Exclusive: Baillie Gifford Prize Reveals Its Sales Impact

In Feature Articles by Porter Anderson

Working with Nielsen, the Baillie Gifford Prize’s research on six winners shows an average 857-percent gain in unit sales after a win.

Five of the six shortlisted authors for the 2023 Baillie Gifford Prize for Nonfiction. From left are Hannah Barnes; Tania Branigan; Christopher Clark; Jeremy Eichler; and John Vaillant. Image: Baillie Gifford Prize. Not seen is Jennifer Homans. Note: This image has been placed in this story as an update. Our story was published on November 14, and this image of the shortlistees was made at the award’s ceremony on November 16

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

Toby Mundy: ‘A Very Good Exercise for Us’
New information released to Publishing Perspectives for this report indicates that on Thursday (November 16), when the United Kingdom’s £50,000 Baillie Gifford Prize for Nonfiction names its 2023 winner, that book may well be in line for an updraft in unit print sales of some 857 percent in the UK.

The research has been undertaken by the Baillie Gifford awards program in association with Nielsen, in part as a response to calls from this publication for the world’s many book competitions to provide indications of what impact their highest honors can confer in the marketplace.

“We don’t feel defensive” at such coverage, says Toby Mundy, the London-based CEO of Aevitas Creative Management Limited and executive director of the Baillie Gifford program. In an interview with Publishing Perspectives joined by Truda Spruyt, Four’s managing director for culture, Mundy says, “This is a very good exercise for us.

Toby Mundy

“I think we feel that it’s been a crystallizing event,” he says, allowing the program and its sponsors to quantify for the first time the kind of sales effect its books, authors, and their publishers can anticipate in response to a win.

To date, this is the largest of the world’s major English-language nonfiction award programs to begin reporting specific numbers on what sort of market influence its highest honors may have. What that means for the international professional book trade is that this awards program now is no longer depending on the kindness of strangers to assume that its top awards are going to boost sales: they now can demonstrate it in hard numbers.

  • The Baillie Gifford, with Nielsen, looked at its winners between 2016 and 2022—with the exception of the 2020 pandemic-year competition—to get as precise an understanding as possible of what had happened on the high street in UK sales for a winning book.
  • Figures were gathered for the four weeks before the prize-win and for the four weeks following that win.
  • The company and Nielsen also were able to develop a look at a book’s “lifetime” sales, and in this case those data are accurate in today’s report up to October 5.

Related article: In the UK, the £50,000 Baillie Gifford Prize’s 2023 Shortlist. Image: Baillie Gifford Prize for Nonfiction

The results, which well encourage other prize regimes to examine and report their own clout, includes one year’s results that show a book’s UK non-digital sales jumping from 688 copies in the four weeks prior to the win to 7,028 copies in the four weeks following the win. And the average across data for the six winners studied, Mundy says, is an 857-percent unit sales boost.

As we look at the details, it may be noted by some in our world readership that the Baillie Gifford here also illustrates how relevant some of the most powerful nonfiction writings can be.

The first book looked at is the 2016 winner, Philippe Sands’ East West Street: On the Origins of Genocide and Crimes Against Humanity from Hachette UKunder the geopolitical circumstances of today, a seemingly prescient book and award. The second is David France’s How To Survive a Plague: The Story of How Activists and Scientists Tamed Aids from Picador, surely a topic that would overtake the world, albeit with another pathogen, only a few years later.

And later in this article, we’ll add the shortlist, as we reported it on October 10, which also highlights timeliness, including Tania Branigan’s Red Memory: Living, Remembering and Forgetting China’s Cultural Revolution from Faber & Faber, just awarded the Cundill History Prize only days before the coming Wednesday (November 15) meeting in San Francisco between Joe Biden and Xi Jinping. And there’s John Vaillant’s Fire Weather: A True Story From a Hotter World, a five-alarm climate-crisis read from Hachette UK, shortlisted in the COP28 run-up, as Climate Central’s new study (PDF) reports that the past 12 months were the hottest in recorded world history.

