Books Unbound: Non-Fiction Literary Prizes. Are they Useful?

Forbes collects Warwick Prize

Peter Forbes collects 2011 Warwick Prize

It has been an exciting year for Yale University Press titles, with a large selection winning prestigious literary awards, including the History Today Prize and the £50,000 Warwick Prize for Writing. Here Yale publisher Heather McCallum, whose books have picked up four significant awards this year, discusses non-fiction prizes and their role within the publishing industry.

Article by Heather McCallum

As the celebrations and criticisms die down around this year’s Booker (my favourite line was Stella – ex-MI6 boss and judge – Rimmington’s ‘I’ve been through many crises of one kind or another, against which this one pales’). I’m looking back on a year in which four of the books I have published have won significant prizes. As this is a far-from-regular occurrence, it’s an opportunity for me to think about book prizes more generally, though clearly, ahem, through rose-tinted spectacles.

This being Yale University Press, the books are all non-fiction: Demobbed: Coming Home After the Second World War by Alan Allport won the History Today Prize, The Book in the Renaissance by Andrew Pettegree won the Phyllis Goodhart Gordan Prize for the best Renaissance book, Dazzled and Deceived: Mimicry and Camouflage by Peter Forbes won the Warwick Prize for Writing and Boyle: Between God and Science by Michael Hunter has won the Samuel Pepys Prize.

Boyle: Between God and Science

Boyle: Between God and Science, winner of the Samuel Pepys Prize

All very different prizes in both aims and qualifying criteria, needless to say I’m delighted by these wins and think that they are much deserved!

How does a non-fiction book prize differ, if at all, from a fiction book prize? Well, I assume that the judges’ criteria are different for a start. In non-fiction judges are, presumably, assessing quality and originality of research, logic and presentation of ideas and overall significance of the argument (both to the scholarly world and beyond). These gauges, it seems to me, are laudable and valuable.

The Warwick Prize is particularly interesting in this respect because it’s open to both fiction and non fiction. It’s a thematic prize (this year the theme was colour) and it’s the quality of ideas and writing that is important. I think this makes the long and short lists and the judges’ thinking particularly compelling. Such an ‘any comers’ approach on such a local theme makes the field remarkably level yet, clearly, relatively narrow. Certainly the long and short lists contained some most intriguing selections and the enthusiasm of the judges spurred me on to read a number of them.

For non-fiction the majority of prizes that are not specifically for a scholarly audience, specify that the book must be well written and engaging for non specialists. I would have thought for fiction and non-fiction alike readability is important, yet it is precisely this that has been so controversial. Non-fiction publishing today is remarkably diverse yet united by certain core concerns. Certainly, we intend that our books are both serious and readable. The four books I’ve mentioned are very different – biography, out of the box science writing, social history (combining the personal with wider social implications) and an outstanding survey of a fascinating field. We hope that they will be successful in popular as well as scholarly terms.

So, are prizes useful? Well, certainly for the author, who is obviously the big winner, and for the publisher… profile is raised, sales (sometimes) given a shot in the arm and occasionally considerably more than that. That’s leaving aside, obviously, the cash prize, but it’s usually not a life changing sum and the prestige is more important. The recognition in a relatively small community is what matters.

For non-fiction, I think the prizes succeed in pointing up excellence to quite a focused group as well as, hopefully, giving a broader audience a chance to hear about a well written work they might not otherwise have encountered.

For myself, I’m just proud to have been associated with books and authors that win prizes. Nothing beats that ‘it was all worth it’ feeling… like I say, rose-tinted spectacles.

Heather McCallum is a Publisher at Yale University Press. Demobbed: Coming Home After the Second World War,  The Book in the RenaissanceDazzled and Deceived: Mimicry and Camouflage and Boyle: Between God and Science are all available from yalebooks.co.uk.

Read our previous ‘ Books Unbound’ article by Yale’s Eastern Europe sales representative Ewa Ledóchowicz 

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