Wednesday 14 April 2010

Why the Gemmell award is bad for the fantasy genre

Today I came across this comment on Westeros, which is in relation to the Gemmell award:
I'm not sure I see the point of an award that's more 'in touch with the common fantasy-reading crowd'.
There already ARE awards for the novels most in touch with the common crowd - they're called bestseller lists. They come with a rather larger cash prize attached than most awards!
To me, literary awards should provide an alternative voice to that of bestseller lists, not just echo them. A writer like Sanderson can already put "bestseller" on his adverts, he doesn't need "winner of the legend prize" as well. It's the people who don't have the massive sales and the endorsements by famous novelists on their back covers who need the prestige and attention of an award.
I completely agree.

Those of you that have been following this blog for a while will have probably gathered that I'm not the biggest supporter of the Gemmell award, mainly because I think it's a glorified popularity contest. But there's another reason why I'm not a fan of the award - I think it's bad for the genre.

I can almost hear the question on your lips: how could an award that promotes epic fantasy - a subgenre largely ignored by other awards - be a bad thing?

Well, like this...

The books that make the shortlist are the books that gained the most votes. But why do these books gain the most votes - because they're innovative? Because they're superbly written? Because they all tell a gripping story in a wonderfully-realised world?

Ideally, this would be the case. But most of the time the books that make the shortlist share a certain attibute: they've all sold plenty of copies, and/or have been written by an author who has a large, established fanbase.

And as we all know, just because a book is popular doesn't mean it's any good. Much of the time, the quality of a book has little to do with how popular it becomes; there's a whole host of other factors (release schedule, cover art, etc).

But the main additional factor is money.

Publishers often pay a lot of money to help a book become a bestseller. Special offers in bookstores, 30% discounts from online retailers - publishers can pay thousands of pounds/dollars for those. More money goes on adverts in the genre press; an advert in SFX magazine for example will cost you a few hundred quid.

In other words, to spread the word and maximise potential sales of a novel, publishers are often spending tens of thousands of pounds.

Not there there's anything at all wrong with this. But here's the key point: they don't do it for every book. In fact, very few books receive this sort of treatment (many new releases are simply put on the shelves and left to battle it out with hundreds of others for a potential buyer's attention). Publishers just can't afford to pump thousands of pounds into every book they release, and many smaller presses can't compete with the big boys in this regard (hence why you rarely see small press releases on the three-for-two offer table - they just don't have the money).

But why does this matter?

Well, because much of the time - not always, but a lot of the time - a book that has a load of money thrown at it, tends to sell more copies than a book that doesn't. I'd cite The Name of the Wind as a perfect example - a reasonably good book that received serious financial backing from its publisher, and went on to sell around 40k copies in hardback. Perhaps that's being unfair to Patrick Rothfuss, as there is plenty to commend about his debut novel. But don't tell me that it would have sold as many copies without the financial backing it received, as it wouldn't have. Much of the time, a bestseller becomes a bestseller because of the money behind it.

Let's get back to the Gemmell awards. Look at this year's shortlist:

The Gathering Storm - Robert Jordan & Brandon Sanderson (Tor US)

Empire - Graham McNeill (The Black Library)

Warbreaker - Brandon Sanderson (Tor US)

Best Served Cold - Joe Abercrombie (Gollancz & Orbit US)

The Cardinals’ Blades by Pierre Pevel (Gollancz)
All of these books have sold well (in Pevel's case, in France), and all of these authors have large, established fanbases - partly because their publishers have committed resources, time and effort into supporting them.
So what does this mean?
Well, it effectively means the Gemmell award shortlist will be dominated by books that have had a lot of financial support, which has played a large role in helping these authors achieve a high degree of popularity. Subsequently, the actual quality of the books plays second fiddle to money and marketing.
The Gemmell award will therefore be won by one of the following:
1) A book that - regardless of its quality - will have received considerable financial backing
2) A book that has been written by an author who - thanks partly to financial backing in the past - has managed to obtain significant popularity.

