New books prize to be judged by public

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The Independent Culture

A new set of book awards is to be launched which will, for the first time, allow the public to vote for the winners.

A new set of book awards is to be launched which will, for the first time, allow the public to vote for the winners.

The populist approach of the new WH Smith Book Awards - in which readers will be able to pit Booker Prize nominees such as Margaret Atwood against bestsellers such as Maeve Binchy - comes amid a national debate over whether existing competitions such as the Booker and the Orange are too élitist. The argument verged on open warfare earlier this year when Seamus Heaney's Beowulf beat one of J K Rowling's Harry Potter tales for the Whitbread Prize.

The WH Smith winners in nine separate categories will be announced next April and will each receive £5,000. Eight of the prizes will be awarded on a public vote, while the ninth - the traditional highbrow WH Smith literary award - will be awarded by judges. However, the judging panel will be widened to include one member of the public.

Richard Handover, chief executive of WH Smith, said: "We are proud to be taking the populist route ... We intend to open up this debate and ensure the nation's choice is more accurately represented."

The eight categories put to a popular vote will be for biography, travel writing, business, general knowledge, fiction, new talent, home and leisure and children's book of the year. A panel of judges has selected a "long list" of 10 books for each category, which will be whittled down to five. The public will then be able to vote in WH Smith stores or on the internet.

Long-listed books include Playing the Moldovans at Tennis by Tony Hawks in travel writing, White Teeth by Zadie Smith in new talent and, inevitably, Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire, in the children's category. The fiction category includes Atwood's The Blind Assassin, Joanna Trollope's Marrying the Mistress and Binchy's Scarlet Feather.

Nicholas Clee, editor of The Bookseller, said: "It was something of an oddity that Smiths, which is a general market retailer, should have sponsored perhaps the most highbrow literary prize in Britain."

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