28 March 2012

By Tom Hunter

arthur-c-clarkeMy first encounter with the Arthur C. Clarke Award was courtesy of a Pan Macmillan book.

I was already picking up on the buzz around Vurt, the breakthrough first novel from Jeff Noon and winner of the 1994 prize, by the time I came to actually pick up a copy of the book itself from the SF&F section of a tiny branch of WH Smith’s somewhere in Lancaster city centre. I still distinctly remember the moment today even though it was both years ago and not exactly a unique life moment for me to be browsing book shelves on a quiet Saturday afternoon.

Flash-forward years later, and I’m now the person currently responsible for the running of the Clarke Award, and as such I’ve heard pretty much every single genre award argument, debate and rampant conspiracy theory going, but the one that still strikes me as odd is this one: awards don’t sell books.

vurt-jeff-noonOk, I get the argument well enough, that unless you’re a heavy-hitting (i.e. packing some sponsored marketing clout) prize like the Booker or similar you won’t sell lots of extra books off of the back of a prize win, especially perhaps a genre prize, of which there are rather a lot these days. However the idea that a prize win has no affect on a potential readership whatsoever is one I personally don’t agree with for several reasons.

The first of these is simply that, as it stands, the publishing industry clearly doesn’t have the research resources available to know exactly what prompts a casual browser of books to spend their hard-earned cash. Sure we can talk about the cover, or the jacket copy or the pull quote from a different (hopefully famous) author or even the killer first line in the book itself, but the truth is we don’t know what prompts that final decision, and, as many publishers would be the first to agree, this is in many ways a good thing, because books are works of art first, not tins of baked beans, and art is a medium of passion not price-points.

It’s also often said that while a Booker win can spike sales of that one particular winning book, it’s perhaps not so great at building a long-term readership for the actual author, which is where I think genre prizes like the Clarke or the Gemmell can really come into their own. The tipping point for me to buy Vurt might have been the mention of the win on the back cover, but once hooked you just know I went out and bought the rest of Jeff’s books as they came out too, and with no prompting required. Try figuring out how to reflect that in your EPOS reporting.

So there I was, standing in WH Smith’s, reading how this curiously yellow book with the feather on the cover was the Winner of the 1994 ARTHUR C. CLARKE AWARD (their choice to use capitals, by the way, but I thoroughly approve) and I distinctly remember not only being impressed enough I decided to buy the book, but also taking the time while queuing up to pay to imagine what that winning Clarke Award ceremony must have been like.
In my head I saw red carpets, tuxedos and the kind of vast sweeping spotlights you’d probably see if the Gotham City Police Department were suddenly asked to produce the Oscars. In other words, magic. As I look forward to my sixth year hosting the Clarke Award ceremony in May, my original vision of the ceremony is as strong as ever, even if some of the details have changed.

Sir Arthur famously said that any sufficiently advanced technology would be indistinguishable from magic.

I like that quote and, at its best, I like to think of the Clarke Award working something like that. Lots of planning and prepping and organisation behind the scenes, all aimed at that one magical moment when someone picks up a new book from the shelf, and reads that the book is a Clarke winner, and then buys the book… And then discovers whole new universes full of wonder.

I think that would be a moment to make Arthur proud.

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The 20th anniversary edition of Vurt is now available in hardback and paperback from Pan Macmillan. This edition features a wonderful foreword by Lauren Beukes, three original short stories and fabulous new jacket art.

See the post by Curtis McFee on redesigning covers for Jeff Noon's entire backlist.