It happened last year, when Andrei Sapkowski won the award on the back of numerous votes from his huge European fanbase (despite the fact that his novel Blood of Elves hardly caused much of a stir in the Anglo-American online community). A similar thing will probably happen this year.
That is why the Gemmell award is bad for the genre: it rewards bestsellers regardless of their quality - books that are already popular and don't need the additional publicity of winning the award. Small-press releases don't get a look in, nor do books that are high in quality but only achieved moderate sales.
You could even argue that over a decade or so, the Gemmell award might contribute to killing off variety in the genre - publishers are going to want to publish books that are similar to the ones that make the shortlist, as these are the books that seem to prove popular with the book-buying public.
And forget the bullshit about the Gemmell award bringing new readers to the genre - this is a purely online award, and the only people that know about it - or care about it - are genre fans. Sure, it received some limited coverage in mainstream publications - which is great - but how many mainstream readers do you think bothered to check out the winning novel? Very few, I'd imagine. And of those that did, how many do you reckon thought "Whoa, this is amazing - why haven't I been reading fantasy all these years?" Even fewer.
No doubt plenty of you are thinking I'm just being really cynical about it all, but I make no apologies for this - I love the fantasy genre, and it pains me to see an award (in the name of my favourite author, no less) rewarding books simply on the basis of how many copies they've sold (and as we've seen above, quality is only one of many factors what helps to sell a book and raise and author's profile).
To return to the original quote I opened with, what is the point in having an award that just mimics the bestseller lists, that rewards who spends the most money? We should be promoting the books that are high in quality and really portray the best the genre has to offer, not some mediocre book that sold a million copies primarily because of funding and/or author popularity.
A guess a lot of people would say "Oh, well it's still better than having no award at all", but it's not.

I'm all for an award that celebrates the best of epic fantasy, that promotes excellence in the genre - the Gemmell award, however, isn't it.


Salt-Man Z said...

Why would an award that (as you say) merely duplicates the bestseller lists kill variety in the genre? Unless you're also claiming that the bestseller lists are killing variety as well.

James said...

The books that make up the Gemmell award shortlist are all popular books, and a good indication of what the book-buying public are spending their money on. It stands to reason then, that publishers might gravitate towards publishing an increasing amount of similar novels to these, at the detriment of other types, and this would possibly threaten variety.

Aidan Moher said...

I don't cover the Gemmell Awards on my blog for many of these reasons. It just doesn't really seem to understand what it is.

Bryce L. said...

Good points were made that this award is probably pretty worthless, but I still think the Gemmell Legend award is good for sff.

While the argument can be made that these are the books publishers will gravitate toward, it can also be argued that bestsellers allow publishers to have more money to invest in other projects that may not be so popular or that they think could end up being popular.

I think promoting epic fantasy, stirring debate, etc. gets more people thinking and hence supporting (by buying books, etc.) the genre and that can't be bad.

Or, if these are already bestsellers, then what does the award hurt? Publishers already have to be leaning that way anyway.

Cara Powers said...

I am a genre fan and had never heard of the Gemmel. I only follow the Hugos, the Nebulas, and the British Fantasy Awards. Of course, the Hugos are largely a popularity contest too. It's interesting to see how many books are shortlisted this year for both the Hugo and the Nebula.

David Wagner said...

Compelling, interesting post. Thanks.

I believe the first Fantasy book I ever read was Stephen King's The Eyes of the Dragon, many years ago. From there, I hit Tolkien, then George Martin was recommended by a friend. After that, I was hooked.

I doubt King won any awards for his book, but it was the fantasy gateway book for me, and he is most definitely a popular mainstream best-selling author. Though ultimately, I didn't dive whole-hog into fantasy books until after reading Martin. King and Tolkien were good, but when I read song of ice and fire, it blew me away, and I had to find more.

Don't know what to make of that, or how exactly it squares with your post, but I thought I'd toss it out there all the same.

Albertosaurus Rex said...

I already felt vaguely uneasy about the Gemmell award, but you managed to put your finger on the reason why.

Anonymous said...

That's a good point - about it being a sort of positive feedback loop: what's heavily promoted gets on the shortlist, what's on the shortlist gets popular, what's popular gets heavily promoted and so on ad infinitum til it all becomes homogeneous - or at least, that top layer does, and the genre becomes stratified, so it becomes increasingly hard for the lesser-known more varied stuff to break through ...

Why not have a people's choice (popular vote) award and a panel selected (critically assessed) award? Would that work? Though I can also see Seak's point ... the genre needs big, bestselling, money generating heavy hitters to convince publishers and retailers to take it seriously.

Neth said...

I think that you make many good points, here but I think you are making a mountain out of a mole-hill here. Awards simply aren't that important - or at least most awards and certainly the awards in the SFF genre(s). My understanding is that they rarely equal anything like increased sales - at least significant increased sales. Sure, they may help out a writer's career, but that can only go so far.

Basically awards are for the in-crowd and don't make much of difference. And the Gemmell award is both new and a popular vote - which makes its meaning even less. Sure fans of the winner may be happy, the author and even the publisher may be happy. But in the end it won't impact sales. Heck maybe it will inspire a few fans to pick up a copy of a nomination they haven't read, but I doubt it'll be big enough to impact the bottom line.

