards) made me wonder about the
value of awards in the publishing community. Do awards constitute a genuine demonstration of peer
respect for the craft of writing, editing, and publishing? Or do they simply cater to the vanity
within us all for winning things and the thirst for coming first? Or are they simply a good way of
trying to sell more books?
Well, yes to all three, of course. Awards aren’t given out for nothing, although sometimes it
might seem this way (I don’t think I’ve ever been offered a German novel at Frankfurt whose author
hadn’t won some prestigious literary award). Yet, only a tiny fraction of the books published each
year ever win awards, or even “Best of” listings in Publishers Weekly or Choice.
It really does mean something to an author and a publisher that a panel of peer judges deems their
particular title the outstanding book in that category for any given year. Most categories of any set
of awards have had hundreds of entries for that year, and rarely is the winner a foregone conclusion
from the start. And “best” is a very hard adjective to define and justify if you are a judge.
Fortunately it doesn’t mean the best-selling or most expensively produced.
Actually best means exactly what we as publishers attempt to do all the time. That is, to combine
a fine manuscript with skillful editing, good design, and quality production to come up with the most
impressive book we can produce while spending the least amount of money. Books aren’t a product like
most items-“the market will decide” means something in book publishing, but not everything. We’ve all
published books for love or respect or because we felt passionately that they were needed, not just
for what profit we hoped we might make out of it. And awards are a way of respecting and marking many
such titles as worthy of publishing, even if the Barnes & Noble and Borders buyers did say “no.”
The Fun Side
Of course, it’s fun to win awards. One of my most pleasant and rewarding times as PMA President
was presenting the Benjamin Franklin Awards at the end of last year’s Publishing University, and to
see the reactions of the winners. It’s especially good for small independent publishers who probably
oversaw or actually handled every single phase of the publishing process.
And it’s even nicer if you’ve beaten out some bigger guys along the way. One of my most exciting
moments as a publisher was when Northwestern University Press picked up the National Book Award for
Poetry three years ago for an author that Knopf had discarded from their list. We were up against all
the major New York houses on the shortlist. And why not enjoy it? There’s not all that much glamour in
a publisher’s life. Why not bask in the occasional spotlight of glory?
The Practical Side
When the glittering occasion is over, do awards really help sales? In my experience, absolutely
yes. Even a shortlisting can quadruple sales of, say, a poetry title; and a Best Academic Book fromChoice or from a scholarly association can do a lot to promote library sales and, of course, the
prestige of your list in general.
There are a number of things you can do that will help. Be sure that you know what publicity the
awards are doing themselves, but never leave it to them alone! Produce a press release for local,
national, and niche media proclaiming your prize (Sometimes they sound more impressive than in fact
they really are, but good news is good news). Add a kudos page to your next catalog that trumpets your
award loudly. If the award comes with a sticker, it’s well worth stickering your remaining stock, and
even using the medallion or award name as part of the cover for subsequent reprints. Make sure your
reps, distributor, and major accounts are very well aware of your victory and are working accordingly.
This is a great opportunity to repromote and resub a book that’s probably more than six months old
already and may even be starting to make its way back to the warehouse.
Having the Book in Stock
Most problematic of all is stock availability. You don’t have very long, perhaps a week at worst,
to capitalize in sales terms. If you don’t have stock, you’re in big trouble! In six weeks time,
everyone could care less in the trade.
So, if you’re on a shortlist, how do you plan ahead? If you win, you want the stock on hand that
evening; if you don’t win, and you’ve reprinted, you may have ruined financially what would probably
otherwise have been a successful publication. Ideally you want the printing machines ready to roll on
prize day, but then smaller houses may have problems getting rapid turnaround from a printer.
Not many easy answers here-but things may be changing. My new house was fortunate to have a Gunter
Grass title in print. When he picked up the Nobel this fall, we were even more fortunate to have the
title already on the Lightning Print system. Plenty of stock for us in less than a week, plus anyone
ordering through Ingram had 48-hour turnaround. We sold out our stock in three hours after the
announcement. If it hadn’t been for Lightning Print, we may have had to wait for replenishment and
thus lost thousands of dollars in sales. The retail and e-tail world we now inhabit is very intolerant
of non-availability, and print-on-demand may prove to be the answer to these (and a lot of other)
problems that publishers face.
A Final Note
Most important of all, enjoy it when you win. You deserved it!
Contact the PMA office at <A
HREF=”mailto:email@example.com”>firstname.lastname@example.org for a copy of a brochure describing the Dispute
Resolution Program. For more information about mediation and arbitration, contact Phil Tamoush at <A
|This article is from thePMA Newsletterfor December, 1999, and is reprinted with
permission of Publishers Marketing Association.