Number Crunching the NZ Post Book Awards

Stephen Stratford, on his Quote Unquote blog, fired a shot across the bow of the NZ Post shortlist debate. Which is clever, as it’s hard to figure out where the bow is let alone who owns the boat, who is in it and if they’re actually at sea. I prefer bandwagons. Stratford supports the shortlists for fiction and poetry being kept at three titles based on arguments of proportionality (shortlist being statistically on par with submissions), sales (no one buys them anyway) and ageism (they were published, like, a whole year ago). His points are interesting and good (except for that ageism one), if a little statistical. Is that enough to justify shortlists of three titles?

Fergus Barrowman (who prefers a list of five) commented on the blog that he disagreed, offering various points of rebuttal to proportionality and sales; the main points being that three books can’t do justice to a year’s output and, regardless of poor sales, the accolade itself, for publisher and writer, is of great value.

Awards are based on merit, something that should be the primary consideration. Shortlist accolades are only valuable if their meritorious integrity is maintained, but attempting to base that integrity on statistics, be they sales or submission, defeats the standards awards recognise.

The hard fact is that, in any given year, it can’t be guaranteed that NZ writers will produce five works of fiction or poetry worthy of being shortlisted, so a framework of three titles better supports quality. But in those years where a glut of talent stands up and ululates, why not have the flexibility to expand the list to four or five? Have the framework support the quality.

And screw sales – that’s a bonus of awards, not the point of them. Sale boosts for shortlisted titles are small, but that’s a problem for booksellers and publishers, not ceremonies. Booksellers prop up window displays or counter presentations, seeking to profit through exposure, focusing on the fact they’re being exposed instead of the reason for it. A more creative approach may be required by those that make and sell books, but that isn’t something the Award should be worrying about. If there’s a lack of media discussion about the NZ Post Book Awards maybe it’s because the industry people on the ground are vaguely waving at the shortlists instead of gesturing wildly at the books.

A couple of excellent contributions to the NZ Post Book Awards debate at the NZ Listener and Schroedinger’s Tabby.

Marcus Greville

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