How to win the Man Booker Prize

How to win the Man Booker Prize

Want to win the Man Booker Prize? Kiera O'Brien crunches the numbers to tell you how.

Be a man
Since 1969, 31 male authors have won the Booker Prize, compared to just 16 women. The last 10 years of winners has been evenly split, five female authors to five male - though women have been experiencing a bit of a dry spell recently. The last woman to win was Eleanor Catton with The Luminaries, in 2013.

Hilary Mantel is the only woman to win more than once, in 2009 and 2012 - J M Coetzee won in 1983 and 1999, and Peter Carey won in 1988 and 2001.

Be white
Ten of the Booker Prize’s 47 winners have been from BAME backgrounds. Of those, three (V S Naipaul, Salman Rushdie and Kazuo Ishiguro) are British and three (Arundhati Roy, Kiran Desai and Aravind Adiga) are Indian.

With two BAME winners in the last two years - Marlon James and Paul Beatty - the percentage of non-white winners has inched up from 18% to 21%. If Mohsin Hamid wins the 2017 prize with Exit West, it would go up to 23%.

Be British or Irish
Winners of the Prize are overwhelmingly British - and within that, overwhelmingly English. Out of 47, 28 winners have been British at the time of their victory, with one Scot (James Kelman) and one Welsh writer (Bernice Rubens).

However, American authors have only been eligible for the Prize since 2014, and have already racked up one winner (Paul Beatty). If 2017 frontrunner Lincoln in the Bardo swipes the crown this year, Texas-born George Saunders will make it two US winners in four years.

While British authors may have won the most times, Ireland has the best hit-rate, punching above its weight on the world stage. Counting “Lost Booker” winner J G Farrell as Anglo-Irish, Ireland’s win-per-capita stands at 0.00008%, compared to the UK’s 0.00003%.  So if you’re British you’ve got a better chance of winning, but you’ll have 64 million other people to contend with - much better to go against just the 4.75 million other Irish people.

Go to private school and Oxford
While 19 winners went to state school, 26 were privately-educated, with two (Ben Okri and Aravind Adiga) attending both state and private schools - and both winning in their early 30s.

Nine winners then went to Oxford - with just a single state-schooled future Booker winner making the grade (William Golding).

Whatever you do, don’t touch Cambridge with a bargepole. The same amount of Booker winners went to Cambridge as those that didn’t go to university at all (four apiece).

Be aged nearly 49
The mean average age for a Booker-winner author is 48.9 - though the most common ages to win are 35, 50 and 54, with three winners each.

While Eleanor Catton became the Booker’s youngest winner in 2013, aged 28, the last 10 winners have a combined age of 507 - the highest since 1978-1987, which included oldest winner William Golding (aged 69).

Write six books before your winner
Once you’ve nailed being a white British privately-educated man aged 48, you should probably start thinking about your book. Counting novels only, Iris Murdoch wrote 19 before The Sea, The Sea won in 1978 - though on average, authors win the Booker with their seventh book.

Fiona Mozley, take note. Debut authors winning is not uncommon - Keri Hulme, Arundhati Roy, DBC Pierre and Aravind Adiga all won with their first book, and three of those occurred in the last 20 years.

…and make it 378 pages long
Despite a few door-stoppers crushing the competition in the last few years - 2015 winner A Brief History of Seven Killings comes in at 704 pages, with Catton’s The Luminaries at 832 and 2009 winner Wolf Hall at 674 - many shorter winners bring the average number down to 378 pages.

In what must have been a joyous time for reviewers and industry commentators, the mid-noughties saw a six-year run of winners with 350 pages or fewer. Penelope Fitzgerald’s 1979 winner Offshore is the shortest, with 144 pages, while Catton swiped the title of winner with the most pages to go alongside her (you’d think contradictory) record for youngest age.

Set it at least 50 years in the past
Books set in the past are catnip to Booker judges - in the last 10 years, four winners have been set mainly before 1950.

Also, not that the Booker Prize is dogged by post-colonial guilt or anything, but books set in either India or Ireland have a great chance of sweeping the board, with Aravind Adiga’s The White Tiger, Anne Enright’s The Gathering, Yann Martel’s Life of Pi, Peter Carey’s The True History of the Kelly Gang, Arundhati Roy’s The God of Small Things, Roddy Doyle’s Paddy Clarke Ha Ha Ha and Salman Rushdie’s Midnight’s Children just a few of the winners.

In the past, you’d have posted your historical 378-page India and Ireland-set manuscript straight to Jonathan Cape; the publisher has produced eight winners since first claiming the prize in 1974. But in the modern era, independent publisher Oneworld has the edge, after publishing both 2015 and 2016’s winners.

Make sure your main character is male
The last nine winners have all featured male protagonists, or male narrative voices - there hasn’t been a female main character since Anne Enright’s The Gathering won in 2007. Emily Fridlund’s History of Wolves, the only solely female-narrated title on the 2017 shortlist, could buck the trend.

Choose a title starting with ‘the’
A total of 23 winners had titles starting with “the”, nearly half the total. Three books with the word “road” in the title have won - Richard Flanagan’s The Narrow Road to the Deep North, Ben Okri’s The Famished Road and Pat Barker’s The Ghost Road. Two titles with the word “tiger” have won (Penelope Lively’s Moon Tiger and Aravind Adiga’s The White Tiger), as have two with the word “sea” in the title (Iris Murdoch’s The Sea, The Sea and John Banville’s The Sea). So name your book The Road to the Sea of Tigers and it’ll be an odds-on favourite.