Week 38/20 – week ending 18 September

Americans dominate Booker shortlist

The shortlist for the 2020 Booker was revealed at lunchtime today, with five American or American-based authors on the six-strong list, which also features four debuts. The full shortlist is:

– Diane Cook (USA) with The New Wilderness (Oneworld Publications)
– Tsitsi Dangarembga (Zimbabwe) with This Mournable Body (Faber & Faber)
– Avni Doshi (USA) with Burnt Sugar (Hamish Hamilton, Penguin Random House)
– Maaza Mengiste (Ethiopia/USA) with The Shadow King (Canongate Books)
– Douglas Stuart (Scotland/USA) with Shuggie Bain (Picador, Pan)
– Brandon Taylor (USA) with Real Life (Originals, Daunt Books Publishing)

The four debut novelists are Diane Cook, Avni Doshi, Douglas Stuart and Brandon Taylor; all six shortlisted authors are new to the prize.

Hilary Mantel has missed the chance to make Booker history and become the first ever writer to win the prize three times. Anne Tyler, the other big name on the 13-strong longlist, also gets the chop.

The list represents something of a triumph for the Independent Alliance, with four of the shortlisted books coming from its members: Canongate, Daunt Books Publishing, Faber and Oneworld. Four out of the last five Bookers have been won by indies, with Oneworld triumphing in 2015 and 2016. The shortlist also represents a particular coup for new publisher Daunt, whose Daunt Books Originals imprint was founded in February.

The shortlist was selected by a panel of five judges: Margaret Busby (chair), editor, literary critic and former publisher; Lee Child, author; Sameer Rahim, author and critic; Lemn Sissay, writer and broadcaster; and Emily Wilson, classicist and translator.

Busby said: “As judges we read 162 books, many of them conveying important, sometimes uncannily similar and prescient messages. The best novels often prepare our societies for valuable conversations, and not just about the inequities and dilemmas of the world – whether in connection with climate change, forgotten communities, old age, racism, or revolution when necessary – but also about how magnificent the interior life of the mind, imagination and spirit is, in spite of circumstance.

“The shortlist of six came together unexpectedly, voices and characters resonating with us all even when very different. We are delighted to help disseminate these chronicles of creative humanity to a global audience.

“The novels on this year’s shortlist range in setting from an unusual child growing up in working-class Glasgow in the 1980s, to a woman coping with a post-colonial nightmare in Zimbabwe. Along the way we meet a man struggling with racism on a university campus, join a trek in the wilderness after an environmental disaster, eavesdrop on a woman coping with her ageing mother as they travel across India and in an exploration of female power discover how ordinary people rose up in 1930s Ethiopia to defend their country against invading Italians. It’s a wondrous and enriching variety of stories, and hugely exciting as well.”

The 2020 winner will be announced on 17 November in an event broadcast from London’s Roundhouse in collaboration with BBC Arts. The Booker award dinner has been cancelled due to the pandemic: according to organisers: ‘The ceremony has been re-imagined, transposing the traditional dinner at the Guildhall to a globally accessible ceremony without walls. In light of the pandemic, the newly formatted event aims to creatively engage readers across the world with the shortlisted books, authors and the overall winner.’

Diane Cook is a critically acclaimed short-story writer and former producer for the radio show ‘This American Life’ and her first short story collection Man V Nature won the Guardian First Book Award.

Tsitsi Dangarembga’s This Mournable Body is the third book in a trilogy following Nervous Conditions (1988), winner of the Commonwealth Writers’ Prize, and The Book of Not (2006).

Avni Doshi, who is based in Dubai, wrote eight drafts of her debut novel, Burnt Sugar, before it was first published in India under the title Girl in White Cotton. It won the 2013 Tibor Jones South Asia Prize.

Maaza Mengiste (pictured) was born in Ethiopia and is a professor in the MFA in Creative Writing & Literary Translation programme at Queens College, City University of New York.

Douglas Stuart, who grew up in Glasgow, moved to New York to start his career in fashion design. His writing has appeared in LitHub and The New Yorker, including a recently published short story The Englishman.

Brandon Taylor, who attended the prestigious Iowa Writers’ Workshop and is a staff writer at Literary Hub, is shortlisted for his debut novel Real Life. He describes academia as full of human drama and intrigue, but quite hostile at times with “people who had a problem with my blackness or queerness.”

As part of the differences forced on the prize this year due to the pandemic, the Booker Prize Foundation is waiving the contribution of £5,000 towards marketing and public events made by publishers of each of the shortlisted books. Nor will there will be the normal additional £5,000 contribution from the winning publisher.

