Hedge fund’s departure as £1.6m backer of the UK’s leading fiction award has prompted feverish speculation about the prize’s future
Previous Man Booker prize winners are among those keenly awaiting the announcement of the new sponsor of the prestigious literary award, after the prize’s sponsor of almost two decades, Man Group, became the latest in a wave of companies pulling out of backing book prizes.
The hedge fund, which has sponsored the £50,000 literary award since 2002, announced on Sunday that it would end its association with the prize after 2019, which cost them £1.6m a year. On Sunday, the Booker Prize Foundation said that its trustees are already in discussions with a new sponsor “and are confident that new funding will be in place for 2020”.
Australian novelist Thomas Keneally, who won the award in 1982 with Schindler’s Ark, told the Guardian on Monday that he hoped the prize’s future would be guaranteed.
“There is an emotional dependence on it, in a way that doesn’t attach to any other of the British prizes, as splendid as they are. Not having it there would be a little bit like navigating without a North Pole for fiction,” he said.
“The Booker prize certainly makes a difference to one’s life. Peter Carey said it was like being run over by a bus – but it’s a bus many of us would put our hands out to be run over by … It is the lodestar of the literary year and if it vanished it would be a big adjustment. It looks as though they’ll get sponsorship but it would be an interesting climatic change over the book industry if they don’t.”
While it is not the only financial corporation to take on a literary prize – investment management firms Baillie Gifford and Rathbones currently sponsor the Samuel Johnson and Folio prizes respectively – some have speculated that Man Group pulled out due to criticism of their role as a financial institution, as well as their influence on the prize. In July, author Sebastian Faulks branded Man Group “the enemy”, saying: “Man Group are not the sort of people who should be sponsoring literary prizes. They’re the kind of people literary prizes ought to be criticising.”
Man oversaw several big changes to the prize, including the 2005 introduction of the Man Booker International prize, for translated writers, and a controversial change to eligibility rules that allowed writers from the US to enter for the first time in 2014. This led to widespread concerns that American authors would dominate, with two American winners in a row following soon after – Paul Beatty in 2016 and George Saunders in 2017.
Irish novelist John Banville, author of The Sea, which won the Booker in 2005, suggested that a new sponsor could restore the prize to being only open to writers from Commonwealth countries.
“As we know, public interest in the prize has seriously lapsed since eligibility was widened to allow in American writers. Indeed, this could be the chance to return the prize to what it used to be, an exclusively British institution – along with the Commonwealth and Ireland, that is – that the world regarded with keen if bemused interest, like cricket or the monarchy,” he said.
One leading literary figure, who asked not to be identified, told the Guardian: “Man has been complaining for some time that the ‘partnership’ with Booker was not working and that the Booker [Prize Foundation] did not properly consult with them but continued to act as if they were the sole sponsor. Booker has also not listened to feedback from publishers about their change of rules.”
“It’s one of the most effective literary prizes in the world, but it’s obviously a good time for there to be a more collegial attitude from the existing management and a proper rethink of what the prize is and can continue to be in the future.”
Another individual in publishing who asked not to be named said: “We knew they were coming up for 10-year renewal, and I think the feeling was, from Man’s point of view, that there were more negative stories that they were having to absorb than positive ones. Obviously the opening-up to Americans was the most controversial one. I think everyone agrees that was really pushed through by Man themselves. They spent £25m over 18 years; they must have felt, ‘Is it really worth the hassle?’ It could be that for Booker this is a really positive thing, having a chance to reboot. There’s a lot of speculation they might return to the UK and Commonwealth parameters.”
At Curtis Brown, leading literary agent Jonny Geller said the news was not a huge shock. “I don’t know where the suggestion to open it up to become a global prize came from, but wherever it did, I think it was seen as a mistake and to have slightly backfired,” said Geller. “Everyone in publishing needs whatever help they can get to get books into people’s hands, and these prizes do that, so we all want it to work.”
Former Booker judge Alex Clark said: “There’s also been a feeling that some of the glitz and hoopla gets in the way of celebrating the writing itself – perhaps a new sponsor might decide to dial some of that down.”
The Man Group’s withdrawal comes after drinks company Baileys announced it would no longer solely sponsor the Women’s prize for fiction, later agreeing to remain with assistance from entertainment company Fremantle and NatWest bank.
In response to the news, Joanna Prior, chair of the board of the Women’s prize, said corporate support was vital for literary awards: “Without corporate sponsorship, the work of bringing books into the lives of as many people as possible becomes ever harder.”
Despite the new sponsor remaining a mystery, most agreed that the prize’s future was guaranteed. “It sounds like they already have someone lined up,” said one former publisher. “The Booker brand is still the Booker brand, the most famous prize in the English speaking language, full stop.”