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Man Booker 2015: Let the Literary Rumpus Begin

Man Booker 2015: Let the Literary Rumpus Begin

Man Booker, The PHA Group

‘Image courtesy of Sam on Flickr’

With the 2015 Man Booker Dozen announced, the book world awaits the next literary rumpus.

From where I’m typing, there are a few top contenders for this year’s Man Booker media storm.

Up first: The Americans have arrived. It’s the second year of the new rules allowing all writers in English and published in the UK to take part, regardless of nationality – something the press release repeatedly emphasizes and the longlist of nominees throws into sharp relief. Five of the thirteen are from the US, whilst only one lonely Antipodean, New Zealander Anna Smaill, made the cut this year. This means there are half as many Commonwealth authors than last year, confirming the fears of writers like Peter Carey, AS Byatt and Graham Swift. They, amongst others, criticized the decision to make the award more global. It would dilute the ‘real Commonwealth culture’ of the prize, they warned, and potentially lead to American writers steamrolling new talent from smaller English-speaking nations.


A second avenue of dissension could be the notable absence of bookie favourites from the longlist. Kazuo Ishiguro, Margaret Atwood, William Boyd and Salman Rushdie are all names tripped out of a race where many critics held them as forerunners. The Telegraph, which apparently placed several bets on Harper Lee’s Go Set A Watchman, seems particularly disgruntled.

A third – though less likely – could surround the apparent dominance of women writers – seven out of thirteen – that will please many today, irk more tomorrow, and inevitably create headlines in the future. Stories in this category will likely relate to a recent survey showing women are less likely to win prizes. Especially if their protagonist is also a woman. Why predict that any of these things become controversial? Because if people think the hyper-competitive world of publishing is bloodthirsty, the write-or-die mentality of literary prizes feels like a knife-edge.

As usual the media has a stake in the whole affair.

Who has been left off the list, who should not win, who should win but won’t: these are the stories understood by cultural commentators. Therefore scandal, controversy, ridicule wrapped in newsprint become the languages spoken by prize givers.

As noted by Mark Lawson in 1994, ‘the Booker Prize is not simply “to promote the cause of serious fiction . . . [but] to provoke rows and scandals, which may, in due course, promote the cause of serious fiction’.

In other words, media outrage makes books worthy of public attention. And a crisis can turn just another book on the shelf into a best seller. If you need further proof of this just ask EL James. Or Ian McEwan. Or John Banville. Or JK Rowling.

All in all, anyone with a bookish bone in their body will be wondering where the first stone shall fall and what ripples it will create.

It would almost be disappointing if there wasn’t at least some hint of literary dispute.

After all, 2015 has five years of excitement to compete with. In 2014, when all eyes narrowed on the two American names included on the longlist, hopes turned to Neel Mukherjee whose nomination was marketed as the last bastion of Commonwealth writers. The year prior, news focused on the fact Colm Toibin’s novella of 104 pages seemed ludicrous against Eleanor Catton’s mammoth debut with debate reflecting on whether something so short could really compete. Looking back further to 2012, Hillary Mantel’s second win piqued interest and dismay, with furious observers accusing the prize of dumbing itself down – “How could a sequel possibly be more original than a standalone like Will Self’s Umbrella?” they harped.

And of course, all this followed the biggest scandal in recent awards history: 2011’s ‘readability’ criteria was praised by judges but led to the creation of the Folio Prize (the book world’s version of a challenger brand) – and the accusation that the Man Booker had lost its ability to discern ‘fiction at its finest’.

Yet all of the books involved in these scandals, the ones that won and the ones people thought should have won instead, all sold hundreds of thousands of copies.

In fact, five of the last six winners have gone on to earn their publishers a seven-figure sum (and rising) and several shortlisted books (Ian McEwan’s On Chesil Beach and Christos Tsiolkas’s The Slap come to mind) have achieved the same.

Looking at the Man Booker this way, it becomes evident how a well-controlled ‘crisis’ creates visibility, celebrity, prestige. Primed to create and mediate such a seemingly endless turnstile of scandal, awards like the Man Booker therefore thrive precisely because they are masters of public relations.

By capturing the general public’s attention through a bit of a hullabaloo, prizes open new eyes to fiction. Moreover, it explains why prizes as preeminent as the Nobel, as highbrow as the Goncourt and as inclusive as the Costa have followed the Man Booker’s trend and partaken in the odd bookish brouhaha.

Because the commercial impact is undeniable in the publishing industry.

Because, as James English explained, it allows prize givers to walk the fault line between cultural and economic capital.

Because rewarding writers, creating books that sell, bestowing cultural value, is why landing one of those coveted spots on a long- or shortlist can mean life or death for a book – particularly if it’s the sort that’s not piled high in the supermarket, invited to the top tables in bookshops, or advertised on the side of buses.