So, who really cares. The people who do care can go about there business and the people who don't can go about their's. And the reality is that nothing really changes.

So in the end, I think that your complaints add up to much ado about nothing.

Now, I'll go about my usual business about ignoring these sorts of discussions on awards.

Adele said...

I quite like the gemmell's. or at list the original principals they set out with. Am sorry to say I actually can't disagree with a single point you have made though, which I guess is telling in itself.
Excellent article.

Joe Abercrombie said...

I agree the Gemmell isn't completely sure what it wants to be and has many shortcomings, but then it's only in the second year and needs to be given a little breathing room. My own feeling is that it would have been better to stick to the original plan of public vote for a shortlist, then a panel. That could have ensured popularity (which after all is supposed to be part of the point of this award), but allowed for more discussion and perhaps more emphasis on quality (whatever that even means).

Having said that, though, a lot of your arguments are really thin and the sense of outrage is ridiculous. The link between publishers spending money and books being successful is far less sure than you imply, especially in a genre like fantasy where marketing spends just ain't that big and grass roots support is much more important. The certain link between them selling a lot and appearing on this shortlist is far from proven either. Where's Hobb or Feist if that's true? And how does Sapkowski winning last year factor into all this? You talk about his legions of european fans as though that somehow makes him a ringer. No one picked him for the award last year. And the argument that this shortlist will skew what publishers publish is absurd - you think they don't have much more reliable ways of telling what sells from what doesn't?

As for whether this award brings new readers to the genre, or even to these books, that depends on whether publishers and booksellers can be prevailed upon to take it seriously and market the shortlist, and that's a lot more likely with a faintly commercial style of book in the first place than with a more literary selection. Give it time, who knows? None of the other genre awards really matter much commercially. And the idea of converting "mainstream readers" (whatever they are) is bogus - the aim here is to maybe convince a few readers who sometimes read fantasy, now or in the past (which is pretty much all readers if the sales of Lord of the Rings or Harry Potter are anything to go by) to pick up one of these books. That doesn't seem impossible in the medium term.

But then we already have several commercially useless genre awards that aim to reward quality (though the voting procedures for most have most of the same drawbacks you harrangue the gemmell for). What's wrong with having one that aims for a populist element? One that aims to award, lest we forget, the kind of fiction that Gemmell himself was so ignored by critics for writing? Perfect? Certainly not. Bad for the genre? No offence, but bollocks.

cardboardcity said...

I don't really follow the Gemmel award and probably won't either but I wonder if you haven't drawn a false conclusion. The Gemmel isn't going to harm the publishing industry because while it may have shortlisted a great deal of bestsellers, its the best sellers that are going to change marketing policies, not internet awards. The industry doesn't exist to gather awards, its here to make a profit. So if the Gemmel Awards point to any negative its that the publishers will fall victim to their own success and that's not to bad.

Hopefully I put that well, it sounded so much better in my head :-)

Also, isn't the Gemmel Award a battle axe? What fantasy author doesn't want that?

Mark Charan Newton said...

Actually, I'd agree with those points in full, so much as one can. Marketing spend affects many thing in publishing. It pays for the placement of books in chains (some like WH Smith charge merely to have books on shelves, and a fortune for them to be on promotions). That mere act can have a huge impact in the long run.

That influence is not good for quality fiction in the long run, surely? Awards are an opportunity to break corporate control where possible, and that's a very healthy desire of James.

It's also why a lot of the smaller publishers will fail to get a foot in the mass market. Marketing spend isn't magic, by any means, but it can, and mostly does, make careers. You need the right cover, and need to get that cover in front of as many people as possible. That's where money comes in. It's a carefully calculated programme of focus and finance over a few years at least.

Publishing is a business, after all, so we should not blame publishers for this way of thinking. It's just one of those unspoken things. I know I've been lucky in what Pan Mac have spent on me compared to other writers out there, in the small presses, many of whom are talented guys.

As for James's sense of outrage - well, the shoutiness and noise is all good, in my opinion. Noise is what gets attention and, potentially, change.

Sapkowski winning last year? Well, isn't he a bestseller in Europe? This is a British award with a worldwide vote. Bestsellers are helped along by publishing spend.

I do feel that British fantasy does seem to really miss out on something, and I'm not sure the Gemmell is helping it thrive, as James says - he gives a hugely convincing argument.

Sam Sykes said...

I'm all for debate on the subject, but how is a popularity contest all that bad? The chief criticism of other awards is that it's based almost entirely around genre-snobbery. If a book is deemed good by twelve people and rejected by a thousand others, how is that any more fair?

