It's a real boost when a book from a small press gets short-listed or even wins a literary prize. At Cinnamon we're thrilled with Jane McKie's success in the Sundial Scottish Book of the Year Prize in the category of best first book and similarly it was great to see Ruth Leader's collection, The Peacock Room, short listed for the Jerwood Aldeburgh Prize last November and Bill Greenwell's collection, Impossible Objects short listed for the best first collection in the Forward Prize.
As a small press we take great care in the selection of the books we publish and it's encouraging to see that other people in the literary world think we're making the right choices.
But, sadly, not all prizes are as open to small presses as they appear. Prizes like those mentioned above ask presses to send in a few copies of the book as part of entry - enough to allow the judges to see copies. Others ask for a fee - and this can be just the first prohibitive hurdle for small presses exising on shoestring budgets. Several major prizes ask for large numbers of books for free - well, fair enough - this might deter presses from submitting books casually and give pause to see how much investment a press has in a particular book. But given the sales figures of books from small presses, particularly poetry books, it can also be a real deterrant.
The Sunday Telegraph (27th January 2008) recently published the sales figures of the TS Elior prize short list - well known poets with established writing careers for the most part and shockingly low figures. Only three had sales of over 340 books out of the ten listed, most were in the 270-340 range and one made only 36 sales.
With figures like these even after being short listed for a prestigious prize having to supply a prize organiser with 80 or more free copies raises questions of whether entry is in the interest of the press. But it doesn't stop there. Many prizes require substantial payments from the publishers of short listed works towards publicity - often in the range of £2,500 or more with further money required if the book actually wins.
For a small press the maths simply doesn't work - by the time a fee is paid, copious copies supplied and perhaps £3,000 to £4,000 shelled out in marketing contributions the chances of selling enough extra copies of the book to so much as cover costs becomes vanishingly rare. The top seller in the TS Eliot shortlist was Sophie Hannah's Pessimisim for Beginners with 986 sales. Assuming a prize could boost our poetry sales to such figures, after costs for printing, distributors and royalties we'd still make only a modest profit and this would rapidly turn into a significant loss if we contributed thousands towards publicity costs to a prize organiser.
There are some excellent literary prizes that really do level the playing field between all sizes of press - prizes like the TS Eliot, the PBS prizes, the Forward prize, the Jerwood Aldeburgh prize, the Wales Book of the Year and the Sundial Scottish Book of the Year prize, but many others effectively have their doors shut to small presses. Some, of course, carry the chance of boosting sales well beyond the contributions asked for, For novels, for example, this could be the case, but it is still a risk and, in any case, many small presses don't have that kind of 'spare' cash with which to gamble upfront.
All the more reason, I suppose, to celebrate the prizes that truly are open to all on literary merit alone.
- Cinnamon Press
- Wales, United Kingdom
- Cinnamon Press is a small, independent publisher based in Wales & publishing the best new poetry and fiction with occassional non fiction and cross-genre titles. Books come from Wales, the UK and the world. We run writing competitions twice a year to find new voices in poetry and fiction with three categories (novel/novella; poetry; short stories) - each category has a cash prize plus publication. You can find our excellent list of titles at www.cinnamonpress.com