A moment of renewal

When A Girl is a Half-formed Thing wins the Baileys Women's Prize, and a fearless Eimear McBride reduces the house to tears and cheers with a surprised-by-joy acceptance of her most unlikely fate, it is hard not to think our industry still has the knack of making itself believe again.

It seemed so unlikely even as chair of the judges Helen Fraser uttered the word "accessible" [as one of the prize's judging criteria] that it would or could be Eimear. But then the first Baileys Prize winner announcement erupted, raw and volcanic from somewhere else - much like a reading of her novel - into the room.

And of course, we all now know the story of the relentless rejection letters, the nine long waiting years, the gallant Galley Beggars, the Goldsmith Prize victory, the Folio Prize and Authors’ Club shortlists, the Faber co-publishing deal and the Baileys triumph. This is an upstream, against the tide, smugglers' tale. Certainly in the context of mega publishing - deals, campaigns, reputations, media and retail empires, corporations. Eimear, whipped up much like Dorothy and flung off the publishing superhighway into her very own magical adventure, has inspired a motley but dynamic crew of fervent professional readers to keep their publishing and prize-giving faith.  

And how she has rewarded them for choosing her. A writer, but a self-declared reader first, she returned the challenge with her Bessie held high to the South Bank ballroom floor, facing the publisher suitors who had rejected her first. You may have underestimated me the writer, she declared, but please DON'T underestimate me the reader, or by extension, my potential readers.


The odds are that the Galley Beggar, Goldsmith, Folio Prize and Baileys Prize enterprises should not have succeeded either - but for the tenacious convictions of Henry Layte, Sam Jordison and Eloise Millar (Galley Beggar Press), Blake Morrison and Tim Parnell, with the New Statesman's Jonathan Derbyshire (Goldsmiths Prize), Andrew Kidd and The Folio Society’s Toby Hartwell (Folio Prize), or the Women's Prize's Kate Mosse and Harriet Hastings. And that's what it takes. As Eimear disrupts the status quo for readers and reading and writers and writing, so these important acts of entrepreneurial publishing and prize-giving protest disrupt and renew the industry. A book that nearly got away has returned to chide us – but we are happier for it, happy that the recent global trends, comprehensive as they are, can’t quite cheat us out of the very thing that inspires us most, a uniquely original book and a deeply compelling writer.

And so it was too when George Saunders won the inaugural Folio Prize and Andrew Solomon won The Wellcome Book Prize. But none of these books had anything like the media or sales profile prior to the winning of these prizes that their victories suggest they merit. In recent years, just as publishing difficult books and incubating talented writers feels like a strange occupation from the past, so our national media has reflected the trend, blanking these novels, writers and thinkers from (re)view.

Mainstream publishing caters for the mainstream consumer which is mediated by a mainstream media driven by circulation figures and ratings contests. This seemed like a winning game, until our bookshop chains fell away and national print circulations started to decline. While we have been dumbing down on various fronts to feed the widest market, could it be our readers have not been dumbing down? While they mass-migrate online to participate in a new golden age of reading and writing on the one hand, on the other hand they are flooding into libraries, readers groups, book clubs, events and festivals like pilgrims in search of Mecca – hungry for an experience of language, writing, writers and ideas which they have been finding less of in traditional bookshops, or in print or on TV.

So while writers and readers are not giving up on us, we should not give up on them. Rumour has it that rebellious commissioning editors are pulling manuscripts off the rejection piles and, buoyed by a dose of hope and courage, are returning them to the acquisition floor. Good luck to them. And to the many others in our talented industry - curators, entrepreneurs, bloggers, booksellers, marketeers - who have new ideas and enterprises they want to pursue.  

Now that James Daunt says Waterstones no longer needs to be defensive, will it get creative? As we attract young new professionals into our industry will we create new incentives and schemes to motivate and reward them? And while our embattled leaders wrestle on the perilous front-line with global forces and Amazonian giants, can we all now dream and create and resist and stake a claim in our industry's future?

Signs are we can. The incredible work taking place across the library sector in local communities nationwide despite the devastating impacts of recession are a case in point. Independent retailers are getting stuck in too – they have everything to play for in our diverse and interested reading and writing eco-culture, because books are our bag.
It is a long time since Simon Jenkins, then at The Times, almost fatally derailed Kate Mosse's fledgling ambitions for a women's prize for fiction with an article denouncing it as "politically correct". But she has presided over something of an orange revolution in writing by women. And just when some were tempted to think the job had been done, new prizes have sprung onto the scene while established prizes like Man Booker and Wellcome have renewed and recalibrated their ambitions. And last week, by bringing the daring Irish spirits of Baileys and McBride together, the mixologists won.

Fiona McMorrough is c.e.o. of PR and marketing consultancy FMCM. The Folio and Wellcome Prizes are among the agency's clients