Granted, I can see the correlation between votes and money spent, though I think it's a little exaggerated. I mean, Graham McNeill's tie-in fiction is on the list and how often does a lot of money get spent for that sort of thing? Granted, I'm not as industry-savvy as a lot of folk here, though, so I have no idea how hard it was pushed.

It seems like it's going to be one of those questions with no good answer. But if I had to choose, I'd take a popularity poll over twelve (or however many) dudes who said: "This book won. You didn't read it and you won't like it, but it's better for you."

Iain said...

Didn't the Gemmell award nominees come from a really rather long long-list??

Don't other awards such as the Hugos compile their list of nominees from suggestions by visitors to the Hugos site??

Sorry, James I think you are getting a tad caried away on this one.

Sam, Graham McNeill's book is part of Black Library's Horus Heresy novels. He, along with Dan Abnett, is considered one Black Library's best authors and they were to release two novels giving differing views of the same story. It got a bit of promotion on the Black Library website, but the level of promotion was nowhere near the push that a book like Paul Hoffman's Left Hand of God got at the start of the year.

As for awards judged by panels -- look at the Booker. Same novellists end up on the long and shortlist, same type of novel seems to dominate each year. Isn't there such a thing as a 'Booker book'?

James, I really admire your passion for the genre but The Gemmell award isn't going to spell the death of the fantasy scene in th UK!

Liviu said...

I wanted to do a point by point rebuttal of this post which to me is mostly misguided or makes irrelevant points (spending on a book and awards for example, cannot see what has one to do with other except through the inter-mediation supposedly of the bestsellerdom list) but Jeff from the Genre Reader did it quite eloquently here:

My one question would be regarding this paragraph:

"We should be promoting the books that are high in quality and really portray the best the genre has to offer, not some mediocre book that sold a million copies primarily because of funding and/or author popularity."

Who decides what is "the best the genre has to offer"? And second what do you include in "genre"?

My problem with most known fantasy awards is that they actually do not include "genre" but mostly books that are what I would call "mainstream fantastic" and/or horror and I welcomed the Gemmell award precisely for the fact that is an unabashed *genre fantasy* award

I also thought that the major selling point of sff blogging is precisely to break the stranglehold of the mandarins on opinion; do we want to go back there?

Jared said...

Actually, the Sapkowski book winning was a great thing - as it shows the "Anglo-American fan base" isn't the entire world.

My issue with the Gemmell award is that there's no selection criteria beyond "epic fantasy". I don't care if they pick the definition of epic (or fantasy) that I agree with, as long as we have one. Some sort of checklist for why we're selecting one book over the other.

The long-list was a joke - I think every book published was nominated, as there wasn't anything to say otherwise. If their respective publishers had bothered to enter them, the latest Dan Brown & Twilight books could've entered (and would have probably won).

What, they're not epic fantasy? Bollocks. Until I get a definition that excludes them, I could make arguments for both.

It is fun, and I'm glad AN AWARD exists. But I'd like it to be better, please. It should prompt us into discussing (and purchasing!) the books, not discussing the award itself.

[I have to admit that I was pretty underwhelmed by the Gemmell Award at the SFX convention, when the people running it misidentified a nominated book as part of "Warhammer" (not even the right publisher!) and said that one of the authors on the panel with them was a first-time novelist (he's on his fourth book in the series...)]

Gareth P. said...

I wonder, since Mark Charan Newton's day job is as the marketing guy for Graham McNeill's novel, whether he can give us any insight into the marketing spend on that novel by Games Workshop in comparison to his own, through Macmillan? I suspect the Warhammer book has had very little spent on it, relying more on exposure to the Warhammer game players by being stocked in the GW toy shops, and the author's ongoing popularity with Black Library's audience over the last X years.

Kendall said...

Iaian: No, the Hugo nominees aren't from suggestions from web visitors. Works and people are nominated by this year's and last year's Worldcon members; the nominees are then voted on by this year's Worldcon members.

The Gaylactic Spectrum Awards lets anyone nominate works (the award itself is juried, though). I don't know which other awards let anyone on the planet nominate, but I'm sure there are some--but not the Hugos.

Just FYI. :-) Interesting discussion, folks.

ediFanoB said...

The David Gemmell Legend Arward (DGLA)

Bad ==> Read James' post above
Not bad ==> Read Jeff's post

Read the comments

Then build up your mind and post.

I did what I described above.
Then I started a Google search: Fantasy awards.
Result: about 42,300,000 hits for fantasy awards

Impressive! Of course I know that this result doesn't reflect the real number of fantasy awards.

