The Quagga Prize

The Quagga Prize for Literary Fiction was established in 2014 as a much-needed door to fiction of significant merit. It honours the spirit of independent publishers, especially those who, for various reasons, may feel locked-out from major awards.

The Promoter and Principal Judge is David James, a reputable academic and author of six novels and a collection of short stories.

The 2014 entry proved highly successful and the Quagga Gold Medal was presented to Enver Carim for The Price of an Education at an Award Ceremony in London on November 4, 2014.


 The award ceremony for 2015; gold medal won by Peter Cowlam for his book Who's Afraid of the Booker Prize?

Small Prizes: The Way Ahead

Why go in for Prizes?
I write to please myself, not for others. We’ve all heard that mantra, and many of us believe it. But there are prizes out there, some very large, many quite small. And in your heart of hearts you know you covet recognition: a good review, a warm response, a pat on the back. Above all you want readers - apart that is from friends and family.

However, I do get a little tired of reading about ‘award-winning’ authors and wonder about the nature of the award, not to mention whether the award is for this book or one of the writer’s earlier efforts. Once an award winner, always an award winner! Nevertheless, I must be at least marginally impressed. For the small-time author, such an accolade is a great comfort. For the apprentice writer it’s the first step on the road to what we think of as success. Even to be short-listed is a treasure in itself.

Yes, there are hundreds of prizes and awards of all kinds advertised on the net, but there are also thousands of writers, both seasoned and neophyte, and the number grows by the minute. Unless you are already attached to a publisher or are backed by a reputable agent or a well-known sponsor, the Booker is out; in any case Rule 3(d) clearly states ‘self-published books are not eligible where the author is the publisher.’

But to come down to earth: James Minter gives a useful list of Fifty Book Awards Open to Self-Publishers. This could be a good place to start your search. All genres and types of writing are open to budding writers here, from the prestigious ForeWord, the Ippy and the Rubery awards to flash fiction, cookbook, first novel, first chapter and even prizes for the first page. So don’t be shy of entering. We all have to begin somewhere.

Unless you are submitting to your local writing group’s monthly or yearly prize you should expect to pay an entry fee. After all it takes time to read and assess the value of a book or even a flimsy manuscript. Fees naturally vary enormously, from gratis to $80 per title; and so do the prizes, from an offer of journal publication to the Writers Digest 23rd Annual Writing Competion for Self-Published Book Awards topping the list at $8,000.

Of course it’s a rule of thumb that the higher the fee, the higher the sought-after prize. Winners of high profile Gold or even Silver medals are frequently garlanded with offers of book deals, free air passages to attend humungous ceremonies, with much bolstering of ego and promises of gold in store. But the most your also-ran can expect is a book report - of vastly varying quality in my experience. Thus a judge of my road novel Paris Bound had clearly not read much of the book, spending all his time savaging the cover. By contrast, five years later the same company awarded me 100% in 4 out of 5 categories for my novel about a girl boxer, Punching Judy. Prize-hunting is a bit of a lottery. One man’s meat and all that.

Rejection is par for the course, so you have to get used to it. There may be many reasons
why your work doesn’t quite hit the mark, including the obvious one of your not complying
with the guidelines. First, check past winners to ensure you have not submitted, for instance,
literary fiction where crime or romance is the speciality. No point either in sending in
manuscripts or galleys to Mom’s Choice Awards. Next, you should examine the credentials
of the judges. Are they likely to be sympathetic to your subject or approach? Having
checked that you have done all that the gatekeepers have demanded, take a close look at the
judge’s report. The tastes and values of the judging panel may not be yours. If not, go
elsewhere. Next time widen or even narrow your field. Or cut and come again.

The most obvious reason for rejection is often overlooked by the enthusiastic writer. It’s
simply that your work is not good enough. That’s a tough thing to tell yourself, but it may
well be true. Having accepted that fact, do you give up or try again, getting a little closer to
the required standard? If you’re a writer of course you write; you revise, reshape or scrap. If
you really believe in your manuscript or book you perhaps need to take advice from a fellow
professional. There are plenty of literary consultants to be found on the net. They may well
be able to set you straight. In this regard I found Fiction Feedback very helpful.

