Two word-of-mouth bookselling success stories – Sarah Perry’s novel The Essex Serpent and Kiran Millwood Hargrave’s young adult tale The Girl of Ink and Stars – have taken the top prizes at the British Book Awards.
A gothic romp inspired by a local legend in the author’s native Essex, Perry’s second novel had an astonishing trajectory, selling more than 200,000 copies in hardback alone – 40 times more than the initial sales target – and scooping up nominations as varied as the Costa fiction award to the Wellcome prize for books about medicine and health. At the ceremony in London on Monday night, Perry’s novel beat Sebastian Barry’s Costa prize-winning novel Days Without End and Paul Beatty’s The Sellout, which won the 2016 Man Booker prize, to take the fiction award, before also winning the overall “book of the year”.
Similarly, Millwood Hargrave’s debut, which saw off JK Rowling’s script for Harry Potter and the Cursed Child and a medley of celebrity children’s authors – comedian David Walliams, musician Tom Fletcher and Great British Bake Off winner Nadiya Hussain – has been a huge success with booksellers. The book, which won the children’s book of the year, was worked on by the entire nine-strong staff at independent imprint Chicken House. It spawned window displays in bookstores across the country, and won the Waterstones children’s book prize 2017 as well as being shortlisted for the Branford Boase award and the Carnegie medal.
Chair of judges and contributing editor at the Bookseller, Cathy Rentzenbrink, said the support of booksellers was crucial to authors, as a good window display could drive sales beyond an individual store, even online. “The Essex Serpent … made me wish I was a bookseller again so I could press it into the hands of all my customers. Luckily, booksellers up and down the land felt the same urge and it has been a delight to see the care and attention lavished on this book,” she said.
Debut thriller Dodgers by Bill Beverly, won the crime and thriller award, but What Belongs to You, Garth Greenwell’s dissection of shame and guilt around a gay relationship in Bulgaria, was the surprise winner of the night, taking the debut book of the year. While raved about by critics, it was not as big a commercial success as fellow shortlistees The Girls by Emma Cline or Francis Spufford’s Golden Hill, which also won the Ondaatje prize on Monday night. “With [What Belongs to You], we wanted to honour what some of the judges felt was a courage, to bring that gay story back. People were feeling they hadn’t seen much in the way of gay literature,” Rentzenbrink said.
Philippe Sands’s East West Street, which won last year’s Baillie Gifford prize, won the nonfiction narrative category, while British astronaut Tim Peake triumphed in the nonfiction lifestyle category for Hello, Is This Planet Earth?, his collection of photos taken from the International Space Station. But at the end of the night, 20 years after the first Harry Potter book was published, JK Rowling received an award to mark her outstanding contributions to bookselling. Each year a new Harry Potter arrived on shelves, the UK book market grew; the final Potter book, 2007’s The Deathly Hallows, took the sector to an all-time high of £1.79bn.
Rowling – whose latest book, the script for Harry Potter and the Cursed Child, was the biggest-selling book of 2016 – did not attend, but said in a statement that she was thrilled. She added: “Twenty years ago, I would hardly have believed I’d have a book published, let alone an accolade as wonderful as this; I am truly honoured and overwhelmed.”
Traditionally trade awards, in 2015 the British Book Awards – also known as the Nibbies – added new prize categories focused on specific titles to the existing ones for retailers and publishers. Run by industry magazine the Bookseller, the Nibbies are intended to “celebrate the whole journey from the author’s mind to the reader’s hand”.
British Book Award winners
Fiction book of the year: The Essex Serpent by Sarah Perry (Serpent’s Tail)
Debut book of the year: What Belongs to You by Garth Greenwell (Picador)
Crime and thriller book of the year: Dodgers by Bill Beverly (No Exit Press)
Non-fiction narrative book of the year: East West Street by Philippe Sands(Weidenfeld & Nicolson)
Non-fiction lifestyle book of the year: Hello, Is This Planet Earth? by Tim Peake(Century)