Why 2016 is the year for the Arthur C. Clarke Award to embrace self-published works

“What are you going to do about self publishing?”

If there’s one question I’ve been asked as the director of a book prize more than any other at science fiction and publishing events in recent years, this is it. It’ s a question that’s come up multiple times in the Q&A sessions on panels, people have stopped me in corridors to ask it and, much more fun, I’ve even been bought a drink or two at conventions by people eager for my opinion.

In most cases the query is one of genuine curiosity; there are, after all, many very intelligent people out there asking all kinds of clever questions about the future of books and the publishing industry right now. Sometimes though I’ve noticed the question being posed with a certain ‘a-ha, got you now’ attitude of someone who thinks they’ve got you trapped on the horns of a dilemma.

“We all know the Arthur C. Clarke Award doesn’t accept self-published works,” they seem to be saying, “but look around, there are lots of self-publishing authors out there now, and some of them are even really rather good, what are you going to do about that, eh?”

However my usual simple answer, “I’ll probably change the rules at some point” has never seemed to be the one they want to hear. Some people obviously prefer the delight of disruption over the more practical business of constructively managing change.

And if that answer didn’t please them, my follow up was usually worse: “I’ll probably change the rules at some point… But probably not quite yet.”

Here’s the thing. The Clarke Award was originally set up three decades ago when publishing was a very different kind of beast and self publishing usually meant going through some form of vanity press; typically the kind with a business model where money haemorrhaged from the author rather than flowing towards them.

In the last few years things have changed radically, of course. I don’t have the space here to argue the various points of self-pub versus hybrid models versus traditional publishing routes, and the questionable quality problem of self-pub is actual the reverse for us in that once there’s one diamond in the pack, that’s something we might not want to miss out on.

This happened to us a couple of years ago when author Jeff Noon chose to experiment and self-release his latest book Channel Skin. Now Jeff is an author with form, a personal favourite writer of mine and a popular winner of the Clarke Award itself for his debut novel, VURT.

We couldn’t in all reasonableness accept his book that year. Yes, we could have argued for honourable exceptions (he is a past winner after all) but we were in the middle of a judging year by the time we knew of the book, and a sudden change around one tipping point case study just didn’t make sense, but that was the slow edge of the tipping point for me.

Fast forward to this year and our own shortlist included the fabulous The Long Way To A Small Angry Planet by Becky Chambers, a novel published in the UK and submitted to us by Hodder but also well known as a fan-favourite title originally launched via a popular Kickstarter campaign.

Tipping point reached, and we’re now running the risk of missing books our judges really ought to have the chance to read, and so we change the rules: The Arthur C. Clarke Award is now open to self-published titles.

Beyond the announcement though, what are the practicalities? How will the judges cope with the potential extra titles when submissions in recent years have already increased from around 50 books a year to over one hundred.

First, the Clarke Award is the kind of award that charges a submission fee for entry. It’s not there as a barrier, it’s there as part of our core fundraising to keep the award running, but it is a consideration independent authors will need to consider as part of their own business planning.

Second, we are launching this change by expanding an existing rule whereby judges can ask to call in works they want to have the chance to consider. Previously this has usually involved us going to a publisher, most often a more mainstream imprint, and asking for a title that might not otherwise automatically have been submitted to us. We will be operating a similar principle here.

And finally, because the Clarke Award is a juried prize, a lot of the power to make decisions is given to our judges themselves. My points about authors like Jeff Noon and Becky Chambers above are all about how we recognise the quality of self-published works, but for those who worry about the potential quantity versus quality question in future submissions let me just say this. Our judges are smart and they know what they are looking for.

The rules may have changed but the spirit of the award hasn’t, and we’re still looking for the UK’s best science fiction of the year, only now we’re planning to widen that search across new frontiers.

This article was originally published on The Bookseller’s Futurebook section

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