Margaret Drabble was a bright young star with five novels to her name in 1971, when she was talked into joining her old friend JB Priestley on the judging panel for a new book prize. “Jack told me that I should spend the fee (which came in wine) by choosing some very nice half-bottles to drink by myself, which I did,” she recalls.
Drabble argued for a biography of the playwright Henrik Ibsen, Priestley was keen on a novel by Gerda Charles, and his fellow judge, the critic Anthony Thwaite, championed a poetry collection by Geoffrey Hill. The glory of the new, brewery-sponsored awards was that all three could have prizes, so it all went swimmingly, with none of the squabbles that had already begun to bedevil the Booker, launched two years earlier. These arguments had included one over the literary quality of a certain Margaret Drabble, who (according to Booker judge Dame Rebecca West) would insist on lowering the tone by writing about the washing-up.
The USP of the Whitbreads, which morphed into the Costas 14 years before they were abruptly scrapped this month, was that they didn’t buy into that sort of literary snobbery. For 50 years, they spread a wide and egalitarian net across different genres, supporting bookshops as well as writers and publishers (later panels would include a bookseller). Drabble doesn’t remember much about that first awards ceremony, except that Hill was “quite grumpy”. The following year, poetry was dropped as a category, in favor of children’s fiction. It would take 15 years for it to be reinstated, as part of a roster that by then had grown to include first novels alongside novels, children’s fiction and biography.
Yet, so often consigned to the literary ghetto, would come to be one of the great beneficiaries of the awards, winning nine of the 36 books of the year, an overarching category introduced in 1985 that brought the medieval epic Beowulf and Ovid’s Metamorphosis to the bookshelves of England in the late 1990s (thanks to those rockstars of rhyme Seamus Heaney and Ted Hughes). It was a lower-key collection – Hannah Lowe’s The Kids, inspired by life as a schoolteacher – that became the final overall winner this February.
“Winning the Costa book of the year has meant that collections which might normally have only sold hundreds of copies have gone on to sell tens of thousands, so that’s been wonderful in widening readership in the UK to people who might never have thought that poetry written in these times had anything to offer them,” says Neil Astley, editor of Bloodaxe Books, which published both Lowe and Helen Dunmore’s posthumous 2017 winner, Inside the Wave.
But it’s a sad economic reality that poetry’s gain was usually the book trade’s loss. The shadow of a sigh would pass through the room – originally a banqueting hall in Whitbread’s East End brewery, and latterly a moshpit in the West End – whenever a poet was announced overall winner. That’s because the industry knew it would make more money from a well-known novelist, a timely piece of non-fiction or an agenda-seizing debut.
But even the category winners could get a big boost from the award. Last year’s first novel winner, Open Water by Caleb Azumah Nelson, for example, was already lined up to be Waterstones’ book of the month when the Costa news came through, and the chain went on to sell 20,000 paperback copies. It is now one of Waterstones’ most successful books of the month ever, coming second only to another debut, Gail Honeyman’s 2017 bestseller Eleanor Oliphant Is Completely Fine. The British Ghanaian writer’s classy story of troubled love already had booksellers on its side, but after its Costa win it became “huge”, says fiction category manager, Bea Carvalho. Many previous winners of the prize’s various categories are still on the shelves, points out Carvalho. “The great thing is that they tend to last.”
The Costas’ left-field successes are not, however, limited to first novels. The British Trinidadian writer Monique Roffey had slogged away for years, producing seven novels before The Mermaid of Black Conch hit the jackpot. “When it was shortlisted I was astonished, when it won novel of the year I was dumbfounded, and when it became book of the year I was flabbergasted. I still am,” says Roffey, who had crowdfunded her own publicity for the novel. “None of the mainstream publishers would touch me. I’d been around for long enough to know the score with small publishers: they put their heart and soul into editing you but have no money for promotion.”
What the Costas demonstrated, she says, “is the gap between what the publishing industry currently thinks and what is true… They think that middle-class readers who, like it or not, are the main book buyers, are never going to enjoy a novel written in creole by a white Trinidadian about a black mermaid, but that’s not true. The Costas mainstreamed a book that had been excluded.” An imprint of Penguin Random House is already lined up to take her next novel. “All those years of just keeping going in uncertainty and penury,” she sighs. While she knows literary fiction is never going to be a secure calling, the £30,000 prize gave her the luxury of taking a year out from her teaching job, and cutting down on the “busman’s holiday” circuit of masterclasses and public speaking engagements which make getting down to the next novel so hard.
Part of the value of awards is the buzz that they generate through a razzmatazz that peaks at the ceremony itself. Roffey was unfortunate in that her win fell into the social abyss of the Covid pandemic, so she missed out on the presence of celebrity judges such as model Jerry Hall, actor Hugh Grant and rower Matthew Pinsent that have been brought in for previous years to sprinkle stardust over the judging process. “I remember some very enjoyable awards dinners,” says Drabble, “though once I sat next to Theresa May, who didn’t seem all that interested in the books.”
Spouses Claire Tomalin and Michael Frayn found themselves on a particularly dizzy merry-go-round when they went head to head with his novel, Spies, and her biography of the 17th-century diarist Samuel Pepys. “I won by a hair’s breadth,” says Tomalin. “Our being rivals for the same prize generated a great deal of publicity: we were invited to pose for a photograph hitting each other over the head with our books (we declined). It was all a little bit embarrassing, but well worth that because it sold lots of copies of both our books.”
Frayn and Tomalin were well-established stars by the time of their face-off. Hard though it may be to imagine today, Philip Pullman was not, at the point when the final part of his now canonical His Dark Materials trilogy became the first children’s novel to be nominated 2001 book of the year. Pullman was 55 and had previously refused to allow his early books to be entered for any awards. Chair of judges Jon Snow said: “If I am honest, the wind was against Pullman at the very beginning. We did worry about giving such a literary prize to a children’s book, but then we thought of CS Lewis and that was that.”
“It made a huge difference to my reputation and sales,” says Pullman. “After the Whitbread I was sort of known about, whereas I hadn’t been before. The Carnegie medal I won for Northern Lights was a big thing in the children’s book world, which is neither known or very much cared about by the rest of the reading public; but the nature of the Whitbread/Costa award guaranteed that the news pages as well as the book pages took notice. Whoever set up the prize in that way did something very clever and very generous. It put the children’s book on a level with the other four category winners, and that said a great deal about the value of children’s literature.”
Pullman’s win was part of a new golden age for children’s books, when it started to be studied in universities and the YA market took off. By the time Mark Haddon followed him on to the podium in 2003, with a “crossover” debut The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time – published in both adult and YA imprints – nobody blinked an eye. It was, said chair of judges Joan Bakewell, “quite exceptional in the way Haddon is able to express the voice of the child and to get into the boy’s language. It is extraordinary because of the limitations he has put on himself. None of the judges has known anything like it.”
In 2012, the novelist Joan Brady – who in 1993 had become the first woman to win book of the year – ranted about the corporatisation of literary awards. “Canada has the Governor General’s literary awards. The US has the National Book awards. Australia has its Premiers’ awards. France has Academy prizes. Germany, the German book prize. Don’t UK writers deserve national recognition, too?” she wrote. It’s in some ways a fair point – commercial sponsors are fickle and subject to their own fluctuating fortunes – but it’s less likely than ever to cut through in today’s austerity politics. Sometimes you don’t know what you’ve got till it’s gone.