A Booker bump

Fifty years after it was founded, the Man Booker Prize remains the UK’s most important literary award. It generates headlines and stimulates sales like no other prize. It makes careers, underpins publishing decisions and reminds us why books matter. Originally conceived as a way of “encouraging discussion” of literature, it has more than lived up to its aims. Its first winner, Something to Answer For by P H Newby, went straight into the charts, and almost every winner since has benefited from the now famous “Booker bounce”.

But now it has hit a bump. Its decision—made in 2013—to let American authors enter remains controversial. This week a letter has emerged, written by John Murray publisher Mark Richards, asking the Booker Trustees to reconsider. The letter—not yet sent, but signed by 30 publishers—says the rule change risks creating "a homogenised literary future" that is dominated by American culture. It argues that it now does a disservice to US readers who no longer benefit from discovering British or Commonwealth writers; it further contends that the prize is no longer diverse, a shortlist dominated by Americans (as was the case in 2017) being less open than pre-change shortlists. "In a globalised but economically unequal world, it is more important than ever that we hear voices not from the centres," the letter reads.

There is some merit in the letter. Judged by Nielsen BookScan US numbers, Americans are less entranced by American winners. Though there is still a considerable Booker bump immediately after the winner is announced, the percentage increase in sales driven by the win is becoming more shallow. Sales of The Sellout doubled in the three months after its win, compared to say The Luminaries, which saw sales rise ten-fold. Writes Richards: "The figures are complex to parse precisely, given different publication dates in relation to the time of the win, but the direction of travel is clear: the percentage sales uplift in the US for winners not based in America dwarfs that for winners based in America."

But the objections are also about space, and in particular for those authors UK publishers see as their own, and for whom they are the primary publishers. Most publishers spoken to this week about the letter backed it—including Picador’s Paul Baggaley and Profile m.d. Andrew Franklin. A number said they supported the sentiments, but preferred to do their lobbying in private. What is clear is that there is widespread concern about the prize’s direction and the consequent impact on publishing. "We didn’t ask for it, and we don’t want it," said one publisher. Some suggested boycotting it, or—as a few already do—holding back their American writers. 

It is hard to see the Booker Foundation shifting its position. It will argue that four years is too short a period to judge the change; that it is not its role to help UK publishers sell books; and that readers have been well served by recent and diverse winners such as Paul Beatty and Marlon James. It will further argue that in this increasingly globalised world, a prize for writers in English makes little sense if you exclude the market that generates most of this writing. Just this week the National Book Awards in the US said it would now recognise writers published in translation into the US. That prize fell short of recognising writers from the UK - but the movement is clear, and almost always one way. In that respect, the Man Booker Prize is a step ahead. As one observer put it to me, the prize now makes sense. Its former rules may have been idiosyncratic, but they also smacked of a view of the world long-since consigned to history. The prize won’t be improved by reverting back. 

But the Man Booker Prize does not exist in a vacuum: it was founded by two publishers and is an active part of the UK publishing scene. It should listen to its critics—even if it finds their arguments unconvincing.