Awards season, indies, and the tyranny of numbers

the ides of indies, a recurring discussion of indie publishing matters

Let’s talk about awards season and how indies have been faring in fiction. as well as the state of inclusiveness for people of color and the LGBTQ+ community.* Kirkus Prize and the World Fantasy Awards have already announced their winners, Goodreads is in semifinal voting, National Book Awards will announce their winners on 11/18/2020, and the Booker Prize will be announced on 11/19/2020. I got award fever, so I’ll announce the Bibliostatic 2020 Year of Doom awards at the end (going to have to rethink that name—open to suggestions).

After we hear from the president of the academy and the PriceWaterhouse guys, there’ll be awards: Most inclusive award, Most indie friendly award, Sole SP award and much, much more!

But first, the analysis. I got out my handy spread sheets and did a whale of a lot of cut and paste as well as some heavy Googling (sounds like a weird sex act, but never mind). I’m sure errors have crept in, but I wanted to share what I’d learned. And, yes, I realize, it’s not a scientific sampling, but it’s still interesting.

Quick note on the data: I only took the Goodreads data from the semifinals for fantasy, mystery, and historical fiction. The Kirkus Prize was based on fiction nominees only. The Booker Prize information is from the longlist. For determining POC and LGBTQ+, I looked at the authors and protagonists as described in the summaries, and at the shelves on Goodreads. This is probably the part most subject for debate, because I have no idea what criteria was used for shelving.

83% of the nominations, unsurprisingly, are Big5 publications.

Not surprisingly, the Big 5 dominated the awards overall. Of 94 nominations, constituted of 90 separate books, the Big 5 took a respectable 83% (or 78 nominations) through all their various imprints. Sometimes it’s like following pirate maps to figure out which are Big 5. During my first run at researching, I thought Bookouture and Sourcebooks Landmarks were independent publishers, and congratulated them on being the only indies nominated in the Goodreads Mystery category.

Turns out, Bookouture used to be an indie, but was acquired by Hachette a few years ago. The founder was a former Harlequin marketing guy, but the website doesn’t have anything that would make you think it’s a Hachette subsidiary. It’s not until you do a little digging that you find Hachette is the parent company. Yeah, I’m a bit embarrassed about that tweet now.

Sourcebooks Landmark, an imprint of Sourcebooks, says it’s an independent publisher on its about page. Seems straightforward. As you, a seasoned reader will have guessed, it’s a little more complicated. Penguin Random House has a 45% ownership share in Sourcebooks. Is it then still an indie? Sourcebooks says yes; I’m not convinced, and I’m moving them to the Big 5 pile.

I just can’t bring myself to call Amazon’s imprints indie publications.

Then there’s Amazon. Not one of the traditional Big 5, but it’s hard to argue it’s an indie when it’s bringing in cash for book sales comparable to those hoary veterans: a whopping $5.25 BILLION compared to Simon & Schuster’s measly $830 million. (I’ll take that version of measly, please.) Granted, Amazon’s not making even most of that wad of cash from their own imprints, and it may not be quite the same kind of conglomerate as the Big 5, but it smells more like a Big 5.5, so its nominations are counted with those guys.

Genre fiction was a minority among the non-genre awards. Only a dystopia and a few arguably crime novels were nominated. Genres don’t get no respect.

And I have to talk about Shuggie Bain, and not in terms of its content. Shuggie Bain is listed as a publication of Grove Press in most awards—except the Booker Prize, which lists Picador, an imprint tracing back to Macmillan. So which one is it? Well, the novel is published in the US and Canada by Grove Press, but by Macmillan in Commonwealth countries.

That wasn’t terribly helpful to me when I was trying to decide what bucket to put it in, so I decided to look at the publication dates. Voilà! Picador/Macmillan: August 6, 2020. Grove Press: October 13, 2020. The widely recognized Shuggie Bain goes into the Big 5 pile. What a disappointment!

Follow the money.

Why do the Big 5 get so many more nominations? If you look at the total number of titles released in a year (around , they only publish around a third of all the different books published in the US each year, over 30,000 titles of the estimated 2.2 million worldwide and over 100,000 in the US alone. Oddly enough, when you look at the total sales, though, the market share of the Big 5 is (drumroll, please) 80%, fairly close to that of their nominations. Together, they make over $7 billion each year.

So, of course, they have the pull to get more attention for their books (and to make it pretty and neat). If you’ve tried self-publishing (or even book blogging), you’ll know that the challenge is being heard over all the noise. The Big 5 (and Amazon) have air horns and rock concert sound equipment. They’ll get heard.

