During the last two weeks, there have been highs and lows for readers and writers in Western Australia and beyond. We delighted in the offerings of the Perth Writers Festival, reported by many (including The West Australian) as one of the most successful in recent years. But we have been dismayed by two major blows—one by the government sector and one by the corporate.
The Western Australian State Government announced that the WA Premier’s Book Awards, open to books published nationally in the previous year, will now be held biennially instead of annually, with the next awards to be announced in 2016 for books published in 2014 and 2015. As a shortlisted author in 2014 for my novel Elemental (Fiction and People’s Choice categories), I can attest to the enormous value of such recognition, not only in publicity and sales but in validation and encouragement. Stretching the awards over a period of two years will dilute the impact of a shortlisting, especially for those titles published in a ‘between’ year, as timeliness is an issue in an industry where books often have a scandalously short shelf life.
Much has been said, and rightly so, about the effective halving of the financial recognition of writers through making the awards biennial—presumably for budgetary reasons (a saving of $65,000), although the Premier has declined to comment on this. But equally alarming is the halving of the number of books—across many genres—that will be recognised and promoted through shortlistings, let alone awards, over that time. And overarching all these considerations is the negative message that the decision sends about the value of the literary arts to the vibrancy of life in our community.
Here are a few of the many comments from those in the industry who have spoken up in the print media recently:
While this will hurt writers, publishers, booksellers and readers, the saving is a pittance in the scheme of things.—Kim Scott, writer, The Australian
WA is still an affluent state. Reducing these awards by half is cruel to the writers who spend years completing books that should last for decades.—Terri-ann White, publisher, The Australian
The financial cost to the state of running the awards is minimal, more so in the context of their importance to local writers, booksellers, librarians and readers. Frankly, this is embarrassing.—David Whish-Wilson, writer, The Australian
It’s a tremendously disappointing decision. I would have thought the magnificent effect of The Giants on the community was enough to convince any government that spending money on the arts isn’t wasted. In this so-called backwards Wild West, we are among the greatest readers and love to buy books.—Diana Warnock, arts patron, The West Australian
It was a surprise decision and we have a lot of concerns.—Sharon Flindell, CEO, writingWA, The West Australian
[The decision] has major ramifications across the industry and reflects very poorly on the government’s support for the writing sector.—Delys Bird, UWA academic, 2014 awards judge, Western Suburbs Weekly
These awards have long drawn a spotlight on WA’s talent and have inspired new and established writers.—Jane Fraser, publisher, Western Suburbs Weekly
The impact of a prize-winning book and the profile it brings is much greater than a football match, I would say.—Michael Campbell, 2014 awards judge, Sydney Morning Herald
This kind of recognition is so important to an individual writer’s career.—Amanda Curtin, The West Australian
Perth writer and bookseller Emily Paull has initiated a petition calling on Premier Colin Barnett to stop cuts to the awards. If you feel strongly about the issue, please consider signing.
The second recent blow to writers and readers—this one from the corporate sector—has slipped by almost unnoticed; however, its potential effect is just as damaging to writers, publishers, booksellers and readers. A paragraph in the current writingWA e-newsletter states:
writingWA was dismayed to learn earlier this week that a decision has been taken to reduce the space available for books coverage in Tuesday’s edition of The West Australian by 50%. The reliable—and highly valued—double page spread will now be limited to a single page and occasional sporadic coverage on other days.
Over the past few years, the coverage of literature in the pages of The West Australian has gone from strength to strength under the enthusiastic and visionary direction of Books Editor William Yeoman. The sudden contraction of the newspaper’s commitment is devastating news. If you are concerned, please consider contacting The West Australian directly to express your views.
*Here are two more posts on the changes to the WA Premier’s Book Awards: one from Louise Allan and one from Emily Paull.