By Peter Stuart Smith (AKA Max Adams, James Barrington, James Becker)
Going off at a slight tangent this week, I thought it might be instructive to do a quick survey of the sales figures of the winners of what is arguably the most prestigious literary prize of them all – the Man Booker.
First, a bit of history. Originally, the award was called the Booker-McConnell Prize, and was named after the company Booker-McConnell which began sponsoring the competition back in 1968. The prize quickly became known as the ‘Booker Prize’ or simply ‘the Booker’. In 2002, the investment company Man Group plc began sponsoring the event, hence the change of name to the ‘Man Booker’.
So that's how the name came about. What about the prize itself? Well, quoting from the official website: ‘The Man Booker Prize for Fiction, first awarded in 1969, promotes the finest in fiction by rewarding the very best book of the year.’
Really? I think you could argue quite easily that very few of the Booker prize winners could possibly be considered to be ‘the very best book of the year’, any more than you could choose a restaurant and claim that it served ‘the best food in the United Kingdom’. Judging this kind of competition is not only incredibly subjective, but also highly specialised. Realistically, the only way any panel of judges could genuinely select the best book of the year would be to read every single book published in that year, or at least every single novel.
With the number of books published annually, this would be completely impossible, so a ruthless selection process has to be applied long before any judge so much as picks up a book. The basic criterion appears to be that literary fiction is good, and will be considered, but commercial fiction is bad, and won't be. So the judges won’t have to sully their minds with anything as grubby as a decent thriller, or a science fiction novel, or a romance or anything of that sort. The books they look at have to be literary, and ideally should contain some kind of moral or message that a bunch of pointy heads can get together around a table and then discuss at length.
You might have guessed by now that I'm not actually a fan of this kind of writing. And the reality, which I'm sure must annoy the Booker panel of judges beyond all reason, is that most of the reading public don't seem to be fans either, because no Booker prizewinner has ever actually been a genuine bestseller.
But that's not the message you get from the website. That says ‘The winner of the Man Booker Prize receives £50,000 and both the winner and the shortlisted authors are guaranteed a worldwide readership plus a dramatic increase in book sales.’ In fact, that last sentence really says it all, and it does make you wonder how many copies the ‘very best book of the year’ would have sold in the normal marketplace and without the incredible boost of the hype surrounding the Booker.
Let's look at the figures. One caveat here is that Nielsen records only began in 1998, so the earlier figures are slightly less reliable.
Between 1979 and 1996, only two Booker winners sold more than 100,000 copies. These were Salman Rushdie’s Midnight’s children (177,607 in 1981) and Kazuo Ishiguro’s The remains of the day (145,140 in 1989). Three winners actually sold less than 10,000 copies: Penelope Fitzgerald’s Offshore (7,881 in 1979), William Golding’s Rites of passage (9,207 in 1980) and Kingsley Amis’s The old devils (9,712 in 1986).
Then, between 1997 and 2008, only one winner sold more than a million (Yann Martel’s Life of Pi [1,245,709 in 2002]) and only one other sold more than half a million (Arundhati Roy’s The god of small things [558,572 in 1997]). Excluding these two books, the average sale for Booker winners in that period was 267,596, or just over a quarter of a million. The lowest recorded sales in the group were for Kiran Desai’s 2006 novel The inheritance of loss (165,437) and the highest was Margaret Atwood’s The blind assassin (485,714 in 2000). Hardly best-sellers, by any standard.
So what does all this prove, if indeed it proves anything? I think it proves that no Booker winner is ‘the very best book’ of any year, and I also think that in the view of the general public the Booker prize-winning novel is more likely to be the book that they will buy to leave prominently displayed on their coffee table to impress their friends and neighbours, rather than the book they will take to bed to enjoy as a thoroughly good read.
In short, most Booker winners are the books people feel they should be reading, rather than the books they actually want to read.