BOOKER'S PRIZE HEADACHE - Once again this year, the Booker Prize surely satisfies its administrator's taste for a touch of scandal. But where is the connection with the Booker corporation's cash-and-carry warehouses, its core business? Hard-headed chief executive Stuart Rose is looking for better returns on the literary investment, as Al Senter reports.
Now that the season of mists and mellow fruitfulness is with us once again, so in turn it must be time for Britain's annual literary bitchfest, the Booker prize. Still the country's premier artistic prize, amid a proliferation of literary kudos, the Booker will be awarded on 25 October, in the gracious surroundings of London's Guildhall, to 'the best novel in the English language, written by a Commonwealth or Irish citizen and published in the UK'.
Martyn Goff, the prize administrator, has been watching over the judges' deliberations since the Booker's inception in 1973.
No slouch at stirring up what he refers to as 'the right sort of scandal' for the sake of publicity, the wily Goff seems philosophical about the controversy that has dogged the prize almost since its inception. Early on, there was John Berger's denunciation of the parent Booker corporation over alleged maltreatment of its workers in the Caribbean, and his vow to give the Black Panthers half of his £5,000 prize - making one wonder if the sponsor would want to continue. More recently, in 1991, a public dispute between Booker's chairman Jeremy Treglown and prize judge Nicholas Mosley, leading to Mosley's resignation, satisfied Goff's conditions for the right sort of scandal. 'People resigning on matters of principle is good.' This year the pageant got off to a good start when the confidentiality of the long-list - the early stage of selection - appeared to be breached. The Evening Standard's diary page seemed to know who was in with a chance - 'Brookner and Rushdie make Booker list,' it claimed. Vikram Seth and Roddy Doyle were there, too, but Lord Bragg wasn't. Who leaked the 'pseudo-list'? There were those who thought it was Goff himself.
Booker has taken a somewhat indulgent view of the pot-shots that have peppered the prize over the years, behaving rather like a benign nanny watching over her quarrelsome charges. The quality of the shortlists, the judges and the winners has been constantly called into question as the Booker competition provides a perfect opportunity for the settling of scores and the maintenance of artistic and personal feuds. Revenge is a dish best eaten cold and served up on the Booker menu. More recently, however, television coverage has included rampant rudeness and wholesale slagging off of entire shortlists.
Booker's patience with the unruly and ungrateful literati may not be inexhaustible. No longer is the prize insulated from the cold winds of financial reality that have howled over the parent company. The past couple of years have been little short of calamitous for the established firm whose origins lay in colonial sugar production. Following an ill-judged expansion in the mid-'90s, Booker's share price tumbled, its chief executive departed in unseemly circumstances, and there was a fire-sale of its once prized agribusiness interests. Potential takeover candidates went away shaking their heads after a look at the books.
Why a food distribution business should have had such literary associations in its portfolio as the Agatha Christie estate, sold off in 1998, would have baffled even Hercule Poirot. Still more confusing has been the virtual invisibility of Booker, the company, to the outside world. There has never been an obvious connection between the would-be highbrow literature of the Islington and Hampstead chatterati and the cash-and-carry warehouses on grim industrial estates that make up Booker's core business.
Jonathan Taylor, former chairman and CEO of Booker and now chairman of the Booker Prize Management Committee, will have none of this. Commercial advantages were secondary in Booker's decision to sponsor the prize, he says. 'Booker's literary division was generating both a hefty income and a useful cash stream, especially the Agatha Christie copyright and the James Bond interests.
Booker felt some of those profits might reasonably be given back to literature in the form of the prize. It was started in a spirit of altruism but based on a nice stream of income.'
Appropriateness is always a concern when it comes to sponsorship, and many asked what a food and agribusiness concern was up to in aligning itself with literary fiction. But then again, what does Axa insurance have to do with cricket? Or Marlboro with getting super-fit Ferrari drivers to go even faster? Tickets for directors would be a cynical reply.
Taylor emphasises the bargain Booker struck in agreeing to sponsor what has become the most famous of a large number of literary prizes. 'Compared with what other companies pay to promote their names, we've received massive exposure over the years for a relatively modest outlay.
It's been a tremendous bargain - even if it has been a relatively non-commercial bargain. Remember that not only was the literary division extremely profitable, but in those days conglomeration was seen as the best way of developing a business. These days the focus has narrowed.'
Taylor remains resistant to any strengthening of the links between the prize and Booker's commercial activities, believing its integrity would inevitably be compromised. 'Part of the very success of the Booker, and one of the reasons it has achieved and maintained its stature, lies in the paradox that the prize has never been directly connected to the selling of the Booker product.'
