Man Booker Prize: Disappointing and Disappearing

Expert publishing blog opinions are solely those of the blogger and not necessarily endorsed by DBW.

ImageBook prizes have become an increasingly key route through which to discover and champion the best writers, to elevate and highlight the brilliant above the masses of books now being published every year. That’s why over the last few years they have become increasingly frustrating, happy to stick with what and who they know; if all else fails, just put a Mantel on the mantelpiece.

Excitingly, the tide has been turning over the last year, and there are finally some results to shout about (and shouts readers are interested, and in fact keen, in listening to).

This began with The Shock of the Fall by Nathan Filer winning the Costa Book of the Year Award in 2013. Published by Borough Press, an imprint of HarperCollins–not all, just most, of the best new work comes from independent publishers–it is a fantastic, important and brilliantly written book that could have been missed had it not been for the prize. And now a huge hit with readers everywhere.

In 2014 that has been followed by A Girl Is a Half-Formed Thing by Eimear McBride winning the Bailey’s Women Prize for Fiction. Published by Galley Beggar Press, with Faber, there is the mix somewhere, the result generated a level of excitement higher than anything I can remember for many years.

And, surprise, surprise, it has also sold very well, smashing the defeatist, pretentious and frankly pathetic notion that readers aren’t interested in quality and ambitious writing.

And so onto the Man Booker Prize. Firstly, nothing should detract from the brilliant achievement of being longlisted, so if you are a longlisted author keep drinking the champagne and look away now.

On the back of the prize results above, I don’t think I have looked forward to a Booker longlist as much in some time. My reaction? A quick check of the calendar to confirm I was still in 2014. In fact, in this Millennia. Back into the Publishing Club, clinging on to what and who you know. I actually tiredly exhaled while writing that sentence.

Part of the issue is with the rule changes. Adding in US writers stole the headlines but I actually liked that. I believe the weight of best, proper contemporary writing over the last century has by a distance come from the other side of the Atlantic. As a result, I feel that raising the bar to be hit can only be a good think for authors and publishers here in the UK.

The bit that got less attention, but which has had a negative impact is the new quotas, allowing a larger number of, and automatic entries for, previous winners. What does this say to new talent? You might as well buy some cigars, get some cards printed at a nearby station and start a club, slowly choking on cigar smoke while the rest of the world carries on outside without you. Only 154 books entered is by itself a damning statistic.

Among the publishers included are a scattering of independents, but those of a certain size, well-known in the establishment, of course. The one outlier was Unbound, and congratulations to them. But the scene of “haven’t we picked something different there, now before I go to lunch with x we must put in x’s work, or he won’t be inviting me to his Christmas soriee,” etc.–whether accurate or not–far too easily comes to mind.

I also feel slightly damned by association. There is a fast growing number within the publishing industry that share the same frustration, but while they will say so in meetings, bars and trade shows, most will be too polite or too worried about being barred from the club to openly declare dissent.

So what next? My guess will be the apathy for the list will pass over to the customer, and we’ll see some headlines about one celebrity book outselling the entire longlist, apart from maybe one or two that would have done well anyway. While the Man Booker is a judged prize rather one than chosen by the reader, the fact that five titles on the list haven’t yet been published demonstrates the regard the customer is held in by the prize selectors.

And that apathy will also pass overseas. Whereas some of the exciting new books from other prizes have been licensed and snapped up by publishers across the world, most of these will have already been heard about, taken or not taken. In summary, not much will change.

In conclusion, the danger is the prize will just slowly disappear–a great pity when it has been through golden periods of selecting not only fantastic new books, but talented new authors who have gone on to be international stars for decades afterwards. It will disappear as the other prizes seem to have got the message, as discussed above, and will hopefully continue to make dynamic and interesting selections (no surprise last year’s Man Booker missed A Girl Is a Half-Formed Thing, by the way).

So how to bring back the prize into something interesting and relevant? Fire all the judges and let the reader decide? That would be a great shame, as we need to demonstrate as an industry the ability–that we do have in many parts–to select and champion the best new writing. It is the absolute core of what we are meant to do.

For a start, lift the quotas, add some diversity into the panel and process (throwing Lily Allen in as a judge doesn’t count) and set a clear agenda of what the Man Booker is doing: discovering and highlighting the most exciting, dynamic and talented writing of that year. Disband the club, ban the back-patting and give the reader something to talk about. At this point, it’s still a very important prize, so let’s make the Man Booker relevant and exciting again.

Keen to hear your thoughts, whether you agree or not. Let me know at @Tom_Chalmers

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Tom Chalmers

About Tom Chalmers

Tom Chalmers is the Managing Director of Legend Times, a group of five publishing companies he has founded. He started his first company in 2005 when aged 25, Legend Press, a book publisher focused predominantly on mainstream literary and commercial fiction. Chalmers subsequently acquired Paperbooks Publishing, and later launched Legend Business, a business book publisher, followed by successful self-publishing and writer workshops companies, New Generation Publishing and Write-Connections, respectively. He also founded IPR License in 2012, a global rights licensing platform, which he sold in 2016. He has been shortlisted for UK Young Entrepreneur of the Year, UK Young Publisher of the Year, UK Young Publishing Entrepreneur of the Year, and longlisted for the Enterprising Young Brit Awards. He also speaks regularly on publishing and business and is an Enterprise Ambassador for the Prince’s Trust.

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