Fed up with a publishing industry “largely controlled by conglomerates,” who “seldom take risks,” award-winning UK author Neil Griffiths has launched a new prize specifically designed to highlight, honor, and reward the work of small presses. The Republic of Consciousness Prize for Best Novel published by a Small Press is backed by Neil Griffiths, open to UK and Irish publishers with a fulltime headcount of five or less, and confers “a minimum of £2000 [$2825], split 50/50 between writer and publisher, and a stupendously good bottle of Amarone each.” And if you think that such a small prize would make little difference to even the smallest small press, bear in mind that highly-regarded UK dark/horror independent Spectral Press recently hit the buffers over debts just four times that amount.
Griffiths’s “broadside against mainstream publishing” which introduces the prize is worth reading in itself as confirmation of everyone’s worst fears and suspicions about Big Publishing. For one thing, it’s based on personal experience. Griffiths’s previous books, Betrayal in Naples and Saving Caravaggio, were both published by Penguin – “another reason I now support small presses; what a horrible experience that was.” As he tells it, in big publishers, “commissioning decisions are made on a combination of marketing advice and P&L sheets; very seldom on the imperishable nature of great writing.” And Griffiths supports this with some very highly qualified inside input. “At the end of last year I met with (arguably) the UK’s most successful agent and when we discussed this subject he said (to paraphrase): The industry is not good at spotting outliers,” he adds.
Small presses, in contrast, “are good at spotting the literary outliers. Their radar is calibrated differently from agents, or mainstream publishers.” Griffiths maintains that “quality is the only criterion.” You can read even more about his reasons for launching the prize here.
Needless to say, this isn’t an award for self-published authors. But Griffiths makes quite enough of a case for honoring small presses in their own right. And an equally strong case for avoiding and denigrating Big Publishing. I hope the award prospers as it deserves: same for the many fine independent publishers it honors.
I see little reason for a war between large and small presses, whether it involves awards or anything else. Both—along with self-publishing—have a role in the marketplace. Publishers, large and small, can treat authors badly. I once told an affiliate of the giant Pearson to get lost when they treated me badly over a book I was doing for them. And self-publishing comes with its own set of hassles. That doesn’t matter. The existence of each can serve as a corrective to the others.
I feel much the same about writing. Since James Patterson is just shy of being the Most Successful Author in History, I recently picked up one of his from my local library. I deliberately chose Cross Justice because only his name is on the cover. Apparently, he wrote this one by himself, so he can blame no one else.
Would I want to be him? Not for all the tea in China. I don’t consider myself a great writer. I’m still learning daily. But I like my first drafts better than I like his published texts. I’d hoped I could learn something from reading him. Instead, I found myself skipping from chapter to chapter, surveying its sheer awfulness.
For instance, take those little descriptive words that writers can attached to “said” statements. I’m one of those who believes that, if I have to add “angrily” to “‘Get out of here!,’ said John,” I’ve failed as a writer. I’ve written so poorly, the reader doesn’t know if John is angry or if he’s encouraging someone to move quickly. Not so with James the Wordy. Quote after quote comes with a descriptive phrase attached. As a reader, I feel insulted.
What’s interesting is that at the same time I was inflicting _Cross Justice_ on myself, I was also reading Steven Pressfield’s account of Israel’s Six Day War, _The Lion’s Gate_ and loving it. In it, he sets aside the usual history writing and lets a series of the participants give their own accounts. That I find fascinating.
One reason came when four Israeli fighter-bombers, sent to strike targets in Egypt, are diverted in flight to attack a military airfield in Syria, hundreds of miles in a different direction. They don’t even have a map for where the airfield they are to attack is. They manage to get there by having one of the four fly up high enough (they were at rooftop level) to contact another group attacking that airfield and get crude directions.
As you might expect, such a patched-together attack leads to the bane of war, confusion, and one pilot gets into trouble. With four aircraft all attacking the same runways, he needed to maintain a situation awareness of where the other three are. He doesn’t and almost crashes into one of his fellow pilots.
The entire description is filled with realism. I know, not because I’ve been a fighter pilot, but because I’ve been in life-threatning situations mountain climbing and working in a hospital with very sick kids. In both, maintaining situation awareness is vital. In the middle of utter chaos, you have to remain calm and stay aware of all that is happening.
Do I get that same “this is what it is like” feeling from Patterson? Not even close and that is what repels me. His thrillers are written by people for whom a flat tire on a city street is an utter catastrophe. I struggle to inject that same note of _The Lion’s Gate_ realism into my hospital series, where one screw-up on my part might have meant a child died. I want my readers to know what it was like to have actually been there.
“I don’t want to write and sell illusions,” he said with passion, as he looked up from the keyboard of his Mac mini computer, the one he’d bought four years earlier from the Apple refurb store.
Yeah, I could write like James Patterson if I wanted. But I’d rather be dead than get rich that way. And why should I envy him, when I like what I do better? I can publish what I write. I don’t need a Big Five label to do that. If I get awards, and two books I’ve edited have, fine. If not, it doesn’t matter. I’ve still said what I wanted to say.
–Michael W. Perry, author of My Nights with Leukemia