Herman Melville scholar Peter Riley has been named as the winner of the inaugural Profile Aitken Alexander Non-Fiction Prize worth £25,000 for the best début trade non-fiction proposal from an academic, selected from more than 80 entries.
Riley’s winning proposal, Strandings, is described by the prize organisers as "a book about beached whales and the remarkable people whose secret lives revolve around them". It earns him a £25,000 publishing contract with independent publisher Profile Books and representation by Aitken Alexander Associates literary agency, both of which created the award.
Riley said: "I entered this prize because I was interested in speaking to a broader audience than conventional academic publishing usually allows, being shortlisted for this prize was brilliant enough; winning it has been life-changing.”
A literary academic and Melville scholar at the University of Exeter, Riley has been on the trail of the mysterious whale scavengers since an unforgettable encounter in his teens, prize organisers said.
"Strandings wasn't at all the sort of thing we thought we would find when we launched the prize," said Ed Lake, editorial director at Profile Books. "Peter is a Melville expert, and in Strandings, with its wild cast of characters, oblique political meditations and sense of the absurd, he channels a very Melvillian spirit. But this is a strange and bold take on contemporary nature writing, and it emerges from a lifelong personal obsession as much as it does from Peter’s scholarly interests. The one thing we were clear about was that his story and his writing were just extraordinary."
Aitken Alexander agent Chris Wellbelove said: "Strandings is on the one hand about British eccentricity, but on the other is about ideas that are universal: obsession, our connection with the animal world, and the plight of our oceans and the creatures that inhabit them. We can’t wait to share it with readers and publishers all over the world."
The judges included Matthew Reisz, books editor at Times Higher Education, historian and professor Margaret MacMillan and mathematician and author Eugenia Cheng, as well as Lake and Wellbelove. They selected Riley’s proposal from more than 80 entries submitted from academics across the UK and internationally, writing on subjects ranging from the uses of graphene to the history of Fire Island.
Scholar Claire Horn's Eve, a proposal about the likely social ramifications of artificial human gestation, was highly commended by the judges.
The 2020 Profile Aitken Alexander Non-Fiction Prize is now open for entries from academics “with a big idea they want to take to a general audience,” organisers said. The prize is a £25,000 publishing contract with Profile Books and representation by Aitken Alexander Associates. The closing date for entries is 30th April and the winner and three runners-up will be selected by a panel of judges. To enter the prize, please email your proposal in Microsoft Word format to: firstname.lastname@example.org.