Man Booker win a boon for Australia literature

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The BBC's David Sillito: ''For Richard Flanagan, this was simply a book he had to write''

Last week's announcement that Richard Flanagan had won the Man Booker prize for fiction has propelled the Tasmanian-born writer into the international literary orbit, but it also has the local publishing community seeing stars.

Flanagan won for his novel The Deep Road to the Narrow North. He has said the most satisfying part of the prestigious award, which comes with prize money of £50,000 (A$91,000: $80,000), was "the recognition as a writer on the world stage".

However his win could have significant implications for other Australian writers, says Sue Hines, trade publishing director at Allen & Unwin.

"Non-Australian readers of Richard's book may look for other books by him because of the award and a few adventurers might even go looking for other Australian authors," says Ms Hines.

"As for the publishing industry outside Australia, they may take more notice of our books and go looking for other authors to publish. By that means, a few more Australian books will get published and find new readers."

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Thomas Keneally was the first Australian to win the prize, in 1982

"In short - we all win with him to some extent."

Only a handful of Australians have won the Booker, although there is a long list of nominees including David Malouf and Tim Winton.

The Narrow Road to the Deep North, Flanagan's sixth novel, took 12 years to complete.

The story is set in a Japanese prisoner of war camp and centres upon the experiences of surgeon Dorrigo Evans, who is haunted by his love affair with his uncle's young wife two years earlier.

Australia's Man Booker Award winners

1982 Thomas Keneally - Schindler's Ark

1988 Peter Carey - Oscar and Lucinda

2001 Peter Carey - True History of the Kelly Gang

2003 DBC Pierre (born in Australia but left at the age of two) - Vernon God Little

'Sells globally'

Australia's first Booker prize-winner, Thomas Keneally - who has also been nominated many times - recalls what it was like when he heard he had won for Schindler's Ark in 1982.

"It was a great shock," says Keneally. "I felt like I'd been electrocuted.

Australian Peter Carey, who has won the Booker twice, said it was like being run over by a bus. "I'm so pleased it's run over Richard because they've chosen a superlative book and he won't have to worry so much financially."

The Booker is THE literary prize, not just in terms of prestige, says Ms Hines.

"A win sells the book across the world," she says, adding that in comparison, Australia's most prestigious literary award, the Miles Franklin, just sells books in Australia.

Most Booker winners in recent years have gone on to earn their publishers a seven-figure sum.

Sales of Flanagan's novel were strong even prior to the win, with 60,000 copies sold since it was published in September 2013, according to Nielsen BookScan.

"Flanagan has been a bestseller for us since last Christmas so we have had a lot of time to prepare," says Dymocks national buying manager Sophie Higgins.

"We always order several thousand of each of the shortlisted books, but for The Narrow Road I doubled the order to more than 10,000 copies."

A favourite among staff and customers, says Ms Higgins, Flanagan's win "helps to get the discussion going about Australian writing and reminds people how important it is to read and hear your own voices".

Image source, AFP
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Peter Carey has won the prize twice, and was shortlisted in 2010 for his book Parrot and Olivier in America

The American factor

This was the first year the Man Booker prize, given to writers in English from Commonwealth countries, has been open to American authors - a decision that irked some critics who feared the award would be swamped.

As it turned out, two Americans made it to the shortlist.

Australian Literary Management's Lyn Tranter fully expected the award to go to a US author and was surprised and delighted by Flanagan's win, saying: "The sky didn't fall in by opening it up."

She hopes the publicity will attract more North Americans and other global audiences to Australian writing.

"The more people that know about Australian writing the better. Flanagan is the second Antipodean in two years to win this award, with New Zealander Eleanor Catton taking the prize for The Luminaries in 2013," says Ms Tranter.

"More importantly, it is going to really help agents and publishers trying to sell rights in Australian books abroad."