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How the Man Booker fiction prize became stacked in favour of the big publishers

If small publishers have the blues, it’s not surprising. Thomas Bethge

The Man Booker Prize for Fiction has announced its longlist for the 2015 award. Now in its 46th year, the award is among the most prestigious in the literary world. It is also incredibly generous to the big publishing houses. Five of the six books shortlisted last year came from Penguin Random House, following a longlist where nine out of the 13 books came from the big publishers. This year it is eight out of 13. But whether or not you think this sounds too much, the real problem lies in submission rules that risk locking in this dominance and making it progressively worse in years to come.

Various changes to the competition’s terms and conditions became effective for the first time in 2014. Most controversial was the decision to accept entries from US authors as well as those from the UK, Ireland and Commonwealth countries. But while the likes of Melvyn Bragg spoke out, other more insidious changes are potentially much more damaging.

In particular, the number of books publishers are entitled to enter into the competition changed. This greatly increases the chances of winning for books published by the imprints of the conglomerates that dominate the industry – Bertlesmann/Pearson (owner of Penguin Random House), News Corporation, Hachette and Holtzbrinck.

The previous rule was that all UK publishers were entitled to enter two full-length novels along with a list of up to five other titles. Each title from this next best five had to be accompanied by a 250-word “justification for submission”, written and signed by the book’s editor. From these additional lists, the judges were invited to call in “no fewer than eight and no more than 12” books for adjudication for the prize.

Since 2014, publishers have no longer all been treated in the same way. The number of entries that each was entitled to submit now depended on their success in acquiring longlist positions in the previous five years. It is allotted as follows:

What happens in practice

At first glance, the new system appears to simply be a means of managing the number of entries Man Booker receives each year. Having worked in the administration of a book award myself, helping the Saltire Society in the management of its series of awards for Scottish literature, I can understand why Man Booker would want to try and restrict the number of entries it receives to control the number of books the judges are expected to read.

In practice, though, the new system is hugely problematic because the backlist of longlisted publishers in the past five years has been dominated by the conglomerates. Of the 75 books longlisted between 2010 and 2015, 23 came from imprints from Penguin and Random House (the two publishers merged in 2013 to become Penguin Random House). Penguin Random House’s fellow conglomerate publishers have also been extremely successful over this period. Hachette (Hodder & Stoughton, Sceptre, Virago and Headline Review) has received nine listings. Holtzbrinck, owner of Pan Macmillan, and News Corporation, owner of Harper Collins, have received seven and five respectively.

The big Kahuna. EPA

That leaves 31 nominations spread among the independents. That might not sound like overwhelming dominance, but it means that the conglomerates are entitled to submit significantly more entries than other publishers. Much of this is to do with their imprints. In the past five years, seven of the Penguin Random House imprints have been listed. All but two have received two or more longlistings, with Chatto & Windus taking the lead with five books longlisted over the five-year period.

According to the new rules, this means that Penguin Random House can submit 17 books next year for the prize. Compare this to successful independent publishers such as Faber & Faber or Canongate. Faber & Faber received its fourth longlisting in five years this year, so will be entitled to submit up to three books for the Man Booker next year. Canongate has been longlisted twice and will be eligible to submit just two books. As for new or smaller independent publishers which have never been longlisted in the past five years, they are only entitled to submit one book.

The Penguin Random House fiesta

Some may counter that it’s not fair to individual imprints to consider them in terms of their larger corporate identities. Each has an individual identity and ethos that is reflected in the books they publish. Be that as it may, there is no denying that the overbearing presence of Penguin Random House and, to a lesser extent, the other conglomerates within longlists and shortlists is disconcerting.

Year on year, Penguin Random House has seen a growth in the number of its longlisted entries being shortlisted each year, going from having no shortlisted titles in 2012 to the five out of six books in the 2014 shortlist. The relationship was further cemented with the (surprisingly quiet) announcement earlier this month that Emmanuel Roman, chief executive of Man Group, the lead sponsor of the prize, joined Penguin Random House’s board of directors. For those who believe that awards need to be scrupulously fair, it did not exactly send out a good message.

Only time will tell if the domination of the Man Booker longlists and shortlists by major conglomerate publishers will continue. So far this dominance has not necessarily been reflected by the winning books – three of the last five were from the big houses, including last year’s winner, Richard Flanagan’s The Narrow Road to the Deep North. Will this become more entrenched in future? Given the state of this year’s longlist, once again led by four Penguin Random House entries from Jonathan Cape and Chatto & Windus, the risks are that it will.

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