Whitbread breaks its ties with £25,000 book prize

But its association with the award for the country's most enjoyable reads doesn't fit its image any more, the leisure company said yesterday.

The Whitbread name no longer appears on any products sold by the company, which operates through brands such as Beefeater restaurants, Costa Coffee and David Lloyd Leisure centres. The company has decided that its link with the literary world is outdated, and is in negotiations with four companies to find a replacement sponsor.

"Over the past few years [Whitbread] has undergone significant change," a company spokesman said. "It is no longer a consumer-facing brand.

"The board reviewed its sponsorship strategy and concluded that now is an opportune time to find a new sponsor. Whitbread's number one priority is to find a like-minded organisation that shares our vision for this award and is committed to developing and nurturing it."

The £25,000 Whitbread Prize is rivalled only by the Man Booker Prize for prestige and generates considerable publicity and subsequent sales for authors who win, or are shortlisted.

The shortlists for 2005, announced last month, included Salman Rushdie in the Novel category for his book, Shalimar the Clown, which also made it to the Man Booker longlist. Mr Rushdie is a previous winner of the category in 1995 for his novel The Moor's Last Sigh.

Past winners of the Whitbread have shown how important the prize is for promoting sales. Andrea Levy's Small Island, which won the Best Book of 2004, went on to sell more than 600,000 copies in paperback.

The 2003 winner, The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time, by Mark Haddon, has sold more than a million paperback copies.

In 2002, Claire Tomalin's biography of Samuel Pepys beat the novel Spies, written by her husband, Michael Frayn. In 2001, Philip Pullman found success with the only children's book to have taken the overall top prize.

The transition to a new sponsor is not unprecedented. Booker did so in 2002 when it handed over sponsorship to the Man Group, a City investment firm.

The Whitbread Book Awards give £5,000 to the winners in five categories: Novel, First Novel, Biography, Poetry, and Children's Book, plus an overall prize worth £25,000.

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