Oh man, it’s the Booker longlist again

by isabelrogers

The Man Booker Longlist was announced yesterday, and although the hype could never compete with either JK’s unveiling or Kate’s baby, there is still a healthy, British-level of excitement.

It’s the big one. It cannily does what its title says (but should it now be ‘Woman Booker’ after Hilary?*). It’s £50,000 for the winner. But – more than that – being On The List means a huge amount for publicity. And publicity, as we all know, sells. Doesn’t it?

Well, that was what I pondered yesterday. Would these thirteen books wheedle their way onto my TBR pile (‘to be read’) simply because they were in the running for a prize? Would I wait until the shortlist of six was announced? How do we choose what we read?

Personally, my decision is a combination of aged guilt about some classics (I’ve admitted to Moby Dick in public before; I’ll get to it one day), friends’ recommendations, and – hugely important and eclipsing all others – what twitter is raving about and arguing about and overusing emoticons over. Because I trust the people I follow on twitter. They are writers, editors, agents, book-lovers and book-discussers. They know their stuff. I have a running list to hand at all times, to note down the latest title new to me. Crucially, this list never contains books which are rammed at me, either by authors or publishers, saying ‘BUY THIS IT’S AMAZING!” I’ve never met anyone, ever, who is persuaded by such crass communication. When people realise this, the collective twitter blood pressure will lower, but that is another blogpost altogether.

I wondered if I wondered alone, lonely as a shutupIsabel, so asked my twitter pals this question: do you look at lists like the Booker long list & systematically work through them? Do they change your TBR pile (contents or order)?

They told me. I have to say that these people are not your average reading public. These are people who breathe books, feel sick if they see a book disemboweled in the name of quirky art, and probably sniff second-hand books if they think no-one’s watching. Or maybe that’s just me. The point is, they are the high-end book consumer. I wasn’t surprised they seemed to agree with me: a title on a list won’t usually change reading behaviour. There were specific examples and reasons where it did, when a review needed to be done quickly:

Naomi Frisby (reviewer, @Frizbot on twitter) “It did for the Women’s Prize but that’s because I write about women’s fiction.”

Sarah Franklin (writer, editor, lecturer, broadcaster, @SarahEFranklin on twitter) “Never systematically, but they do shift my TBR … wanting to review it (so time limit?), plus (in this specific instance) had missed hearing of book & it’s exactly one I’ve been hoping to read for years.”

Others were honest about how little their behaviour changed:

Fiona Melrose (writer, reviewer, @PaperCutPrint on twitter) “Not really… I have twitter to magnify my TBR list. Booker lists are probably books that have been on the radar anyway.”

Isabel Costello (writer and book-blogger, @isabelcostello on twitter) “I take remarkably little notice actually. A book doesn’t gain in attraction for me by being nominated although I may hear of books that do appeal that I wouldn’t otherwise have heard of.”

Cariad Martin (Reviews Editor, writer, @cariadmartin on twitter) “It changes the order of my TBR pile definitely. The ones I already wanted to read at some point get bumped up.”

These people are not … I hesitate to say ‘normal’, but could settle for ‘representative’. And I mean that as a compliment. They will probably have heard of most of the books on the list already. I know a man who buys the Booker shortlist every year and reads through it, start to finish, and reads little else. Quite why he reads those is unclear, since he mostly moans about them afterwards, but that is how he chooses what to read. Is he more “normal”?

This is not an exhaustingly researched piece on the correlation between sales, marketing and the Booker list. In a minute I’ll be in a paddling pool with my kids. I simply don’t know the numbers of copies shifted of a Booker longlister compared to a shortlister, compared to the eventual winner. I’m guessing it makes a difference, but to whom? Not to me. Not to a lot of bookish people I know. But then again, our TBR piles teeter so dangerously anyway, another one added won’t have much effect.

What would make you prioritise a Booker lister over existing TBR pile? Is there a feeling of a time limit to read them or you’ll miss out on the zeitgeist? Is that peer excitement or peer pressure? Not everyone in the world has a TBR pile. There are people who would use that as a shibboleth: I hope I’m not one of them.

This post seems to have sprung more questions than answers. Damn you Johnny Nash: right again.

* I know. Look at the tagline of this blog. Please don’t write in.