I love to read fantasy books and for me it doesn't matter whether it is from small press or from a big player.

And there are awards. A lot of blogger post about fantasy awards. To be honest I read none of them and I don't take care who won which award. I don't mind if you call me ignorant.
But there is one exception: The DGLA
It is new, young, public, surprising and I follow since the beginning.

I hope you know it is up to publishers to nominate books which are the base for the long list. That means even small publishers can nominate books!!!

And then you have to promote your books in the blogosphere which nowadays should be no problem. If you don't have internet access you will miss an award like this and also post like this one.

Look at the votes. Do you really believe that the votes of several thousand people will be the ruin of fantasy?

Why not have some people have fun with a public award. Let's see how the DGLA will develop in future.

I think you expect a way too much from the DGLA. It is not the Nobel Prize in fantasy literature.
What isn’t yet may well still be....

Gav ( said...

I have written post as response to explore the awards themselves a little more:

Thoughts: Not Very Rewarding? Is the Gemmell Award Bad for the Genre?

I'd consider it a showcase of what's popular rather than a critical award - it needs a judging panel at the shortlist stage.

But I'm not with you on the money. I wouldn't want that pressure as an author. You have to pay back every pound in marketing budget in sales. I'd rather a quiet profitable novel thank you.

Jebus said...

Hmmm, I'd not actually thought about it but what you've written make a whole lot of sense.

That being said, I really don't give a flying f**k about the reasons behind it or what t does to the genre or anything like that, so long as GirlBoy Abercrombie doesn't win, I'll be happy.

Hugh, probably shouldn't have voted for him then, doh!

Anyway, it's a popular award, not a critical one. If the Oscars were a popular award then Avatar and Miley Cyrus would have cleaned up, thankfully they're not but that doesn't mean that the MTV Movie Awards are shit, they're just less...

And all that being said, I've never once in my life paid any attention to Hugo, Nebula, Saturn or any awards that are out there and whether a book or author has one and no one I know ever has either, so maybe awards are rather pointless all 'round.

Mark Charan Newton said...

Yo, Gareth P - I won't speak of the details, because it's bad ju-ju, but I believe the technical term is that Pan Mac spend a f*ckload more. I don't even know their details, but I was heavily promoted on Amazon, for a good while, and I know that costs a fortune. Is it fair? Probably not. I sold a lot of books on Amazon (coupled with solid online coverage, of course).

It's another reason I want Graham to win - tie-in fiction is popular (and doesn't get that kind of financial clout), he's a popular author. The books do well even in Waterstone's. This is a 'popular' award, and it's about time people stood up and took notice, but I bet any money in the world if it does win, they'll change the voting rules.

And few people have noticed there are in fact two tie-in books on the shortlist. Sanderson is writing in a world that is not his creation. It's the same thing.

Martin said...

The chief criticism of other awards is that it's based almost entirely around genre-snobbery.

The DGLA is indeed an award for people who think that other awards are based around genre-snobbery. The problem is that those people are idiots.

I don't know which other awards let anyone on the planet nominate, but I'm sure there are some--but not the Hugos.

The Tiptree Award is another. There is a blog post here where one of the judges discusses the issues this presents.

James said...

Thanks all for your comments, some good debate here - which is exactly what I was hoping to create.

Some of you think my sense of 'outrage' is far too extreme, and that's fair enough. But look at it from a blogging perspective - I wanted to create some serious debate here, and the best way of doing that is to really throw down the gauntlet and be rather agressive - I think that sparks passion in other people more readily, and creates a better debate. Controversy is a brilliant agent for engineering debate and discussion.

I'd also like to emphasise that I'm not suggesting the quality of the books on the shortlist is necessarily poor. I'm merely suggesting that quality is largely irrelevant in this case. I'm not at all trying to put down the books that made the shortlist.

Some individual points:

Seak - "I think promoting epic fantasy, stirring debate, etc. gets more people thinking and hence supporting (by buying books, etc.) the genre and that can't be bad."

You're right - the problem is, for all the pomp and publicity generated by the first Gemmell award, there was barely any online debate about the actual books or their qualities. If the award HAD created a big debate and people were really analsying the books, I'd be inclined to look far more favourably on it.

Neth: If we don't challenge these things, how can we kickstart change? The reason I wrote this article is because no one else would, and no one seems to care about trying to improve the award. Because that's why I wrote this - to try and get some debate about the flaws of this award, and maybe discuss how things can be improved.

Joe: I agree about the panel idea, while not a perfect solution (is there even one anyway?) I think it would be better than a flat-out vote.

Where is Feist or Hobb? Well, not every book can make the shortlist.

