The Irish market follows the Man Booker closely. Now, the rule change we campaigned for will encourage authors to publish their books at homeby Lisa Coen , Sarah Davis-Goff / January 9, 2018 / Leave a comment
Yesterday, the Man Booker Prize committee announced that, from 2018 onwards, Irish publishers will be eligible to submit their titles for the prestigious literary award for the first time in its history. This exciting development has led to a couple of reactions: cheers from Irish publishers and Irish-published authors, as well as fans of great writing in general, and also confusion about what all the fuss was about.
The questions its raised on the last point are, broadly speaking: Aren’t the Irish already allowed to take part in the Man Booker? Why should Irish publishers fight so hard to be included? Won’t this change the nature of the prize (“and isn’t all change bad?” is the subtext of that one); and, lastly, who cares?
Aren’t the Irish already allowed to take part?
It’s worth addressing each of these. For the first: The Man Booker has indeed been open to authors from the UK, Commonwealth, Ireland, South Africa (and later Zimbabwe) for a while now, and recently the US was added to this list. In 2014, the eligibility was widened to any English-language novel, as long as it was published by a company that had an office in the UK.
Irish authors like Anne Enright and John Banville have won the award over the years, but only for novels published by companies whose main base of operation was in the UK.
For authors published by an Irish-based company, the solution until now has been to ‘co-publish’; that is, to sell on rights to the novel to qualify it as being published by a UK press. (Even setting up a brass-plate company wouldn’t work, for tax reasons).
For instance, as one of us wrote in the Guardian in 2016, when The Lilliput Press, a small independent literary publisher in Dublin, discovered Donal Ryan’s The Spinning Heart, it was only a co-publishing deal with Transworld that allowed the book to be put forward for the Man Booker Prize, for which it was longlisted in 2012.
Similarly, the press we run, Tramp, published Mike McCormack’s Solar Bones—but it could only be given a Man Booker nod after rights had been sold to Canongate, a Scottish independent publisher.
Why should Irish publishers fight so hard to be included?
This has an important impact on our literary culture. The Irish market is greatly affected by the Man Booker. Every year, a robust conversation starts with the longlist, Irish bookshops highlight the shortlist in table or window displays, and we all have a great row about the winner. The gravitational pull on our market is materially consequential.
Critical coverage for fiction (and literary fiction in particular) is shrinking all the time, so publishers work hard to get the attention of readers. Being nominated for and winning awards are one way to do that. The Man Booker is a life-changing award: just being longlisted can have a massive impact on an author’s sales, media coverage, word-of-mouth and potential to be signed with a future novel that is not obviously commercial but that deserves to be published. There’s also the small matter of £50,000 if you win.
If Ryan, Enright or Banville’s novels had been published in Dublin or Galway, and distributed throughout the UK with as much love and attention as a UK-based imprint, they still wouldn’t have had a shot at the Man Booker.
When we published Solar Bones by Mike McCormack in 2016, McCormack was vocal about having been rejected by bigger publishers. We were delighted with Mike’s ingenious book, and had faith that readers would get past the slightly odd premise. We published in Ireland and the UK, and we were pleasantly vindicated in the resultant critical reception, sales, Irish Book Awards, Goldsmiths Prize, and fantastic word-of-mouth.
We agreed that any co-publishing deal we were offered would have to involve two things: a meaningful advance and a promise to put the book forward for the Man Booker. We were lucky to find the right partner in Canongate, whose independent sensibilities and good taste in publishing Kevin Barry made them the right fit. The team at Canongate threw all their weight behind a fantastic campaign and sure enough, the book was longlisted for the Man Booker.
This is great for Mike, and for Solar Bones. We still have exclusive Irish rights, but we no longer benefit from the healthy sales we’d enjoyed in the UK market. This wonderful novel will continue to sell for years, but our reps in the UK don’t carry it in their catalogue.
Will this change the prize?
Will inclusion, then, of Irish-published books change the prize? Not really: Irish writers are already winning it, after all.
What it will change is the damaging effect the Man Booker’s exclusion has inadvertently had on the Irish market. If an ambitious author set their sights on a Man Booker, and had two offers from publishers: one in Ireland, one in London, then the sensible choice would be to go with the London-based publisher.
Meanwhile, if an Irish publisher finds, nurtures, and champions a book and its author, one of the most discouraging things to happen next is to see a UK publisher step in and offer to buy out the rights (sometimes just for the UK, often UK and Ireland), so that the book will have a shot at an award like the Man Booker.
It’s a strange state of affairs that Ireland has produced four Nobel Laureates for fiction so far, and that our literary heritage is so important to our culture, but we don’t have an Irish equivalent of Canongate, Faber & Faber or Éditions Gallimard —all top-notch independent publishers whose distinguished backlists are crucial in supporting their new work.
This change to the Man Booker rules is a really important step in redressing this: now the Irish literature as a whole will benefit much more directly from big prizes. If a writer from an Irish publisher wins, the publisher as well as the writer will reap the rewards and can re-invest in itself and in finding more exceptional, Booker-worthy fiction.
Now all we have to do is win the fucking thing.
Lisa Coen and Sarah Davis-Goff run Tramp Press