Man Booker Prize Pressured to Rescind Its Internationalist Stance

In News by Porter Anderson

Some publishing players in the UK are protesting the Man Booker Prize for Fiction’s eligibility rules, saying that the Booker should reimpose a ‘ban on American writers.’


By Porter Anderson, Editor-in-Chief | @Porter_Anderson

‘We Urge You To Reconsider’
In 2013, eligibility for the Man Booker Prize for Fiction expanded to include any novel written in English and published in the UK, regardless of what country the author was from. Following a win by a second American author in 2017, the prize’s eligibility rules are facing resistance.

Writing for The New York Times about this, Alexandra Alter observed that changes in prize programs can be challenging.

“The Man Booker Prize expanded in 2014 to allow writers of any nationality, regardless of geography, to enter the prize providing that they are writing in English and published in the UK. The rule was not created specifically to include American writers.”Booker Prize Foundation Trustees

Alter rightly recalled that when the Booker Foundation decided to “evolve” the prize several years ago to open it to “any novel written in English and published in Britain”—rather than requiring that an author be from Britain, the Commonwealth, Ireland, or Zimbabwe—the prize administrators heard a lot of concern that, as Alter put it, the award could be “sacrificing its British character.”

In the past two years, the Booker Prize for Fiction has gone to two US authors: Paul Beatty in 2016 and George Saunders in 2017.

Two days later, The Bookseller and the Guardian reported that a group of publishing figures are calling on the Booker Foundation to rescind the change allowing the wider world to be eligible for the prize.

The protest is led by publisher Mark Richards of John Murray—which is owned by Hachette’s Hodder & Stoughton—and takes the form of a letter signed by at least 30 industry players. While Sian Cain at the Guardian notes that the letter “was intended to be private,” it’s being quoted by staffers both at the Guardian and The Bookseller.

Pressure Points: Diversity, Sales

While normally we think of diversity with an inclusive expansion of opportunity, the letter writers argue that more inclusive eligibility rules actually are leading to a “homogenized literary future.”

“Contrary to the belief of the author of the letter, the diversity of the prize has not been ‘significantly reduced’ in the four years since the rule change. The 2014, 2015 and 2016 shortlists all included four (of six) non-US writers, and the 2014 and 2015 prizes were won by an Australian and Jamaican author respectively.”Booker Prize Foundation Trustees

“The diversity of the prize,” they write, “has been significantly reduced. This year’s shortlist consisted of three Americans, two Brits and one British-Pakistani, as opposed to 2013’s shortlist, which consisted of a New Zealander, a Zimbabwean, an Irishman, an American-Canadian, a Brit and a British-American.

“In a globalized but economically unequal world, it is more important than ever that we hear voices not from the centers. The rule change has made this much less likely to happen … As concerned friends, and as publishers who worry about a homogenized literary future, we urge you to reconsider your decision.”

The letter also cites reduced sales as a reason to restrict prize eligibility. In the Guardian, Cain quotes the protest letter’s rationale:

“The rule change, which presumably had the intention of making the prize more global, has in fact made it less so, by allowing the dominance of Anglo-American writers at the expense of others; and risks turning the prize, which was once a brilliant mechanism for bringing the world’s English-language writers to the attention of the world’s biggest English-language market, into one that is no longer serving the readers in that market … [It] will therefore be increasingly ignored.”

The Bookseller’s staff story clarifies this argument: “The letter argues that broadening the criteria [has] lessened the impact on US sales of the prize-winners.

“Nielsen BookScan US data shows that in the week of the past three Man Booker Prize announcements, the winners had triple-digit percentage sales rises: George Saunders’ Lincoln in the Bardo was up 435 percent to 4,536 copies sold, Paul Beatty’s The Sellout soared 1,432 percent to 8,380 units, and Marlon James’ A Brief History of Seven Killings jumped 507 percent to 4,192 sales. But in the year of winning the prize, the data also shows that the sales bump in the US has flattened. Just 48 percent of sales of Lincoln in the Bardo were generated after it won the Man Booker, compared with The Luminaries which saw its sales increase 12-times from 4,553 to 56,393.”

