LONDON (Reuters) - Whatever the winner of the 40th Booker Prize says, victory at the awards ceremony in London on Tuesday is as much about cash as literary kudos.
The annual award for the best novel in English by a writer from Britain, Ireland and the Commonwealth counts, because it helps the winning book sell tens of thousands of extra copies, while an appearance on the shortlist means thousands more sales.
Little wonder publishers cherish the prize, first held in 1969 to rival France’s Prix Goncourt which ensured sales of up to 300,000 copies for the victor.
“When you walk into a bookstore and see your novel smothered by the gazillions of other books there, like seeing your child overwhelmed by all the other kids in the playground, you want something to help them stand out,” said Steve Toltz, one of this year’s six shortlisted novelists with “A Fraction of the Whole.”
“A Booker shortlisting will do that.”
Mohsin Hamid, whose “The Reluctant Fundamentalist” was shortlisted in 2007 but did not win, said his book had performed poorly in Britain before the nominees were read out.
“In my case, we went from something like a very few single digit thousand copies before the prize was announced to something closer to 200,000 by the end of this year in the UK,” he told Reuters.
“It has been the same book throughout this process. That’s for me why prizes are valuable.”
This year’s overwhelming favorite with the bookmakers is “The Secret Scripture,” by Dublin-born writer Sebastian Barry, followed by “Sea of Poppies” by Amitav Ghosh, one of two Indian nominees alongside Aravind Adiga with “The White Tiger.”
Also on the 2008 shortlist is Linda Grant’s “The Clothes on Their Backs,” Philip Hensher’s “The Northern Clemency” and Toltz’s “A Fraction of the Whole.”
Despite its prestige, the Man Booker Prize commercially plays second fiddle to the Richard & Judy Book Club, set up by celebrity television couple Richard Madeley and Judy Finnigan and based on the format established by U.S. chat show host Oprah Winfrey.
An appearance on their list is seen as the holy grail for British authors and publishers alike, catapulting sales to several hundred thousand copies in some cases.
Booker organizers say the difference between their prize and Richard & Judy’s is one between “high-” and “middle-brow” literature, a description some commentators reject.
Publishers of what they describe as literary works say the Booker is important because it ensures space on the shelves not only of bookstores but also supermarkets, which generally focus on more populist fiction.
“If you publish a very literary list, you can’t always rely on retail promotion in the supermarkets, and even excellent reviews mean relatively few extra sales,” said Simon Prosser, publishing director of Hamish Hamilton at Penguin.
“The Booker galvanizes retailers into supporting that book,” added Prosser, who estimated that when “The Inheritance of Loss” won the Man Booker in 2006 his publishing house ordered an extra 50,000 hardback copies to be printed to meet demand.
Despite its reputation and commercial importance, which can extend to translation and film rights, the Booker Prize is not always popular among the critics.
Michael Prodger, writing in the Telegraph, suggests the Booker judges got it wrong in all of the last three years and has been “hit and miss” throughout the prize’s 40-year history.
He predicts that whatever the outcome on Tuesday evening, the 2008 panel “should prepare for a pummeling.”