When the Quill Awards were announced in 2005, I wrote in The Dallas Morning News that they seemed relatively pointless. Of course, the Quills were given a high-minded purpose by Reed Business Information, the owner of Publishers Weekly and the creator of the Quills Literacy Foundation, which oversaw the awards. The Quills were intended to promote literacy in America and celebrate the best in publishing. They accomplished this by being, more or less, the book industry’s late and ineffectual attempt to give authors some media splash by crashing the TV awards ceremony game. And the Quills’ prize selections played out like the People’s Choice Awards of books.
That’s not a recommendation. Why? Because we already have a popularity contest for books — they’re called the bestseller lists. And as for the “Oscars” of books, take your pick: the Pulitzers, the American Book Awards, the National Book Awards, the National Book Critics Circle Awards, the Man Booker Prize, the Orange Prize, the various PEN Awards (Nabokov, Hemingway, Malamud) and so on and on.
So the Quills seemed perfectly unnecessary. Now they’re dead. Reed has pulled the Quills.
For more on what prizes mean in publishing, follow the jump.
These days, who wouldn’t agree with Jason Cowley’s point in the Guardian that pop culture has gone prize-crazy? He’s elaborating on the argument made last year by John English in The Economy of Prestige: Prizes, Awards and the Circulation of Cultural Value.
It’s not just that Hollywood found prize shows cheap to televise. Publishers know that when a reader is staring at a wall of books in a store, any little thing to help tip the purchase choice can help: the jacket design, the blurbs, the book’s placement in the store and — lookee there! — the “belly band” and the “gold seal,” those attention-getting devices on the cover that convey “acclaim” and “significance.”
More than any critic or well-meaning organization, publishers have helped inflate the profile of book awards, although there’s relatively little evidence they influence sales much (beyond the Pulitzer). And I’m certain the vast majority of readers couldn’t distinguish among the American Book Award, the National Book Award, the National Book Critics Circle Award and the American Kennel Club. I once jokingly asked a leading book editor that if a Pulitzer could actually increase sales by, say, 10,000 to 50,000 copies, had anyone ever thought of bribing a judge?
He laughed derisively. If I’m going to bribe anyone, he said, I’d bribe Oprah’s producer.
In short, awards tend to spring from idealistic intentions (“promoting excellence” gets used a lot in award press releases). The best thing any award can do? Give a small bit of attention to an overlooked and undermarketed yet decidedly worthy endeavor. Other than that, they often end up inspiring betting pools on the Man Booker, Stephen King insulting critics at the National Book Awards and the entire “competitive sport” culture that English analyzes in his study.