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Inside Move: Brit lit snit with Booker prize

U.K. publishers lament broadening kudos to Americans

Keep the Booker British!

That’s the rallying cry emanating from publishers’ row in London since the news broke last week that the Man Group, the British hedge fund that finances the Booker Prize, plans to open the competition to American writers in 2004.

No American book prize has the Booker’s cachet. Winners, which hail from Blighty, the Commonwealth, Ireland and Australia — most recently, Peter Carey, Margaret Atwood and J.M. Coetzee — have seen sales multiply. The event receives hours of coverage on national TV; U.K. bookmakers even set odds on the contest.

All that could change if Americans enter the derby. As historian Lisa Jardine puts it, “The Booker will become as British an institution as English Muffins in American supermarkets.”

If American authors swamp the contest — as happened to the British film biz years ago when BAFTA opened its prizes to American filmmakers — it also could be bad for business.

There’s a limit to the number of books that can be submitted for consideration, and as Tom Rosenthal, former head of Secker & Warburg, told the London Times, “You cannot risk the wrath of an American author if you surreptitiously don’t enter them for patriotic reasons. They will simply dessert you for a different publisher.”

There’s no such hue and cry across the pond. “Publishers love prizes,” says one American editor. “Though I do feel the power of the prize would be diluted if it was opened to American authors.”