News Analysis: Can PR help win the Booker Prize?

The most sure-fire way to ensure your novel has shelf life is to capture the coveted Booker Prize. But with a judging process that prides itself on its integrity, can PR play any role in improving a title's chances? asks Richard Cann.

While the Oscars have been a target of ridicule - particularly since Miramax made PR blitzes the norm on its way to securing Best Picture for Shakespeare in Love in 1999 - the Man Booker Prize has retained its value as the most respected literature prize in the Commonwealth. This is in part due to the perception that judging is not influenced by the machinations of publishers' publicity departments.

Jacqueline Graham, group publicity director at Pan MacMillan, which has two books shortlisted this year under its Picador imprint, says: 'In all my years in publishing, I have never known a judge to sound out outsiders in the decision-making process. It is as straight as you can get.'

She insists that although it is easy to identify novels that stand a chance, they are of such quality that they would receive substantial PR anyway.

The BBC's Big Read and Richard and Judy's book club have boosted literature's media profile, but Graham believes there is overall less media space devoted to books than in the past.

The announcement of the Booker shortlist last week, however, gives fresh legs to publicity campaigns for the six novels chosen. News pages, though, remain difficult to crack.

'News is outside your control. It comes when an author dies or a fatwa is placed on an author. Unless (the shortlisted) Alan Hollinghurst has a lawsuit brought against him, it can't be news in the way Ulrika Jonsson's autobiography was,' says Graham.

She adds that most of a publisher's proactive PR work occurs at the time of a launch. Once the long and shortlists are announced, publicity departments need to be able to respond to the individual needs of each journalist, who are more interested in addressing gaps in their own earlier coverage of the books than revisiting author profiles and reviews.

Graham adds that while the publicity is great for sales, she doubts that it has any effect on a title's chances to scoop the major prize.

Keep marketing in proportion

One journalist on a national newspaper says Monica Ali's deserving Brick Lane 'couldn't have been marketed harder' but walked away with nothing last year. She adds that while PR is important for relatively unknown authors to get them on the map, if the marketing push and quality of the book is out of proportion, the gap soon becomes apparent.

Midas PR managing director Steven Williams agrees that 'judges of the Booker are incorruptible' but adds that 'just like you and me, they read the papers and watch TV'.

Publishers, which tend to handle PR for strong Booker candidates in-house, can create most media noise at the time of a title's launch, and can choose to release novels at the end of the Man Booker's eligibility period so it is fresh in judges' minds at the time the shortlist is created.

Williams warns, though, that 'if a book was talked up in the media so that it is expected to get on the shortlist but doesn't, the corresponding disappointment would be immense'.

The difficulty for PROs trying to identify which buttons to push to influence judges is made more difficult by the fact the panel changes every year.

The consequences of this are highlighted by the fact that betting shops, in the absence of consistency around past Booker winners, formulate odds for the Man Booker simply by monitoring media profile of candidates.

William Hill media relations director Graham Sharp, who creates the bookmaker's initial odds when the longlist is announced, says runaway favourite Cloud Atlas by David Mitchell has enjoyed strong backing in the media from day one.

The Man Booker is notoriously difficult to predict mainly because the judging panel changes every year, says Sharp, who allows the market to dictate prices once the longlist is announced, explaining 'we make books, we don't read them'.

What is certain is the novel that triumphs will be forever marketable and will profit from the biggest PR bonanza in British literary circles.

As Graham says: 'A lot of the publicity work is done for you, and if you win your phone goes into meltdown.'

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