Golden Best Booker of Bookers

Photo: © Daniel Mordzinski

Photo: © Daniel Mordzinski

The Man Booker Prize (aka The Booker) is an annual award for "quality fiction by an author of any nationality for a work published in English (not a translation) by a UK or Irish publisher/imprint." The longlist is announced in July, the shortlist is announced in September, and a winner is announced in October. They also offer a Man Booker International prize that's given to an author for a work of fiction in translation, usually awarded in May.

We track several important Canadian awards every year and have done so since our national sales tracking service SalesData came into existence with its first full year of data in 2006. According to our consumer surveying in 2018, 27% of Canadian book buyers are familiar with the Man Booker Prize for Fiction, compared to 51% for the Pulitzer Prize, 35% for the Governor General's Literary Awards, 33% for Canada Reads, 32% for the Scotiabank Giller Prize, and 26% for the National Book Award. The Hilary Weston, Writers' Trust, and Charles Taylor prizes came in with 12% or less.

When the Man Booker Group announced that they intended to mark the 50th anniversary of the Man Booker Prize for Fiction with a Best of Bookers Prize chosen by the public, we here at BookNet wondered what the prize would mean in the Canadian supply chain for the shortlisted titles and the ultimate winner. The shortlist was announced at the end of May and our very own Michael Ondaatje, a lion of Canadian letters and publishing, made the cut for The English Patient, which won the 1992 Booker Prize, as well as the 1992 Governor General's Award for Fiction. That's when we really took notice and decided to look into the sales data for the Best of Booker finalists and see how Canadians voted with their dollars.

What is the Golden Booker?

The Golden Booker shortlist, aka The Golden Five, was selected by five judges. Each judge read a decade's worth of Booker winners and nominated one book for contention. The judges' choices were announced on May 25, 2018.

The Golden Man Booker judges and their choices:  Golden Man Booker Prize site

The Golden Man Booker judges and their choices: Golden Man Booker Prize site

  • 1970s: Robert McCrum chose In a Free State by V.S. Naipaul
  • 1980s: Lemm Sissay, MBE, chose Moon Tiger by Penelope Lively
  • 1990s: Kamila Shamsie chose The English Patient by Michael Ondaatje
  • 2000s: Simon Mayo chose Wolf Hall by Hilary Mantel
  • 2010s: Hollie McNish chose Lincoln in the Bardo by George Saunders

The Golden Booker is the supreme example of an award designed to spark enthusiasm for reading and to rekindle consumer interest in backlist titles, something that is particularly welcome whenever the market is experiencing slow or declining sales. 

Unlike the annual award, the Golden Booker is awarded by The People who vote on a list of titles curated by a select jury of publishing professionals and cultural critics, much like the CBC's Canada Reads. Voting ran from May 26 to June 25 and the winner was announced at a special ceremony in London, England on July 8, 2018. 

Do Canadians care about the Golden Booker?

At BookNet, everything starts with a question, whether we're building software for the Canadian trade industry or analyzing what sales mean in the market. So we wondered: what does this particular nomination mean for the books in the shortlist? What does winning The Golden Booker mean for the author? Does the Canadian trade market pay attention to this paean of the best English-language fiction writing in a decade as defined by past Booker winners? There has been lots of analysis of the deficiencies of the Man Booker prize, most recently from LitHub who ask some very good questions on their methodology. Alas, we are not here to judge whether The Golden Booker had a worthy pool of contenders. We are here to look at the consumer interest based solely on the numbers.

Judging from local and national media, as well as retailer websites, there was moderate interest from the industry, at least in the days immediately following the announcement of the shortlist on May 25, 2018. The story was reported in local and national media outlets like CBC Books and their excellent Writers & Company summer series dedicated to the Golden Booker, The Star, and CTV news. It was also hashtagged, retweeted, and liked on Twitter and other social media platforms. The numbers were not astonishing, though lots of people proudly displayed their copies of the nominated titles.

