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The Man Booker effect

The Man Booker effect

Despite both the column inches it generates and the amount of chatter and comment it enjoys, the Man Booker Prize's remit is really very simple: the judges' task is to pick the best novel of the year written by a British, Commonwealth or Republic of Ireland citizen. No more than that: pretty straightforward really. The prize has nothing to do with sales. At least in theory. In reality, such is its prestige and old-fashioned clout, that to win is to become a best-seller.

Hilary Mantel is no exception, though she makes a particularly interesting case study. In 2009 she was a well known, widely admired, prize winning and healthily selling novelist – and then she won the Man Booker with Wolf Hall. The effect can be judged in numbers: up to announcement of the longlist she had sold in hardback a very respectable 13,129 copies (sales for hardback literary fiction tend to be deep in the lower atmosphere rather than stratospheric) and in the next six weeks up to the announcement of the shortlist she almost doubled that figure, selling another 11,000 or so. In the six weeks between the shortlist announcement and the picking of the winner she really flew, selling another 42,217 books. As the winner though she entered another league. Her sales currently stand at some 225,000 copies – that is in hardback alone without the numbers for paperbacks and ebooks. The jacket price of Wolf Hall is £18.99 so it is safe to say she is pretty popular with her publishers.

This year, however, she already looks set to exceed herself; her sales of Bring Up the Bodies have been eye-watering. With the Man Booker imprimatur stamped on her like the words in a stick of rock, she had already sold 90,000 copies by the time of the longlist announcement. The graph then simply got steeper, another 17,000 were sold in the next six weeks and 22,000 more in the six weeks preceding the winner's announcement. Bring Up the Bodies retails at £20. Again, these figures are for hardbacks only and Amazon reported not so long ago that they now sell more fiction as ebooks than in the printed format. It is also worth remembering that the Christmas period – the year's peak book-buying time – is only now coming upon us.

The Man Booker Prize is about prestige but its ability to bring books to the public's attention is unparalleled. Five of the last six winners have gone on to earn their publishers a seven-figure sum (and rising) and two shortlisted books (Ian McEwan's On Chesil Beach and Christos Tsiolkas's The Slap) have achieved the same. The best bit about this is that publishers will use some of that money to subsidise little-known writers of high quality, if not – so far – of high sales. With a nice sense of symmetry the very best of these novelists will quite possibly feature in future Man Booker judges' deliberations.