‘Readers are hungry for books by women’: The power of the Stella Prize

by Women’s Agenda
Thursday 27 April 2023

2023 Stella Prize longlist book stack

For the past decade, one Australian organisation has been pushing than any other for better recognition of women and non-binary writers. And it’s worked.

The Stella Prize is the country’s most distinguished literary prize awarded exclusively to women and non-binary writers. The Prize receives approximately 200 entries annually and the final winner takes home $60,000.

Previous winners include Jess Hill, Alexis Wright, Vicki Laveau-Harvie, and last year, Evelyn Araluen.

For Jaclyn Booton, Executive Director of the Stella Prize, one of her proudest achievements is getting to see the tangible impact the Stella Prize has on the careers of those who are recognised with the award, especially in terms of increasing book sales.

In fact, since 2014, the Stella Prize has increased sales of the winning title by 823 per cent on average in the week of its announcement.

Booton says she hears regularly from bookstores that they sell out of the winner’s book after the announcement and continue to see strong sales in the weeks and months afterwards.

“It shows that Australian readers are hungry for books by women and non-binary writers and eager to read their stories,” Booton said.

The aim of the Stella Prize has always been to tackle the gender imbalance in the literary sector head-on, and to promote and celebrate women writers’ contribution to Australian culture.

The judging panel of the prize changes each year, with the organisation looking for people who bring professional experience in books and publishing and a deep knowledge of literature.

“It’s important that the group overall has a variety of perspectives, areas of expertise, lived experiences, and that they are ready to collaborate,” Booton said. 

“Thankfully, there is a fabulous community of dedicated and exceptionally well-read book critics, authors and poets, booksellers and librarians, academics, and literary programmers in Australia so we have a wide pool to draw on.”

Previous judges include Zoya Patel, Louise Swinn, Fiona Stager and this year, Alice Pung, OAM.

The prize is a huge deal, but according to Booton, back in the early days, some people were debating whether a prize for women was needed at all.

“Some people were concerned that it would ‘silo’ women away from the other major literary awards, and/or that somehow the question of literary merit was being diluted,” she said.

“But what we’ve actually seen – and I think this is at least in part because of the Stella Prize – is that more women are being shortlisted or winning major prizes than they were in the decade before the Stella Prize.”

As a result, there have been more opportunities for women and non-binary writers, more great books in the hands of readers and more outstanding stories being celebrated.

So why is reading the work of women important?
“Reading is incredibly important in influencing how we experience and think about the world, how we engage with each other, and build empathy,” Booton said. 

“So reading books by women and non-binary authors matter, if we’re going to have a fair and equitable national culture.”

This year’s short-listed titles include  Louisa Lim’s Indelible City, Debra Dank’s We Come With This Place, Sarah Holland-Batt’s The Jaguar, Adriane Howell’s Hydra, Edwina Preston’s Bad Art Mother and Eloise Grills’ big beautiful female theory.

“Although all the books on our shortlist are very different, common themes emerge about a woman’s relationship to her art and to the world around her. All our shortlisted books also explore with moving complexity some of the most pivotal relationships in a woman’s life, and their roles as daughters, partners, wives, and mothers,” Alice Pung noted about the shortlist.

Booton also makes another simple, yet pertinent point: “Part of why it’s important to read these books is simply because it’s enjoyable”.

The winner of the Stella Prize will be announced on April 27th, in a special ceremony in Sydney. The winner will also be appearing in Melbourne with this year’s Judging Chair, Alice Pung.