In depth: The Folio Prize

In depth: The Folio Prize

The seventh of August 2012 may just turn out to be a date that will live in literary history.

Folio Society m.d. Toby Hartwell certainly has cause to remember it: 7th August is his wedding anniversary. Yet it is also the day he had his “blind date” with Andrew Kidd, Aitken Alexander director and the driving force behind the fledgling Literature Prize.

The idea for the Literature Prize was mooted, of course, during the 2011 Man Booker Prize season when—perhaps more because of a few remarkably tone-deaf interviews by judges Chris Mullin and Stella Rimington than the merits of the books shortlisted—Britain’s pre-eminent literary prize was condemned in some quarters for “dumbing down”.

Kidd and a few like-minded supporters, including William Heinemann, Hutchinson and Windmill publisher Jason Arthur, Picador editorial director Kate Harvey and Rogers, Coleridge & White director Georgia Garrett, said that the Booker was broken and an award was needed to “establish a clear and uncompromising standard of excellence” for books.

However in a difficult economic climate, with many companies reducing or even pulling sponsorship money, getting someone to stump up for the prize was not exactly easy. Kidd says the prize was “casting our net around for a while, but we knew from other people who had been through a process like this that it would take a while, so we were patient”.

In the summer of 2012, Fiona McMorrough, c.e.o. and founder of literature and arts PR firm FMcM, told Kidd she had an anonymous client interested. So the Literature Prize started sending information to unknown potential benefactors, passed a number of hurdles, and a meeting was set up at “a central London location”. Kidd did not know the identity of those benefactors until the meeting when Hartwell introduced himself.

“I was surprised,” Kidd admits. “We had approached a lot of people but hadn’t even thought of the Folio Society. But then when I thought about it, it made perfect sense. Because of its priorities and who [the Folio Society] is, we didn’t have to adjust our priorities, which we might have had to do with a different sponsor. And Folio, because of its different model, is probably the only publisher that could sponsor this without a conflict of interest.”

For Hartwell, who joined Folio in 2010 from the Associated Press where he was marketing director, the prize dovetails with both the business and cultural side of Folio. “Of course there is a commercial element to this—we produce beautifully illustrated new books and classic literature and we want more people to know about it. But our core aim, and we have been thinking about this for a while, is to get Folio associated with something that promotes great writing. So over a coffee and a cappuccino, the Folio Prize was born.”

Excellence not elitism

Over the past six months the structure and set up of the Folio Prize has been hammered out. A group of six people—Kidd, Picador’s Harvey, McMorrough and three representatives from the Folio Society—are the administrative board in charge of the overall strategy of the prize, along with Suzy Lucas, formerly literature consultant at the BFI Film Fund and a scout for Anne-Louise Fisher Associates, who was last month hired as the prize administrator. Lucas will also be responsible for the prize’s day-to-day activities.  

In many ways, the core of the Folio Prize, and what makes it differ from the Booker and other large prizes, is the Folio academy. The prize’s academy, currently 112-strong and including book critics and authors, will nominate the bulk of the titles for consideration (academy members can win; but they cannot nominate their own books, and must step out of the judging process if a title of theirs is nominated). Using, Kidd says, “a complicated rubric designed by a Mexican economist-turned-novelist that makes my head spin”, each academy member nominates three books for inclusion; the list is then whittled down to 60 books. Publishers and imprints are then invited to nominate up to five books for consideration, from which the academy picks an additional 20 titles. The five judges for each year are from academy members drawn from lots (members can decline to judge, however).

A charitable trust has been created, with board members meeting twice a year to ensure that the objectives of the prize are being met. Those objectives are spelled out in a constitution the group has drafted. Kidd says: “It was very important to us that all the mechanics of the prize were transparent not just to ourselves and the academy, but to the public so people could understand how it worked.”

Folio has stumped up a fair amount for the prize, £40,000, which brings it into the premier league of UK literary awards, though it is dwarfed by some prizes around the globe. “The size of the award was about signalling our intent,” says Kidd.

The initial agreement is for two years, but Hartwell says that is just the beginning. “We’re in it for the long haul. Prizes take a long time to bed in with the public. But with the best will in the world, we won’t have huge amounts of money to spend. But it will be about using the resources we have in the best way.”

Hartwell is also keen to point out that though the Folio Prize was born out of the “dumbing down” controversy, this is not about a Booker bunfight. “I don’t see these awards as competitive. In fact, the more literary awards the better. The Folio Society is doing it because we want to encourage what Andrew has said about ‘putting literature in the centre of people's lives’.”

Kidd is quick to point out that the Folio Prize’s raison d’être is about excellence, not being highbrow—a key distinction. “We’re just looking for the books that are the most perfect realisation of the author’s intent,” he says. “We’re not discriminating against the way the stories are told, not against genre. The public still values the idea of excellence—look how excited we all were by the Olympics, by achieving at the highest level. There’s nothing elitist about that. It’s inspiring.

“Elitism implies that we are trying to keep people out; we’re actually trying to connect to as many people as possible, to get as many people in. It shouldn’t feel remotely fusty, but energetic and alive.”

Rich lit prizes:

If an author was trying to hit the mother lode with a literary award for a single book (rather than a writing career award like the Nobel Prize), writing in Spanish is the way to go. In 2012 there were 13 awards which gave out prize money equivalent to €100,000 or more, and an incredible seven of them were awarded to books written in Spanish. Topping the list is the Premio Planeta de Novela. Funded by publishing giants Grupo Planeta, the top prize—won in 2012 by Lorenzo Silva’s La marca del meridanido—is a whopping €601,000—roughly 10 and a half Booker Prizes. Missing out on the top spot might not mean you will go home in tears, however: the runner-up gets a none-too-measly €150,000.
Planeta’s publishing rivals Plaza & Janés gives away €360,607 for the Premio de Novela Ciudad de Torrevieja, while in 2012 the Mexican government awarded the first Carlos Fuentes International Award for Literary Creation in the Spanish language, worth $250,000.

The Folio Prize

Prize award

Academy members (including Salman Rushdie, Zadie Smith, Emma Donoghue and Michael Chabon)

Titles in contention (60 from academy members, 20 from publishers’ suggestions)

1st January–31st December 2013
Eligible titles for the first prize must be published between these dates, written originally in English (by UK or overseas authors) and published in the UK