By Kate Mosse
The BAILEYS Women’s Prize for Fiction is one of the most respected, most celebrated and most successful literary awards in the world. An annual award, it celebrates the very best full length fiction written by women throughout the world. Through the initiatives and promotions set up by the WPFF, even appearing on the shortlist significantly boosts a novel’s sales and ensures an author’s work will be promoted in bookshops and libraries the world over.
In January 1992, a diverse group of journalists, reviewers, agents, publishers, librarians, booksellers – male and female – gathered together in a flat in London. The Booker Prize shortlist of 1991 had included no women at all – something which had escaped notice until the press commented on it – and the group decided to meet to talk about it: did it matter there were no novels by women? If so, why? And what could or should be done? There were long debates about the value or purposes of literary awards, of how they supported (or inhibited) reading, how publishing and reviewing might play a positive role in ensuring a wider range of authors and books were celebrated. After some hours and several bottles of wine, the idea of setting up a new kind of literary prize – one which would celebrate women’s creativity, one that would be truly international (nationality or country of residence being no bar to eligibility), one that would have a programme of educational, literacy and research initiatives as integral to the Prize – was born. A prize that would be fun!
Everyone at that ad hoc first meeting was puzzled that, despite the ratio of books by men published to books by women being 60/40 in women’s favour, the leading literary Prizes nonetheless often seemed to overlook accomplished, challenging, important fiction by female authors. By 1992, only 10 per cent of novelists shortlisted for the Booker Prize had been women. Did it matter? The group decided it did, since Prizes are an influential way of bringing outstanding writers to the attention of readers.
After several months of research, discussion and taking advice from the book trade in its widest sense, the founding Women’s Committee started to draw up guidelines and turn its attention to the matter of sponsorship. Of the original committee, four women are still involved: me, Co-Founder and literary agent Jane Gregory, publisher Susan Sandon and Prize Director Harriet Hastings.
We were on our way…
We approached Orange in Autumn 1995, having secured endowment of the Prize money itself from a private donor. A bronze figurine, known as ‘The Bessie’, is presented to each year’s winner in recognition of the generosity of the anonymous benefactor. Orange, who was just dipping their toes in the water of arts sponsorship, were attracted both by the educational and lifelong learning initiatives, and by the opportunity to celebrate international fiction by women. Over a matter of weeks that Christmas, arrangements were made and The Orange Prize for Fiction was launched at the Institute of Contemporary Arts in London in January 1996. After five months of hectic hard work, publicity, marketing strategies, public readings, judging meetings — not to mention a fair amount of controversy — the first Orange Prize for Fiction was won by Helen Dunmore for A Spell of Winter.
Orange was a brilliant sponsor, working with us to develop the Prize and numerous education and literacy initiatives over seventeen years, so it was with great sadness that we decided to part company in May 2012.
Together, we won pretty much every major UK sponsorship award and Orange was widely applauded for their enormous and significant commitment to reading and literature.
However, times change, priorities change and it was with great excitement that we decided to fund the Women’s Prize for Fiction 2013 privately, with sponsors including: Bilbary, The Book People, Bob & Co, Cherie Blair, Fanny Blake, Bloomberg, Richard & Elena Bridges, Elizabeth Buchan, Christopher Foyle, Jill Green, Martha Lane Fox, Lansons Communications, Joanna Trollope, Sue Woodford-Hollick and others who wish to remain anonymous.
In June 2013 we were absolutely delighted to announce a new partnership with BAILEYS for 2014 and beyond. The Women’s Prize for Fiction board felt that BAILEYS was the ideal choice as our new partner. We were impressed by the scale of their ambition for the prize, their passion for celebrating outstanding fiction by women and willingness to help us bring the prize to ever wider audiences. We are looking forward to an exciting future.
Novelist and playwright Kate Mosse, Co-Founder & Chair of the BAILEYS Women’s Prize for Fiction Board.