Six Baillie Gifford Winners’ ‘Before and After’ Sales
Year of Baillie Gifford Win Winning Title Winning Author Winning Publisher Sales in Four Weeks Prior to Win Sales in Four Weeks After Win Lifetime Sales to October 5, 2023
2016 East West Street: On the Origins of Genocide and Crimes Against Humanity Philippe Sands Hachette / Weidenfeld & Nicolson 614 4,544 123,287
2017 How To Survive a Plague: The Story of How Activists and Scientists Tamed AIDS David France Pan Macmillan / Picador 114 704 5,910
2018 Chernobyl: History of a Tragedy Serhii Plokhy Penguin Random House / Allen Lane 160 1,607 93,366
2019 The Five: The Untold Lives of the Women Killed by Jack the Ripper Hallie Rubenhold Penguin Random House / Doubleday 688 7,028 134,436
2021 Empire of Pain: The Secret History of the Sackler Dynasty Patrick Radden Keefe Pan Macmillan 656 5,892 73,072
2022 Super-Infinite: The Transformations of John Donne Katherine Rundell Faber & Faber 594 5,360 44,524

The figures above, as provided to us by the Baillie Gifford Prize for Nonfiction, are for the United Kingdom as tracked by Nielsen. They do not include ebook and audiobook sales, which Baillie Gifford organizers say should be expected to account for as much as 20 percent more in unit sales.

“And this doesn’t include the export market,” Mundy says, meaning that the farther the Baillie Gifford’s visibility as a meaningful competition travels, the greater the sales are in currently untracked channels. Looking just at Super-Infinite, last year’s win by Katherine Rundell, Mundy says, “this is a book about John Donne, and it went up 800 percent” in unit sales “in the four weeks after the award. The book became a massive bestseller and a cultural talking point.”

Truda Spruyt

Spruyt says Super-Infinite went to No. 1 on the Sunday Times bestseller list in paperback, “And that was the week when there were two other shortlisted books” from the 2022 Baillie Gifford “in the Top 10.”

Four has been involved with this prize since its inception 25 years ago when it was named the Samuel Johnson Prize. Four manages the day-to-day running of the program, including submissions, administration of judging meetings, event management, and communications strategy and delivery.

“One of the things we find,” Spruyt says, “is that it’s not only about that transformative moment” when a winning book and author are named “but also in those weeks following the announcement: the paperback’s going to do phenomenally well.”

Not only are the winners moving through Waterstones’ book-of-the-month channels, Spruyt says, and thus being “highly prioritized” in Waterstones’ stores, “but also by independent booksellers.” At the autumn’s Booksellers Association conference, she says, store owners were telling her that the Baillie Gifford’s winners “are ‘absolutely our kind of core stock.’ If you go into a small indie in the UK, you’ll find they have a nonfiction shelf, and it’s mainly our winners.”

Reporting on Impact

Source: Baillie Gifford Prize for Nonfiction with Nielsen

As Publishing Perspectives readers know, the Booker Prize Foundation has led the way on reporting on market impact for its lead fiction and international fiction in translation awards. In nonfiction, the £25,000 British Academy Book Prize for Global Cultural Understanding made a fine start at reporting on a limited amount of data available for its 2022 winner in September, announcing that Alia Trabucco Zerán’s When Women Kill: Four Crimes Retold, translated by Sophie Hughes and published by the independent house And Other Stories, had what the publisher reported was a 132-percent sales gain since being named the British Academy winner.

The Baillie Gifford, however, has become the first of the world’s most prominent awards programs to formally commit to the gathering and reporting of its impact data and to make a study of its previous winners’ performance on the market.

As Mundy points out, one thing this provides to a competition’s organizers is data that can be highly useful with sponsors. Being able to show a sponsor how a program is moving books on the market is a clear indicator that financial support is helping that “golden sticker” do what it’s meant to do.

The big awards programs, of course, are in competition with each other—for sponsorship, certainly; for the attention of publishers and authors; for the eyeballs of consumers (which encourage the sponsors, publishers, and authors); and for coverage from various news media, needed to communicate to those constituents. This means that an ability to demonstrate market impact can simply be good for such a program’s business, as well as for the literature that’s reaching an audience and the audience it’s reaching.

Another form of competition—escalating purse values—is what Mundy calls “a prize-money arms race” and a treacherous one. “It’s not a good play,” he says. It’s ugly, it’s unhealthy, it’s unsustainable.”

And comments offered to Mundy on the Baillie Gifford’s impact from publishers back up the kind of market dynamic that the program’s new data show.

“Just looking at [Neilsen] BookScan numbers for the Chernobyl hardback,” says Casiana Ionita, Penguin Press’ publishing director, “there was a tenfold increase in sales after the book won the award.

“We published the paperback a few months later and it went on to be one of the bestselling history titles of the year.”

At Doubleday UK, publishing director Jane Lawson says, “The impact of the Baillie Gifford prize awarded to Hallie Rubenhold for The Five: The Untold Lives of the Women Killed by Jack the Ripper in November 2019 was immense, both commercially and reputationally.

“Our Doubleday hardback, published in the February preceding the prize in 2019, was a Sunday Times bestseller in the week of publication, was voted Hay Festival Book of the Year by readers and was shortlisted for a host of other prizes. The Five was also widely praised on publication across literary press and by the academic community of fellow historians.

