Red Button Publishing

Publishing and Consultancy

Why Literary Awards need to recognise digital literature

We were intrigued by the recent announcement of a new literary prize set up by Goldsmiths University. The Goldsmiths Prize will be awarded to a piece of fiction that shows creative daring and breaks the mould. We were also very excited as we’re currently working on our first publication, due later this year, which fits these criteria exactly.

Having availed ourselves of the rules for submission, I wrote to the prize organisers to enquire whether they would accept a submission that was being published as an ebook only. Perhaps not unexpectedly, we received a response stating that they would not. As firm believers in the digital format and the possibilities it opens up for writers and readers alike, we wrote back, explaining why we felt that this book was worthy of consideration for the prize. We were heartened to receive another reply, thanking us for our comments and noting that these would be passed onto the organisers. Maybe we will be able to convince them to change their minds in the future; but our book will not be considered for the inaugural Goldsmiths Prize.

Literary prizes have quite understandably focused on printed publication for as long as they have existed, as has the literary establishment. Digital literature is for the most part ignored by both mainstream critics and literary awards. And by digital literature I do not mean self-published titles, but books that have been selected by small independent publishers for publication in digital format. Despite the rise of digital as a preferred format for many readers and writers alike, there is still a prejudice against digital publishing. It’s assumed that books published digitally are somehow less important, less literary than those printed on paper. The Man Booker Prize does accept digital submissions, but the rules demand that shortlisted titles are also made available in paper format. With more digital-only imprint appearing all the time, is it fair to ignore a huge swathe of new literature just because it isn’t printed on paper?

At the end of last year, the Observer newspaper published this small, but important piece on writer Jeff Noon, who chose to publish digitally despite a successful career in paper. He felt it allowed him to connect with his readers more and to publish more inventively. Noon enjoys a loyal following of readers who can now access his work worldwide in a range of formats, but, as the article points out, you won’t see reviews of Noon’s work in the mainstream media. Equally, despite having won the Arthur C. Clarke award in 1994, Noon’s recent work would not be eligible for many literary prizes now.

We think this situation needs to change, particularly to celebrate inventive and innovative fiction. Printing a book is a costly business. Publishers need to be certain that it will sell in numbers before committing. As such, many brilliant writers never find their way onto the bookshelves of their local Waterstones because their work is perhaps too niche, too different – too risky. Digital publication has its own costs, of course – in time, energy, creativity and just sheer hard work  – but removing the cost of paper, printing and bookshop distribution means that digital publishers can take a risk on something new. Which is exactly what we’re trying to do. We just hope that one day soon the establishment will start to recognise that it’s the words, not the format, that make a book great.

Caroline Goldsmith, 30 January 2013
The Human Script
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One comment on “Why Literary Awards need to recognise digital literature

  1. johnnysrich
    February 1, 2013

    There’s further discussion on this at http://discussion.guardian.co.uk/comment-permalink/21008749

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