How to win the Women's Prize

How to win the Women's Prize

Want to be in with a shot at winning the Women's Prize? Kiera O'Brien crunches the numbers to tell you how. 

Be American
Man Booker Prize organisers might want to pay attention. While the rate of Americans winning the Booker has been 50% since they became eligible in 2014, nine of the Women’s Prize for Fiction’s 22 winners have been American (including Serbian-born Tea Obreht), compared with seven Brits, since its inception in 1996. However, the tide may be turning in recent years, with no US winner since 2013 (when Madeline Miller won for The Song of Achilles). Could Jesmyn Ward or Elif Batuman be about to break the curse?

Irish authors, who have the best rate of Booker winners-per-capita, are picking up pace in the Women’s Prize. Eimear McBride was the first Irish winner in 2014, and she was swiftly followed in 2016 by Lisa McInerney. The Prize’s sponsor is also important: 47% of Orange Prize winners were American, while Irish and British authors split the Baileys Prize 50/50. Baileys Irish Cream—coincidence? Let’s not even mention the colour of the current US president’s face.

The 2018 shortlist

Enrol at the Iowa Writer’s Workshop
Three of the Women’s Prize winning authors—Suzanne Berne, Ann Patchett and A M Homes—completed postgraduate studies at the Iowa Writer’s Workshop, with Marilynne Robinson an emeritus faculty member. In contrast, only two—Zadie Smith and Naomi Alderman—went to either Oxford or Cambridge for their undergraduate studies, versus nine Booker winners. This makes holding an Oxbridge degree about as likely to win you the Women’s Prize as one from the University of York—whose alumni include 1996 winner Helen Dunmore and 2000 winner Linda Grant—or not studying literature at all. Andrea Levy went to art school to study textiles, before taking a City Lit creating writing course in her mid-30s, and Eimear McBride went to drama school, which she described as "a little cumbersome for actors, but great for writers". 

Be called Ann(e)…
Anne Michaels won in 1997, and Ann Patchett followed in her namesake’s footsteps five years later. An…drea Levy swiped the prize just two years after that.

…and have the last name Smith
From Z to A: Zadie (right) won in 2006 with On Beauty, followed by Ali in 2015 with How to Be Both. Any Anne Smiths with dreams of literary stardom might want to get cracking on their manuscript.

Be white
Of the 22 winners of the Women’s Prize, just three have been non-white, and all won within four years of one another: Andrea Levy in 2004 with Small Island, Zadie Smith in 2006 with On Beauty and Chimamanda Ngozi Adiche in 2007 with Half of a Yellow Sun. However, those three racked up staggering post-win sales figures between them, with their titles the first, third and fourth-bestselling of all the winners. The average sales for a white author’s winning book is around 117,000 copies, while Levy, Smith and Adichie’s winning titles average out at 663,109 units. Small Island is the bestselling Women’s Prize winner of all time, at 892,931 copies across all editions, and was named the Orange of Oranges in 2005, while Half of a Yellow Sun scooped the Bailey of Baileys in 2015. 

Be 45 and a half (or younger)
Our 22 winners have a combined age of 1,001 at the point of winning, which averages out to 45 and a half. The youngest winner was Tea Obreht, at 25, while the oldest was Marilynne Robinson, at 66. Since her win with Home in 2009, the Prize has had a notably young run of winning authors, with no one over the age of 56 winning. With none of 2018’s shortlisted authors over the age of 45, that trend will continue—and bring the average age down.

Write three books beforehand
The average Women’s Prize winner is fourth in its author’s oeuvre. Six debut titles have won in total, with four in the last seven years—so Imogen Hermes Gowar, Jessie Greengrass and Elif Batuman should feel hopeful going into this week’s ceremony. Rose Tremain’s The Road Home, which won in 2008, was her 14th title, while Carol Shields’ Larry’s Party was her ninth. However, both authors were in their sixties at the time of their win, while six of the eight winners under the age of 40 have won with their debuts. 

Put a man’s name in the title…
Curiously for a woman’s prize, male forenames feature often in the titles of winners—Carol Shields’ Larry’s Party in 1998, Lionel Shriver’s We Need to Talk About Kevin in 2005 and Madeline Miller’s The Song of Achilles in 2012. Though several titles featuring women’s forenames have been shortlisted, most recently Maria Semple’s Where’d You Go Bernadette in 2013 and Cynthia Bond’s Ruby in 2016, none has ever won. This year, neither Joanna Cannon’s Three Things About Elsie or Gail Honeyman’s Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine made it to the shortlist. 

…and start it with "the"
While the rate of Women’s Prize winners whose titles begin with a "the" is slightly lower than that of the Man Booker Prize, with around 32% of Women’s Prize holders against 44% of Booker winners using the definitive article, six of the seven "the"-titled winners have occurred in the last 10 years. Interestingly, 2010-2012 saw a trio of "the" titles win on the trot: Barbara Kingsolver’s The Lacuna, Tea Obreht’s The Tiger’s Wife and Madeline Miller’s The Song of Achilles. This year has the potential to produce another hat-trick—the last two winners being Lisa McInerney’s The Glorious Heresies and Naomi Alderman’s The Power—if Imogen Hermes Gowar’s The Mermaid and Mrs Hancock can go all the way.

Be published by Penguin
As with almost every area of the publishing industry, Penguin out-perform everyone else, with four winners, including 2017 winner Naomi Alderman’s The Power, published by Penguin General; a further two published by Viking, including inaugural winner Helen Dunmore’s A Spell of Winter, and one more published by Vintage—Rose Tremain’s The Road Home. However, Fourth Estate have racked up an impressive three winners, and Bloomsbury two. 

While the 2018 shortlist has previous winners Penguin Random House (Harvill Secker and Jonathan Cape), John Murray and Bloomsbury (twice) gunning for the Prize, the most interesting prospective winner is Meena Kandasamy’s When I Hit You. Not only would she become the first Indian author to win, but it would be a first for publisher Atlantic too. 

Be a woman
Every winner of the Prize has been a woman. But you knew that.