Life's a niche

Prizes for authors are all just wonderful. They are simply the very best way to draw people's attention to books they would not even consider reading under normal circumstances. But my favourite prize of them all is something I have only just heard about: the To Hell With Prizes Award.

This is a competition in which agents are invited to send in a manuscript which has been rejected by every publisher in town. A panel—which includes a novelist, an editor and a bookseller—then reads them all, and awards £5,000 to their favourite. The current prize-holder is a likeable-sounding young journalist called David Whitehouse, whose book is called Bed. This tells the story of a chap who becomes so weary of the world that he takes to his bed and, over a period of 20 years, becomes the world's fattest man.

I have to admit that I can see why nobody snapped that up. I'm sure it would have gone straight back in the post if David's agent, Cathryn Summerhayes at William Morris, had offered it to me. But then I'm pretty certain I would not have spotted the potential of Harry Potter either. A boarding school boy who flies around on a broomstick—please, give me a break. And who would ever have predicted the mega-success of a book like Life of Pi, with all those meerkats and things?

Anyway, Bed is now being published in 10 countries and looks to become a success at last. Personally, I love the way prizes persuade me to pick up books I would never consider under normal circumstances. Christopher Reid's A Scattering, which won the Costa Prize, for example, is the first poetry book I bought since I was a teenager. It was so powerful and moving and delightful that I just loved it.

In my experience, nearly all of the biggest and most successful books we have published have been rejected by numerous other publishers. This tends to be because they are like nothing that has gone before. At the time we published The Guv'nor, a book by a bare-knuckle fighter called Lenny McLean, the perceived wisdom in the trade was that working-class men did not buy books—especially hardbacks. That meant, of course, that The Guv'nor had no competition. It flew to number one in the Sunday Times charts and went on to sell a million copies.

Similarly, when a chirpy blonde lady tipped up at the office with a dog-eared manuscript that had been turned down by every publisher in town I had a feeling that her story might just appeal to a lot of ordinary, aspirational girls who would not normally dream of entering a bookshop. We published her book as Being Jordan, and the rest is history . . .