Skip to main content
Tuesday, 08 December 2015

Chasing the glittering literary prizes

Sheila O’Reilly: a bookseller's perspective


Sheila O’Reilly is an award winning independent bookseller with more than 20 years’ experience of the book trade.

As an editor are you aiming high? Are you aiming to be the editor who commissions the next Bailey’s winner or the winner of the Samuel Johnson Prize*? Will achieving that accolade for your author matter to your career? But more importantly for Mr Finance of the 6th floor will it sell books?

The short answer is yes, the slightly longer answer is yes but, and the very long answer follows.

The two major book awards in the UK are the Man Booker for fiction and the Samuel Johnson Prize for Non-Fiction*. The Man Booker was won in 2015 by Marlon James for A Brief History of Seven Killings. When the book made the shortlist there was an 83% increase in sales week on week when over 12,000 copies were sold. Once the book won the main prize book sales have gone into the hundreds of thousands. It’s interesting that the 2014 winner Richard Flanagan for his novel The Narrow Road to the Deep North has gone onto sell 800,000 copies worldwide and it would be my opinion that James will sell more.

The non-fiction companion, the Samuel Johnson Prize, was won this year by Steve Silberman with his book Neurotribes and again there has been a dramatic spike in book sales along with raising awareness in the wider book world. As a bookseller, when the shortlist of any book award is announced we scan down the list to check whether we have or should have any of the titles in stock and if not, we order them in. Likewise when a book wins we would certainly aim to stock it, so if you multiply that across the 950+ independent bookshops that’s quite an impact, let alone the orders that will come from the likes of Waterstones and Foyles.

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. There is an even bigger group that buy the winner just because it won the 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.

So my advice would be to aim to win the top prize, it will sell copies of your book, Mr Finance on the 6th floor will love you and your name is made forever in the glittering world of publishing.

*From 2016 the name of this award changes to The Baillie Gifford Prize for Non-fiction.