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Thursday, December 19, 2013

Self-Published Books vs. Literary Awards: A Logistical Problem?

Back in August, The Guardian posted a column by Liz Bury entitled "Why is self-publishing still scorned by literary awards?"  The article doesn't exactly make an argument about the apparent snubbing of SPed books in the literary awards circuit, but Bury does essentially imply in the body of the article that the inability of these awards to address the widespread consumption of SPed books will not work on their favor.  I'm not sure that's true either, to be honest.  These same literary awards are just as relevant as they were before SPing became normal (lots of relevance or no relevance whatsoever -- depends on your view).

I, however, have a different perspective on this problem.  As a podcaster (The Skiffy and Fanty Show) and blogger, I get a lot of requests for reviews, interviews, guest posts, and so on.  On the
blog, I'm a little more lenient when it comes to everything but reviews.  But the podcast is an entirely different matter.  Throughout the year, we have maybe 25-26 slots for proper interviews, and perhaps another 25-26 slots for discussion episodes.  With the addition of a steady blog for the podcast, that jumps the number from 50ish slots to about 100.  One hundred slots for tens of thousands of SF/F authors.

Understandably, we're extremely selective on the show.  We have to be.  There aren't enough slots for everyone, so we have to think hard about who we want to interview, what we want to talk about on the show, and so on and so forth.  Inevitably, that means we tend to avoid self-published books; for me, it's for the same reason as always:  how exactly are we to wade through the drivel to find those good SPed books?

This is a similar problem, I imagine, for the literary awards circuit.  Granted, there may be a bigger agenda in place there, but they must be aware of the impossibly large field of published works out there, and so they make the decision, like us at The Skiffy and Fanty Show, to cut that field down to a more stable pool.  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.

There's also another question here:  cost.  On the podcast, it costs us nothing (mostly) to interview or host authors of any sort.  Even when there are costs, they are astronomically low and infrequent (a couple bucks here or there).  But the literary award circuit has to hire judges, whom they sometimes (or usually) pay.  Even if they're not paying those judges, the request for their time is high, since they have to read dozens of books or short stories, etc.  If you open the field further, you can imagine how much time (or money) would be lost just on going through the onslaught of TPed and SPed books sent their way.

Let's also assume that there might be a way to get around that by narrowing the field with various new criteria.  In the end, those criteria will be flawed and, in some cases, controversial.  They're not going to base things on sales, since popularity is never an indicator of quality anyway.  Personally, I can't imagine any valid criteria that would weed out the trash from the legitimately quality books.  In the end, it just makes more sense to cut the field in half.  In a game of numbers, the easiest criteria is the one that makes the job a lot easier.

But there's also one more question I have:  why would SPed authors want to win these awards anyway?  The field is large enough that they could easily create equally valid awards just for SPed books.  And if they did that, it might make the task of including SPed books easier, since you could use those other awards as a mandatory criterion for the selection process:  if your book was nominated for X award, it is eligible for Y award.  It may not be the best criteria, but it's a start.

In any case, the point is this:  it's a numbers game.  It's a logistical problem.  There are just too many damned books out there just in the traditional publishing world alone.  Expecting these awards to toss out their arbitrary standards to include another massive pool of literature seems counter-productive to me.  You won't end up with a better awards system, but an overburdened one.  And you may end up doing more damage than would happen if one were to leave it alone.

That's my two cents.  What about you?

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  1. We accept self-published books for The Kitschies. We have since the award's formation. For the past two years, we've dropped the requirement that we need physical copies of the books as well - as a means of making sure there are no cost barriers to self-published authors or small presses (speaking as someone that runs that latter, shipping 5 books can be a pain in the ass).

    This year, I'd guess about 10-15% of our input came from self-published authors. Although no self-published titles made the shortlist (although Anne Charnock's A Calculated Life did begin life as one such title, it is currently published by 47 North), the quality of the submissions was far from 'embarrassing'. I'd venture to say that, in many cases, the self-published authors had taken more care to read our criteria and consider what they were submitting than some of the largest traditional publishers.

    As a reader and reviewer, I would agree that - across the publishing industry - you've got a higher proportion of 'crap' in the self-published world. They are less filtered, less edited, and haven't had the 17 different hoops and leaps and quality controls of a traditional published book.

    But as someone that helps administrate a literary award... honestly, accepting self-published titles has never posed a problem. And, indeed, in this particular arena, I think 'independent publishing' has always put on a very credible show. It is a matter of time before a literary award has the honour of 'discovering' a self-published title and bringing it to readers' attention, and, rather selfishly, I hope that is the Kitschies.

    1. I'm curious: if we both admit that there is a whole lot of total garbage in the SP world, why do you think the work which appears in the Kitschies coffers from SPers is generally "good" by comparison? It just seems like what you might be seeing is such a small portion of that community, and I'm curious why that is...