Yeah, admittedly Sapkowski took most of us by surprise last year. But when you look into his background and career, suddenly it makes sense.

Sure, of course publishers have better ways of working out what's selling. But I still think that if the Gemmell award grew quite big over the next few years - to the extent that publishers started putting "Shortlist nominee for the Gemmell award" on the front of books, that it would perhaps act as an extra encouragement to publishers to focus even more on supporting similar books. Then again, maybe it wouldn't.

Perhaps you're right - maybe we need to give the award time. But I do think changes need to be made. I didn't even mention the longlist, which I think is ridiculous and pretty much includes every book published that year - what is the point?

As for your last point - no offence taken, by the way - I don't think it is bollocks. Perhaps I've placed too much emphasis on certain aspects, but I think the main point stands up - it's an award that isn't based wholly on the quality of a book, and that makes me wonder what the point of it is. And maybe you're right, maybe it's not 'bad' for the genre - but I don't see it doing much good either.

Larry Nolen said...

Why so passionate about an award that apparently doesn't fit your value system? Just ignore it and hope others of like mind will ignore and perhaps it'll die a slow (or quick) death due to it not being a reflection of certain other readers. Or maybe it'll flourish precisely because it'll meet the desires of others.

It is just one more subjective list, after all, and the weight of subjective value depends upon who is evaluating it, no?

Neth said...

well, James, you did indeed get some good discussion going, so kudos for that. I still can't bring myself to care all that much.

Oh, and becuase I need to fit into the arrogant blogger stereotype from time to time - I picked Sapkowski to win last year.

Anonymous said...

Ok read all you have to say and ill contradict everything you just said by saying these words.J.K.ROWLING. she was marketed well and you wouldnt say her books were great literature but you all read them have to get out of this closed circle you move in and realise that most top books in any genre are hyped to get to where they are.Twilight?? top for months if not years now as best seller.from the back off the film?Wake up and smell the coffee.How can Gemmell awards be bad/? everything is like books I cant stand and vise who are you to spout off about * popularity*.Your just another reader.You dont cry about the book awards being judged by a handful of people prefer anyday an award to be judged by thousands not 5.Theres your democracy.


Anonymous said...

"Large cash prize"

Where? WHERE?!?! Is the check in my mailbox? When do I get said prize? Damn, I'm getting screwed.

Interesting generalizations considering the awards are in the second year... not a lot of data to draw on for making such a definite and broad summation.

Larry Nolen said...

I'm left waited with not-so-bated breath for the naming of these "good review blogs." Always did want to expand my horizons. But why do I doubt any will be named, especially by an Anonymous poster whose spelling and grammar leave much to be desired?

James said...

Larry - a good point. I guess it's partly frustration on my part as I feel the award could be better than it is, and that it's not really achieving what it seems to be trying to do (and maybe claiming to do).

Neth - clearly you know things the rest of us bloggers don't. ;)

Martin - I'm not totally sure I'm getting the point you're trying to make. I've never read any Harry Potter books though.

James said...

In case anyone's wondering: Larry's last post relates to a troll comment that I deleted.

Joe Abercrombie said...

"I'm merely suggesting that quality is largely irrelevant in this case."

Why? Surely those who vote do so for the book they thought was best. They may not have read them all but the same's true of the Hugos or any other non-panel based award. And you've no real evidence that the voters haven't read all the books and are well informed. There is no real evidence of any kind for any of these assertions.

"for all the pomp and publicity ... there was barely any online debate about the actual books or their qualities."

Level of online debate is the aim now? I thought we were talking about spreading the faith beyond the faithful? Online debate would be nice, but involvement of publishers and booksellers and, you know, readers, is much more important.

"no one seems to care about trying to improve the award."

Have you made any effort to contact the organisers and make any suggestions before putting it out there that their hard work is bad for the genre?

"Where is Feist or Hobb? Well, not every book can make the shortlist."

You were insisting that the shortlist is just a set of bestsellers. These two authors, I would imagine, outsell most of the shortlist considerably.

"I didn't even mention the longlist, which I think is ridiculous and pretty much includes every book published that year - what is the point?"

To provide options from which the public can select a shortlist. The terms under which they do so may be vague but that's nothing new - the terms under which, say, the Clarke award judges "best" are vague, but it's the outcomes you need to look at, and I don't think the two Gemmell shortlists have been a bad sampling considering what they're aiming at.

"it's an award that isn't based wholly on the quality of a book."

