Indie Published Costa Award Winner Avril Joy talks to Kathleen Jones

For the first time, a major literary award - the Costa prize for short fiction - has gone to an independently published author, once a member of Authors Electric,   Avril Joy   for a story called Millie and Bird (download and read here)   I first met Avril a few years ago when she asked me to go into a women's prison and talk about Catherine Cookson.  I found it a very sobering experience and had nothing but admiration at the way Avril worked in this environment on a regular basis. Avril is a quiet, unassuming person with a profound knowledge of human nature acquired through years of working in the prison service as an education officer.  Add to that a love of language - Avril is a poet as well as a prose author - and you have a writer with a lot of  skills and considerable empathy. 

Avril's first novels were written with the assistance of a 'Northern Promise' writers' award from the Arts Council.  Her first novel, The Sweet Track, was published by a small northern press called Flambard (which sadly had its Arts Council funding withdrawn and no longer exists). 

Her second novel, The Orchid House, received 'rave rejections' from publishers, but it didn't find a home and Avril published it on Kindle (read the reasons here) under the imprint 'Room to Write'. 

Avril's next novel, Blood Tide, a crime fiction story featuring private investigator Danny Beck, also narrowly missed traditional publication and was brought out as an e-book in 2012. 

All three books are an excellent read, so it's no surprise to those who know Avril's work, that she's been given a major award.  The surprise is that a prize like the Costa Book Award is open to Indie authors. 

Q. The first question I wanted to ask Avril was 'What did it feel like? It's what we all fantasise about - winning a big literary prize.   Did you get to talk to Hilary Mantel and some of the others?  Was anyone sniffy about the indie author thing?  It's quite amazing that a big award like the Costa is open to independently published authors and that so many of them made it to the short-list (3 out of 6). 

A. Like all writers I've fantasised about winning competitions but I honestly didn't think I stood a chance in a competition as big as this one. When they announced my name on the evening I can only say what everyone always seems to say which is: I couldn't quite believe it. It didn't feel real or sink in and still hasn't. It's all rather dreamlike. I apologise for the cliches but that's how it feels. I didn't get to speak to Hilary Mantel although I was sitting very close to her at one point. I did speak to Jenni Murray who congratulated me. Absolutely no one was sniffy about the Indie world, although Jenni Murray did make a plea for real books as a physical experience, over Kindle, which as you can imagine went down very well with an audience full of publishers/book trade.

I think one of the highlights of the evening for me was meeting four of the judges: Victoria Heslop, Garry Kemp, Fanny Blake and Richard Beard. They were just so friendly and so supportive and I had a great conversation with Gary Kemp who I think was really rooting for Millie and Bird. Meeting the other finalists was also a special part of the evening - we were all feeling very nervous, unable to eat or think straight - I hope some of us will stay in touch.

Q.  How did you go about entering the Costa Award?  How did you select the winning story? Entering Literary awards is such a tricky thing. 

A. A friend mentioned the competition to me and I thought why not. I'd been writing short stories as a break from novels and I had also been entering competitions. My experience now tells me this is a great way to build a profile as a writer - during a year and a half I had several shortlisted and some work published in anthologies. I was also thinking I would build up a collection I could publish on Kindle. I chose Millie and Bird because I'd just written it and I felt that it was special. It was one of those pieces that almost write themselves, also I knew that the Costa Awards valued the reader experience and I felt it was a story that would connect well with readers. I do think it's important to think about which story you enter according to the competition. (If readers are interested I have a free weekly newsletter in which I include competition lists/information which can be signed up for on my blog )

Q. Do you think the creation of this award marks the resurgence of the short story form?

A. I think there is a resurgence in the short story form, the evidence seems to be everywhere, in competitions, reviews etc but whether readers are buying them or not I don't know. I suspect readers in the UK still prefer the novel. Certainly the Costa Award will give a real boost to the short story and I'm already amazed by the coverage that has resulted from it.

Q.  This will make a big difference to your career now, and I suspect that you will be lured back into the traditional publishing network.  Can you fill readers in on your previous experience of agents and publishers with The Orchid House and Blood Tide?

A. I've no idea if this will make a big difference to my career. All of my three previous novels, The Sweet Track,  The Orchid House and more recently Blood Tide have found favour with agents and have come very close to securing mainstream publication, especially Blood Tide which looked as if it would be published here in the UK and in USA. But it wasn't to be, and after long and protracted talks everything fell through and that's when I decided to go Indie!

Q.  Is winning this prize and being suddenly sought after going to affect your attitude to Indie publishing?

A. My attitude to Indie publishing remains the same. It's probably the reason I'm still writing and I won the Costa. I was so disenchanted with publishing that it took the pleasure away from writing and I came very close to stopping. However, finding a platform through Kindle Direct Publishing changed all of that for me. It re-energised me and I believe that as long as a writer ensures that the quality control, editing etc for an e-book is really good, then it can be a great showcase for your work and, after all, what writer doesn't want to be read?

Q.  Do you think there's room for a hybrid approach - one foot in both camps?

A.  I don't see why not. Any approach that works for readers and writers seems good to me.

Q.  Optional question you may not want to answer -  what are you working on at the moment and are you going to continue the Danny Beck series?

A.  At the moment I'm working on a set of stories which are inter-linked and which sprang from the original Millie and Bird story. I'm not sure about Danny Beck but I'm very fond of him as a character and I would never rule out another Danny Beck adventure.

Many thanks for answering the questions Avril - we're all wishing you the best of luck and some very well deserved success!

Avril was originally a member of Authors Electric and you can read all about her journey from traditional to indie publishing in the AE Anthology 'Sparks:  a Year in E-Publishing', available from Amazon KDP.

Avril's books on Amazon - The Orchid House, The Sweet Track, Blood Tide
Find out more about Avril and her books at

Kathleen Jones can usually be found at


Lynne Garner said…
Well done Avril. Fantastic to read that an Indie publisher has won such a prize. Just goes to prove that indie can mean quality writing.
Bill Kirton said…
Many congratulations on the award, Avril and to you and Kathleen for an excellent interview. It's an inspiring tale and I hope it gets shared a lot because writers of all types will enjoy it.
glitter noir said…
Congratulations, Avril--and thanks for helping pave the way to more awwards/acclaim for indies.
julia jones said…
Really enjoyed this interview - but not convinced that indie writers CAN enter the other categories. Books "must be entered by your publisher" is what it says. Am making it my mission to discover what this means.
What an excellent (and very cheering) interview. Julia, when you find out, let us know!
julia jones said…
Sad to say that the main categories are NOT open to self-published. As I feared.
Diana Kimpton said…
Most of the awards I've looked at exclude self-published books. I wonder if this will change as self-publishing increasingly becomes the first choice for many authors.
Hywela Lyn said…
Congratulations Avril - and what a fascinating interview!
Many congratulations, Avril! (I am a hybrid author, though so far only indie-published my out of print backlist... not finding it easy to have a foot in both camps at the moment, but hoping that will change in future.)
Avril said…
Thanks to all for your kind congratulations and for the interview. I'm sure having a foot in both camps wouldn't be easy and there is still an inherent snobbery around the 'Indie' publishing world - which excludes indie authors from mainstream competitions. But nothing worth having was ever easy as we all know too well. Keep writing, keep trying - get our work out there - is I believe, the thing we must do and it's what authors electric is all about!
Lydia Bennet said…
congratulations Avril, haven't seen you for a while since Durham Divan days, so thrilled to hear you've won the costa! I hope it leads to great things for you. Onwards and upwards! xx

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