Booker Prize 2021: With four out of six shortlist books from one giant publisher, it seems that size matters – Laura Waddell

When Booker Prize rules changed in 2014 to allow any author, regardless of nationality, to be entered – provided they’re published in the English language and the book issued in the United Kingdom – some within the industry were worried that in effect, the rule change would let big American publishing houses take over the prize.

The Booker Prize can have a major impact on sales (Picture: Jens Kalaene/DPA/AFP via Getty Images)

Fiction has no borders, said supporters of the modification, including some big-name authors. Personally I've always found the Booker International, rewarding fiction translated into English, the more interesting of the two prizes anyway for the diversity of what emerges – books from all around the world, and more often from very small publishing houses, the type driven by conviction and sometimes kept running on little else besides.

But those fears for the bigger Booker, that the British publishing industry might lose its footing in what originated as a British book prize, have certainly been reflected in this year’s shortlist more than ever before, with only one of the six authors – Nadifa Mohamed – from the UK.

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There’s likely to be some grumbling that British favourites Rachel Cusk and Kazuo Ishiguro were left behind on the longlist (not least because even the literary press can be terrible for circling around big names, to the point of downright rudeness towards the lesser known candidates) but it’s worth remembering Ishiguro himself was notably supportive of the prize widening its boundaries – a generous spirit related, perhaps, to the fact he’d already won it.

Behind the scenes, the promotional benefit to book sales is as key to the buzz around the Booker as its celebration of excellent writing.

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Booker Prize 2021: Nadifa Mohamed is sole British writer on shortlist for presti...

Both factors dramatically jumpstart careers – think Sally Rooney and Sophie Mackintosh, newcomers longlisted in recent years. It’s not always an easy industry to work in: getting debuts into the public eye can be a long, hard slog. But any publisher with a book on the Booker longlist feels a little like they’ve won a lottery (and for the little ones, it can be a make or break moment).

The problem is that, with big US publishers in play, the odds for homegrown publishers to triumph get a little longer, and it’s difficult not to feel rueful about that.

But small independent presses, often at the forefront of innovative literary writing in the UK (as in Scotland’s own overlapping but distinct publishing scene), might look at any inevitable nationalist navel-gazing about the prize’s identity with a raised eyebrow.

With entries submitted per publishing house imprint, and those which have previously achieved getting a title listed granted more chances, the playing field already feels skewed against smaller players. Of the six shortlisted Booker titles this year, four alone come from Penguin Random House, the biggest publishing conglomerate.

I imagine many readers believe it’s simple: that the very best books in existence are those rewarded, rising, as would be just, like the cream of the crop.

But no matter how excellent any shortlist, big prizes are impacted by business heft, just as marketing spend behind sending out proofs influences what’s reviewed in the papers, and the strength of sales teams pushes titles onto bookshops. Size, regretfully, matters.

Laura Waddell is a publisher and author

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