You have pushed me into the rare position of agreeing with Larry, in that all awards are subjective judgements of quality, awarding according to the taste of the people deciding the winner. Either you have a panel decision, an academy, or a public vote, all have advantages and disadvantages. A panel at least means that everyone will have read the books in question and be actively comparing, but I don't see a public vote as being any worse an arbiter than the membership of a certain con (Hugo, for example) or a professional body of authors (the nebula, for example, where there tends to be big bias towards popular members of the relevant association).

"that makes me wonder what the point of it is."

The stated aim, I believe, is to recognise and promote core epic/heroic fantasy which, let's face it, is the elephant in the room when it comes to most genre awards. Ramsey Campbell has won the British Fantasy Award for best novel seven times since '72, so in the period that David Gemmell was writing. Gemmell is probably the most important British epic/heroic fantasy writer of the last twenty to thirty years commercially, loved by many, including yourself. How many times was he even nominated for the British Fantasy Award? I'll give you a clue, it's less than once. Now no offence whatsoever to Campbell, I'm sure he's an excellent horror writer. No offence to the BFS either, they choose who to shortlist and it's entirely proper that it should be up to them. My point is I feel there is a place for an award that has a populist element and is focused on epic/heroic fantasy. Or is that bad for the genre?

Anonymous said...

Joe, sounds like you're defending this award just because you're in it. You kind of have to speak up for it don't you? No offence, but for that reason, I can't really trust what your saying.

Mark Charan Newton said...

"My point is I feel there is a place for an award that has a populist element and is focused on epic/heroic fantasy. Or is that bad for the genre?"

I don't want to speak on behalf of James, but I'm guessing his point was all about what contributes to popularity. That bestsellers are supported with financial clout, often internationally, over a period of years. All a popular votes can ever do, for the most part, is reward totems of effective business models, even for the shortlist public vote.

As an examination of the industry, I'd love to see a compare and contrast of publisher expenditure on the books on the shortlist (how much each title received for promotion in, say, WH Smith) - though that would never happen.

JDP said...

As a slight aside relating to the promotion of tie-in material, surely even if a specific tie-in novel has not been heavily promoted, it's still riding the promotional long-tail of a (presumably successful and well established) franchise? Hence big(ger) bucks have gone into its promotion, albeit indirectly.

On-topic, I doubt any single award would make publishers toss away their marketing reports and rip up the numbers from bookscan. Such decisions will not be changed to any great extent by the Gemmel Award.

"All a popular votes can ever do, for the most part, is reward totems of effective business models, even for the shortlist public vote."

I don't believe that your common-or-garden genre reader is quite so eager to fork over their hard-earned cash for a polished turd (even if it's REALLY well polished, with a tasteful dusting of glitter and a smouldering vampirette on the front). :¬)

James said...

Joe - Right, I'll cut to the chase because it's a gorgeous day and I'd far rather be outside drinking beer than hunched over a PC arguing about a book award (plus this debate is in danger of turning into one of those embarrassing, petulant arguments you see married couples having in Sainsbury's).

Anyway, you've asserted that my opinion that the award is bad for the genre is 'bollocks' and that my arguments about money/marketing and existing fanbase are 'really thin.' Which is fine.

I take it then that you think the books on the shortlist made it there on the basis that they are 'better' than all the others, and that's why people voted for them? So The Gathering Storm made the shortlist on the basis of it being a damned good book, and the fact that the series has millions of fans and the fact that Brandon Sanderson has a big online presence has nothing at all to do with it?

I just don't buy that at all.

"And you've no real evidence that the voters haven't read all the books and are well informed"

There's no evidence to suggest they have, and that they are, either.

"Level of online debate is the aim now? I thought we were talking about spreading the faith beyond the faithful? Online debate would be nice, but involvement of publishers and booksellers and, you know, readers, is much more important."

I'm talking about a lot of things, and some I've not even got around to yet (we've not even touched on how easy it is to abuse the voting system). Do you not think that it's ironic that as an online award, there's been sod-all serious debate in online forums? How are more readers going to get involved if there's no real debate? This is an issue that others feel strongly about too.

"Have you made any effort to contact the organisers and make any suggestions before putting it out there that their hard work is bad for the genre?"

What, so I have to give them a heads-up before I'm allowed to express my opinion? The point is that similar criticisms have been voiced before on Westeros, and the organisers are aware of them. Not that much has changed, as of yet.

And in case you're suggesting that I'm being an arsehole for slagging off an award that some folk are working hard to organise, let me say this: by writing this post, I've got people talking. This topic has been picked up on across the blogosphere. People are talking about the Gemmell award. Despite critisizing the award, I've actually given it some pretty decent publicity, I'd say - better publicity than many of its supporters have given it.

