Keep your eyes on the prize

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Book prizes have been receiving lots of scrutiny recently, with high-profile prizes such as the Costa Book Awards losing sponsorship and having to cease or postpone their activities.

However, data from Nielsen BookData’s BookScan sales measurement and Books & Consumers survey show that prizes remain as important as ever in terms of driving sales, and helping consumers find and choose books. Meanwhile, Nielsen BookData’s 3rd annual International Book Prize Awareness & Impact Survey gives industry professionals a timely opportunity to have their say about which prizes are most relevant to them and why, and how prizes can improve to support the industry. In return, respondents will receive a summary of the survey findings AND support the charity BookAid International at the same time!

BookScan’s sales tracking shows how prizes typically drive a big jump in sales, as illustrated by the following chart, showing UK print sales of the 2021 winners of a selection of prizes.

Four graphs showing UK print sales of 2021 prize winners (by volume)

In absolute terms, Damon Galgut’s The Promise and Susannah Clarke’s Piranesi, winners of the Booker and Women’s Prize for fiction respectively, saw the biggest uplift in sales in 2021. The Promise saw a three-fold rise in sales of the hardback edition after being longlisted and shortlisted, before increasing by 17 times in the weeks before and after winning. Piranesi’s victory helped drive nearly 10K sales of the newly published paperback in the first full week after winning the Women’s Prize for Fiction.

While more modest in absolute terms, the 2021 winner of the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction, Louise Erdrich’s The Night Watchman, saw an even higher (30-fold) rise in print sales in the weeks immediately after winning the prize, with weekly sales barely into double figures before winning, transformed into several hundred copies per week after claiming the prize.

And, as if we needed a reminder of why we might regret the passing of the Costa Awards, we can also see from this analysis how important that prize has been, not only for fiction titles but also in genres that tend to receive less attention, such as poetry. 2021 overall Costa winner Hannah Lowe’s poetry collection The Kids saw print sales of over 1000 copies in the weeks after winning – 85 times higher than were achieved in the weeks prior to being shortlisted.

Nielsen BookData’s Books & Consumer survey data affirms the direct impact that prizes have in helping consumers find and choose their books. On average, the prize was mentioned as a factor in helping discovery and/or influencing the choice for over a third of purchases of winners of the Booker, Costa, Pulitzer and Women’s Prize for Fiction in recent years, a proportion which increases to over half of purchases of recent winners Shuggie Bain (Douglas Stuart) and Girl, Woman, Other (Bernardine Evaristo).

Graphic showing purchases of prize winning books, 2014-2021 (% of volume)

Increased sales and consumer interest are only some of the features that make book prizes important to the book industry of course, with Nielsen BookData’s annual International Book Prize Awareness & Impact Survey examining not only which prizes are most important in different territories, but also the value that publishers, retailers, literary agents and authors put on the status, international reach and media coverage that prizes can generate, as well as the simplicity of the submission process, and the inclusivity of their eligibility criteria.

Understanding which prizes and which factors are increasingly important to different sectors of the industry can only benefit the book trade, so do please take our 2022 survey by clicking here and we’ll be very happy to share the findings later in the year. We’ll also make a 25p donation to BookAid international for each survey completed to support their work bringing access to books to those most in need.

Everyone’s a winner!

Steve Bohme is Research Director at Nielsen BookData, where he manages its Books & Consumers Survey and International Book Prize Awareness & Impact Survey, as well as a wide variety of research projects relating to reading and book buying habits.

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