We live in Hebden Bridge, the counselling and therapy capital of Europe. You get more gong baths for your pound here than anywhere else in the EU. I tell you this because Bluemoose Books is based here and one of our authors, Benjamin Myers—who lives a few miles down the road in Mytholmroyd, Ted Hughes’ old gaffe—has just won the world’s leading literary prize for historical fiction, the £25,000 Walter Scott Prize 2018, with his novel The Gallows Pole. Big potatoes, you may think, but not according to the literary press in London. But surely £25,000 is a career-changing sum for any writer stuck in their garret? And the Royal Mail is going to frank 30 million letters with Ben’s name on them. That’s worth a line or two of coverage, isn’t it? Thirty million letters: the sales and marketing coup of 2018? We are told it is only the second time in the Royal Mail’s history that a prize-winning author has had their name franked on a letter.
But hang on a minute. A book that was turned down by every publisher in London, published by a husband-and-wife team in Hebden Bridge (who re-mortgaged their house to publish new writers and have had their books optioned by Hollywood and sold in more than 80 countries) and went on to win the world’s leading literary prize for historical fiction—its previous winners include Hilary Mantel, Robert Harris and Irish laureate for fiction Sebastian Barry. Surely that should raise the literary beak from the leather-bound halls of the metropolis? Alas not.
The prize was announced on a Saturday in Melrose, in the Scottish Borders. Monday morning arrives and social media is going doolally-tap with congratulations and that is wonderful, for Ben and for us. The Bookseller announces it on the Monday morning. The Scotsman and BBC Scotland in the afternoon. The London books desks? Not a sausage. Nada. Zero. Tuesday. Nothing. Paranoia is setting in and I wonder what I have done to upset the book people in far-off London town. The Walter Scott Prize press releases had arrived on the books desks as soon as the prize was announced—as have Bluemoose’s. We send off some emails to find out why nothing has been mentioned. Apparently they are reducing their coverage of literary prizes. I’m disappointed, but do understand the economic pressures on newspapers and that literary coverage overall has reduced over the years. I think about having a gong bath... but wait, a small independent publisher has again won a major prize, beating the biggest publisher on the planet, Penguin Random House. I mean, PRH has a gazillion accountants at its head office in Gütersloh in Germany and we have, well, my fingers and toes, and an accommodating accountant in Manchester.
Hitting the headlines
But something isn’t right. Thirty minutes after the Desmond Elliott Prize is announced on the Wednesday, the London Book Gods have put it online. Then the next day it appears in the newspapers. But I thought they said...? I look where the announcement was made. Fortnum & Mason. I get my map, and pin out. Where is that? Oh, London. And then the Orwell Prize is announced, and again, that prize gets immediately reported. Where was that announcement made again? London. Oh, I see.
The books section in one of the newspapers did run a brilliant piece by Ben on the Thursday, but that was more about the stresses and fears of being at a literary prize event as a shortlisted author. (And it was very funny.) But the serious question is, from up here in the North, it still seems that if it doesn’t happen in London, it doesn’t really get reported. In the UK there are 50 million people who don’t live in the capital, readers who want to find new writers, different voices and to buy their books. Not reporting these prizes could deny new readers a chance to find a new voice.
But it is not all bad, as a man from the Royal Mail knocks on the door and delivers a hamper, courtesy of our prize-winning author Benjamin Myers. And where’s it from? Fortnum & Mason, of course.