In 1968, the celebrated London publisher Tom Maschler approached representatives of a large UK financial conglomerate, Booker Brothers, with a proposal. Though not primarily a publishing company, Booker Brothers had an Authors' Division that published a number of well-known writers such as Agatha Christie and Georgette Heyer. Mashler proposed that the company dedicate a small percentage of their profits to a literary prize. As Mashler recalls, "We were frank about the fact that the prize would take several years to make a mark. We pointed out that once it did so (as we were convinced it would) Booker might well find their sponsorship something they could be proud of."
And so the Booker-McConnell Prize for Fiction was born. Now officially known as the Man Booker Prize (because Booker Brothers later dropped its publishing division and became exclusively an investment firm, changing its name to The Man Group), the prize is often just called "the Booker." And Tom Maschler's promise that the prize would be something they could be proud of has exceeded all expectations.
Probably the world's most important literary award, the Booker is presented each year for the best original full-length novel written in the English language by a citizen of either the Commonwealth of Nations or the Republic of Ireland. In 1968, the prize rewarded the recipient with £21,000; in 2002 the prize money was increased to £50,000. But many winners of the Booker have found not only their finances, but their lives transformed. Many of the novels have been turned into movies, and on at least one occasion, the author went on to win a Nobel Prize.
One reason for the Booker's stellar reputation is the integrity of its judging process. No allegation has ever been made of bribery or any impropriety surrounding the award. The selection process begins with the formation of an advisory committee comprised of an author, two publishers, a literary agent, a bookseller, a librarian, and a chairperson appointed by the Booker Prize Foundation. This committee selects a panel of judges from among the leading literary critics, writers, academics and notable public figures. Once appointed, the judges are permitted to work with no interference from the prize administrator or sponsor.
UK publishers may enter up to two full-length novels for consideration. The author is not disqualified if he or she has previously won. The author must, however, be living at the time of the award, and the book must have been originally written in English. Furthermore, a book is considered eligible only if its publisher agrees to certain stipulations. Among other things, the publisher must commit to contributing £5,000 towards general publicity if the book reaches the shortlist, and a further £5,000 if the book wins the prize. Self-published books are not eligible.
No need to feel cheated that you can't win because you don't live in the UK. Thanks to The Man Booker International Prize established in 2005, there's hope for us colonists. Awarded every two years, this £60,000 prize goes to an author living in any country who has published fiction either originally in English, or whose work is generally available in an English translation.
If you're looking for a good book to read, a list of Booker winners would probably be a good place to start. I'm ashamed to say, I've never read any of them, but it sounds like a worthwhile project. If you think so too, here's list of all the winners to date. Dig in!
2006 - Kiran Desai, The Inheritance of Loss
2005 - John Banville, The Sea
2004 - Alan Hollinghurst, The Line of Beauty
2003 - DBC Pierre, Vernon God Little
2002 - Yann Martel, Life of Pi
2001 - Peter Carey, True History of the Kelly Gang
2000 - Margaret Atwood, The Blind Assassin
1999 - J M Coetzee, Disgrace
1998 - Ian McEwan, Amsterdam
1997 - Arundhati Roy, The God of Small Things
1996 - Graham Swift, Last Orders
1995 - Pat Barker, The Ghost Road
1994 - James Kelman, How Late It Was, How Late
1993 - Roddy Doyle, Paddy Clarke Ha Ha Ha
1992 - Michael Ondaatje, The English Patient (co-winner)
1992 - Barry Unsworth, Sacred Hunger (co-winner)
1991 - Ben Okri, The Famished Road
1990 - A S Byatt, Possession
1989 - Kazuo Ishiguro, The Remains of the Day
1988 - Peter Carey, Oscar and Lucinda
1987 - Penelope Lively, Moon Tiger
1986 - Kingsley Amis, The Old Devils
1985 - Keri Hulme, The Bone People
1984 - Anita Brookner, Hotel du Lac
1983 - J M Coetzee, Life & Times of Michael K
1982 - Thomas Keneally, Schindler's Ark
1981 - Salman Rushdie, Midnight's Children
1980 - William Golding, Rites of Passage
1979 - Penelope Fitzgerald, Offshore
1978 - Iris Murdoch, The Sea, the Sea
1977 - Paul Scott, Staying On
1976 - David Storey, Saville
1975 - Ruth Prawer Jhabvala, Heat and Dust
1974 - Nadine Gordimer, The Conservationist (co-winner)
1974 - Stanley Middleton, Holiday (co-winner)
1973 - J G Farrell, The Siege of Krishnapur
1972 - John Berger, G
1971 - V S Naipaul, In a Free State
1970 - Bernice Rubens, The Elected Member
1969 - P H Newby, Something to Answer For
1968 – Kiran Desai, The Inheritance of Loss