John Vaillant’s ‘Fire Weather’ Wins the Baillie Gifford Prize

In Feature Articles by Porter Anderson

John Vaillant’s ‘Fire Weather’ – about fossil fuels, climate science, and disaster – wins the 2023 Baillie Gifford Prize for Nonfiction in London.

John Vaillant speaks at London’s Science Musem on his win of the £50,000 Baillie Gifford Prize for Nonfiction, which now is reporting its market impact on winning titles. Image: Baillie Gifford Prize

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

‘One of the Most Urgent Issues of Our Time’
At London’s Science Museum in south Kensington this evening (November 16), the American-Canadian author John Vaillant has won the £50,000 (US$62,060) Baillie Gifford Prize for Nonfiction.

His winning book, Fire Weather: A True Story from a Hotter World, was released on May 23 in the United Kingdom by Sceptre, a division of Hachette UK’s Hodder & Stoughton. In the United States and Canada, the book is published by Penguin Random House’s Knopf, and was released on June 6.

As is being stressed by publishers and the Baillie Gifford program’s organizers, as well, the book is seen by many as among the year’s most important looks at the connection between catastrophic wildfire episodes and the “new century of fire,” as Earth’s astonishing climate emergency explodes in “a hotter, more flammable world.”

Frederick Studemann

In his rationale for the jury’s decision, Frederick Studemann, chair of this year’s jury, is quoted, saying, “Fire Weather brings together a series of harrowing human stories with science and geo-economics, in an extraordinary and elegantly rendered account of a terrifying climate disaster that engulfed a community and industry, underscoring our toxic relationship with fossil fuels.

“Moving back and forth in time, across subjects, and from the particular to the global, this meticulously researched, thrillingly told book forces readers to engage with one of the most urgent issues of our time.”

Nick Thomas

And Nick Thomas, a partner with the program’s sponsor, Baillie Gifford, said, “The six shortlisted books are thoroughly researched and marvelously diverse.

“We at Baillie Gifford are grateful to the authors for their genius and effort.

“Many congratulations to John Vaillant for winning with this brave and timely book.”

Once more, the Blavatnik Family Foundation has assisted the award as a sponsor of the announcement event.

Vaillant’s Book May See a Profound Jump in Sales

In a relentlessly busy awards season, the Baillie Gifford Prize has become 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.

Sceptre’s UK cover design

Publishing Perspectives was the first to announce this, on November 14, and you can read our exclusive article on it here.

Led by executive director Toby Mundy and Four’s managing director for culture Truda Spruyt, the Baillie Gifford Prize and Neilsen have determined that Vaillant’s newly awarded book may see as much as an 857-percent increase in print sales in the United Kingdom alone, thanks to his win today.

The Baillie Gifford Prize’s research six of its last seven wins has revealed something so fully explicated until now only in fiction competition by the Booker Prize Foundation.

What consumers and the international publishing industry now can do is ask of each and every book and publishing competition demanding the trade’s time and attention exactly the kind of painstaking analysis of what sort of effect a given “golden sticker” is having on honored work in the business.

Knopf’s USA cover design

With so many awards regimes operating in so many world markets, the responsibility lies with these awards programs to follow the leads of the Baillie Gifford, the Booker, and the British Academy so far are the ones to step up and begin developing factual data, rather than asking consumers and book professionals to simply take it all on faith.

Other prominent nonfiction awards programs in a class with the Baillie Gifford now have a model they may want to consider to do their own reportage, as the Baillie Gifford leads the way.

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

The Baillie Gifford Prize 2023 Shortlist

The 2023 Baillie Gifford shortlist

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

Related article: ‘Exclusive: Baillie Gifford Prize Reveals Its Sales Impact.’ Image: Baillie Gifford Prize

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.

Five of the six 2023 jurors for the Baillie Gifford Prize for Nonfiction are in this photo from the November 16 announcement ceremony in London. They are, from left, Andrew; Arifa Akbar; jury chair Frederick Studemann; Ruth Scurr; and Tanjil Rashid. Not seen is Andrea Wulf. Image: Ballie Gifford Prize

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 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.