Why You Should Care About the Man Booker Prize

The longlist for the prestigious literary award has been announced

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Early today, the Booker Prize Foundation announced the ‘longlist’ for this year’s Man Booker prize, one of the most—if not the most—important prizes in the world of literature. An initial selection of 151 novels has been whittled down to a baker’s dozen of finalists (listed below) and, as the official announcement proclaims, “diverse doesn’t quite do the longlist justice.” With authors from seven countries and a strong mix of vets and newbies, that diversity has been the main takeaway from the news. But, for those who don’t follow literary-prize news, the hubbub over the Booker might be bewildering. After all, the prize does seem to get disproportionate attention among its fellow awards.

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For one thing, there’s the money. The winner, named in October after a September shortlist announcement, will receive £50,000 — a bit more than, given current exchange rates, $75,000. Any novel written in English by a living citizen of the greater British world—the Commonwealth or Ireland—that was published in a given year is eligible, but there is only ever one winner. (Every two years, the Man Booker International Prize, worth £60,000, is available to a non-citizen writing in English, but it’s recognizes an author rather than a novel.)

And then there’s the scandal. As could be expected with any giant lump sum of money being given out within a community—and by a panel of judges that also comes from the literary community—the Booker is no stranger to controversy about the reasons why the winner wins. As the Guardian detailed in a 2011 retrospective, the award has seen authors speaking out about the wastefulness of the prize, authors battling each other publicly for the recognition, outside accusations that the winners represent a stagnant literary tradition—as well as claims that one could sleep one’s way to the prize.

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And there’s the power of the prize. Anyone involved in the world of publishing—and who writes in a country that offers eligibility for the prize—cares about the Booker because it actually affects sales. Again, the Guardian is the place to go for Man Booker info, and last year they compiled sales data to show how winning the prize can help out a writer. In weekly sales, Yann Martel saw a 1,118% increase in sales (for his Life of Pi) in 2002 the week of the prize announcement; the 2010 winner Howard Jacobson saw a 1,918% increase and 2008’s Aravind Adiga saw a 1,635% jump. Even an author with an established brand is helped by the prize: in 2000, for example, Margaret Atwood’s The Blind Assassin sold 8,228 copies before the announcement—and 500,717 after. Even being longlisted helps.

Those impressive numbers aren’t just reader chance: in order to submit a book for consideration, a publisher must promise to spend at least £5,000 (about $7,500) on publicity for every shortlisted book, and another £5,000 for the winner. The authors must be available for press appearances and publishers must also ensure the copies of the books are available in stores at the time of the announcement.

As a comparison, even the Nobel Prize for Literature doesn’t always have significant benefits, especially if the book needs to be translated to be sold worldwide. The U.S.’s National Book Award can help boost sales, but often on a lesser scale; Louise Erdrich, for example, saw a modest 143% bump the week after The Round House won in 2012, according to Publisher’s Weekly.

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And finally there’s the chicken-and-egg question. The Man Booker gets headlines, so it generates buzz and controversy and income, so people read the books, so it gets headlines the next year, so it generates buzz and the non-vicious cycle continues.

So here’s the longlist for this year’s prize. You’ve got three months to read them in time to discuss the winner at a cocktail party, so you better get started—The Kills alone is nearly 1,000 pages long.

  • Five Star Billionaire by Tash Aw
  • We Need New Names by NoViolet Bulawayo
  • The Luminaries by Eleanor Catton
  • Harvest by Jim Crace
  • The Marrying of Chani Kaufman by Eve Harris
  • The Kills by Richard House
  • The Lowland by Jhumpa Lahiri
  • Unexploded by Alison MacLeod
  • TransAtlantic by Colum McCann
  • Almost English by Charlotte Mendelson
  • A Tale for the Time Being by Ruth Ozeki
  • The Spinning Heart by Donal Ryan
  • The Testament of Mary by Colm Tóibín
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