To those, like myself, who were there at “the beginning”, it is good news that the Nibbies are back. Their founder, Fred Newman, would be happy too. (A note for younger readers: Newman, or just plain “Fred” as he was affectionately known, was the founder, editor and publisher of Publishing News.) He died in 2008, just a few months after the paper closed, but with the satisfaction of having achieved what he set out to do at the end of the Eighties: create an occasion in which the book industry could honour its own, an event rather like the trade awards which precede the Oscars, but with the glitz and glamour of the main event. The Nibbies very quickly became known as “the Oscars of the book trade”.
The very first Nibbies—so called because of the pen-shaped bronze trophies—were presented on 18th January 1990 at the Park Lane Hotel, with photographer Lord Lichfield as MC. Observer associate editor Robert McCrum, then editor-in-chief at Faber, provided drama, rocking backwards and forwards like a Texas “oil donkey”, as he criticised the decision to award HRH Prince of Wales Author of the Year. “There can only be one Author of the Year and that has to be Salman Rushdie,” he said with passion. Rushdie, of course, was under a fatwa.
The following year the awards moved to the Royal Lancaster Hotel, though many of the audience didn’t make it because of the Arctic blizzard outside. Those that did heard Children’s Author of the Year Dick King-Smith admit he had never heard of Publishing News, causing mirth among The Bookseller team.
MCs came and went: Melvyn Bragg, Frank Delaney, Sir David Frost and then Ned Sherrin, who settled in for a five-year run in 1995 when he remembered the days “when ‘internet’ meant Barnsley had just scored”. In 1996, Dava Sobel’s Longitude won Book of the Year and on hearing the announcement the author made a primitive sextant from her cutlery, took a reading from light bouncing off one of the chandeliers and thus calculated the best route through the 800-odd guests to the stage. Or at least, that’s how Publishing News reported it.
Comedian and author Tony Hawks took over as MC in 2001, when the Nibbies began a long run in the Great Room at the Grosvenor, where it boasted a 1,000-strong audience. At the 2003 awards Hawks received a message in his earpiece on stage: “Hang on ladies and gentlemen, it’s the hospital in Edinburgh . . . J K Rowling has had the baby. It’s a little girl. Eight pounds two ounces . . . No, hang on. Tesco has it at seven pounds twelve; Asda has come in at six-fifty.”
Happy memories. I wish The Bookseller team all the best in this latest chapter of the Nibbies’ 27-year history.
Roger Tagholm is the former deputy editor of Publishing News.