Book festivals are another avenue the serious writer might explore. There are hundreds of
these spreading across the globe. Almost every major city seems eager to promote new
writing, from Beverly Hills to San Francisco, from the Beach Book Festival to London, Paris
and New York. Once again large prizes await the lucky winners and some of these festivals
have as many as 40 different categories. More and more of these jamborees are now open to
digital as well as paper books. Watch the dates and submit to as many as you can afford!
Far less prestigious awards or simply publication on the websites of social medea such as
Authonomy, Youwriteon, The Book Shed or Year Zero Writers are ways of keeping in
contact with other writers and readers. Random House and Orion review their Top Ten
Budding Authors on Youwriteon monthly throughout the year. Listed authors can sell their
books direct from the website. There’s always somebody looking for your book and as a
writer these days there’s really no excuse for not having a go. This way you circumvent the
traditional publishing process with its agonising delays in response time. You are in charge,
you are respected and with a bit of luck you are even earning money.

So, although we may look up to the stars and envy those who have landed a 6-figure contract
for their book, the majority of us are struggling on the lower slopes of Mount Parnassus. We
are for the most part the humble toilers in the field and need to accept that fact. That doesn’t
mean that we don’t strive to make our work as good as possible, nor does it mean that we
don’t shoot for the top prizes on occasion. But we accept the fact that sometimes small can
also be beautiful.

Quagga Prize 2 05-11-16 1jpeg   Quagga Prize 3 05-11-16jpeg
From the Quagga Prize-giving 2016





Imagine you are Charles Dickens. Not yet the famous author but still just a boy forced to leave school and work in a blacking factory. Imagine you are Becky Sharp, a poor despised governess to the children of a dissolute peer. How do you feel?  Could things ever get any worse? Why did the gods single you out for such undeserved punishment?  Tell your story.

The advantages of having an established person or character as the teller of your tale are many. You can chose your favourite author or one of his or her characters and see the world afresh from their point of view.  Was Heathcliff really such a monster? In his own eyes? Or was he the embryonic working class hero surrounded by the effete privileged Lintons? If you choose to work with a historical figure you have abundant biographical material to hand and probably letters to give the flavour of period and idiom. But using a character from a novel gives you more scope.

By using the first person as the narrator you can immediately engage your reader. My novel as told by Thackeray’s feisty heroine Becky begins, ‘Last night I went looking for a man and ended up with a woman.’ She then proceeds to inveigh against the author of Vanity Fair for dishing the dirt on her. The character rises up and demonises the author. Who to believe? Neither of course, for the whole cock and bull story is a fiction based on a fiction.

In my Dickens novel I keep the famous man in the background for several sections of the book, while the other members of his family, his wife, children and the servants have their say. The action is based on Dickens’ Italian tour of 1844-5, his dabbling in hypnotism and his ambiguous relationship with his ‘patient’ Mme de la Rue.  Considerably more research was needed for this book, but the imaginative element was exciting and extensive. It’s far from being a biography.

When I was giving a lecture at the Winchester Writers Conference a couple of years ago I met a delegate who had won a prize in a short story competition.  She had been asked to write a story based on a Jane Austen novel from the point of view of a minor character. She chose to see the world of Pride and Prejudice from the perspective not of Darcy or Elizabeth, but Lady Caroline de Burgh. What a revelation! It’s almost impossible not to sympathise with the loveless and rejected creature who was so snobbishly superior in the original novel.

So, for those among you who are determined to get out of the autobiographical mould, or who are perhaps like me Victorian junkies, and who have the temerity to take liberties with the established classics, why not venture into the sequel or fictional biography? While there are many snipers waiting to shoot you down for inaccuracy or for cheating by using other authors’ works, there are also some distinct advantages.  

The pitch is there, the goalposts are in place (though you can shift them a little here and there). You can play your own game. You are now safe from the solipsistic approach that dogs so many debut writers – grandad’s war experiences, your own unhappy childhood or painful love affairs of interest only to you.  You are safe from drum-beating, personal agony and not tempted to indulge in – one hopes – any cod philosophising or axe-grinding. Furthermore, you have a ready audience of classics lovers who are pleased to hear a new tune played on an old fiddle.



David James is a Victorian scholar, teacher, publisher and writer. His novels include The Confessions of Becky Sharp, Charles Dickens and the Night Visitors and The Scholar’s Tale.