According to The Asia Pacific Writers and Translators Association (APWTA), Asians spend twice as many hours reading as Westerners. But Asians don’t just read traditional printed books. The story Deep Love was a hit in Japan in 2003, with each chapter delivered to mobile phones. The Ghost Blows Out The Candle attracted six million readers in China as computer-delivered text episodes in 2006. When it comes to graphic novels, agents in Asia report that they are more likely to strike deals for digital versions, than for printed.
What does this move to digital and mobile platforms mean for the future of the book?
“As digital delivery systems replace traditional ones, the old rules about standard lengths, structures, formats and categories make no sense,” says APWTA chairman, Nury Vittachi.
Since the borders of the book can no longer be patrolled in the traditional way, APWTA is launching a new writing prize, The World Readers' Award.
The World Readers' Award is not intended for books, but for stories, defined by the organizers as “sustained acts of creative imagination”.
Entries will not be limited either to highbrow literature, or even to fiction. The new prize will be offered simply for “the best read of the year”, including narrative non-fiction.
While an author needs a US passport to be eligible for the Pulitzer, and a work must be published in the UK to be eligible for the Man Booker, judges of the new prize won’t consider an author’s nationality at all, and with this award's emphasis on stories and digital, not books and print, constraints on place of publication are irrelevant.
Instead of geographically-based entry requirements, a broad cultural theme, such as East meets West, or the Indian subcontinent, or the Chinese diaspora will be set for each contest. The idea is to nudge authors away from stock characters and locations, such as those found in political thrillers set in the US, or cosy crime novels set in the UK, to social and physical settings in Asia, where the majority of the world’s readers live. The exact theme for 2014 is currently under discussion and will be announced shortly.
For 2014, entries must be in English. But APWTA wants to grow the award to include Asian languages eventually.
Two prizes will be awarded each year, one for the best published work, and one for the best unpublished text. Penguin Random House has signed up as a publishing partner through its North Asian operation, and winning entrants will be offered a traditional publishing contract.
Judges are to be so-called ordinary readers - whoever they are - not academics, literary journalists, novelists or anybody else with a professional interest in story telling. Judges for the award for published work will be recruited through the Internet. For the award for unpublished work, APWTA will appoint a diverse panel of judges, drawn from people who read at least 30 books per year.
The distinction between published and unpublished work begs the question: how do you distinguish them in the digital age? Says Nury Vittachi: “We’re working with the Penguin North Asia office to see where that line will be. We’re trying to encourage fresh writing, rather than have people send in their old, self-published books which have not been successful. But on the other hand, if a text has been seen by only by a small number of people, it could count as unpublished, for practical reasons.”
Writers in Asia are enthusiastic. Mariko Nagai, in Tokyo, says: “This new award subverts the notion of the West, subverts how an award is chosen, and most importantly, it questions the idea of who a writer is, and what makes a book a book.”
Mumbai poet Menka Shivdasani says: “An award such as this one will act as a catalyst to give literature from Asia the attention it deserves.”