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  1. Diary
31 May 2023

A life in books and why prizes matter

Also this week: the art of rejecting authors and how all the best stories are true.

By Dotti Irving

We are awash with book prizes. This is a happy observation rather than a complaint. When I set up my cultural PR agency, Colman Getty, in 1987, there were only two prizes of any importance in the UK. I know because that was the year the agent Giles Gordon and I were tasked with setting up a new non-fiction prize for the technology company NCR. When it came to timing, we had the pick of the calendar; all we had to do was avoid January (the Whitbread) and October (the Booker). We plumped for the end of April, so it was fitting that I found myself in Edinburgh, at the end of April this year, to celebrate the 25th anniversary of what is now the Baillie Gifford Prize, the granddaughter of the NCR Book Award.

Soon after came the Nibbies. Formally known as the British Book Awards, and run by the book-trade bible the Bookseller, the Nibbies honour every conceivable part of our trade: authors, publishers, agents, publicists and booksellers, just for starters. I was there as a guest of International Literary Properties, a relatively new global company that is successfully acquiring and managing literary estates.

With as many as 1,000 guests packed into the Grosvenor House hotel ballroom in London, and more than 30 awards, the evening was long, fun, noisy – and a terrific reinforcement that, despite the cost-of-living crisis, reading and books matter in so many people’s lives.

Bulgaria’s collective orgasm

On 23 May the winners of the 2023 International Booker Prize, which equally honours the author and the translator, were announced. The Bulgarian writer Georgi Gospodinov and his translator Angela Rodel took the trophy for their satirical novel, Time Shelter. I found myself wondering if Rodel’s prophecy that Bulgaria “would have a collective orgasm if we win” had come about.

Enough prizes, Ed? But no! That same day brought news that Caffè Nero is to launch a whole new suite of fiction prizes, with a total prize purse of £50,000. The Neros will replace the Costa Book Awards, which in turn replaced the Whitbread a few years back. Long may the prizes merry-go-round continue.

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Inspiration then perspiration

Glittering prizes are by definition a good thing. They shine a light for readers on the best (well, in the opinion of the judges) book out of an increasingly baffling range on offer. They are welcomed by booksellers for the same reason, and they reward publishers and agents for their professionalism and expertise. But mainly they reward the author, who has probably lived and breathed their creation for many months, if not years, and without whom the publishing industry would not exist. It’s that first glimmer of a good idea in a writer’s mind, the inspiration followed by the perspiration, that makes our business a reality. That acknowledgement is why prizes matter.

[See also: The 14 best books of the year so far]

Pearls to a gorilla

Last year I switched careers. I’m now working as a cultural consultant and literary agent, focusing on narrative non-fiction. I know the world of publishing, but it’s great to see it through a different lens; a bit daunting at times, perhaps, but you’d expect that with a whole new career.

One thing I hadn’t reckoned on was the deluge of emails from strangers; writers in search of an agent, who send me messages ranging from the heartbreaking to the nakedly deranged and, occasionally, the inspired.

Dealing with rejection is patently hard for some of the writers I’ve turned down. One disappointed author replied to say that he regretted “throwing pearls to a gorilla”. I’ve pinned that on my noticeboard, beside a fading one from an author years ago when I handled publicity for Penguin, complaining that I had failed to generate enough coverage for her book which was, in her words, “a jewel in a sea of mediocrity”. Perhaps.

I’ve already got some terrific clients. Manni Coe was my first, with his heart-warming memoir Brother. Do. You. Love. Me, illustrated by his brother Reuben, who has Down’s syndrome. It was highly commended in the Nibbies, with a film deal already in the wings. Perhaps the gorilla can occasionally string her pearls together.

My other pearls include a daughter’s moving memoir of her mother’s dementia; a celebration of afro hair; an investigation into toxic housing; a cookbook like no other; a personal examination of epilepsy; and a look at love in its many, occasionally bizarre, forms.

All of which brings me back full circle to the NCR Book Award and its unforgettable tagline: all the best stories are true.

Dotti Irving is an agent at Greyhound Literary

[See also: The best non-fiction books to read in 2023]

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This article appears in the 31 May 2023 issue of the New Statesman, The Rise of Greedflation

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