The short answer is yes, the slightly longer answer is yes but, and the very long answer follows. The shortlist for all the Costa awards has been announced and with that a huge amount of publicity kicks into place to share the news. Will the publicity drive customers to read all or any of the shortlisted titles?

Richard Flanagan with trophy and book - credit Janie Airey

The two major book awards in the UK are the Man Booker for fiction and the Samuel Johnson for non-fiction. The Man Bookerwas won by Richard Flanagan for The Narrow Road to the Deep North. Even after it was shortlisted Flanagan’s novel did not feature on the bestseller charts. However once it won the prize it leapt into the top 5 bestsellers with 1000’s flying out the doors of bookshops throughout the UK.  To date Flanagan has sold 56,500 copies of his book however a more telling statistic is that his win has had no impact on his previous novels!

The non-fiction companion, the Samuel Johnson award, was won this year by Helen Macdonald’s H is for Hawk and in the week of its success it sold over 4,500 copies which has now built into a sales total of 39,430. In one of the weeks prior to the award “Hawk” managed to record just 492 sales, so I guess the short answer to the question in this case is yes.

Helen Macdonald wins 2014 Samuel Johnson Prize for Non-Fiction for H is For Hawk - copyright Megan Taylor

Publishing is a complicated, risky business, there is no sure-fire guide as to what will sell or will not sell. Even being is shortlisted for a prestigious book award is not a guarantee of sales. However I know from being a bookseller of many years, and talking to customers who hear or see the book award announcements, that being nominated does extend the reach and broaden the appeal of the listed books. There is a dedicated band of readers that will routinely buy the Man Booker shortlist and read it and a bigger group that buy the winner just because it won the main award.


The non-fiction sector is less straight forward. Readers of fiction, who buy books, will take a chance on a novel that has won an award, however non-fiction buyers are less likely to take a chance on a something, just because it won an award.  With a work of non-fiction there is a higher chance that readers will take a view on the subject, whether that be a person, a time, or a place and therefore the “winner “needs to either appeal to the buyer’s interests by bringing something new to light or be extremely well written, otherwise the best bookseller in the world will not persuade the book buyer to make a purchase.

Booksellers probably have a different slant when evaluating the sale potential of a new book. We want the best written and most engaging books, with the widest appeal, to be chosen as winners. Such gems don’t often come along however with the publicity of an award win there’s an opportunity to pull more book buyers into bookshops and raise the profile of non-fiction writing.

Have a lovely Christmas; do remember to support your local independent bookshops of which there are many in South London. In fact as a book lover you are spoilt for choice – a rare occurrence, let’s keep it that way.

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Book Awards – What I think

Book awards, a bit like buses for me; I had never been a book award judge and now I am about to begin my second judging role in as many months. If you are a passionate bookseller (I am) being asked to read a large pile of books in a set time is like Germany beating Brazil in the World Cup 7 -1, it’s your greatest dream come true. However, for Germany, once  they have contended  the final on July 13th, it will be all over, whereas I will have a second large stack of books, so will be reliving the dream for weeks to come. Though since Germany have now won the World Cup their celebrations will continue over the next four years until England claim the title in four years.

The book award judging process that I am taking part in is the 2015 Costa Awards. It has five categories: Poetry, First Novel, Fiction, Biography and Children’s, so they need a lot of judges. I am lucky enough to be on the Biography panel along with two others. The Costa’s are one of the major book awards in the UK, along with the Man Booker Prize and, for those of you about my age, you will remember them as the Whitbread Awards, originally launched in 1971. Somewhere in 2006 the marketing bods in Whitbread felt that the awards would have a broader appeal if they changed the sponsorship from beer to coffee. Try telling that to Bailey’s who have just taken over the sponsorship of the Women’s Prize for Fiction for which A Girl Is A Half Formed Thing by Eimear McBride won in June.

Back to the judging, I was of course thrilled to be asked having thoroughly enjoyed taking part in the judging for the Independent Bookshops Book of the Year. That award was won by Kate Atkinson’s Life After Life – a book I would highly recommend you read. Judging the IB Book of the Year involved reading 10 books, a very achievable number, over my Easter holidays.  So once I said yes to the Costa organizers and got the instructions emailed back, can you imagine my apprehension when I saw that upwards of 70 books are entered for the Biography Awards. My first thought, even though I am a fast reader, was that this is going to take more than a 10 day holiday to get through that number. I shared this thought with the bookshop team that I might have to take an extended holidays for reading purposes and you can imagine the laughter that brought on.

In order to avoid total meltdown amongst the judges the books are sent out in batches. This has lots of benefits in that you don’t feel overwhelmed and enabled me to focus on those 8 or 10 books that arrived that week. However it did build up my expectations as I spent moments wondering is the winner is this stack of books, or will it be in the next box.

