The Booker Prize, and latterly the Man Booker Prize, is the leading literary award in the English speaking world and has brought recognition, reward and readership to outstanding fiction for five decades.
The connection between books and Booker started in the 1960s on a golf course at Sandwich. The two players were old friends and old Etonians. They were Ian Fleming, who was writing a James Bond novel roughly every two years, and Jock Campbell, the charismatic, pioneering and socially responsible chairman of Booker.
At a time of very high marginal rates of income tax—over 90% at their highest—Ian was concerned about the financial security of his family. Booker devised a solution whereby Ian sold Booker a majority stake in the company owning his literary copyrights so that future income was converted into a capital gain, which was taxed at a relatively low rate. The Beatles established a similar arrangement.
A few years later a number of publishers, led by Tom Maschler and Graham C. Greene, were looking to set up an English language equivalent of the French Prix Goncourt which had done so much to stimulate public interest in fiction in France. Booker was by then making a good profit from authors’ copyrights, which had expanded to include Agatha Christie, Dennis Wheatley, Robert Bolt, Rebecca West and others. Being a public spirited company, Booker was therefore happy to support the publishers’ initiative and the Booker Prize was born in 1969.
From its inception to this day the prize has certain unchanged, enduring features. It is for the best single book, in the opinion of the judges, published within the last 12 months; there are no other literary criteria. All the judges must read all the entries, which are limited by publisher quotas. Every publisher, large or small, is entitled to submit entries. The judges change every year and the submissions remain confidential. The winner is determined at a final meeting just before the award ceremony from a shortlist which has been made public. The award ceremony is well publicised and linked to a celebration (currently a dinner at the Guildhall televised by the BBC).
Media coverage has always been a crucial element in the prize’s success. In 1976 BBC2 provided the first live TV coverage of the winner ceremony, presented by Melvyn Bragg, and the BBC continues to be broadcast partner to the prize. Coverage of the various stages of the prize—judges, longlist, shortlist and winner—ranges from serious literary comment to speculation about the bookies’ odds and spans the globe from New York to Delhi, Sydney to Toronto.
However the prize has also evolved over time. Perhaps the most important change has been the transfer of responsibility for the prize from Booker to a new registered charity, the Booker Prize Foundation. After due process, the Man Group was chosen to take over sponsorship of the prize and the award was renamed the Man Booker Prize for Fiction. The prize money for the winner was increased to £50,000; in 1969 it had been £5,000. The Man Group’s involvement has been generous, enduring and far-sighted.
In 2005 the Man Booker International Prize was launched to celebrate one writer’s overall contribution to world fiction. The prize was awarded every two years to a living author who published fiction either in English or whose work was generally available in translation. In 2016 the International Prize changed, joining forces with the Independent Foreign Fiction Prize to focus solely on translated fiction. The rules were changed so that it would be awarded annually to a single book translated into English and published in the UK.
In 2014 a major change was made to the entry criteria for the original Man Booker Prize for Fiction. Originally limited to writers from the Commonwealth and Ireland, entry was extended to any novel written by any novelist of any nationality from a UK publisher and published in English. So the prize is now open to authors from Chicago to Sheffield to Shanghai. As the world’s foremost prize for literary fiction it was felt that the Man Booker Prize should embrace all fiction written in English, in all its glory and versatility without regard to frontiers or passports.
Administrative arrangements for the prize also evolved. The longlist was made public for the first time in 2001. Prizes were introduced for shortlisted writers following the Man Group sponsorship. Quotas for publishers were adjusted to reflect past performance while maintaining the principle that any publisher could submit.
There have been a number of one off prizes, most notably for the Booker of Bookers in 1993 to mark the 25th anniversary of the prize, and the Best of Booker in 2008 for the 40th anniversary; both were won by Salman Rushdie’s Midnight’s Children. Related activities have included encouragement for the Caine Prize for African Writing, for short fiction, and the International Prize for Arabic Fiction, both of which have been successful. Educational initiatives have also been supported including a fiction reading programme at selected UK Universities and the promotion of literary and literacy activities in prisons.
In recent years, social media has helped the prize reach a new, younger, international audience. The Man Booker is now enjoyed across various social platforms through livestreamed footage, podcasts, and video. Bookshop sales thrive and libraries and reading groups regularly engage with the prize.
Hitting the headlines
The Booker Prize and the Man Booker Prize have thrived on controversy, argument and discussion; it is an oxygen which fuels publicity and interest in books, and encourages book buying and readership. From the earliest days judges had problems. Malcolm Muggeridge resigned on account of the indecency of the entries. Later Julia Neuberger withdrew her support for a winner, How Late It Was How Late by James Kelman, following a chaotic meeting presided over by Professor John Bayley.
And the writers had problems. Anthony Burgess refused to attend the awards dinner in 1980 unless it was guaranteed he was the winner; in the event William Golding won with Rites of Passage, while Burgess sulked in his hotel room. John Berger gave half his prize money for his winning novel G to the Black Panther Movement in protest at Booker’s involvement in the West Indian Sugar Industry.
Important questions were raised. Could the prize be awarded to two winners? This happened in 1974 and again in 1992, after which there was a clear rule change that determined only one book could win. How short could a novel be without becoming a short story? Was a novel based closely on real events still a novel? This was confirmed with the award to Schindler’s List by Thomas Keneally in 1982.
There was a period when Booker was concerned by a number of leaks to gossip columnists revealing dramatic arguments amongst judges. The source was eventually traced to the administrator of the prize Martyn Goff who had a hotline to the Evening Standard’s Londoner’s Diary. More recently some judges have suggested that ‘readability’ should be a requirement for shortlisting. Currently an argument continues as to whether the prize will be dominated by US writers to the detriment of Commonwealth authors. So far this has not happened.
The prize has been notably fortunate with its well-chosen administrators/literary directors: Martyn Goff, a strong formative influence, an éminence grise with flamboyant, unforgettable ties; Ion Trewin, wise and avuncular, sadly he died too early; and now Gaby Wood, sassy and savvy, supported by the incredibly well-read Fiammetta Rocco for the Man Booker International Prize. In the background has been the abiding presence of Eve Smith, the secretary of the Booker Prize Foundation, and Dotti Irving of Four Colman Getty, along with the many trustees, advisors and very importantly, the Man Group, who have contributed so much to the success of the prizes.
Jonathan Taylor CBE, President of the Booker Prize Foundation