Literary awards can help unknown authors too

When A M Homes’ May We Be Forgiven was announced as the Women’s Prize for Fiction winner, many were shocked. Surely Hilary Mantel’s Bring up the Bodies would score a hat-trick, having already scooped the Man Booker Prize and Costa Book of the Year award? What a great feat that would have been! But perhaps it’s for the best that someone else was able to steal the limelight; with all the attention Mantel has been getting of late one could be forgiven for thinking she was the only decent female author around. Clearly, that’s not true. Literary awards are designed to be a reward for writing excellence, and for well-established authors the prize money is of less significance compared to the free publicity their book gets if it wins. Homes’ publisher is apparently expecting a large boost in sales, and has reprinted 60,000 copies which are sure to be snapped up fairly quickly.

This type of literary award can be somewhat infuriating for lesser-known authors and certainly for anyone who has successfully self published. The same names tend to appear on the shortlists of each year’s major awards, and more often than not the author is already well-established and widely known. But as we well know, fame is not necessarily an indication of quality or ability. There are plenty of undiscovered writers out there deserving at least a portion of the recognition that the likes of Homes and Mantel are receiving. Luckily, there are awards out there designed to celebrate lesser-known writing talent. Being awarded an accolade of any kind - or even being nominated for an award -can have a tangible impact on a writer’s future success.

The tradition of literary awards is a long-established one, including those for unpublished writers. The quality of self published books in recent years - not to mention all that work that’s being distributed for free by unpublished authors - has clearly proven that there’s much literary worth out there, just waiting to be discovered.

TheAmazon Breakthrough Novel Award is one exciting avenue through which new writers are being found. Each entrant must submit a short pitch about their novel, shortlisted titles will then be read and reviewed by a series of judges and Amazon’s top reviewers. The eventual winner is offered a publishing contract with Amazon Publishing, along with a fairly substantial $50,000 (£32,000) advance.

PEN America is another association fond of fostering fresh talent. The PEN/Phyliss Naylor Working Writer Fellowship is awarded annually to a writer of children’s or young-adult fiction; previous winners include Franny Billingsley and Deborah Wiles. The PEN Emerging Writers Award is one of their more recent prizes. Launched in 2011 it aims to promote up-and-coming authors whose work has featured in literary journals and magazines, but has not yet been published.

Another newly established award is the ParisLiterary Prize. Launched in 2011, it aims to highlight great unpublished novellas and to assist new writers from all over the world with their literary endeavours. This bi-annual prize, open to all genres, carries with it a substantial €10,000 (£8,500 or $13,000) prize. It’s very first winner, Rosa Rankin-Gee, has since secured a publishing deal for her book The Last Kings of Sark, which will be released later this year.

Also new to the literary world is the existence of awards which consider published work alongside unpublished and self published titles. The Historical Novel Society Award, for example, was won by a previously unpublished author this year; the winner, Martin Sutton, was promptly signed up by a literary agent for his book Lost Paradise. The prize money for this award, while a fairly modest £5,000 ($7,500), will certainly help Sutton to focus on his writing and self-promotion for the time being, which is something that many new writers would relish.

Even more prominently positioned - not to mention vaguely controversial - is the newly established Folio Prize which carries with it a top prize of £40,000 ($62,000). Recently the organisers announced that this international prize - which is open to all authors writing in English - will accept self published nominations too. This represents a big step forward for independent authors breaking into the more established side of the literary world. Although there is a downside - each shortlisted publisher is required to contribute £4,000 ($6,000), which represents a substantial obstacle for self published writers who will have to put up this money themselves. Clearly there’s still some way to go before the more elite literary awards are opened up to all authors.

The prestige that comes with winning a literary award is one thing, but the importance of prize money cannot be overstated. One common problem for new authors, most of whom also have a day job, is finding the time to actually write. Once they’ve written a book, finding an agent or publisher, connecting with potential readers, and engaging in self promotion can be very difficult and very time consuming. Even a small monetary gift can buy authors the time they desperately need to really get their writing careers off the ground. In this respect, there are more awards and funds available than one might think. Many of these are much more localised or specialised than those mentioned here, so it’s worth having a look at what is available to you regionally or in your genre of writing. Plenty of unpublished writers won’t have considered a literary prize as one potential way to further their writing ambition, but it’s certainly a route that’s well-worth exploring.

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