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.
There's likely not much overlap, though, between people who care about betting and people who care about literature in England—as evidenced by the fact that Ladbrokes only saw a total of £25,000 bet on the Booker last year. A single important Premier League match, by contrast, might bring in as much as £350,000—an imbalance that would suggest the Booker odds are at best a cultural bellwether and at worst a publicity stunt.