Mark Damazer, chair of the Booker Prize Foundation, said: “The Booker Prize Foundation values its long-term relationship with publishers and we want to support them in this obviously difficult period. We hope the waiving of the contribution will be particularly helpful for the four publishers from the Independent Alliance on the shortlist this year. Four Culture will continue to promote the prize with all its customary vigour and we look forward to working with all six publishers to reach readers across the world.”

Book Club TV show free on Sky

Sky Arts Book Club Live, which will comprise 4 two-hour episodes, is one of four new arts shows that the broadcaster has announced as it makes its Sky Arts channel free-to-view. The first Book Club Live show will be shown on 18 October.

According to a statement from the channel: ‘Sky Arts Book Club Live, a glass of wine, a few tasty morsels, and a good read. Sky Arts recreates all the joys of a book club as hosts Andi Oliver and Elizabeth Day invite four members of an existing club to chat about some new releases and favourite classics.

‘Then each episode, we’ll bring in the author to answer questions from our club – and a worldwide audience – as the show is simulcast on @SkyTV Facebook live. We’ll learn what’s on the bedside table of some celebrity authors, and online influencer Simon Savidge recommends some lesser known gems. The show will air live on Sky Arts and the @SkyTV Facebook page giving people at home the unique opportunity to be part of the club.

‘Sky Arts Book Club Live is produced by Storyvault. Samantha Williams and Stuart Prebble are the executive producers and the series editor is Anne Elletson. Benedetta Pinelli is commissioning editor for Sky.’

Day said: “I’m so delighted to be a part of this brilliant new show, which puts books and readers right back at the heart of arts programming. As an author, I’m giddily excited at the prospect of sharing fantastic new releases and old favourites with the audience; and as a reader I couldn’t think of a better way to spend my Sunday evenings than chatting about books with people from all over the country. I’m so grateful to Sky Arts and Philip Edgar-Jones and am thrilled that I get to co-host with the wonderful Andi Oliver. Now, please excuse me as I get back to this really great novel I’m reading…”

Oliver said: “I could not be more excited to be working alongside the excellent Elizabeth Day for the first time and with gorgeous Simon Savidge for the second time, on the Sky Arts Book Club Live! Bringing together two of my greatest loves: books and cookbooks and getting the chance to share them with other people? Yes please! I am a very happy, happy, happy Andi Oliver.”

The BookBrunch Interview: Nicole Vanderbilt, UK md of Bookshop.org

The Bookshop.org team is ready. Busy working away behind the scenes to get operations up and running in time for taking sales in November for the pre-Christmas rush, they have no time to lose. Last week they launched to the trade, announcing plans and calling for bookstores to join up. News spread of a significant new player from America in online bookselling for independent bookstores. A consumer platform that has the potential to boost rather than blunt sales for bricks and mortar shops, many which have been shut for months owing to the pandemic.

Bookshop, started by Andy Hunter, publisher of Literary Hub, and imprints Catapult, Counterpoint and Soft Skull Press, is made with small businesses in mind, and promises to be a real alternative to Amazon.

The response from many corners of UK publishing has been positive. Meryl Halls, md at the Booksellers Association, commented on the news of its launch: “A high profile alternative to Amazon in the lead up to Christmas can only help high street independents achieve increased cut-through online with Amazon-averse consumers, authors and others who want to support their local high streets and shop independently.”

Taking Bookshop across the Atlantic
Bookshop’s own story is a brief but explosive one. Launched in the US in January this year in pre-pandemic times, it has grown rapidly, and even more so since lockdown forced physical shops to close. So far more than $6.7m has been raised for indie bookshops (a ticker on the website allows viewers to see the tally), with almost 900 bookstores signed up and more than 9,000 affiliates using the platform.

Bookshop took no time catching the attention of socially-minded American consumers. Among them was the former vp of Etsy, Nicole Vanderbilt, an American Londoner, who after leaving the online retailer in February, was looking for her next step.

“I reached out to Andy and said, ‘Listen, I’ve done this sort of thing in the past at Etsy; figuring out how to take an American brand to the UK market and others over time, and I think I could be useful to you.'” Vanderbilt describes how Hunter was hesitant at first. “They had just launched in the US and had a crazy number of things to deal with, such as a postal system falling apart at the seams as Trump tries to stop people from voting by post for the election. That’s just one example of the problems they’re facing there, not to mention that they’re so much bigger than they expected in terms of sales.”

But Vanderbilt, it quickly became clear to Hunter, wasn’t the only one eager for Bookshop to take its operations across the Atlantic. “The UK wasn’t in his plans this year, but as the company grew more and more successful in the US, the Booksellers Association and others started to reach out to him. It was then he thought – we’ll accelerate this and yes, it’s going to be risky and tough but it’s true to the mission of being supportive to independent booksellers.”

