Alastair Giles speaks to Claire Coughlan about what goes into a market-changing literary prize and the importance of curation in an age of content saturation
Agile Ideas is in "growth mode", though Alastair Giles, its founder and director, is adamant that he is "trying to do less". Giles' son, Luke, who has a background in finance and management consultancy, is "taking up the baton and growing the company", Giles explains over tea in a Dublin café. Meantime, Giles Senior will assume a creative director role within the Bath-based team of six.
After a 16-year stint at HarperCollins, where Giles ended up as group marketing director, he founded Agile Ideas in 2004, after the role at HarperCollins became "an exhausting and very political job. When I left, I said I was never going to work full-time in London again. I realised that I wanted to run my own business, and work around publishing, but I wanted to get back to thinking about marketing."
Agile Ideas is behind various well-regarded literary awards, such as the Wainwright Prize and the Nielsen Bestseller Awards, as well as executive producing two TV shows: the Sports Book Awards for Sky and the Irish Book Awards for RTE. Giles recently negotiated a new, three-year sponsorship deal for the latter with Irish postal service An Post. He describes the investment that has gone into the awards as potentially "market-changing".
"When we were looking around, we wanted to find an Irish company that would reflect the values of the Irish Book Awards," he says. "Secondly, we wanted a company which could provide an extra platform for book sales - An Post has the biggest retail network in Ireland. Thirdly, because we are a not-for-profit organisation, the Irish Book Awards isn't out to make money, it's out to provide a platform for book sales and promote Irish writing and celebrate Irish writers. So, it wasn't about the money, for us: it was about what a company could do to incentivise people to get interested in books.
"There are lots of prizes around in the publishing world. If we get involved in a prize, we want to make sure that we can effect change."
Giles describes the Nielsen Bestseller Awards in January as "really interesting awards". He explains: "Most of the time I event-manage the ceremonies for awards that are decided by juries or public votes, and there's one winner, and five losers." The event is supposed to be a celebration - but some people in the room will not be in a celebratory mood. "The nice thing about the Nielsen awards is that the authors are only there if they're winners; it's all about celebrating sales success. There's no doubt there is still an elitism in publishing, and that cuts through all that. We say sales, but it's about readers - what's to be snooty about that?"
For literary prizes to succeed, they need to be "self-sustaining", he says, and to have four points of support: media, publishers, retailers and sponsors.
"If you don't have those four ticked off properly, you're never really going to have a market-changing effect. In everything we get involved with, we try to link all those things together."
There are many competitors for readers' time, including encouragers of "binge-watching" such as Netflix. "There are lots of challenges facing us. Agile Ideas specialises in using prizes and awards to shine a light on what we think are the best books around, to make sure we get as good a distribution for those books as possible and as good a platform for promotion as possible. So, from our perspective, it's really important that we're seen as celebrating great works, and celebrating new voices."
There have been complaints recently about the cost of entering and being shortlisted for certain prizes. Giles says that these fees are counter-productive. "Because you want to have the very best submitted; you want to have the widest possible field to choose from, to select the best book," he says. "I always think it's wrong to penalise small publishers, or even self-publishers." (He says as an aside that, in his opinion, there's a market for a well-promoted and organised self-publishing prize.)
Does he think literary prizes are the literary influencers of the 21st century? He says he sees all curation as a good thing. "The issue is that if you go into a bookshop, you're faced with a morass of choice. If you go on to Amazon, you're lost in your circumnavigation of the website, working out what you want. So any form of curation is a positive thing, I think, as long as it isn't corrupt, and as long as it's independently selected."