The late Maeve Binchy left a cool €10 million in her will. Her writing career was stratospheric, but she was the exception. Post boom, life is tough for a writer —’the book trade has changed dramatically; huge advances are a thing of the past, and, as John Connolly recently said on the John Murray Show, the printed book may not exist in 10 years’ time.
Is it still possible to make a living from writing alone, and do awards help? Do they bring in sales, or are they useful just for glory?
“They are important,” says Joseph O’Connor, “particularly for writers starting out.
“I won the Hennessy some 25 years ago. I had been sending stuff off and getting no response, and suddenly publishers start writing to you.
“My first book was nominated for the Whitbread. It helped establish it. Anything that helps a book, or an author, stand out from the crowd is good.”
But it was a book club nomination on Richard and Judy that reaped financial awards. When The Star of the Sea, Joe’s novel set around the Irish famine featured, he thought it was a piece of silliness.
“I didn’t expect it to make a difference,” he says. “But Bob Geldof, one of the reviewers called it a masterpiece.
“I remember logging on to Amazon that night. Every time I logged on it had gone up 500 places. By 8pm it was number 10, and by 9pm, number one. It stayed there for 11 weeks, and far outsold the Booker winner. It was the stuff of dreams. It made a huge difference financially at a time when the kids were small.”
These days Joe teaches as well as writes. He’s involved with the theatre, and always has other projects on the go. But this, he says, isn’t just through necessity.
“Writing is harder these days, but it was always hard. It’s the loneliness of the writer’s life that I find difficult. If you just sit in a room making things up, you end up writing novels about novelists; getting out into the world is useful.”
Everyone agrees that winning the Man Booker Prize also wins sales; it made a huge difference to Anne Enright, who won in 2007 with The Gathering.
“The Man Booker was always the prize I wanted,” she says. “I found the fame alienating, but the sales afterwards gave me a good few years to write. It was on the New York Times bestseller lists for six months. The prize was the trigger for that. At one stage it started to dip, and I went out and wore out some shoe leather giving readings and meeting people. That put it back up again.”
Anne has won a legion of prizes, but her favourite, she says, was the Davy Byrne for a short story.
“It was lovely cash and came at a time when my luck was out. It made all the difference. And it’s Irish, and anonymous. It was lovely! I’m judging it this year.”
She’s not all that keen on shortlists, saying they are too distracting. And it was disappointing when The Forgotten Waltz — shortlisted for the Orange Prize — didn’t win. It’s an emotion shared by John Connolly, who has won more than a few prizes in his time, but who swears he can’t stand them.
“If you want to win awards you have to put effort into them,” he says. “One of the big unspoken secrets is that in some, if you are nominated, you have to agree to attend the dinner. And they are awful! If you lose you have to lose gracefully, and if you win you feel guilty for all the people you know who didn’t win. I’d rather be home watching Masterchef with the kids.”
There are some awards, he concedes, that have impact on sales; including the National Book Awards in America.
Connolly’s biggest peeve, is with awards featuring a public vote.
“There’s a huge danger that the book to win will be the one that shouts the loudest. I keep my distance from those. People are hustling for votes, and I’m not sure they should be doing that.”
As someone who avoids social media, Christine Dwyer-Hickey agrees with him wholeheartedly.
“I’ve been twice nominated for the Bord Gáis Energy Irish Book Awards, but without an internet presence, know I’m not going to get votes,” she says.
Christine has appeared on a lot of shortlists They include the Dublin IMPAC and the Orange Prize. And in 2012, The Cold Eye of Heaven won the Kerry Group Irish Fiction Awards; a prize Christine was shortlisted for back in 1995.
Did that prize affect sales?
“I’m not sure that prizes do,” she says. “I got my best sales in the UK for The Last Train from Liguria. But it’s all down to who is selling your book. If they’re not in the bookshops when the prize is announced it makes no difference. It’s the same with reviews, it’s irrelevant if the book isn’t there.”
Kevin Barry adores his life as a full time writer.
“I try not to forget that it’s a privileged place to be,” he says. “I can sit up in bed of a morning and make up stories. I have it cushy.”
Awards have made a huge difference to Kevin. He won the Dublin IMPAC with The City of Bohane, and the prize for that is €100,000.
“It was great for the book, too,” he says. “It kept it motoring along nicely for a couple of years, and I’m not shy about wanting readers.
“Non-cash awards keep the profile high,” he says. “Writers have a fight on their hands. Festivals and readings help too. But more than anything, what sells a book is the reader. Someone who grabs your arm and says, ‘Listen, c’mere, you’ve just got to read such and such’.”
Seamus Heaney was the fourth Irish writer to be honoured with the Nobel Prize for Literature. (In 1995.) Previous winners were WB Yeats, 1923, George Bernard Shaw, 1925, and Samuel Beckett, 1969.
Only three Irish writers have scooped the €100,000 prize money since the International IMPAC Dublin Literary Award was established in 1996. They are Colm Tóibín, ‘The Master’, (2006,) Colum McCann, ‘Let The Great World Spin’, (2011,) and Kevin Barry, ‘City of Bohane’, (2013).
Maeve Binchy won six major awards, including, in 1999, The British Book Award for Lifetime Achievement. In 2001, she beat Booker prize winner Margaret Atwood, when she won the W H Smith Award for Scarlett Feather.
Paul Howard, the three times winner of BGE Best Popular Fiction Prize, also won an award for journalism.