The Guardian’s first self-published book prize winner

Tom Moran's "Dinosaurs and Prime Numbers" has won the DIY author contest sponsored by the Guardian and Legend Times.
Tom Moran’s “Dinosaurs and Prime Numbers” has won the DIY author contest sponsored by the Guardian and Legend Times.

Last year, a columnist in Forbes slapped self-published authors with the truth: “No one cares about your book,” Nick Morgan wrote. “Self-publishing is an exercise in futility and obscurity.”

Yes, I’ve heard of “Fifty Shades of Grey” and “Wool.” But those phenomenal bestsellers, which began in the subterranean world of self-publishing, don’t prove the general truth. Like most newspapers, The Washington Post doesn’t review self-published books, although we sometimes write features about the (very rare) breakout successes. It’s not that we don’t think there are any good self-published books; we just don’t have a way to handle the volume. Book World‘s two and a half editors currently receive about 150 books a day; opening our gates to self-published authors could easily double or triple that number.

But now one major newspaper is showing these entrepreneurial authors some love. The Guardian has announced the first winner of its new monthly self-published book contest: “Dinosaurs and Prime Numbers,” a debut novel by comedian Tom Moran, who lives in Norwich, England. The book, which was released on CreateSpace at the end of 2012, is the first in a projected series. (CreateSpace is a publishing platform owned by Amazon.com, whose chief executive, Jeffrey P. Bezos, owns The Washington Post.)

A review in the Guardian says “Dinosaurs and Prime Numbers” is about an oddball named Walton Cumberfield, who, thanks to a cow that is “independent of the space-time continuum,” discovers the secret of time travel while looking for his dog. “High-jinks, ghosts and Devon-based romance ensue.”

I’m trying hard to keep an open mind.

Claire Armitstead, the Guardian’s literary editor, agrees that reviewing self-published books presents a significant challenge. “The metaphor of needles and haystacks comes to mind,” she says. “But just because the haystack is huge, and largely composed of hay, doesn’t mean there aren’t needles in it. The question is how to find them.”

The Guardian has answered that question by co-sponsoring this new monthly contest with Legend Times, a publishing group that includes a self-publishing imprint. Tom Chalmers, the founder of Legend Times, hopes the contest will help remove some of the stigma of releasing a book yourself. “Millions of readers are buying [self-published titles], and we wanted to step past snobbery and provide them with a level-playing field to be judged on their quality,” he says. “If we can shine a light on fantastic self-published work from authors whose talent is greater than their eye for self-publicity then we will have moved towards achieving our aim.”

Legend Times is handling the mechanics of judging — organizing panels of readers, producing reports on the submissions and drawing up a shortlist of nominees each month. Chalmers says that the judges are seeing “an incredibly wide-range — from the mind-boggingly terrible through to the very gifted. The former makes the narrowing down process a little quicker and the latter become the subject for great debate. Anyone can now write and publish, which is both liberating and slightly terrifying.”

Faced with unmanageable volume, the editors of newspaper book sections are too often drawn to whatever titles have attracted the most attention, which frequently results in skewed coverage about the field. “Publishers are beginning to pick up self-published authors,” Armitstead says, “but not always for qualities that would recommend them to us for review: Often it’s because they have accumulated big fan bases with easy-to-read niche stuff. The counter-example I always give is Sergio de la Pava‘s ‘A Naked Singularity,’ which I would love to have discovered. How can a smart, original, baggy monster of a book like that get winnowed out from the stack? This is our attempt to set up a system that we hope might facilitate that sort of discovery.”

For his part, Moran, the author of “Dinosaurs and Prime Numbers,” doesn’t fit the stereotype of the always-tweeting, constantly promoting self-published author. The day that the prize was announced, he was out in the wilds of south-west England with no phone or Internet connection. When I finally managed to reach him a few days later, he said, “I always intended to submit this to agents and publishers, but after pouring my heart and soul into it for months, my first priority when I finished was to get it out there and into the hands of readers as soon as possible. I was able to proofread and edit it myself, so I decided to cut out the middle man and self-publish.”

There it is: The sentence that strikes fear into the hearts of legacy publishers. But unless we can find a cow independent of the space-time continuum, we’ll just have to wait and see how this plays out in the industry. Meanwhile, every month one self-published author will enjoy the spotlight in the Guardian.

Ron Charles is the editor of The Washington Post's Book World. For a dozen years, he enjoyed teaching American literature and critical theory in the Midwest, but finally switched to journalism when he realized that if he graded one more paper, he'd go crazy.
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