UK: The £50,000 Wolfson Prize Shortlist: ‘People and Societies’

In News, Opinion & Commentary by Porter Anderson

‘New perspectives,’ organizers say, lie in the ‘enduring power of history writing’ as the Wolfson History Prize names a 2023 shortlist.

Image: Wolfson History Prize

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

Ramsbottom: ‘A Distinct Resonance for Today’s Challenges’
Among the many book and publishing awards now docking at the press pier for coveted news attention—like late-summer ferries lined up at Parikia in the Aegean—the Wolfson History Prize is a standout for its 50 years of operation and its focus on high-end nonfiction historical writings by authors resident in the United Kingdom.

In terms of the purse it offers, the Wolfson is exactly matched to the Baillie Gifford Prize for Nonfiction—which arrived in port with its longlist on Wednesday.

An award of £50,000 (US$62,735) is to go to the Wolfson’s winner, with the attendant shortlistees each getting £5,000 (US$6,275). These are handsome figures that set the Wolfson into a club of comparatively lucrative awards programs, the work under consideration sturdy and smart.

One of the things that makes this program valuable is that its jurors look for work that “challenges readers to rethink accepted historical narratives [by] exploring themes that are pertinent to current world events.” In this, it’s a close thematic cousin to the British Academy Book Prize for Global Cultural Understanding and Canada’s Cundill History Prize.

The jury this year comprises chair David Cannadine; Mary Beard; Sudhir Hazareesingh; Richard Evans; Carole Hillenbrand; and Diarmaid MacCulloch.

David Cannadine

David Cannadine

In a prepared statement, Cannadine is quoted, saying, “This year’s shortlist demonstrates the enduring power of history writing to shed light on the past, and also to bring new perspectives, empathy, and nuance to our understanding of the present.

“The six titles cover a wide range of themes, from inequality to war and occupation and the effect of previous pandemics.

“Each book is commended because it is beautifully crafted, grounded in meticulous research, and full of fascinating stories of people and places.”

Paul Ramsbottom

And Paul Ramsbottom, the Wolfson Foundation CEO, says, “The Wolfson Foundation supports education and research across a wide range of sectors.

“For more than 50 years, the Wolfson History Prize has been part of this mission, championing books that are carefully researched and well-written.

“A common theme in this year’s shortlist is an exploration of how people and societies in the past have confronted fundamental, global issues: books with a distinct resonance for today’s challenges and preoccupations.”

The Wolfson History Prize 2023 Shortlist

As you’ll see, this year’s Wolfson shortlist gives three of its six accolades to work published by Penguin Random House’s Allen Lane division. Princeton University Press is the publisher of two more of these works. And the independent house Duckworth Books is the publisher of the sixth shortlistee.

Title Author Publisher and/or Imprint
African and Caribbean People in Britain: A History Hakim Adi Penguin Random House / Allen Lane
The World the Plague Made: The Black Death and the Rise of Europe  James Belich Princeton University Press
The Perils of Interpreting: The Extraordinary Lives of Two Translators Between Qing China and the British Empire  Henrietta Harrison Princeton University Press
Resistance: The Underground War in Europe, 1939-1945 Halik Kochanski Penguin Random House / Allen Lane
Vagabonds: Life on the Streets of Nineteenth Century London Oskar Jensen Duckworth Books
Portable Magic: A History of Books and Their Readers Emma Smith Penguin Random House / Allen Lane

The winner of the Wolfson Prize this year is to be announced at a ceremony in central London on November 13, two days before the National Book Awards are announced at that program’s gala in New York City.

Prizes and Their Assumed Value

Amid so many significant prize programs vying for visibility in world publishing, the Wolfson is part of that group of genuinely valuable nonfiction awards that includes the British Academy Book Prize for Global Cultural Understanding, Canada’s Cundill History Prize, the German Nonfiction Prize, the Baillie Gifford Prize for Nonfiction, the Business Book of the Year Award, the Royal Society Science Book Prize, and the Parliamentary Book Awards.

Clare Jackson’s ‘Devil-Land’ won the Wolfson History Prize in 2022, a publication of Penguin Random House / Allen Lane

While frequently one or more of these programs will say that it’s recognizing “the best” writing of one kind or another in a given year, what actually is selected by any given contest—no one’s fault—can only be what one jury panel determines is the best that was submitted (or found) for those jurors’ consideration under the eligibility limitations set by that prize. A Wolfson submission, as an example, requires that its author be resident in the UK. Again this may be no one’s fault, but that constraint alone leaves out a lot of history writing (even by British writers located elsewhere). This renders that phrase the best as something merely aspirational, not factual–which carries a certain irony in a field like history that prides itself on accuracy.

This venerable award’s organizers rightly pride themselves on the Wolfson’s selections in the past of work by luminaries including Simon Schama, Eric Hobsbawm, Amanda Vickery, Antony Beevor, Christopher Bayly, and Lady Antonia Fraser. In its 51 years, the Wolfson reports to the news media this week, it has awarded more than £1.4 million (US$1.8 million) to more than 120 historians, a terrific achievement. The discerning Cannadine and Ramsbottom have sent us quotes (see above) which show that the work is seriously valued.

What would help, as we pointed out in our Wednesday write-up on the Baillie Gifford Prize for Nonfiction, would be for the Wolfson Foundation to follow the lead of the Booker Prize Foundation in reporting information on the impact that its highest honors have on unit sales. Does a Wolfson winner trigger extra press runs? Can a rise in sales be detect by a winning book’s publisher? Might a Wolfson laureate enjoy a boost in interest on the international rights-trading markets, propelling a book into new languages and territories? We simply don’t know.

Until the industry’s burgeoning awards programs begin to report their market mettle with data that shows copies of this good work being sold, then even if a winner actually is “the best,” an award’s contribution to its discoverability will be impossible to prove.

More from Publishing Perspectives on world publishing’s book and industry awards is here. More from us on the Wolfson History Prize is here, and more on the United Kingdom’s publishing market is here.

About the Author

Porter Anderson

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Porter Anderson 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 International, and CNN USA. As an arts critic (Fellow, 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.