British Book awards balance art and selling power to decide best writer in 30 years

Alison Flood

It could be almost the setup for a joke, but a former president, a Booker winner and an erotic fiction superstar have walked on to the British Book awards’ longlist, and one of them could be crowned the best writer of the past three decades.

Barack Obama, Hilary Mantel and EL James are three of the bestselling writers on an eclectic list drawn up to celebrate the awards’ 30th anniversary.

Chosen from past winners, the longlist of 30 titles “makes for a compelling history of the book trade”, said the Bookseller, which runs the awards, ranging from Peter Mayle’s memoir about his move to rural France, A Year in Provence, which is the earliest contender for the prize, to Jamie Oliver’s cookbook 5 Ingredients, which took the nonfiction award in 2018.

The cream of the last 30 years’ literary writing is represented by titles including Zadie Smith’s debut novel White Teeth, Mantel’s Booker-winning Wolf Hall, and Monica Ali’s Brick Lane.

Children’s books in the running for the top prize include Philip Pullman’s Northern Lights, JK Rowling’s first Harry Potter novel, and Jacqueline Wilson and Nick Sharratt’s The Illustrated Mum, while bestselling non-fiction ranges from Dava Sobel’s Longitude to Jackie Morris and Robert Macfarlane’s ode to vanishing nature, The Lost Words.

Obama is featured for his memoir, Dreams from My Father, while EL James appears with Fifty Shades of Grey.

Philip Jones, editor of the Bookseller and chair of the judges at the British Book awards, said the prizes were intended to “celebrate the best of writing and publishing: the books that defined their genre or launched a trend”.

“In that respect, [Twilight author Stephenie] Meyer is to vampire romance what Mantel is to history, both are masters of their craft and industry movers and shakers,” he added.

When many of the books were first published their authors were not the big, established names they are today, said Jones. “Contrary to what you might expect, the list is not dominated by names that were already established,” he said, “but by books such as Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone, Northern Lights, The Art Book, Longitude, Fifty Shades of Grey, The Curious Incident ... and Brick Lane that did something remarkable in their moment, beginning a trend, launching a brand, or revitalising their publisher,.”

The list was drawn up by the Bookseller, with contributions from publishers and book industry experts. The team were looking for “titles that combined quality with sales, but also longevity; the books that defined their year and the publishing that followed”. In some years, the publishing was so strong that more than one title made the final line-up – 1998 boasts three entries: Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone, Bridget Jones’s Diary by Helen Fielding, and Captain Corelli’s Mandolin by Louis de Bernières.

A “wildcard” entry will also be announced in mid-March, when the shortlist is unveiled. The winner will be announced in May and chosen by a judging panel of Jones, the Bookseller’s books editor Alice O’Keeffe, Andrew Holgate, literary editor of the Sunday Times, Cathy Rentzenbrink, author and host of The Bookseller’s podcast, the agent Elise Dillsworth, and John Mitchinson and Andy Miller, co-hosts of the book podcast Backlisted.

The British Book Awards book of the past 30 years longlist

  • A Year in Provence, Peter Mayle (Penguin) | 1990

  • Delia Smith’s Christmas (BBC Books) | 1991

  • Wild Swans, Jung Chang (William Collins) | 1992

  • The Art Book (Phaidon) | 1995

  • Longitude, Dava Sobel (Fourth Estate) | 1997

  • Northern Lights, Philip Pullman (Scholastic) | 1997

  • Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone, JK Rowling (Bloomsbury) | 1998

  • Bridget Jones’s Diary, Helen Fielding (Picador) | 1998

  • Captain Corelli’s Mandolin, Louis de Bernières (Vintage) | 1998

  • The Illustrated Mum, Jacqueline Wilson and Nick Sharratt (Doubleday) | 2000

  • White Teeth, Zadie Smith (Penguin) | 2001

  • Sahara, Michael Palin (Weidenfeld Nicholson) | 2003

  • Brick Lane, Monica Ali (Transworld) | 2004

  • The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night Time, Mark Haddon (David Fickling) | 2004

  • The Lovely Bones, Alice Sebold (Picador) | 2004

  • The Da Vinci Code, Dan Brown (Transworld) | 2005

  • The Gruffalo’s Child, Julia Donaldson and Axel Scheffler (Macmillan) | 2005

  • The Sound of Laughter, Peter Kay (Century) | 2007

  • A Thousand Splendid Suns, Khaled Hosseini (Bloomsbury) | 2008

  • Breaking Dawn, Stephenie Meyer (Little, Brown) | 2009

  • The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, Stieg Larsson (Quercus) | 2009

  • Dreams From My Father, Barack Obama (Canongate) | 2009

  • Wolf Hall, Hilary Mantel (Fourth Estate) | 2010

  • One Day, David Nicholls (Hodder) | 2010

  • How to Be a Woman, Caitlin Moran (Ebury) | 2011

  • Fifty Shades of Grey, EL James (Cornerstone) | 2012

  • Eleanor Oliphant Is Completely Fine, Gail Honeyman (HarperFiction) | 2018

  • Normal People, Sally Rooney (Faber) | 2019

  • The Lost Words, Jackie Morris and Robert Macfarlane (Hamish Hamilton) | 2018

  • 5 Ingredients, Jamie Oliver (Michael Joseph) | 2018