"You were insisting that the shortlist is just a set of bestsellers. These two authors, I would imagine, outsell most of the shortlist considerably."

Maybe this is where quality DOES come in - remember, I wasn't writing it out altogether. I still argued that it was a factor to some extent.

"I don't think the two Gemmell shortlists have been a bad sampling considering what they're aiming at."

A fair point, but I still think that this is an area that can be improved.

"My point is I feel there is a place for an award that has a populist element and is focused on epic/heroic fantasy. Or is that bad for the genre?"

No, I agree with you - that idea is great. It's just the execution I have a serious problem with, for the reasons given in my original post.

Hmm, that wasn't such a quick response after all. Anyway, the beer garden beckons...

Joe Abercrombie said...

Petulant? Moi? I'm sure we agree a lot more than we disagree. Certainly with you that it ain't perfect and the methodology is going to need work. But hopefully that can happen and it will prove to be a good thing for the genre. Or at least not a bad thing. I think I differ with you, as I do with Mr. CN, that the relationship between marketing and popularity is quite so simple as you both imply. But I'm not suggesting you're an arsehole at all. You wanted debate, right?

Now I too must go into the garden. Or at least do some work. Later.

Anonymous said...

I get the feeeling that James wanted to cause a stir here and he got it but he admitted that thats his motive rather than actually believing in his agressive thrust.Hmmm yes arent you meant to keep that to yourself rather than admit you brought up the topic for dabte purposes..maybe youwant alot of people to reply on your site without actually doing the hard work of giving a sensible argument.Mark Nweton is just a total hypocrit.enough said on him apart from if he got into the shortlist what would he do .Please tell us all Mark what would you do then would you tell the organisers that you want to pull out? or take the award with the hope that it could increase sales? ohh the dilema .To get heated over a book award that is voted on by THE HIDEOUS THOUGHT OF THE *public* ( spit on the floor and turn around three times), because thats unthinkable isnt it..i mean THE PUBLIC..Haa what do they know..lets give the judgment to 5 literary types far outweighjs the democraticvoting system of the rest of world doesnt it.I am afraid youve chosen the wrong victim with the Gemmell award..youve just made yourselves look elitist to the extreme.

Mark Charan Newton said...

Dear Anonymous, you sound like one of my ex-girlfriends. (Care to share your name?)

Well, for honesty's sake (despite the fact that you've not named yourself) - I'm a new author with only a hardcover release in one country. It sold well. But still, that's not enough to generate a fanbase, because mass market novels are where that really kicks in: the print runs are vastly bigger, and the majority of readers buy paperbacks. To get on this shortlist you'll need mass-market novels over a period of years, preferable in several countries.

My views come because I have worked in publishing and as a bookseller and know how the industry works on the inside. It isn't pretty.

So if you can find it in you, look past that angle at the reality of things.

As for popularity - you need to look past the popular is bad issue. James has gone to great depths to explain the mechanisms of what makes something popular, and why that is actually going to have a negative impact on the state of the genre in the long run.

It's not about elitism at all - and I'm never quite sure where that passive-agressive defence comes from. The Clark is a brilliant award that rewards the mass market popular novels as much as the small press - the jury changes each year, to avoid nepotism where possible.

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Larry Nolen said...

As poor as the American public educational system has been, I have to feel for the plight of those English grammar teachers in the UK who have to read and edit papers written with the same lack of attention to grammar conventions as the anonymous Anonymous has shown in his last three attempts at analysis and commentary.

Putting aside the argument as to the value of placing names to comments, it is very difficult to consider an argument that is rife with spelling errors, failure to use the English subjunctive, among other things. Please edit and try again.

Andrew Guile said...

Am I missing something?

Doesn't this years best newcomer award cover the critism here of the award just being a base for promoting already popular authors and there cash-backed works ...?

As a minimum it weakens the thrust of the knife, no?

And one can have a hack at the award for promoting crap books. Weeks's entry last year was shamelessly commercial (I still quite enjoyed it though!) and others listed may share that taint (if that's the right word) a little. However, Joe's books are some of the most refreshing tales I have read in many years. He may well be popular and he deserves to be.

I have read fantasy for more than 25 years and have read a lot. For me he's up there with the best.

Unknown said...

I have recently been reading many David Gemmell and Terry Brooks books. I have found a greater loyalty to the writings of
Gemmell. Brooks seems to have the same cookie cutter recipe for each of his stories with slight deviations from novel to novel. I am fairly new in the Fantasy categories, and looking for some kick ass writer who is creative with his plotlines, isn't afraid to be bloody and violent, and offers true page turners. Any tips for a new kid on the fantasy block?