A recent article by Deborah Cohen cites James English The Economy of Prestige: Prizes, Awards, and the Circulation of Cultural Value. According to English, the number of literary awards has more than doubled in the UK since 1988 and tripled in the US since 1976. Not all these are for SFF, of course. Some of them are big competitions for national recognition and some are only small prizes for local authors. Still, there’s been that explosion. So why are awards so popular?

The answer appears to be economics, which is the answer to a lot of questions about human behavior, i.e. there’s money tied up in the awards process. First of all, many of the prizes charge an entry fee, which means it’s a money-making proposition for the organization offering the award. The Newbery is free. The Pulitzer charges $50. But other smaller contests often have higher fees. The Florida Authors and Publishers Association, for example, charges $75 for members and $85 for non-members to enter their contest. These small organizations tend to cater to independent publishers and authors who hope to gain some of the advantages a literary award can offer, meaning you can add “prize-winning author” to your bio.

The second way money enters the equation is that the more prestigious awards generally give a big boost to the winner’s sales. There are press releases and a big awards ceremony and a sticker that goes on the books so book stores can set up displays. This means it’s important for an award to become prestigious so it can influence sales, and important for big publishers to control the prestigious awards, if at all possible. There are pressures, and corruption may creep in. For example, recently published diaries of a former French literary judge apparently allege that the French publishing houses illegally influence the major awards. Accordingly, the three biggest publishing houses always win the biggest prizes for their authors.

Because of the prestige and sales that well-known awards can provide, there are other pressures, as well. Readers might recall that the lack of recognition for popular literature is one of the Sad/Rabid Puppy complaints. Underrepresented groups of authors lobby for recognition, and diversity in particular has recently become a point of contention. An interesting question: Does more diversity in the awards lead to more diversity in the publishing industry?

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