How Do You Place a Winning Bet on the Booker Prize? Not by Reading the Novels

Predicting the winner of a committee-given literature award is a long shot, but English betting houses think they know the secret: Focus on the reviews, not the books.
Last year's shortlisted authors. (AP / Lefteris Pitarakis)

Today, the shortlist of nominees for the annual Man Booker Prize was announced. Having shrunk today from 13 down to six, the field of potential recipients of England’s premier literary award will narrow down just once more—down to one—with a televised pronouncement of a single winner in October.

From this point, you could feasibly plan to read all six of the remaining nominated novels by the time the winner is announced (that is, if you read pretty quickly and ignore some of your daily responsibilities). But when the longlist of novels up for the Man Booker Prize was announced back in July, the list’s 13 titles comprised 5,118 pages’ worth of material.

That’s a hefty reading assignment that few outside of the judging committee would even think of taking on. (Even the judges themselves might not always read every work: As A. L. Kennedy, a Booker judge back in the ‘90s later put it to The Guardian, “I read the 300 novels and no other bastard did.”) But among those precious few power readers, perhaps surprisingly, is Graham Sharpe, the director of media relations for the English betting house William Hill.

Why? He wants people to gamble on who will win.

The slow-going, let-the-meaning-wash-over-you mentality that the Booker claims to emblematize seems at odds with the fast-talking, racetrack-influenced aesthetic of bookmaking. But betting on literary prizes persists in England, and the English media tends to frame the prize in terms of its odds.

Sharpe (whose Twitter bio includes the disclaimer “Followers 18+. Gamble responsibly”) started the practice of betting on literary prizes back in the '70s, putting a highbrow, intellectual twist on Britain's national pastime of betting on silly things. That venture has since spawned similar “special bets”: For those with ambition and a bankable confidence in their refined taste regarding other cultural matters, there are odds set annually on music’s Mercury Prize, architecture’s Stirling Prize, and art’s Turner Prize as well.

The bookmakers who put out these odds, then, need a dependable, accurate method of calculating them in a way that ensures the house will still win—but also one that doesn’t come with a required-reading list for potential bettors. Thus: “The most important thing to be aware of,” says Alex Donohue of the Ladbrokes betting house, “is critical reception.” Reading a Booker nominee, in other words, won’t get you nearly as far as paying attention to the reactions of other people who do.

“We do not read all of the books and in actual fact avoid doing so in order to [not] cloud judgment,” Donohue says.

While Sharpe does read the books before computing the odds, he agrees with Donohue that critics’ opinions are the ones that truly matter: “I try not to permit my own opinion of the books to influence the opening odds,” he says. He’s learned from his mistakes, adding: “I was convinced Cloud Atlas by David Mitchell was a Booker certainty and priced it accordingly, but it was beaten.”

In the nine years that Ladbrokes has taken bets on the Booker, the betting house has picked the winner successfully three times. That’s a pretty good track record: If you’d guessed randomly over the past nine years, you’d have roughly a 70-percent chance of having made only one correct choice.

According to Sharpe, two of this year’s Booker frontrunners—Eleanor Catton’s The Luminaries, which is only her second novel, and Jim Crace’s Harvest, his 11th and final one—have compelling personal narratives that may make them appealing to the Booker judges. “Crace has been knocking around for some while and could win as a tribute to his longevity; Catton is at the other end of her career but with three countries having claims on her would be a welcome winner for the organizers—pardon my cynicism,” he says. Sharpe’s “cynicism” is an allusion to the Booker’s sometimes strained efforts to make diverse selections as evidence of its open-mindedness.

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Joe Pinsker is an assistant editor at The Atlantic. He has written for Rolling StoneForbes, and Salon.

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