There are three judges and we each choose our top 3 or 4 from our selection and those titles are consolidated to become the shortlist. Each judge then re-reads the shortlist. We subsequently meet up and discuss the merits of the shortlist and choose a winner over lunch I am hoping.

My first of four boxes of books arrived about two weeks ago and there was quite a lot of excitement to see exactly who might be in contention. I was slightly surprised to spot a book or two that had already been published that I’d never heard of! Should I worry, am I reading in the too small world that is Dulwich I wondered?

So what are the criteria for the Costa Book Award? We have heard a lot about how the Man Booker has now opened itself up to, heaven forbid, writers in America and beyond. This will allow the likes of Donna Tartt and Jonathan Franzen to be included. Or Richard Ford, a writer who John Banville suggested on a recent event at Dulwich College was the best writer ever. However I feel that UK authors’ fears can be allayed by my prediction; I am going to stick my neck out say that an English writer will win the 2014 Man Booker Prize, it will be a woman or a man, one of the two. But then what do I know, I predicted that the 2013 prize would go to Jim Crace.

Anyway back to the criteria for entering the Costa Book Award, to be eligible the author must have lived in the UK/Ireland for at least 6 months of the year, during the past 3 years, that the book must have been first published in the UK/Ireland between 1 November 2013 and 31 October 2014 and lastly the author has to have been alive on 1st November 2013. What I am on the lookout for is a book that sparkles something that is eminently readable book with broad appeal. I want the award to lead to large numbers of book buyers wanting to read it and to recommend it to their friends.

So without further ado I am off to find the most outstanding autobiography or biography of the past twelve months. I will update you in August and tell you how I am getting on.

Who do you think should be included? Send me your suggestions of books you have read and should be on the longlist.

Book Awards – Now well into the reading

I am now well into reading the submissions for the Costa Biography Book of the Year 2015 and what an amazing and wonderful challenge it is proving to be. One on the brilliant benefits of having to read a selection of books that has been already chosen by someone else, is that it is like being a member of a book group. I am reading books I might not necessarily otherwise have read.  Inevitably there a number of books that probably will not make my shortlist of three, that  are nonetheless most enjoyable and will be featured in my recommends for the bookshop.

To remind you, the eligibility criteria for entering the Costa Book Award are: the author must have lived in the UK/Ireland for at least 6 months of the year- during the past 3 years, that the book must have been first published in the UK/Ireland between 1 November 2013 and 31 October 2014, and lastly the author has to have been alive on 1st November 2013.

When I pick up each book to read I ask myself does it sparkle as an eminently readable book with broad appeal? I want the winner of this world class award to be a book that encourages large numbers of book buyers to read it and to recommend it to their friends. (And hopefully even buying the book through their local independent bookshop.) I have put all the book titles into a spreadsheet in order to compile an audit of each title based on my personal marking criteria.

What are my marking criteria? Well that would be sharing my secrets but suffice to say that it criteria is grade on a one to ten scale and if the book received a 1 after a few chapters it will not be appearing on my shortlist, whereas the any books or maybe book which received a 10 I re-read before deciding to argue for it on the short list. My spreadsheet is password protected so don’t think about hacking in to find out!

When I left you in July I had received most of the books, I could have had them on an ereader and that certainly did appeal. If we had not been travelling by car on holidays I probably would have had to say yes. I suspect every book award judge will handle their reads in different way, however what I did first would not necessarily been possible on an ereader… I think.

My first step was, to avoid reading a book on a similar theme/subject one after another, to split the books into separate groups. It’s funny because if you’d have asked me I would have said a biography/autobiography can be straight forward either it is or it isn’t but they can in fact be split into smaller subcategories. So for example I gathered all the biographies with a history or music theme, ones without a human, yup there are a few, and the like, into separate piles. This meant I would not, for example, read two biographies set in WWI or say WWII one after another. I felt, and I might be wrong in this, that I might be comparing their views on the history period (a bad thing) rather than the quality of the writing or engagement with the subject. It also meant that as I worked through the submissions I would be reading books after one another that were quite different.

So first day of my holiday, onto the lounger surrounded by books what better way to start a holiday? As they do before crime dramas on TV, I am putting in a “spoiler” warning here; if you are a budding writer stop reading now.

As I picked up each book I reminded myself of the criteria of the award, I also reminded myself of how I recommend books to customers and set the target that the book must grip me by chapter 6. Of course many of the books submitted for the Costa Biography Award are long books and chapter 6 might not be that far in, however if you are going to engage the reader, pulling them into the story, I feel that the author should have them gripped by chapter 6, it is after all normally a few hundred pages into the book.

Taking my spreadsheet for the books to move from the to-read pile into the shortlist pile they must have achieved a marking of 5+ by chapter 6. Regardless of the marking at this stage, as I have already mentioned, I did read on with some books that failed the grade but I was enjoying the book and wanted to finish.

What happened to the shortlist pile you may ask, read next month’s column to find out.

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