The UK’s Man Booker Prize for Fiction has just updated its rules for eligibility for the Man Booker Prize 2015. And although many book trade professionals seem to be most exercised by changes to the timing and stocking level requirements of the rules, which they say favor publishers at the expense of booksellers, it’s very clear that the new rules also consolidate the privileged status of “literary” fiction at the expense of genre works of any kind. They also exclude self-published works or those from very small presses – but it’s not like that is anything new.
The updated rules declare that “Any novel in print or electronic format, written originally in English and published in the UK by an imprint formally established in the UK (see 1b. below), is eligible. The imprint must publish a list of at least two literary fiction novels by different authors each year. These two will not include a novel by the publisher.” This ostensibly excludes small publishers who might only publish one literary work per year, but also genre fiction houses like Tartarus Press whose staple fare might not be deemed sufficiently literary, although “an imprint which only publishes one literary fiction novel a year may provide a justification for that novel as long as the novel is otherwise eligible.”
As for self-published works, “Self published novels are not eligible where the author is the publisher [and it’s hard to imagine what kind of self-published work could not involve the author being the publisher.] If the publisher is a company which has been specifically set up to publish the novel in question, and/or the author is the person who owns the majority shareholding or otherwise controls the company, the novel is ineligible.”
Ebooks actually have been advantaged in this year’s rule revisions. For longlisted titles, publishers are now required to, “if publication is after the announcement of the longlist, make the novel available for sale as an e-book if it has not already done so.” As an ebook – but not a print copy. Booksellers have objected that this means the publishers can benefit from sales driven by the longlist without rushing out printed copies at all, while the bookshops suffer accordingly.
However, the genre exclusion issue is still more glaring – and if anything, even worse now. And that may have less to do with literary snobbery than sheer commercial greed. Mark Charan Newton arguably nails the reasons best in a 2011 essay entitled ‘War of the Worlds: Sci-fi vs the Man Booker’: “Perhaps it’s down to marketing. The book industry depends upon categorisation and compartmentalisation to best reach particular readers – crime, horror, romance and so on – and each compartment possesses its own circles, its own readership, its own awards. If the Man Booker is of the compartment of mainstream fiction and the literary genre, then it goes without saying that sf and fantasy books that are labelled in the wrong way will simply go unnoticed.”
It also goes without saying that publishers who are keen to maximize the marketing yield of the Man Booker longlist don’t want to see the “literary” character hybridized. Quoted by The Bookseller, Simon Key, co-owner of The Big Green Bookshop in Wood Green, London, said: “It is just pathetic. It is supposed to be the biggest book prize of the Commonwealth but actually the publishers are completely dictating the rules. Publishers flouted the rules last year and now the prize has changed the rules to suit the publishers. If those were the rules, why change them? The organisers have changed them so many times in the last few years that it is not the same prize any more. It is not the Booker Prize. It’s not for booksellers, it’s not for authors – its for publishers.”