Any rethinking of the prize is the preserve not of Booker but of the prize management committee, although Taylor underlines the joint approach that he and Stuart Rose, the current Booker chief executive, are adopting in planning its future health.
'There is a need for the prize to be secure against the vicissitudes of the commercial world. Booker may expand and thrive. It may merge. It might even be taken over. Whatever happens, the prize shouldn't become a kind of football in the corporate rough-and-tumble and end up as something like the Wal-Mart Best Airport Award.'
Rose is from a different mould than that which produced the patrician Taylor and his colleague the late Sir Michael Caine. The tough-talking Rose, with a background in, among others, Burton and Argos, is more Dick Francis than Ben Okri - and a harsher judge of the bottom line. When Colin Tweedy, the chief executive of Arts & Business, recently described the Booker as the world's 'most successful corporate arts sponsorship', Rose was certainly asking, 'Yes, but for whom?' At the moment, Rose's line is that he's keen to encourage debate about the prize and any concrete benefits that may accrue from it to the business. 'I'm here to put the company back on its feet - not to be a patron of the arts,' he says with characteristic bluntness. 'If we agree the Booker Prize is an asset, we have to ask ourselves what we can obtain from such an asset without detracting from the prize's core values.'
Rose has had his hands more than full in the past year, fighting to steady the ship while unloading the ballast of ancillary businesses from salmon farming to chicken-rearing. The company's debt mountain of £700 million, which at one point looked as if it might break banking covenants, is now down by more than half. The £250,000 the company spends on the prize may be comparative peanuts in the bigger financial picture, but Rose is clearly looking for a return on his investment, arguing that a marriage between commerce and literature can still be a pairing made in heaven. 'It is early days yet and there's a lot of discussion still to be had, but I would hope that by next year's prize we'll have something more relevant in train ... We could use the prize as a catalyst for other community activities more relevant to our customers. We could expand into adult or children's literacy work and develop ideas to encourage young people to read and go into writing themselves.'
The Booker chief executive is expected to announce plans this year for sponsoring up to six university places for young novelists, and will also report on the company's business performance. Rose feels Booker has been far too fastidious about linking the prize with its business activities.
There has been little effort, for example, to connect the prize's promotion of writers from the Indian sub-continent with Booker's many ethnic food outlets.
Rose is baffled that the firm's profile remains so low. 'People often ask me if I run the same company that is responsible for the Booker Prize, and that confusion in the public mind tells me that we've kept our involvement too much of a closely guarded secret. It's almost as if we've been ashamed of what we do.'
John Simmons, bibliophile director of Interbrand Newell and Sorrell, brand consultants, agrees Booker has been much too coy about using the prize more aggressively as a marketing tool. 'I think a lot of people imagine that Booker is simply a clever generic name for a literary prize and does not refer to the sponsor. I presume that in the early days of the prize Booker wanted some of the literary world's intellectual prowess to be rubbed off on them.'
For all his recognition of the achievements of the Booker - 'it has helped the novel by drawing attention to the medium and it has created role models for budding authors' - Simmons wonders how much the prize is integrated into addressing even Booker's own employees. 'Do people within the company talk about the prize? And if so, how do they talk about it? Does Booker hope the existence of the prize encourages the workforce to be better-read, and so give an enhanced working performance?'
One would imagine not, since struggling through Keri Hulme's The Bone People would tax a professor of New Zealand literary culture, let alone a checkout operative in a cash-and-carry.
THE GLITTERING PRIZES
1 The David Cohen British Literature Prize: £30,000 Bi-annual award for a lifetime of literary achievement
2 Orange Prize for Fiction: £30,000 Annual award for women novelists
3 Samuel Johnson Prize: £30,000 Annual award for non-fiction writers
4 Whitbread Literary Award: £21,000 overall winner (plus £2,000 for winner of categories such as best novel and poetry)
5 The Booker Prize: £20,000 Annual fiction award for UK, Irish and Commonwealth novelists
6 The Guardian First Book Award: £10,000 Annual award for first-time writers
7 The Forward Poetry Prize: £10,000 Annual award for the best poetry
8 William Hill Sports Book of the Year: £10,000 for best sporting-themed book
9 The TS Eliot Prize: £5,000 Annual poetry award for best collection of new poetry 10 The Mail on Sunday/John Llewellyn Rhys Prize: £5,000; for writers under 35.