Skip to Content

Booker surprise

18 October 2010

The winner of the 2010 Man Booker Prize has been a compete surprise to everyone, including the author. Howard Jacobson had never even been shortlisted before, and his book The Finkler Question was the bookies' least favourite title on the shortlist.

It's very nice to see this important prize going to an author who has paid his dues, with 16 titles which are reckoned only to have sold 90,000 copies in all. What's more, he had just left Jonathan Cape for Bloomsbury, a great disappointment for the Random House imprint. Publisher Dan Franklin was philosophical: 'It was just one of those things. We had huge unearned advances.'

Now Bloomsbury is reprinting 50,000 copies and Jacobson's agent Jonny Geller has had 17 offers for translation rights in different territories. Embarrassingly for Bloomsbury, the book was 'called in' by the judges, which means that Bloomsbury didn't rate it as amongst the top three it could submit.

Although Hilary Mantel had been more successful than Jacobson before winning the 2009 Man Booker, she was similarly an author with a number of excellent books to her credit who had failed to break through to a bigger audience and it was winning the Prize that has made all the difference to her writing career.

The Finkler Question had sold just 8,300 copies (even after being shortlisted) before winning the Prize, so the situation is reminiscent of The White Tiger, which had sold even less before winning in 2008, and then went on to sell 527,000 copies to date. At 68, Jacobson is the oldest Booker winner since William Golding, 30 years ago. He has past bad form too. In 2001, Jacobson called the Booker 'an absolute abomination - the same dreary books year after year'. He had given up hope. 'I was bitter. It's true. I couldn't even get them to read me.'

It's perhaps surprising that the Booker has such a big effect internationally, but it is the top international prize for fiction in English, even though other prizes are worth more. Clever marketing and stalwart support, first from Booker but more recently from the Man Group, have played a part in this, but so have the many controversies, the leaked judges' comments and all the rest of it.

Perhaps though it's the dream-come-true element which has so completely riveted everyone's attention. Jacobson could have continued to meander along, writing a new book every so often but never having much of an audience. Now he will have hundreds of thousands of readers, and if they enjoy this book there's a whole backlist waiting to be explored. Jonathan Cape can benefit from backlist sales across a range of titles and Bloomsbury have a big international seller on their hands. The agent is going to make a lot of money. The author, of course, will make even more, as well as having the distinction of having written an excellent literary novel and, some reckon, the first comic novel to have won the Booker.