“However, it was the Baillie Gifford prize that really turned the dial for Hallie’s reputation as a serious nonfiction author at the forefront of the feminist and revisionist true crime movement. The morning after the announcement, TCM [total consumer market] sales for the hardback increased 760 per cent, with robust repeat orders from Waterstones and the independents.

“The continuing high-profile publicity for Hallie around the prize was reflected in the paperback publication too, supporting our pre-order campaign, and driving The Five straight to No. 1 on Sunday Times paperback bestsellers list in the week of publication, where it remained for many weeks. Following the prize, The Five was also Waterstones’ nonfiction ‘book of the month’ and was highly visible across the estate and independents.

“Lockdown did of course limit the impact of our outdoor ad campaign. However, the publicity around the book was such that sales continued online throughout lockdown. The paperback continues to sell on consistently.”

And while the pandemic-year 2020 Baillie Gifford winner, as mentioned, is not covered in the newly gathered market numbers, the book is Craig Brown’s One Two Three Four: The Beatles in Time from 4th Estate.

The company’s publishing director Louise Haines says, “One of the big effects of a Baillie Gifford win is that physical bookshops will promote and display, which in turn will encourage people to see and buy.

“So increased visibility is a potentially bigger factor than just consumers reading about the Baillie Gifford nonfiction announcement itself.”

It’s worth noting that other nonfiction awards programs now have a model they may want to consider to do their own reportage, as the Baillie Gifford leads the way.

For example, there’s the Wolfson History Prize (just naming a new winner this week); the Cundill History Prize (just named Tania Branigan its winner last week); the British Academy Book Prize for Global Cultural Understanding (which, as mentioned, has made a good start on statistics and named Nandini Das its new winner on November 1);  the German Nonfiction Prize (named its new jury on November 7); the Business Book of the Year Award (set to name a winner on December 4); the Royal Society Science Book Prize (expected to name a winner on November 22); and the Parliamentary Book Awards.

Every one of these nonfiction programs and their counterparts in fiction now has in the Baillie Gifford Prize a new, major model for reporting to the industry what impact their award attention is having in the marketplace.

Thanks to the leadership of Mundy, Spruyt, the Booker Prize Foundation’s Gaby Wood, and preliminary efforts of the British Academy Book Prize’s Jane Acton, there’s a clear pathway now toward making the value of book publishing’s multitudinous awards programs evident–instead of something we’re all asked to take on faith.

The Baillie Gifford Prize 2023 Shortlist

The 2023 winner of the Baillie Gifford Prize for Nonfiction will be named on Thursday evening at the Science Museum in London’s south Kensington.

For our internationalist readership, a note that the publishers listed here are the United Kingdom publishers of the Baillie Gifford’s longlisted titles. In cases of books originally published in other markets before being released in the United Kingdom, you may have encountered a title as another publisher’s release and in an earlier year.

Author, Translator (Nationality) Title Publisher and/or Imprint, Year of Win
Hannah Barnes (British) Time to Think: The Inside Story of the Collapse of the Tavistock’s Gender Service for Children Swift Press
Tania Branigan (British) Red Memory: Living, Remembering and Forgetting China’s Cultural Revolution Faber & Faber
Christopher Clark (Australian) Revolutionary Spring: Fighting for a New World 1848-1849 Penguin Random House / Allen Lane
Jeremy Eichler (American) Time’s Echo: The Second World War, The Holocaust, and The Music of Remembrance Faber & Faber
Jennifer Homans (American) Mr. B: George Balanchine’s Twentieth Century Granta / Granta Books
John Vaillant (American-Canadian) Fire Weather: A True Story from a Hotter World Hachette UK / Hodder & Stoughton / Sceptre
Jurors and Sponsor

The jurors joining Studemann on the panel for this year’s Baillie Gifford are the literary editor of the Financial Times; author Andrea Wulf; The Guardian theater critic Arifa Akbar; writer and historian Ruth Scurr; journalist and critic Tanjil Rashid; and the Royal Society of Arts CEO Andrew Haldane.

The Baillie Gifford is now named for its funding sponsor, the independent investment partnership founded in 1908 and headquartered in Edinburgh. In the literary world, Baillie Gifford sponsors a number of literary festivals, including principal sponsorships of Hay Festival and Cheltenham Literature Festival and headline sponsorship Stratford Literary Festival, Henley Literary Festival, and the Edinburgh International Book Festival.

More from Publishing Perspectives on the international publishing business’ myriad book and industry 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.

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.com, 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.