The awards season seems to be upon us, though I sometimes wonders if it ever takes a break. One of the UK’s biggies, the Costa Awards, announced its 2015 winners a couple of months ago, and the book trade e-newsletters I still opt to receive, more out of nostalgia than anything else, seem to mention a different one every week. In fact three shortlists have been flagged up in the past week, and CrimeFest next month will yield up several more.
I don’t think there’s much doubt that winning a major award raises the profile of the author; and being shortlisted seems to do quite a lot for sales. But beyond an initial flurry of interest when a shortlist is announced, I’m moved to wonder what happens to the runners-up afterwards. I’m not even going to say ‘gallant losers’. Being shortlisted means you’re pretty damn good. All the same, it’s a little like winning a major sporting tournament like Wimbledon or the golf Masters, or even a Grand Prix race; does anyone remember who came second?
I was shortlisted for an award myself once, so I know how it feels to be a runner-up, even if the shortlisting itself comes a huge surprise (yes, really, it did), and the prospect of winning is a dot on a distant horizon. I can’t even say I came second; book and publishing awards don’t announce the top three in reverse order – you either win or you don’t, which means there are several runners-up. But the simple fact is that, although I’ve seen the winner’s name listed a few times under ‘previous’ when the award has been relaunched for another year, none of the other names on the shortlist ever get a mention.
So how was it for me, darlings? When I received the news, I set about finding ways to use it to promote the books I was publishing. That, after all, was the whole point. Press releases went out, useful people were informed – but aside from a two-paragraph mention on an inside page of the local paper, where I should fess up I had contacts, I don’t think any of it saw the light of day.
On the night it was great. I basked in a glow of warmth as I stood alongside people who knew a thousand times more about publishing than I did (which is why being shortlisted at all took my breath away), enjoyed a delicious dinner, and applauded with genuine enthusiasm when a veteran of the industry was declared the winner.
Afterwards it was something to tell my friends about – the ones I could rely on not to think I was showing off. And since then? Just a pleasant memory for me alone.
I wonder how many runners-up in book awards have the same experience. I'm guessing most. I mean, can you remember who else was shortlisted the year Mark Billingham won the Theakstons prize at the Harrogate Crime Festival? (Make that years plural! The man’s brilliant!) Or even last year’s Man Booker, which included American authors for the first time? To be honest, a year later I often struggle to recall who won, much less who didn’t, though it did wonders for their sales when the news was fresh.
It can do wonders for a career too; I could, but won’t, name several authors who rose from ‘well-respected’ to ‘famous and hugely popular’ after they won a major award.
But not a single one who took the same giant step because they made the shortlist.
Or am I completely misreading the situation?