Booker Prize: Why It Sells So Many Books

The Booker Prize was awarded to the underdog Howard Jacobson for The Finkler Question and sure to be a bestseller. Daniel D'Addario reports on how the prize has become such a blockbuster in the US.

This is the season of literary prizes. Last week, the Nobel was given to Mario Vargas Llosa, tonight the Man Booker will be handed out, and the National Book Awards are just around the corner. But it seems that none have quite the charm to actually sell quite as many books as the Booker. The prize, given annually to an author from a corner of the former British Empire, has in recent years gone to the likes of Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall, Yann Martel’s Life of Pi, and Aravind Adiga’s White Tiger. Despite their differences in geography and subject matter, all have, according to Nielsen BookScan, sold more than 300,000 copies. The Booker is more than just an honor—it’s one of the best boosts a novel can get.

The process of media speculation, oddsmaking, and increased sales begins in the U.K. with the July announcement of the “ longlist” of 13 novels. The buzz, perhaps because of the U.K.’s self-touted literary culture, builds steadily over the following months with each announcement and leak generating a media frenzy. This is true even in the U.S., where many of the longlisted novels may never appear.

All of this buzz allows booksellers plenty of time to ponder which books to order in the run-up to the October 12 announcement of the winner. For instance, Carson Moss, frontlist buyer at New York’s Strand Bookstore, is paying particular attention to C by Tom McCarthy: “He’s an author whose last book got a lot of quiet buzz and this might be the one to do it for him.” He is now the odds-on favorite among bookies and cognescenti.

McCarthy would be something of an outlier among Booker winners: The prize tends to go to familiar faces or heavily promoted figures. Richard Howorth, owner of Square Books, in Oxford, Mississippi, notes that “Margaret Atwood won it much too late in her career—her career was established before the Booker. Same with Ian McEwan.” There’s no sales bump there, just consistently steady sales. He takes a more limited view of the sales bump the Booker proffers, but sees possibilities for a White Tiger-style success story this year: “If an Ian McEwan or Graham Swift book comes out, people are going to buy it and read it, and if it wins, people aren’t going to buy it anymore. If Damon Galgut or Emma Donoghue or Andrea Levy—anyone other than Peter Carey!—wins this year, though, I think there will be a lot of interest.”

Gallery: Booker Awards

Indeed, Emma Donoghue, author of the shortlisted Room, has soaked up a great deal of interest. The novel, about a mother and son imprisoned by a mysterious captor, seems tailor-made for crossover success. According to Nielsen Bookscan, since Room’s U.S. release, on September 13, it has shipped 29,000 copies.

And multiply that number by 10, or more, if Donoghue wins. Moss sees a definite Booker effect. “It is across the board—every Booker Prize winner has done well for us—at least in the last 10 years.” Unexpected Pulitzer, National Book Award, and NBCC winners may not succeed; given the sales push behind it and its Pulitzer win, it’s surprising that Junot Diaz’s Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao sold about half of the Booker winner that year, Adiga’s White Tiger. This is especially odd given the disadvantages faced by foreign novels on unfamiliar subjects, and that Adiga was hardly a McEwan-style familiar face. Even the bizarre Australian satire Vernon God Little was a Strand smash, said Moss: “It sold so much more than I would have anticipated. It wasn’t a book we planned to carry until it won the Booker. Nobody was thinking about it.”

America’s homegrown book prizes don’t always guarantee similar success. But the Pulitzers can push even small titles to success—Paul Harding’s Tinkers, which has sold 140,000 copies, has become an archetypal example—but can fall short of the Bookers’ ability to move copies (recall Diaz). The National Book Awards has honored a mix of major successes like The Corrections and Three Junes and less-notable sellers like The News From Paraguay and Europe Central. And the National Book Critics Circle Award tends to honor recipients of one of the other major prizes, or veer off in an enjoyably unpredictable (W.G. Sebald, Jim Crace) but not-exactly sales heavy direction. Cathy Langer, lead buyer for Denver’s Tattered Cover, said, “I don’t know if the impact of American prizes is diluted because there’s a bunch at once rather than one everyone gets excited about.”

“This is, very much, a Cinderella-goes-to-the-ball season for me,” said Room author Donoghue, calling from Milwaukee, where she was giving a reading, but hers is not quite a Cinderella story. Donoghue’s publisher, Little, Brown, purchased the U.S. rights to Room in October 2009, and “they had a detailed publicity plan to make the book a New York Times bestseller, which it has”—rising to No. 9 on the most recent list. “The Booker Prize was a great last-minute extra.”

That the Bookers help sales says as much about the mainstream sort of books they pick— books for which a prize is an extra—as the prize’s own prestige. Sloane Crosley, a publicist for Vintage and Anchor Books (home to Booker winners such as Michael Ondaatje’s English Patient and Ian McEwan’s Amsterdam), said, “People rarely come out of nowhere and win the Booker. What that means is that the book has some degree of success going for it”—whether the sustained success of McEwan or the promotional blitz of Donoghue. “The prize is a noble magnifying glass.”

“People rarely come out of nowhere and win the Booker. What that means is that the book has some degree of success going for it,” said Sloane Crosley.

The most mainstream author this year seems to be two-time winner Peter Carey, whose Parrot and Olivier in America is in the middle of the oddmakers’ pack. After his first prize, in 1988, for Oscar and Lucinda, Carey said he noticed “people smiling at the airport—going into an ordinary pub and people buy you beer,” as well as selling books through Europe and America. By his 2001 victory for True History of the Kelly Gang, Carey was ready to celebrate his success: “The wine bill is still on file at Faber and Faber,” he jokes. His novel nears the end of its cycle with 9,000 hardcovers sold, per BookScan; Moss, at the Strand, says, “I don’t plan on getting more copies unless it wins.” Even on established authors, the Booker win will push sales forward, though Carey remains sanguine. “There are times I really want to win, and times when I think it’s all ridiculous.”

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Daniel D'Addario is a writer who's contributed to Newsweek, The Awl, Urlesque, and Capital.