Five years of celebrating British fiction

Sophie Rochester, Director of the Jerwood Fiction Uncovered Prize, reflects on five years of celebrating British fiction, and considers the changing publishing landscape that it sits within. 

India Knight, this year’s Jerwood Fiction Uncovered Prize Chair of Judges, will tonight award eight British fiction writers with a cheque for £5,000 each at the Jerwood Space, London. Their winning books will go on to be part of promotional activity across the UK. Over 200,000 people will pass through London Heathrow each day this summer, and when they hit WH Smith Travel they’ll be faced by a huge display of great British fiction. It’s just one way that Fiction Uncovered is able to support British writers, and the literary initiative, now in its fifth year, is growing in support and impact each year. Last year Fiction Uncovered, which has been supported for Arts Council England since its inception, made the transition from ‘promotion’ to ‘prize’, with an £80,000 prize fund given by Jerwood Charitable Foundation over two years, making it the Jerwood Fiction Uncovered Prize. 

Francis Bickmore, Publishing Director at Canongate, says, ‘the prize has always picked excellent judges over the years and they have selected shortlists that I consistently trust as a reader and support as a publisher. It’s also encouraging to see the trade side of the promotion growing stronger and more influential in bookshops’. 

For the past five years the publishing industry has ridden a wave of change, and throughout that change the Fiction Uncovered initiative and its many crucial partners - retailers, libraries, reading groups, literary organisations, and many more – has worked hard to ensure that contemporary British writers continue to be championed and celebrated. Development of a literary initiative during this turbulent period of publishing, however, has not been without its hurdles. 

The conversations in 2009 that led to the creation of Fiction Uncovered, coincided with the launch of Kindle in the UK, and a period of major change for British high street booksellers. During those initial meetings, attended by literary agents, publishers and other literature professionals, we had the backdrop of the demise of Borders (and Books etc.) heralded as ‘the first big retailer to be killed off by the internet’ and independent retailers were closing ‘at a rate of two a week’. In 2011, we witnessed HMV selling off Waterstones, and simultaneously we started to see the steady closure of libraries across the UK. It was evidently a challenging environment to create a new prize for British fiction writing, but arguably a crucial time to ensure that British fiction writers continued to celebrated and supported throughout this transformation. With a shrinking number of windows for books, exacerbated by the issues of discoverability in the online retailer environment, getting British fiction noticed along with the major commercial hits was more important than ever before.

Strengthened our resolve

In that time we also saw shifts in the literary prize landscape. In 2012 Orange withdrew its longstanding prize sponsorship, which saw the prize running in 2013 as the ‘Women’s Prize for Fiction’ before re-emerging as the Baileys Women’s Prize for Fiction in 2014. In 2013 the Man Booker Prize finally confirmed that it would be changing its eligibility to include all English-speaking writers, which left some British writers, including Julian Barnes, thinking that this would mean ‘British writers will win it much less often’. In 2013, the Goldsmiths Prize was established to ‘celebrate the qualities of creative daring associated with the University and to reward fiction that breaks the mould or opens up new possibilities for the novel form’ and the Folio Prize emerged as ‘the first major English language book prize open to writers from around the world’ running for the past two years. This changing landscape has only strengthened our resolve to run a programme dedicated to British fiction writing in all its forms, and a clearly needed focus on bringing wider audiences to diverse British writers. 

“For our vibrant British book culture to thrive we really do need prizes like this. The Fiction Uncovered team make a real effort to reach out to the regions to ensure that the prize reaches parts of the country that other prizes don't.” says Claire Malcolm, Chief Executive, New Writing North, just one of the many partners that we work with each year. This year our long-list of 15 nominated titles are by writers from Manchester, Yorkshire, Bath, Brighton, Swansea, Glasgow, Lancaster, Nottingham, Edinburgh and Newcastle upon Tyne – and London gets a look in. These books are publisher by houses not exclusively in London, but also in Yorkshire, Wales, Norfolk and Glasgow. 

Fiction Uncovered has strived to highlight the range of British fiction being published with novels, short stories and graphic novels all being eligible. This year we were pleased to see a lift in the number of short story collections submitted, as Cathy Galvin, 2015 judge and Director of the Word Factory, explains: 

"It was only when we had made our final, very difficult, decisions and looked at the shape of the longlist that we realised how significant the impact of short fiction had been this year. Three excellent books of exceptional merit that happened to be short story collections too - not a deliberate policy on the part of the judges or the prize but certainly gratifying for someone like me who loves the form and wants to find more collections in the shops.” 

There is still important work to be done, however, in improving the number of submissions by British Black and Asian writers and we really hope we can continue our work with partners to raise the number submitted in future years. The issues highlighted in the recent Spread the Word report, Writing the Future: Black and Asian Authors and Publishers in the UK Market Place, certainly mirror what we witness each year in the submissions list – that simply not enough BAME writers are being published in the UK.  

Springboard to success

It’s most satisfying when we see that a Jerwood Fiction Uncovered Prize win has acted as a springboard to greater success. Cathryn Summerhayes, Literary Agent at WME Entertainment represents Naomi Wood, who won with her novel Mrs. Hemingway last year, explains:

“For Naomi Wood winning the Jerwood Fiction Uncovered Prize alongside such a wonderful group of authors sent a great message out into the trade – and to readers - and I am more than sure that it was a major contributing factor towards Mrs Hemingway’s fabulous success”. 

When we see the Jerwood Fiction Uncovered Prize creating a domino effect, this indicates to us that the initiative is really working. This year WH Smith Travel fiction buyer Matthew Bates joined the judging panel. One book that Bates really loved was Emma Jane Unsworth’s Animals, which is nominated for the Prize this year and was subsequently selected for the WH Smith Travel ‘Fresh Talent’ promotion. Bates explains, “Animals came to my Fresh Talent attention because of reading for the Jerwood Fiction Uncovered Prize. In fact there's a few Jerwood titles that I think may make future Fresh Talent promotions when they release in paperback.”

Obviously the new prize money is hugely helpful to writers, but for those writers selected in earlier years, having a spotlight shone on them has had equally beneficial effects. Doug Johnstone was selected for Fiction Uncovered in 2012 with his novel Hit and Run and his editor Angus Cargill at Faber & Faber explains what impact that had, saying: 

"Fiction Uncovered's pick of Hit and Run in 2012 came at a great time for Doug Johnstone, and was also notable as the first thriller to be picked by the prize. Hit and Run was Doug's second novel with Faber, his fourth in total, and signaled an up turn in his sales across physical and e, something which really gained momentum with his next novel Gone Again. We're now looking forward to publishing Doug's seventh novel, The Jump, in August."

We responded in 2009 to the challenge of creating a literary initiative that could support British fiction writers, and for the past five years our fantastic partnerships have enabled us to bring more British fiction writing to more readers. The publishing landscape continues to shift dramatically, but we hope to be able to ride that wave and continue this work. One thing is certain – there is no shortage of British fiction writing talent out there.  

Sophie Rochester is partner at The Literary Platform. For more information about the Jerwood Fiction Uncovered Prize contact