Is an award the only way to guarantee an author's shelf life?

For today's authors, an award can make the difference between success and getting left at the bottom of the pile

Almost three years ago now, David Whitehouse, a then 26-year-old journalist with aspirations of becoming a novelist, handed in his notice at a men's magazine, and started to write a book about a man so disillusioned with life that he takes permanently to his bed where, over two decades, he grows into the world's fattest man. Whitehouse sent out the first few chapters of what he was now calling Bed to the only literary agency he had heard of, William Morris in London, and was quickly picked out of the slush pile.

"It was my first attempt at a novel," he recounts now, "and so to land an agent so quickly, and so easily I suppose, felt pretty good. Suddenly, I was walking around like Charlie Big Potatoes, thinking all sorts of great things were going to happen to me." He frowns. "But what actually did happen was, well, nothing."

It took him a very long year to finish the book, but upon completion, his agent at William Morris, Cathryn Summerhayes, thought it quite brilliant. "It had such a unique voice," she says, "and it was clear that David had a lot of talent."

She sent it to every publisher in the country, confident of landing a deal. But the manuscript was roundly rejected by everyone, thereby snuffing out Whitehouse's dreams in the process. The experience, he confesses, made him feel uncomfortably empathetic of X Factor rejects: "Promised the world, only for it all to come to nothing."

With no desk job to return to, he chanced his hand as a freelance journalist and attempted to put the episode behind him. But Summerhayes would not forget the book, and when she heard of something called the To Hell with Prizes award, in which agents were encouraged to submit the best unpublished novel currently languishing in their bottom drawers, she entered it. The very same manuscript that had been turned down by everyone three years previously proved now, according to a judging panel that included a novelist, a playwright, an editor and a bookseller, to be the unanimous winner. Whitehouse received a cheque for £5,000, and then watched bemused as his book became the subject of a fierce bidding war. This week it was finally released in the UK and will now be published in 10 countries around the world.

"It has been," the author deadpans, "an unexpected turn of events."

It is perhaps a measure of the current climate in publishing that it took a hastily invented prize to alert book editors to what Bed – which subsequently went through a rigorous editing process – possessed all along: potential. But then this, as Summerhayes points out, is typical of an industry desperate to find the next big thing, but only on the condition that everybody else agrees it is the next big thing as well. The winner of this year's Orange Prize, announced last night, Téa Obreht, is the latest to wake up one morning and suddenly find herself hot property.

"To some extent, publishers are sheep," says Summerhayes. "I honestly think they don't know what they want until somebody else wants it too. Don't get me wrong, I know many creative and brilliant publishers who discover great new things all the time, but it is nevertheless always very helpful if something comes to them already endorsed, either by a prize such as this, or else a quote from someone like Martin Amis telling them how great it is. Anything, really, to convince them of its worth before they have even read a word."

The To Hell with Prizes award was the wry brainchild of Laurence Johns, an antiquarian bookseller who wanted to help "secure a deal for a manuscript that we really felt deserved to be published. We are thrilled with David's news, and hope that this will set a precedent of what next year's prize can achieve."

The second To Hell with Prizes was to be awarded last month, but has been postponed due to financial problems, the bestowing of £5,000 evidently difficult to sustain for such a small enterprise. But wannabe authors and their agents need not worry, for this is merely one of several pre-publication prizes in existence right across the literary world. In the UK, for example, there's the Jerwood Prize and the Sceptre Prize, while both the David Higham and Curtis Brown literary agencies award bursaries in an attempt to fan the flames of a manuscript that would otherwise go overlooked. It can work wonders: in 2006 Joe Dunthorne won one for his manuscript Submarine, which went on to become both a novel and a film.

On last year's To Hell With... judging panel was Francis Bickmore of Canongate, arguably the best and certainly the most innovative of British publishers. Bickmore passed on Bed first time around, but says now that being able to read it afresh, "and purely for its aesthetic beauty rather than wondering just how a book that doesn't shy away from the grotesque might fit into our autumn schedule," made him appraise it in a different light: "It's fantastic; it's Roald Dahl meets Kafka."

He promptly put in a pre-emptive bid for it, and for a much higher figure than he would have had to shell out three years previously. But Bickmore isn't complaining.

"There are all sorts of prizes these days, and for all sorts of books: the best second novel, the best writer over 55, the best book to be set in Norfolk," he jokes. "And all of them make the winners more valuable. But each prize, I believe, is driven by a perfectly respectable agenda. It flags up a book that might otherwise go unnoticed, and alerts everyone, not just editors and publishers, but ultimately readers too, that this is something worth reading."

And, he continues, any opportunity for a little hype goes a long way in an industry that is currently far from healthy. "More books are getting published than ever before, but fewer than ever are getting the limelight."

What this means, essentially, is that our cultural agendas shrink simply because we are all reading the same books as everyone else. And while this undoubtedly benefits worthy recipients such as Emma Donoghue's Room and David Nicholls's One Day, Bickmore argues that there are a great many books out there deserving of just as many readers. "As far as I'm concerned, the more prizes the better. We all need people to select books for us," he says.

And David Whitehouse represents just how life-changing prizes can be. Were it not for his To Hell With... prize, he'd still be struggling as a journalist.

"I don't think I would have tried to write a book again," he says, "if only because the initial experience took the wind completely out of my sails. But now that it has resurfaced, and quite so unexpectedly – well, I think I might just be Britain's most excited man."

'Bed' by David Whitehouse is out now, published by Canongate Books

The Power of Prizes

'What Was Lost' by Catherine O'Flynn

Catherine O'Flynn (above) won the First Novel prize at the Costa Book Awards for 2007, having had her manuscript rejected by 20 agents and publishers. 'What Was Lost', about a girl who goes missing in a shopping centre, was inspired by O'Flynn's time working in a record store. Eventually published by Birmingham's not-for-profit Tindal Street Press, it went on to be longlisted for the Booker and Orange prizes before winning the Costa – and has now sold over 60,000 copies.

'The Bone People' by Keri Hulme

With a first print run of just 800 copies and one review describing it as "a disaster", 'The Bone People' was the surprise winner of the Booker and the Pegasus Prize for literature in 1985, beating Iris Murdoch's 'The Good Apprentice'. After winning, the book, published by the tiny New Zealand Spiral Collective, went on to sell 34,000 copies in hardback.

'Lord of Misrule' by Jaimy Gordon

The small literary house McPherson & Co. had originally planned to print 2,000 copies of Jaimy Gordon's novel about the ruthless world of horse racing in West Virginia. But after being named the surprise winner of the National Book Award last year, a second print run of 25,000 was ordered, followed by a third of 12,000, all within six weeks.

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