The National Post is reporting today that the foreign rights to Johanna Skibsrud’s Giller Prize-winning book, The Sentamentalists, were acquired by an agent, Tracy Bohan, as a result of contact made with her by a judge on the Giller panel before the Giller Prize longlist was announced.
Ali Smith, one of the judges, raved about the book to Bohan, who is Smith’s agent. Bohan then obtained the foreign rights to The Sentimentalists from Gaspereau Press, Skibsrud’s publisher, and sold them to her boyfriend, the director of the UK imprint for Random House. (It is a small world, isn’t it?)
As every lawyer knows, you don’t have to have actual bias to have a conflict of interest: the appearance of it is enough.
It doesn’t look good when judges on literary award panels recommend books to their friends/agents before the awards have been announced. And it’s certainly not fair to other agents and publishers left out of the loop. Not when the judges have a hand in promoting the sale of those books by selecting the winners.
I was reminded of the situation involving Alan Bradley’s The Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie.
Alan Bradley was short-listed for the Debut Dagger in 2007. His book was also snapped up before the fact he’d won the award had been announced.
This time, it was because of contact made with Bradley (and/or his agent) by a editor on the panel who wanted to publish it himself. According to an article in The Quill and Quire:
“Bill Massey, the editorial director at Orion and a former senior editor at Bantam Dell in New York, was on the Dagger jury and was impressed enough to phone Bradley before the winner was announced to express interest in acquiring the book. According to Denise Bukowski, Bradley’s agent, ‘As soon as Bantam heard that [Orion] wanted to buy it, they wanted to buy it too. And as soon as the Canadians heard that, they wanted to buy it.’”
In fact, the Globe and Mail reported that not one, but two, of the Debut Dagger judges contacted Bradley’s agent about publishing the book once they knew he’d won. And one of them told Bradley he had won, even though that news wasn’t supposed to be announced until the CWA’s Dagger announcements several weeks later:
“In June that year, he was told he made the short list. The following day, two of the judges called his agent to express interest in publishing the book, and one of them inadvertently let slip that Bradley’s submission was the competition winner. His life changed almost overnight. Negotiations began immediately, sparking a bidding war, and on June 27, Bradley agreed to sell Orion the rights for three books in Britain. By the time he went to London to pick up the award on July 5, Bantam had picked up the U.S. rights and Doubleday had signed up for Canada.”
Unlike Skibsrud, I don’t remember seeing any criticism of this in the press; instead, it was reported as if Alan Bradley was one lucky guy. (No-one mentioned how the other Debut Dagger competitors might have felt had they known what was going on. I would have been miffed.)
I suppose the situation with Skibsrud’s book is arguably worse, since the decision as to who had won the prize hadn’t even been made when Smith spoke to Bohan.
Andrew Steeves, of Gaspereau Press, admits in the National Post story that after the longlist was announced, he thought it was a little odd. (I find it ironic that, at the moment, it’s the foreign rights he turned over to Bohan that are allowing the book to be published at all. But I digress.)
Is it an actual conflict of interest for a judge to tell someone how great the book is that she’s reading as part of her duties? Is it an actual conflict of interest for a judge to contact a winning author about buying the winning book before anyone else knows he’s won?
I don’t know. But it seems so — unfair.
And that’s what a conflict of interest is. It’s behaviour that leaves the impression with a fair-minded person that someone has benefitted from inside knowledge, or from a relationship that others don’t enjoy. Regardless of whether they actually have, or not.
I think competitions like these should set out clear rules for the judges. (God knows they have enough of them for the authors.)
Like absolutely no contact by any member of the panel with an author who has made a submission (or their agent) until after the final prize is announced. And no discussions of the entries with anyone outside the panel until then either, however much a judge may love a book.
That way, the playing field is level. If there’s an auction, everyone can get in on it: no-one gets pre-emptive rights just because of who, or what, they know. And the authors who lose, more importantly, can trust that the process was fair.