The Scribe Nonfiction Prize 0 Comments

The Scribe Nonfiction Prize
Can you tell us how the Scribe Nonfiction Prize came about?

Joe Toohey, then the CEO of Express Media, originally approached me with the idea of offering a prize for young nonfiction writers. Express Media was seeing a growth in the number and quality of nonfiction submissions to Voiceworks, and, while the organisation had the John Marsden Prize for fiction writers, it didn’t have an equivalent for nonfiction. It just so happened that we at Scribe had been talking about the proliferation of excellent longform nonfiction we’d noticed recently, much of it by younger writers, and were looking at some ideas of how we might be able to publish more in this area. Joe and I worked on a proposal and showed it to Scribe’s publisher, Henry Rosenbloom, who was enthusiastic. The Scribe Nonfiction Prize was born!


What excites you about teaming up with Express Media to offer this prize?

Express Media is a terrific organisation that’s given a start, and provided a home base, to many young writers. Several of the writers I know had their first experience of professional publication in Voiceworks. And in addition to the publications Express Media produces, there is a sense of community, which I think even extends to the alumni. (I know that I learnt a lot in my time of working on Voiceworks, which I remember as lots of fun.) I’m also particularly excited by Express Media’s recent projects, aimed at supporting writers from non-English-speaking backgrounds and school-age writers, and I think it’s exciting to be aligned with an organisation that offers such a range of activities to young people.


What kind of entries are you hoping to receive? Do you have a particular penchant for memoir, literary nonfiction or journalism? Is anything out of bounds?

We don’t have too many expectations around what we might receive; we’re hoping to be surprised, to be honest. I would say that we’re looking for work with the qualities that mark out good nonfiction writing in general: an authentic voice (particularly in the case of memoir or personal essay); an interesting story or subject, or a fresh perspective on a familiar topic; evidence of research and thought; and relevance or timeliness. I think these criteria broadly apply whether you’re talking about creative nonfiction, immersive journalism, investigative reporting, biography, criticism or personal essay.


What kinds of places do you usually discover nonfiction writers and their work?

Like many publishers, we accept submissions from agents, and often find writers who have a complete manuscript that way. But we also – and perhaps this is a virtue of being a smaller publisher – tend to be quite active in looking for writers and approaching them directly. We often come across individuals by reading their work in literary journals or websites. We also keep an eye on those who have won prizes and competitions. And Scribe’s editors often speak to university students about their work.


What unusual subjects has Scribe received pitches about? Anything you really wanted to publish but just couldn’t imagine a market for?

I love some of the quirky pitches we receive! They include ideas for quasi-communist treaties on how to break down the political and social system; fervent essays arguing for or against the existence of God, with very detailed reasoning; book-length memoirs on everything from attending rock concerts to stamp collecting to embarking on a round-the-world cheese-eating tour; advice books for young people; and a range of how-to books, on everything from how to succeed in show business to how to age disgracefully to how to communicate mentally with your pet. While not all of these pitches might be right for Scribe, for various reasons, I am always surprised at the breadth and range of pitches and submissions, and the passion of those writing them. Even if sometimes people are passionate about rather strange things, from my perspective!


One of the most difficult things is receiving a really terrific pitch for a left-of-centre topic, the sort of book that personally I would love to read and bring into existence, but that is unlikely to have a large commercial market. Unfortunately, the commercial pressures facing Australian publishers are becoming more and more pronounced, and this does have to influence our decision-making to an extent – even though I would say at Scribe we’re perhaps a little more able to take risks than some larger companies, especially those with public shareholders, could afford to be. I’m realistic about these commercial pressures, but also not unduly pessimistic: as conditions are getting tougher, writers are becoming more adept at writing for a readership, choosing relevant topics, arming themselves with information about the conditions in the industry, and perhaps even connecting with readers directly, demonstrating that there is a market for their work. There will always be a percentage of Australian writers whose manuscripts come across your desk and just make you glad to have the job you do, and excited to bring them to readers. And I think now more than ever I think there is a large number of terrific younger writers in Australia who are writing with a clear readership in mind and an awareness of how the publishing industry works.


Who do you think is writing exciting nonfiction currently?

Too many to name! Australian nonfiction writers whose books I’ve admired include Ben Law, Anna Krien and Patrick Holland. I also enjoy Mel Campbell’s narrative nonfiction and criticism. Other writers whose work I’ve admired recently include Rebecca Harkins-Cross, Estelle Tang, Andre Dao, Toby Fehily, Billie Tumarkin, Liam Pieper, Greg Foyster, Melanie Joosten and Lorelei Vashti. I hope to see more of their work. I’m also exceptionally proud of the nonfiction writers Scribe has published or will be publishing soon, such as Elmo Keep, Rebecca Giggs, Jeff Sparrow, Martin McKenzie Murray, and Jill Stark, who each have fantastically interesting ideas and the skill to connect with readers.


I think longform nonfiction is really coming into its own in Australia right now, building on that tradition that Americans have long had. In a general sense, I find nonfiction an exciting genre because it trades on truth and authenticity –something that is arguably becoming more relevant in a world of spin and media manipulation. I think that broadly holds despite the moral ambivalences about what constitutes truth in nonfiction and so on.


One of the aspects of the Scribe Nonfiction Prize is the opportunity to meet with a Scribe editor, either in person or remotely. What kind of advantage does this give a writer, to meet with editors and discuss their work one-on-one?

I think often the role the editor can perform is simply to be the work’s ‘first reader’: a writer may have shown mentors, and trusted friends and family, but an editor is usually someone who doesn’t know you well and is coming to your work fresh, as an ordinary reader would. Often I think simply hearing an objective, and perhaps different, perspective on the work – and what the editor finds successful or sees as needing improvement – can be valuable for a writer, as can be the discussion that ensues.


An editor also always has an eye to reaching readers, and can give a writer an idea of how their work might fit into the market. He or she can perhaps offer suggestions on how to improve the work or, if needed, take it in a direction that might increase its ability to reach readers. Good editors, in my opinion, can understand the aim and ambition of the work, and also see how it might be improved where possible.


Lastly, I think the experience of being edited – particularly if it is for the first time – is valuable in itself. A writer’s first experience of working with a book editor will give them an insight into what the process typically involves, and the demands and challenges it can involve. The experience of developing a professional working relationship with someone who is editing their work can be useful, too — particularly if a writer is seeking to make a career from their work, and will likely have to deal with editors (whether book, newspaper or magazine) throughout their careers.

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