An alternative to Amazon
Vanderbilt does not shy away from talking about Bookshop’s ambitions to halt the dominance of Amazon in the book trade. In fact, she’s keen to discuss how it was the founding principle of Bookshop. “Looking around at the wider book ecosystem Andy saw that Amazon was taking on more and more of the market share. Soon, there wouldn’t be room for anyone else. He conceived the idea for Bookshop before the pandemic to support small businesses and allow them to focus, rightly, on their unique offering, which is their physical store and ability to recommend books.

“With more book buying moving online his aim was to find a way to help indies take a bigger slice. Of course now we know in hindsight that the timing was pretty remarkable, and that suddenly these bookshops had to close or limit hours. What happened in the US was that bookshops who maybe had their heads in the sand about e-commerce or wanting to hold it at arms length had to get over it pretty quickly, and Bookshop presented a good solution.”

As someone coming to UK publishing with fresh eyes, Vanderbilt believes the same cautious sentiment is widespread here too. “There’s a sense that the UK book trade has been spooked by Amazon and the ongoing conversation about ebooks,” she says. “Amazon is without a doubt very powerful in the market and good at what it does. So, I’m excited to bring more technology into the industry, take humanity to the fore and give consumers an alternative to buying books online.”

Big ambitions for small businesses
From her experience at Etsy, popular for selling handmade and one-off pieces from independent stores and individual makers, Vanderbilt is an md tailor-made for thinking big for smaller businesses. “Once I heard about Bookshop’s model I wondered, how did thousands of people not think of this before? It just seemed so self evident,” she says. “I thought, not only would I love to see indie bookshops thrive but also – which is a similar mission and approach at Etsy – that we can use technology in service of people in a way that allows them to compete against the big behemoth. This is one way in which I could be helpful in the book industry. I don’t have experience in the publishing trade, so this is just a dream come true to take my experience and apply it to this world.”

Other key members of her team are recognisable trade figures in the home market. “Mark Thornton, who owned Mostly Books has really walked the walk, and understands how bookshops work. He will work with the bookshops and help them understand what we offer and get them set up ahead of the launch. We also got very lucky with Jasper Sutcliffe, our publisher and affiliate manager, who was at Foyles for 20 years. He has an incredible understanding of bookselling and what publishers want from the indie market, such as being able to work with shops in a scalable way. We have a new operations manager who also doesn’t come from the book world, Justin Hernandez, who is responsible primarily for customer service.”

Booksellers: how it works
Not dissimilar to Pinterest Boards, every business that signs up to Bookshop will have their own page with pictures, branding and social media links, and the ability to curate lists. “These lists are sort of the equivalent of front tables or bookshelves,” Vanderbilt says. “Every sale generates a 30% commission for the store. The beauty of Bookshop is that when a customer places an order, it goes directly to the wholesaler, which is Gardners in the UK, who ship it directly. So the bookseller spends the time making great lists and content and no time touching the package at all.”

If a consumer comes to Bookshop via a business’s page but buys from outside its list, the shop will nevertheless receive a commission. “We don’t limit bookshops to sales on their page,” Vanderbilt continues. “This expands the titles a bookshop can offer online. If a title from their list makes a customer think of another book they’d like to pick up, they also get credited for that sale.”

Tech-averse booksellers don’t need to swot up on they digital skills. The platform uses a simple interface that doesn’t require coding, and no financial investment is required. Bookshop says a page for a store can be set up in 30 minutes. “We are singularly focused on supporting the indies,” Vanderbilt adds. “It’s crystal clear on what the bookshops are getting from the sale.”

Another string in their bow
Again, mining her experience at Etsy, Vanderbilt believes the site puts indies in control. “These small businesses started because they love what they do,” she says, “and so what both Etsy and Bookshop are about is how to create tools to allow them to do what they do best. In the case of booksellers it’s recommending and interacting with customers. They pull together lists for people to find their next great read, and less time on the stuff they don’t love.

“We’ve found that bookshops who have their own websites can find it demoralising spending time unpacking a box just to repack it for a customer. We just want indie bookshops to succeed. If they can sell through their own store and website, that’s great! Bookshop is just another string in their bow and extension of their capabilities online.”

There’s also an affiliate programme for publishers, authors, media companies, magazines, social media influencers and others in the book community. They will earn 10% commission on sales they generate, and a matching 10% will go to a profit-sharing pool to be split among indie bookshops who sign up to Bookshop, regardless of whether they use the site to sell or not.

Goodbye algorithm, hello human
Key to Bookshop’s shopping experience is that recommendations aren’t driven by algorithms but by people. “These lists only a human can create,” she insists. “No algorithm can analyse the text from book blurbs and curate a list. There’s a long way to go to make buying online nearly as pleasurable and delightful as going to a bookshop but we hope we can start to approximate that and pull the humanity forward. You’ll never get an email from us that says ‘Dear Sir’, and what we’ve done is try and make our operation as human as possible; it really adds up and matters to people.”