Patrick Radden Keefe Wins the UK’s Baillie Gifford Prize for ‘Empire of Pain’

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Patrick Radden Keefe’s big-pharma exposé of the opioid crisis and the Sackler family’s role in it wins the Baillie Gifford’s £50,000 award.

Patrick Radden Keefe. Image: Baillie Gifford Prize for Nonfiction, Belinda Lawley

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

Holgate: ‘Journalism as Outstanding Literature’
As Publishing Perspectives readers know, the United Kingdom’s Baillie Gifford Prize, directed by literary agent Toby Mundy, is one of the quite lucrative awards for nonfiction alongside the Cundill History Prize; the newly renamed British Academy Book Prize for Global Cultural Understanding (formerly the Nayef Al-Rodhan Prize); and the German Nonfiction Prize.

And tonight at the Science Museum in South Kensington, the £50,000 purse (US$67,139) for London’s Baillie Gifford Prize for Nonfiction has been handed to the American writer Patrick Radden Keefe for Empire of Pain: The Secret History of the Sackler Dynasty, published by Pan Macmillan’s Picador in the UK and PRH imprint Doubleday in the US.

The book examines the Sacklers’ relentless drive to promote OxyContin and their company Purdue Pharma, profoundly criticized for its role in the American opioid epidemic. In addition to Keefe’s book, their story is the subject of television producer Danny Strong’s new series Dopesick with Michael Keaton, Rosario Dawson, and Peter Sarsgaard. The show began its run on Hulu in October.

In court actions, the Sackler family has agreed to pay as much as US$4.5 billion into an opioid settlement fund, a controversial arrangement reportedly challenged by the Justice Department because it indemnifies the Sacklers.

Keefe, who is a staff writer with The New Yorker, is the author of three other books, and a Guggenheim Fellow as well as a fellow of the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars, the New America Foundation, and the Cullman Center for Scholars and Writers at the New York Public Library. His work was chosen by a Baillie Gifford jury panel led by Sunday Times literary editor Andrew Holgate. Working with Holgate have been jurors Sara Collins, Helen Czerski, Kathryn Hughes, Johny Pitts, and Dominic Sandbrook.

Andrew Holgate

“We were completely bowled over as a group of judges by Patrick Radden Keefe’s Empire of Pain, Holgate writes in the jury’s rationale. “By its moral rigor, its controlled fury, its exhaustive research, the skillful writing, the bravery it took to write it. Above all, though, by its sheer propulsive narrative energy.

“This is an exceptionally important story Keefe has mined in Empire of Pain, but what impressed us most was the skill with which he has told his jaw-dropping tale, and how immersive and unputdownable he has made the telling.

“This is journalism as outstanding literature, and what we have here is a future classic.”

Mark Urquhart

Speaking for the prize’s eponymous sponsor, the Edinburgh-based investment partnership Baillie Gifford, senior partner Mark Urquhart is quoted, saying, “Over the past 18 months the rich and varied world of nonfiction has helped many of us escape and be transported to worlds and experiences far from our own.

“This is a testament to the quality and breadth of nonfiction writing being published in the United Kingdom. Congratulations to all the shortlisted authors, and especially to Patrick Keefe on winning this year’s accolade.”

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta report that between 1999 and 2019, nearly 500,000 people died from an overdose involving any opioid, including prescription and illicit opioids.

In his review of Empire of Pain in April, John Carreyrou wrote in The New York Times, “Put simply, this book will make your blood boil. … With the help of this damning book, there’s one thing [the Sacklers will] never recover despite their penchant for putting their name on museums: their reputation.”

The Complete Baillie Gifford Prize 2021 Shortlist

Title Author Publisher and/or Imprint
Islands of Abandonment: Life in the Post-Human Landscape
(Editor’s note: the American subtitle from Viking is Nature Rebounding in the Post-Human Landscape)
Cal Flyn William Collins
Aftermath: Life in the Fallout of the Third Reich, 1945-1955 Harald Jähner, translated by Shaun Whiteside Penguin Random House / WH Allen
Empire of Pain: The Secret History of the Sackler Dynasty Patrick Radden Keefe Pan Macmillan / Picador
Things I Have Withheld  Kei Miller Canongate
Fall: The Mystery of Robert Maxwell John Preston Penguin Random House / Viking
Free: Coming of Age at the End of History Lea Ypi Penguin Random House / Allen Lane

A podcast from the prize organizers, “Read Smart,” is to be available on Friday (November 19) with Razia Iqbal and Patrick Keefe.

The Baillie Gifford’s top honor was won last year by journalist and author Craig Brown for One Two Three Four: The Beatles in Time (4th Estate).

Again this year, the prize ceremony event has been supported by sponsorship from the Blavatnik Family Foundation.

We’ve embedded the video of tonight’s presentation:


More from Publishing Perspectives on publishing industry and book awards is here, more on the United Kingdom’s market is here, more on the Baillie Gifford Prize is here, and more on nonfiction is here.

More on the coronavirus COVID-19 pandemic and its impact on international book publishing is here

About the Author

Porter Anderson

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Porter Anderson is a non-resident fellow of Trends Research & Advisory, and he has been named International Trade Press Journalist of the Year in London Book Fair's International Excellence Awards. He is Editor-in-Chief of Publishing Perspectives. He formerly was Associate Editor for The FutureBook at London's The Bookseller. Anderson was for more than a decade a senior producer and anchor with CNN.com, CNN International, and CNN USA. As as an arts critic (National Critics Institute), he was with The Village Voice, the Dallas Times Herald, and the Tampa Tribune, now the Tampa Bay Times. He co-founded The Hot Sheet, a newsletter for authors, which now is owned and operated by Jane Friedman.

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