Then people from all over started sharing their own Golden Fives, including both longtime favourites and Booker winners to be read, demonstrating popular interest in the Booker and its Golden anniversary. Readers everywhere took up the mantle of the #manbooker50 challenge and started reading Booker winners from previous decades.

To our delight, Michael Ondaatje won the Golden Booker and to our greater joy, demonstrated the most Canadian of traits as he immediately self-deprecatingly disavowed his crown. He said The English Patient couldn't possibly be the best and thanked the late Anthony Minghella for popularizing his "imperfect" book. Michael Ondaatje, you beauty! The world disagrees with you.

Could it have been that only Canadians voted? We'll bet you the Canadian vote was disproportionately higher per capita because that is just how we feel about Michael Ondaatje. In all seriousness, it would be interesting to know more details about the voting, such as how many votes were cast in total for all the titles? And where did the votes come from by region? Only time will tell if we ever get these answers.

Comparing the Booker of Bookers prizes

Feelings aside, BookNet is all about the data. 

2018: 50th anniversary Booker of Bookers

Between the weeks ending May 6 and July 29, we tracked the impact on physical sales after the 2018 shortlist and winner announcements and then the weeks of sales just beyond the announcement of the most recent or available trade paperback editions of these books. To our knowledge, no special Golden Booker editions have been released for any of the shortlisted titles in Canada.

50th anniversary Golden Booker 2018 shortlist sales comparison

While we can't reveal sales on individual titles, we found measurable interest in The English Patient, with a 1455.26% increase in print units sold in the week immediately following the winner announcement. The 2017 winner, Lincoln in the Bardo by George Saunders, also enjoyed a boost from appearing on the shortlist as there has been a resurgence in sales.

2008: 40th anniversary Booker of Bookers

For comparison, we compared sales over the same number of weeks for the shortlist and winner announcements for the 40th anniversary. We selected ISBNs that were active in the trade market prior to the announcements. Two editions of The Siege of Krishnapur were combined to get an overall ranking of the title's performance. The Ghost Road by Pat Barker is the third in a trilogy of novels; it was available in the market both as an individual book and as part of a later anthology sold under a different ISBN (which we did not track here).

It's worth noting that Salman Rushdie's Midnight's Children has won a Booker prize on three separate occasions: first in 1981 and twice more with the subsequent Booker of Booker prizes in 1993 (25th anniversary) and again in 2008 (40th anniversary).

40th anniversary Booker of Bookers 2008 shortlist sales comparison

We can see minor interest in the shortlist with all the nominated titles enjoying a small increase in print unit sales after that announcement, but there is a tremendous lift for the winner throughout July. 

It appears that Canadians are more invested when a Canadian wins or is at least in the shortlist. None of the titles selected for the 40th anniversary were written by Canadians.

The Golden Booker is all very well, but what about the annual Man Booker Prize?

Let's look at the Man Booker winners from the past five years to see if Canadian book buyers took interest in these titles.

  • 2013: The Luminaries by Eleanor Catton
  • 2014: The Narrow Road to the Deep North by Richard Flanagan
  • 2015: A Brief History of Seven Killings by Marlon James
  • 2016: The Sellout by Paul Beatty
  • 2017: Lincoln in the Bardo by George Saunders

Winners of The Man Booker Prize,  2013-2017 sales comparison

We found that Canadian-born Eleanor Catton's book The Luminaries, which won in 2013, was propelled to the highest of heights in the announcement week. This is followed by 2016 winner Paul Beatty's The Sellout, then the 2015 winner Marlon James's A Brief History of Seven Killings. Sales bumps for the 2014 winner The Narrow Road to the Deep North and 2017's Lincoln in the Bardo were less dramatic but noticeably steady.

Interestingly, we are also seeing what might be described as a Golden Lift in Ondaatje's current bestselling title, Warlight, following the July 23 announcement of its inclusion on the 2018 Booker of Bookers longlist. A hearty congratulations!