In the immediate, there’s a lot of positive energy surrounding the longlist.

Congratulations for the chosen thirteen are pouring in. Headlines applaud the diversity of the selection, the dominance of women, and representation of so many international writers.

Tomorrow, no doubt, there will be interviews and reviews and people will start to chime in with their thoughts on who should win.

How long the positivity will last, however – how long before someone finds a less favourable and more profitable opinion to espouse – remains to be seen.

Crowdfunding Books and Innovation in Publishing

Pha crowdfunding

‘Image courtesy of Light Reading on Flickr’

In the upstart world of social media, crowdfunding has already established itself as one of the most disruptive and creative forces at work.

The best-known crowdfunding website, Kickstarter, first launched back in 2009 with the aim to find a ‘new way to fund and follow creativity’. Since then, over $1.4billion has been pledged to its projects. In 2014 alone, the platform brought 22,252 projects to fruition, and 3.3. million people from almost every country donated over half a billion dollars. That’s $1,000 pledged per minute.

Now, the curious meme of crowdfunding is innovating the world of books.

If anything, the only thing that should come as a surprise it that it’s taken this long for such platforms to take off.

Writers were some of the first transients to embrace the Internet as a home for their creativity. It gave them new ways to share and distribute their work.   From the outset of crowdfunding, indie authors have flocked to sites allowing them to create fundraising pages for their projects. Some have done terrifically well – Frank Chimero’s The Shape of Design and Robin Sloan’s ‘Robin writes a book project’ come to mind.  

Crowdfunding books is a beautiful idea. Even more so because of its simplicity.

The author-focused Unbound was one of the first to make such a model the foundation of a publishing house.  

Led by Dan Kieran, their platform emphasises its straightforwardness, characterising the route to publication as an almost ludicrously simple three-step system of authors pitching, readers pledging and publishers, well, publishing.  

As Sam Rennie, founder of the more recent publishing start-up, Readership, eloquently put it, ‘[Crowdfunding] gives readers the ultimate say in what gets published.’  

With Readership and Unbound, authors can publish any book they find funding for. They write and their supporters get the opportunity to interact with the author as the book is being published. By asking the reader to judge the value of the writing, aspiring authors put their faith in a peer-to-peer funding model that promises transparency and a sense of community for both funder and fundee.  

‘Stories only exist for the two people: the one telling the story and the one hearing it,’ explained Rennie, ‘So all of our activities and promotion is geared towards helping both [writers and readers].’  

This emphasis on the link between writers and readers, as opposed to publishers and publishing trends, is something clearly visible in both Unbound and Readership’s models.

Though Unbound’s focus is demonstrably focused on authors and writers-group style conversation, rather than on readers and their tastes like Readership, the creation of community through the transferal of power – back to authors and readers – is precisely what makes crowdfunding so attractive to the innovative literary mind.  

It does not only appeal to aspiring writers who have exhausted traditional routes to publication. It calls out to the readers who struggle to find what they want in the bookstore.

Yet, what is interesting about Readership is that whilst it is using crowdfunding to innovate publishing, it is also using this style of monetary backing to innovate the experience delivered by the platform.

Rennie wants to truly embed Readership in online culture, expressing concern of the fact that any investment in the digital world or internet culture seems very temporary and just a brief exploration of a trend for many publishers.

He says, for example, that he loves that publishers are engaging and collaborating with bloggers and vloggers now, ‘But I’m a bit concerned that the publishing industry is just using the community for its numbers instead of taking the time to actually become a part the community themselves. The purpose behind Readership is to allow those types of beautiful, online communities the opportunity to support writers and readers alike.’

Part of this is a vast plan for community engagement over a plethora of social media channels: Twitter, Pinterest, Soundcloud and Facebook, to name a few.

Further steps include the use of completely unique online methods to spread the word. One such method includes using MineCraft to create a book world online; whilst another hopes to form a Reddit-like voting system for site users.

‘In the future, we’ll be adding awards for the most active users, so I see in that the potential for certain users to become a trusted voice in the community. For example, we can build a system that pairs you up with a particular user on the site, should you have similar tastes, so when they post a comment on a new story, the people paired with them can see what they think of it and decide to check it out or not.’

The Internet’s collective power and crowdfunding technology mean innovation can be constant in platforms like Readership.

The passion for development, palpable in Rennie’s vision and already witnessed in the early success of Kieran’s Unbound, is much needed in publishing.

Of course, there remain challenges when it comes to creating and establishing new platforms in an industry renown for its reactive approach to technological developments.

However, it is exciting to see writers and readers taking their own proactive stance with crowdfunded, community-driven options like these.

Publishers cannot extricate the literary from the digital. People like Rennie, or Kieran, are finally encouraging the book world to catch up with everyone else.