Bookseller editor Philip Jones in his column on the issue has a quick way of getting at this point: “Judged by Nielsen BookScan US numbers, Americans are less entranced by American winners. Though there is still a considerable Booker bump immediately after the winner is announced, the percentage increase in sales driven by the win is becoming more shallow.”

And while it’s only one part of his own reaction, Jones does write that the Booker trustees could well say that the role of the prize is not “to help UK publishers sell books.” This will make publishers feel no better, but it’s a valid observation.

That leaves us looking at a very bright line of economic reality: the publishing houses see sales as a major component of the value of the Booker, much as Hollywood’s studios would tell you that box-office income is fundamental to the importance of the Oscars. Any prize’s organizers, while aware of their decisions’ sales impact, may not see that as their mission.

 

Comments and the Booker’s Statement

For now, in the UK, industry players are lining up on either side of the question. Some quoted in The Bookseller’s reporting see the Booker as “a much grander institution for its global reach, perhaps the most visible book-specific award in the world” and others say things closer to the comment of Picador publisher Paul Baggaley: “At Pan Macmillan, we all feel that something special about the prize has been lost. The opportunities it has given authors over the years have been diminished, and that affects all publishers.”

Among those looking for the center, Juliet Mabley at Oneworld (which published Paul Beatty’s The Sellout in the UK) is quoted, saying, “I think the change in rules is a positive one for the prize itself, but perhaps not good news for [the UK’s] indigenous and the Commonwealth literary scene.”

And the Booker Foundation is hardly in retreat. The Booker trustees have issued the following statement, which we include for you, in its entirety:

“The trustees of the Booker Prize Foundation are aware that a letter is in circulation to be signed by publishers asking the trustees for a discussion around the decision to ‘allow American writers to enter the Man Booker Prize’.

“To date, the trustees have not actually received any such letter but a draft has been seen. Assuming that the content remains the same, the trustees are issuing this statement in response.

“The Foundation welcomes any debate that would further the wellbeing of the prize, but would wish to point to inaccuracies in the letter. The Man Booker Prize expanded in 2014 to allow writers of any nationality, regardless of geography, to enter the prize providing that they are writing in English and published in the UK. The rule was not created specifically to include American writers.

“Contrary to the belief of the author of the letter, the diversity of the prize has not been ‘significantly reduced’ in the four years since the rule change. The 2014, 2015 and 2016 shortlists all included four (of six) non-US writers, and the 2014 and 2015 prizes were won by an Australian and Jamaican author respectively. Moreover, clear trends cannot be drawn from a mere four years of data.

“The judges of the Man Booker Prize for Fiction are charged with finding the best novel of the year, in their opinion, written in English. The trustees believe that this mission cannot be constrained or compromised by national boundaries. As Lola Young, chair of the 2017 Man Booker judging panel, said in her speech at the winner ceremony:

“The writers whose work was submitted to us for this year’s Man Booker Prize, came from around the globe—for many of them, their cultural heritage as suggested by their biographies, is rich, varied and complex. They defy categorization on the basis of nationality or ethnicity. Born in one village, town or city, at school in another, maybe attended university in another; they visit family somewhere else and have a job in yet another place. That’s the reality for vast numbers of people as they criss-cross the world, searching for ways to express, to discover, to pose, maybe even to answer the questions that perplex us all.”

Thus the stage is set for a worthy and interesting debate.

Jones writes that some in the UK industry have suggested boycotting the prize or not entering their American writers. But “it’s hard to see the Booker Foundation shifting its position,” he writes.

“As one observer put it to me,” Jones writes, “the prize now makes sense. Its former rules may have been idiosyncratic, but they also smacked of a view of the world long-since consigned to history. The prize won’t be improved by reverting back. But the Man Booker Prize does not exist in a vacuum: it was founded by two publishers and is an active part of the UK publishing scene. It should listen to its critics—even if it finds their arguments unconvincing.”


More of Publishing Perspectives’ coverage of the Man Booker Prize is here.

About the Author

Porter Anderson

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Porter Anderson is Editor-in-Chief of Publishing Perspectives. He is also co-owner and editor with Jane Friedman of The Hot Sheet, the newsletter for trade and indie authors. He formerly was Associate Editor for The FutureBook, at London's The Bookseller. Anderson has also worked with CNN International, CNN.com, CNN USA, the Village Voice, the Dallas Times Herald, and other media.