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Do bookies actually read the Bookers?

5 October 09 13:29 GMT
The Magazine answers...

Wolf Hall, the Henry VIII-themed novel, is the hot favourite to win the Man Booker Prize. How do bookies work out odds on a book?

For the six authors in the running for the Man Booker Prize for Fiction, there's a lot at stake - a prize pot of £50,000 and a vigorous bounce in sales.

But others have a financial stake in which way the judges jump on Tuesday night - those who take a flutter on the winner.

The odds-on favourite is Hilary Mantel's Wolf Hall, a sweeping historical novel about Thomas Cromwell, Henry VIII's marriage fixer. Both William Hill and Paddy Power are offering odds of 4/5 (win £4 for every £5 staked).

How do bookmakers judge what's likely to win? Do bookies read the Bookers?

"How have these books been reviewed - that's my form guide," says William Hill's Graham Sharpe, who has compiled the odds for the literary prize for a quarter of a century.

"If I go to check the reviews, I get a good sense of the perceived wisdom about how good a book is," Mr Sharpe says.

Enthusiastically reviewed since its publication in spring, Wolf Hall certainly has good form.

The Times's reviewer declares herself "gripped"; the Observer calls it a "humane and bewitching novel"; for the London Review of Books, it holds "substantial and deep" pleasures.

Throughout the year, Mr Sharpe keeps an eye on what reviewers and bloggers have to say about newly released novels, and keeps a clippings file of any fancied titles. "This is my own arsenal of information."

He also takes into account the public's choices, by looking at which novels people are putting money on. "You can assume that if someone wants to bet on a book, it's usually because they like that particular book." So far 95% of the bets William Hill has taken are on Wolf Hall.

Mr Sharpe also reads the short-listed books himself. "But it's irrelevant what I think. I'm trying to second-guess the judges. It's an inexact science, based as much on instinct as anything else."

Sometimes, he says, shrewd PR people place bets on their clients' books to improve the odds and therefore create a bit of a buzz.

"If it's placed online, we can't tell, but if a flurry of bets is placed in Bloomsbury [a London neighbourhood and the heart of the literary community], for instance, there's a chance that that is what's happening."

And which is his own personal favourite of the shortlisted six?

"Well, let's just say that the wife is a Henry VIII expert, and I've passed Wolf Hall on to her."

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