Well, it was groundhog day again last Thursday at Harrogate. There I was, a shortlisted author for the third year running for the Theakstons Old Peculier Crime Novel Of The Year, sitting in the auditorium as the winner was announced (the very charming RJ Ellory) with my Happy Loser Smile on my face.
That same smile has come out more times than I can count in the past few years, although on one occasion, at the televised Galaxy awards, hosted by Richard and Judy, when I failed to win I screwed up my face into a scowl, and five million viewers saw it! I remember the following year, this time at the ITV Crime Thriller Awards, for which I was also shortlisted, along with Lee Child and Jefferey Deaver and others, seeing Lee caught on camera mouthing a silent expletive, accompanied by a face like thunder, when the winner was announced. I spoke to him later and told him I’d done something similar a year earlier. ‘Well,’ he replied, ‘If I’m shortlisted, I damned well hope to win and I’m going to hacked off if I don’t.’ I have to confess, I admire his attitude, but more often than not I still revert to my smile, a phoney as a fake tan…
But perhaps it is not entirely fake. As my wonderful agent, Carole Blake, consoled me last night, “You may not have won the prize, but entering the Sunday Times Top 10 this week, for the eighth consecutive week running, you were the true winner in that room.
It’s an enduring and endearing debate. Sales versus awards. Would I rather be No 1 on the bestseller lists or have a mantelpiece creaking with engraved tumblers and shiny obelisks on wooden plinths? It is a fair question to ask, because not often do the two coincide. Certainly winning some awards like The Richard and Judy, the Orange, the Costa and The Booker, do have an effect, but the majority of the smaller more niche awards seem to have little effect on sales.
There is one author with whom I can make a direct comparison. I was at school, very briefly in 1968 with Martin Amis. It was a college in Brighton to help students get through Oxbridge exams. He was there for reasons I can’t recall, I was there because I’d done appallingly in A levels at Charterhouse thanks to discovering hashish, poker and girls. Throughout the past forty odd years I’ve watched the praise heaped on him with no small degree of envy, and yet when I look at the sales of his most recent novel, which didn’t even make the charts, and compare them to mine, I know which books I would rather have written.
I’ve been a judge on an award panel myself, The Romantic Novel Award, and I have talked to many judges, and know just how difficult it is to decide the criteria for the winner of almost any award. The books track record in sales is irrelevant, usually, in the decision making process. But actually, irrelevant to who? Everyone except the members of the public who have voted with their cash, it would seem. Awards or sales? For me it’s a no-brainer. I’m off to the dry cleaners with my Happy Loser Smile, to get it ready for its next outing.