I nearly missed this intriguing article about a study done by three professors (two from English departments, and one who is the associate director of Stanford’s Literary Lab) that tries to determine the significance of winning or being nominated for a literary prize. To do so, they track the popularity of the book, gauged by reviews of it on Goodreads, and the prestige, gauged by MLA citations. Entertainingly, the authors of the study do not use sales data to track a book’s popularity because, “Sales data is a notoriously unreliable measurement of readership; it is gathered at point of sale, when a book is purchased online or from a brick-and-mortar retailer. As the stacks of unread books on our desks and nightstands surely attest, purchasing is no indication of actually reading.”


Their studies of Goodreads and MLA citations, however, unsurprisingly find that the effect of literary prizes is substantial. “Books receiving no prize nominations have a median of about 48,500 Goodreads ratings and appear as the primary subjects of no MLA articles. But if a book is nominated for at least one of the prizes we track, those numbers jump to about 56,000 Goodreads ratings and 17 MLA citations. And for books that have won a prize, the numbers are about 98,500 Goodreads ratings and 23 MLA citations.”


They note, as well, that it’s even more important to be nominated for a prize than it is to win. Merely being nominated can move a book from limbo to a respectable place in both sales and cites.


It seems clear that prizes, and nominations for prizes, are good things for authors and their sales. I’m not sure, however, that they serve equally well as information surrogates for readers. Winning a big literary prize may just signal that the winning book is the kind of book that judges for literary prizes happen to like. That doesn’t necessarily mean that I’ll like it. Or winning may signal that the book has tapped into the zeitgeist of a particular moment. That doesn’t necessarily mean that it will age well. The individual taste of the particular reader matters more for their personal enjoyment than does any prize.


I do think it would be interesting to see a study that distinguishes between positive and negative Goodreads reviews, as this does not, and one that distinguishes between positive and negative MLA cites, as this one also does not. (Surely not all those MLA citations of The DaVinci Code are enthusiastic ones!) That might go some way to helping clarify whose tastes are being signaled when prizes are given.