There’s a world of difference between Grim Oak Press with its $6 million annual sales and Bloomsbury Publishing with nearly $214 million, right?

But how does that play out among indies? There’s Bloomsbury Publishing, home of Harry Potter, with the wealth that series brought, and then there are others that make far less than the million dollar magic goal. Grim Oak Press and Bloomsbury are both semi-finalists in the Fantasy category of the Goodreads Awards, along with lonely Hidden Gnome Press, Will Wight’s self-publishing alter ego. What are their chances against the other 17 books? I’m really asking; I’m no good at calculating odds—where are C-3PO or Spock when you need them?

Similarly, people of color and other traditionally underserved populations (what do you think of that euphemism?) are fighting that entrenched policy of racism and other nasty -isms. Money, power, elite…you get the picture.

Mystery, do better.

Overall, a rather surprising 35% of the titles (a total of 32) were either authored by and/or had a character in the novel that was a POC; LGBTQ+ rated 17% representation (total of 15). The standout for least inclusiveness was Goodread’s Mystery category, with no LGBTQ+ and only one Black protagonist written by the only Black author from the 20 titles in the semifinals. Interestingly, Mystery was the only group of nominees that had zero indie publishers.

And the winners are…

Award for the most nominations for a single book: Go, Douglas Stuart and his Shuggie Bain, nominated for four different prizes: Goodreads Historical Fiction category, the Booker Prize, the National Book Award, and the Kirkus Prize. Honorable mention to James McBride for Deacon King Kong, which received nominations from both Goodreads Historical Fiction category and the Kirkus Prize.

Award for double appearance by single author: Jim Butcher appears twice in the Goodreads Fantasy category. Butcher’s double appearance was a result of the publisher splitting the intended single novel into two halves, Peace Talks and Battle Ground, because of the total length, to much muttering and grumbling among fans of the Dresden Files.

Award for only self-published: Will Wight is in the room, ladies and gentleman, and he brought his own damn self with Wintersteel.

Award for the greediest Big 5: Okay, perhaps I should say “most successful.” I’ll give you a hint: Unsurprisingly, it’s the largest of the Big 5. Yep, Penguin comes out on top with 28 nominations. Then there’s nearly a three-way tie: Macmillan and Hachette with 13 and HarperCollins with 12. Simon & Schuster, what the hell happened? You only got 4.

Award for most titles nominated from a single indie publisher: Bloomsbury Publishing (do you see my surprised face?) takes this home with four titles: House of Earth and Blood by Sarah J. Maas and Piranesi by Susanna Clark in the Goodreads Fantasy category and Apeirogon by Colum McCann and Such a Fun Age by Kiley Reid on the longlist for the Booker Prize.

Award for smallest of the presses to receive a nomination: Scrappy Tin House Books, whose annual revenue is an order of magnitude away from the next closest traditional indie publisher, has a nominee for the National Book Award, The Index of Self-Destructive Acts by Christopher Beha.

Award for most inclusive genre: Hello, Historical Fiction—13 total titles over more than one awarding group with either a POC character and/or author and/or LGBTQ+ characters. (I”ll give you a minute to sort out that sentence; suggested rewrites welcomed in the comment section below.) However, Fantasy had the most titles with both POCs and LGBTQ+ characters and/or authors.

Award for managing to avoid any indie nominees: We have a tie for the big fat goose egg. The Goodread’s Mystery category included all of the Big 5 plus Amazon, but no indies. The World Fantasy Awards listed books from Redhook, Orbit (both Hachette imprints), Tor.com (Macmillan), and Pantheon (Penguin Random Books). The tie-breaker: the award will go to the one which had the most total opportunities to include an indie. Congratulations, Goodread’s Mystery category, for your second raspberry, since you failed to include one indie among the 20 choices. (And, no, your own imprint doesn’t count.)

Award for most inclusive Award: Kirkus Prize, which only had one nominee that wasn’t either a POC or LGBTQ+ and awarded the prize to Raven Leilani for Luster. Yeah, it’s Macmillan book, but whatcha gonna do?

Award for the Award with the most nominations for indie publishers: Although several got up to 4 indie published nominations, only one had a significant percentage of them: Kirkus Prize, which nominated a striking 2/3 (or that annoying 66.66%) of its list from indie publishers. That would be more significant if it weren’t for the fact that Kirkus makes its money from reviewing books ($425-$575 a pop) and book editing ($500 minimum), and there’s potentially a huge indie market for them.


Although I had fun with this, the takeaway was all too depressing: $$=respect. Damn.

*Or whatever term you prefer; as a straight, CIS, white woman I don’t and shouldn’t have any preference, but can’t determine what the consensus is at the moment.

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