New chapter awaits as Booker Prize loses ‘enemy’ sponsor
Not all literary awards find it easy to fully forget their old corporate partners
Irish author Anna Burns on stage at the Guildhall in London as the Duchess of Cornwall (left) presents her with the Man Booker Prize for Fiction for her novel ‘Milkman’. Photograph: Frank Augstein/PA Wire
The Man Booker Prize, as almost no one called it, has lost its Man, eighteen years after it technically lost its Booker.
The Man Group, a hedge fund that has backed the £50,000 prize for fiction since 2002, has ended its relationship with the award that takes its name from a wholesale grocery company that is now a part of Tesco.
The loss of a sponsor is never a wholly shocking plot twist, though the arts press is having a good go at injecting some drama into this parting of the ways with talk of tensions and strains, while links have been gleefully made to comments by novelist Sebastian Faulks to the effect that Man is “the enemy”.
Man’s official reason is that it wants to reallocate its cash to a diversity and inclusion campaign, though Faulks’s claim, made on the podcast How to Fail with Elizabeth Day, that Man people are “not the sort of people who should be sponsoring literary prizes - they’re the kind of people literary prizes ought to be criticising” does not appear to have gone unnoticed either.
At the last ceremony, Man Group chief executive Luke Ellis suggested an unnamed author would “probably be pleasantly surprised” to discover “how many of our 70 million pensioner clients are his target audience”.
It’s not a bad counter, to be fair, to anyone who assumed a hedge fund would be better off chasing a product placement deal in the next Bond film than holding out for the opportunity to clink glasses with the literary establishment at a black-tie City of London dinner.
Man leaving Booker is much more of a saga than a recent turning of the page for the cheap-and-cheerful Irish Book Awards, which last year signed a new sponsorship deal with An Post. There was nothing personal here: Bord Gáis Energy, which had undergone a change of management, had been “good sponsors” for eight years.
At the first An Post-backed ceremony last November, books journalists talked positively about an awards process that had become more consultative. There was no sense that An Post was “the enemy”, and it helped on the speech credibility front, too, that in David McRedmond, a former operations director at books retailer Waterstones, the sponsor boasted a chief executive who didn’t have to pretend to be familiar with either books or the trade.
For An Post, this modest outlay of a sponsorship offers multiple opportunities for risk-light brand promotion, from the publication of the initial shortlists, through a public voting process to the warm glow of the night itself.
A highlights programme on RTÉ One broadcast on a subsequent date might not seem like much television exposure, but given the Booker can only scrape awkward live coverage of the echoey Guildhall ceremony on the BBC News Channel followed by a hasty few minutes on the BBC News at Ten, even this level of support for books is far from guaranteed.
Why sponsor a book prize? For Costa Coffee, which will tonight announce its £30,000 Costa Book of the Year winner, this is not a stupid question. “Coffee and books are the perfect blend and there’s nothing quite like putting your feet up with a good book and a great cup of coffee,” it explained.
Some readers might prefer a great book and a good coffee, and rival Caffé Nero suggests much the same link for presumably less money by dotting books around its cafes, but never mind. The Costa award used to be known as the Whitbread before Whitbread decided to bestow the name of its subsidiary on the prize, but what it will be called in future is anyone’s guess: Costa has just been bought by the Coca-Cola Company.
Anyone for the Schweppes Book of the Year?
The next Booker sponsor will almost certainly have to make do with being a prefix to Booker, the apt name having been kept - officially, not just in Lansdowne Road fan-rebellion style - despite the 2001 decision of Booker Group’s then parent, supermarket chain Iceland, to distance itself from the prize.
The Booker Prize Foundation nevertheless is “confident” about finding a Man replacement. Despite the constant carping, the Booker is an internationally-known, life-changing award that basks in its own prestige, delivers a sales uplift and generates acres of media coverage.
Writers will want a friendly sponsor that doesn’t take the gloss off the recognition from bleary-eyed judges. Organisers will be on the prowl for a brand that is keen on (jargon-alert) “activating” its sponsorship, yet doesn’t interfere too much. And they’ll be looking for a decent price. That, it seems, is the tricky part when it comes to arts sponsorships.
Not all literary prizes have a corporate sponsor. The €100,000 International Dublin Literary Award - which has been won by a male author on the past 18 occasions, a statistic that single-handedly justifies the existence of the Women’s Prize for Fiction - is now fully funded by Dublin City Council.
This has been the case ever since a trust fund set up by US productivity company Impac was finally exhausted in 2014 and it has prompted Cllr Mannix Flynn to dub the new funding arrangement a “grandiose gesture” given most artists in the city live below the poverty line. He has a point.
But then one thing all sponsors should remember: when it comes to literary prizes, it’s only the winners that are ever truly happy.