Page last updated at 07:27 GMT, Thursday, 10 July 2008 08:27 UK

How do you win a Booker prize?

By Vincent Dowd
BBC World Service

Booker Prize nominees on display in 2005
Booker nominees see sales rocket as their works get mass promotion
Sir Salman Rushdie's Midnight's Children has been selected from six novels as the Best of the Booker. What does it take to win a Booker-winning novel?

Martyn Goff, who ran the award for 35 years, says the key is literary tourism - taking the reader somewhere they are not familiar with.

"It's going to give people information and feeling about something they knew very little about indeed," he explains.

"Yes, there should be a strong plot. But also there should be a description of something that most of us don't know anything about - Rushdie with India as it was, that sort of thing. People are very taken with that."

'Cracking story'

While saying what constitutes a literary novel is hard enough, identifying what makes one a big popular hit is even harder.

Novelists and publishers fantasise about international success to match Ian McEwan's Atonement, Sebastian Faulks' Birdsong, or Louis De Bernieres' Captain Corelli's Mandolin.

Peter Carey wins the Booker Prize in 1988
Midnight's Children by Salman Rushdie (won in 1981; also the previous winner of the Booker Of Bookers, in 1993)
Disgrace by JM Coetzee (1999)
Oscar And Lucinda by Peter Carey (1988, above)
The Conservationist by Nadine Gordimer (1974)
The Siege Of Krishnapur by JG Farrell (1973)
The Ghost Road by Pat Barker (1995)
That trio seem to back up Martyn Goff's belief a literary best-seller needs to transport the reader to a remote time or place.

"The working definition of literary fiction is fiction that is not just concerned with story, but with how it's told as well," says American-born writer Tracy Chevalier, author of Girl With A Pearl Earring.

"If you look at The Da Vinci Code, it's a cracking story that goes on and on. I don't think Dan Brown thought an awful lot about how he told the story.

"When you read a book like Atonement - a very popular literary fiction - its form follows its function. The story is a compelling one, but how it's told is also essential to the story itself. Those two things come together and make the book more than it would be if it was just a plot."

But some fear that prizes now have too much influence - even Martyn Goff, who gave half his life to nurturing the Booker.

"In the very early days of Booker, they just wanted to produce a novel they thought would be good - now people are trying to write a Booker winner," he says.

"It's become too big a factor."

TV central

But authors such as Tracy Chevalier say they are not the ones obsessed with awards.

"I think writers for the most part just write what we want to write," she says.

Tracy Chevalier

"But for publishers, it's so hard to sell a book out there anymore. Too many books are published, and people are reading less. Those two combined have squeezed out the mid-range authors.

"The easiest way for a publisher to establish an author is by winning the Orange prize, or the Booker. They get a lot of publicity, because the booksellers put the books up at the front of the shop."

For their part, booksellers contend the trade is really shaped by television.

Since 2004, Channel 4's Richard and Judy show has operated a book club, influenced by a similar idea on Oprah Winfrey in the US.

Where once word-of-mouth amongst reading groups could be enough to turn an unknown book into a must-read, these days getting a Richard and Judy sticker on the front of a novel is now key to sales, says Dan Fenton, an independent bookseller in Central London.

"Over time, the selection and range of books on this television show has given readers confidence," he adds.

"A lot of people are afraid of modern fiction. It puts those books out in the forefront."

And Tracy Chevalier - who says she owes her own success to the word-of-mouth buzz around Girl With A Pearl Earring - insists the market is getting "tighter and tighter" all the time.

"They are still publishing lots of books, are there some beautifully-written books that are out there that aren't getting much attention, and you hope that somehow it'll get taken up," she says.

"But I feel like it's not that spontaneous anymore, unfortunately. I think the market is getting too tight for that."

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