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‘And the winner is...'

23 December 2013

The world of big literary prizes has become much more complicated. It used to be just the Booker amongst English-language prizes which was of international interest, in spite of the fact that only UK and Commonwealth authors' books could be entered. Following competition from the new Folio Prize, set up on the dubious grounds that the Booker had become ‘too popular' the Man Booker has now had to open itself up to international English-language entries too.

Many observers are concerned that British writers will no longer get much of a look in because of the heavyweight competition from the US. Clare Reihill of Fourth Estate voices a general feeling of misgiving: ‘We publish probably more American books than any other list in London, people like Franzen, Eugenides and Chabon. In some ways, that's an opportunity. But it's also very difficult when you have a lot of great books. The prize has changed from something that was just our own to something very different.'

To add to the difficulties the submission process is fiendishly complicated and seems to give publishers and authors previously involved a considerable advantage, to the undoubted disadvantage of new and less established authors and publishers. The rules state that each imprint is allowed only one submission rather than the previous two, but those who have had one or two authors longlisted in the past five years are allowed two submissions, three or four longlistings three submissions, and five or more longlistings four submissions. Publishers can still nominate books by call-in once submissions have closed, and authors whose work has been previously shortlisted can automatically submit new titles.

Over a period of time this may well give certain publishers the advantage of being established, but in the short run many imprints are struggling to decide which book(s) to submit, and having to consider not only which is most likely to win but also which authors will be most offended if not submitted. For a really literary imprint such as Jonathan Cape for instance, this is a tough call, and one that may have a great deal of money riding on it, as well as a lot of kudos for the publisher as well as the author.

The new Folio Prize rules are complicated too as stated on its website:‘Each year, five members of the Academy will be invited to judge the Prize. A Chair will be nominated from this group and will lead the judging panel. The judges will consider a total of 80 books. The first 60 will be nominated by the Academy. Publishers will then be invited to write letters in support of additional titles, after which the balance of 20 books will be called in by the judges. ... From these 80 titles a shortlist of eight will be selected by the judges.'

This approach, with the self-selected Academy firmly in charge, looks at least as clear an example of a literary establishment exerting its control as the Booker. Neither prize has any democratic input whatsoever and neither appears to be open to self-published writers.

With so many changes going on in the world of publishing, is this a bit anachronistic?