The Man Booker Prize was first described to me by a writing mentor as “the book prize of all book prizes,” its winning titles fast-tracked to literary canonization and international renown. With so many novels vying for that golden spot, the prize judges have a little bit of reading to do. So it’s no surprise that in 2013, when the prize opened its doors to American authors—a move that some worried placed the prize at risk of “losing its distinctiveness”—the sheer breadth of books under consideration for the title of “best” made for what I can only imagine was and continues to be a torturously difficult vetting process leading to a torturously difficult final decision.
The Prize recently released other changes to its rules. One such revision clarifies the difference between publisher and self-publisher; self-published works are disqualified from consideration. According to the entry rules, a publisher “must publish a list of at least two literary fiction novels by different authors each year.”
Additionally, eligible books first published outside the UK now must have been released no later than two years prior to their UK publication dates.
Perhaps the most pivotal change: A title’s publisher must also make an e-book of the longlisted work available if publication follows the longlist announcement. Conversely, if upon announcement a longlisted title is available as an e-book, the publisher must make 1,000 print copies available for retail sale within ten days.
Kristen Reach discusses some of the consequences of these changes for publishers with longlisted titles. She writes, “E-books may seem like a simpler solution, but the customers who snap up electronic copies as soon as the winner is announced are unlikely to go back for a hardcover copy as soon as the book is on sale. This is a prescription for a lot of late nights for any production team: every publisher with a finalist will need to come up with an emergency plan to push up the pub date in the event of a win.”
The ostensible rigidity of these new rules, then, provides some frustration. But these changes are likely in response to a call for more flexibility in publication dates and title availability. While the revisions and new pressures on publishers with Booker-recognized titles creates real stress, it is also a practical and well-intentioned response to years past, when titles were not made available in time.
The larger question seems to be how to we accommodate all this material, speaking to the even bigger question of how we assign a “best” designation at all. The Booker Prize’s recent revisions to its rules reflect the need for an even more tightly focused approach in finding its winning, short-, and longlisted titles. These changes offer needed pressure and solution alike for publishers and readers.