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Strong Booker shortlist - does Wolf Hall lead the pack?

14 September 2009

So why is it that the Man Booker Prize manages to generate so much interest across the world? Entries are limited to novels written in English and American writers' work is excluded, but in spite of all this the Prize seems to generate considerable interest year after year.

It's by no means the most valuable literary prize to be announced during the year, although offering £50,000 to the winner. Others, such as the Nobel Prize for Literature, offer both more money and more kudos, as well as being infinitely more international.

Clever marketing and publicity must be part of the story, but cannot be the only factor. Having said that, the publicity is very good and it's a clever wheeze to annex any news relating to previous winners and shortlisted - and even longlisted - writers, so that there is a constant flow of news available on the Prize's website.

The Booker is now of course embedded into the literary year, with a lot riding on being shortlisted and even more, of course, on winning. In 2009 there were 312 submissions from publishers. Ion Trewin, Literary Director of the Prize, said: 'This year, since the longlist was announced, the total extra sales generated by the 13 titles was over 50,000. That's according to Nielsen BookScan figures rather than what publishers say they've sold.'

A very considerable uplift in sales can confidently be expected for the winner and often for the shortlisted titles as well, as well as those which get to the longlist but fail to be shortlisted. The publicity for the winner makes a significant difference to his or her writing career, often, but not always, lifting them into the literary stratosphere and transforming their subsequent titles into significant sellers. Stanley Middleton continued in obscurity after his win, whereas Yann Martel has become an international megaseller.

Be that as it may, what has made the Booker so influential is a steady diet of controversy. This started with John Berger's win in 1972, which was followed by an attack in his acceptance speech on Booker McConnell, then the sponsors of the Prize, for the way they had garnered much of their wealth in the Caribbean, and his decision to give the money to the Black Panthers.

Graham Swift, 1996 winner, says: 'Prizes don't make writers and writers don't write to win prizes, but in the near-glut of literary awards now on offer, the Booker remains special. It's the one which, if we're completely honest, we most covet.'

This year's shortlist was interesting because the Chair of the Judges, broadcaster James Naughtie said: 'There were some terrible novels in the 132 submissions this year. There were also some good novels which didn't quite have what it took to make the leap onto the shortlist.' But, he added: 'This is one of the best shortlists in the last couple of decades'.

This year's controversy so far is the extraordinary odds being offered by bookmakers William Hill for Hilary Mantel's Henry VIII-themed Wolf Hall, which has been installed as the first ever odds-on favourite to win the literary award. Graham Sharpe of William Hill said: 'Since it appeared on the long-list, 95% of the Booker bets we have taken have been on Wolf Hall, originally offered at 8/1 - and which now seems certain to be the worst ever result for bookies if it goes on to win, costing us well into six figures. So I have made it the hottest favourite ever' - a 4/5 favourite (win £4 for every £5 staked).'

So, what can we read into this if Wolf Hall does win?

Man Booker Prize website