The original list of Best of Young British Novelists, published in 1983, brought a remarkable generation of young writers, including Martin Amis, Kazuo Ishiguro and Rose Tremain to the attention of a large reading public.
The 20 novelists, all aged under 40, had their books displayed prominently in store and in the windows of some 2,000 bookshops, including branches of W H Smith and John Menzies, as well as being stocked by about 1,000 public libraries.
Best of Young British Novelists was a marketing campaign, the second of three "Best of British..." promotions devised by the Book Marketing Council to promote literary fiction. The first campaign featured 20 outstanding novelists and poets, including Graham Greene, Beryl Bainbridge and William Golding. The final campaign, Best Novels of Our Time, featured outstanding novels published since 1945.
The Best of Young British Novelists was undoubtedly the most successful in attracting both the media's and the public's attention, not least because it had inspired a special issue of Granta. But the real credit for the campaign's success rests with the independent panel of judges, Beryl Bainbridge, Michael Holroyd, Martyn Goff and Alison Rimmer, the New Fiction buyer at Heffers Bookshop in Cambridge.
It is they who read the many novels submitted by publishers and finally agreed upon a remarkable selection of 20, largely unknown novelists. The list was announced to publishers and booksellers months before launch to allow time for all the novels to be reprinted and often published in paperback for the first time, and to ensure that adequate stocks and display materials were available in every bookshop and in the many libraries that participated.
The Book Marketing Council was a characteristically Eighties organisation which organised industry-wide promotions and undertook research on behalf of the book trade. While the idea of a list was used as a gimmick to grab attention and to get the literary critics arguing, the promotion was highly organised. The displays in bookshops and libraries were supported by a very extensive media campaign, including interviews on BBC radio, a special supplement in the Times and a remarkable photograph of the young novelists by Lord Snowdon which was published in the Sunday Times colour magazine.
A few of the literati were a little sniffy about marketing campaigns to promote literary fiction, but they forgot that publishing is essentially a marketing business and that there is little sense in great fiction being read by fewer than five hundred readers. The idea of a list of the "best" created controversy, attracted enormous attention and was fun.
The special issue of Granta magazine was an enormous success and was to inspire editor Bill Buford and his successors to organise new selections in every subsequent decade, the fourth list being announced on 15th April. This will, rightly, attract wide interest and introduce us all to another new generation of talented young writers.
The first Best of Young British promotion sold an additional 250,000 copies of the young novelists' books. This was due to the enthusiastic support of bookshops and libraries and especially the hunger of the public to read good fiction. Let us hope that in 2013, as many people will read the selection of the 2013 novelists' work in the new edition of Granta and buy or borrow their novels in print or e-book form in the coming weeks.
Desmond Clarke was formerly head of the Book Marketing Council, which devised the first Best of Young British Novelists promotion.