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.