OPINION - The Costa Book Awards are no more – we should replace them with a national prize

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 (Daisy Honeybunn)
(Daisy Honeybunn)

Nothing lasts forever. And so, the Costa Prizes are no more. It’s a sad ending for what are, arguably, the most popular book prizes in the UK. It’s a prize I dreamed of winning and had the honour of judging this year.

I was a judge for the final prize, worth £30K to the winner. Each category winner received £5K. Along with Judy Murray and Reeta Chakrabarti, and the chairs of each category, we compared the poetry, non-fiction, first novel, children’s book and biography winners to award an overall prize. After a match worthy of Wimbledon, Hannah Lowe emerged the overall winner for her poetry collection The Kids. She is now the last ever Costa Prize winner.

There was no indication from the brilliant team running it all that this year would be the last. I wonder if they were as surprised as everyone else when the news broke on Twitter earlier today saying “Costa Coffee has taken the difficult decision to end the Costa Book Awards. What a great 50 years it’s been!”

That cheery exclamation mark feels very out of place. Like someone describing Macbeth as a Tragedy! The Costas have put books in the hands of people in coffee shops across the country. Even tea drinkers picked up Costa winners. The Prizes are a bit more commercial than the Booker, which is avowedly and unashamedly literary. But we need both prizes because most readers just read whatever they love however critics categorise it. Costa Winners include Days Without End, The Shock of the Fall and Bring Up The Bodies. The category winners recently gave us Frannie Langton, Elizabeth Is Missing and the Seven Deaths of Evelyn Hardcastle.

Prizes raise awareness which increase sales, which helps writers and publishers and bookshops and every bit of the publishing ecosystem. The Prizes are (or were – the past tense feels indecently soon) open to all writers resident in UK and free to enter – although publishers had to commit some cash to supporting their book if it won. Judged by committee after committee they were the most democratic of prizes, if any endeavour that seeks to reward one overall can be said to be so.

Twitter’s most common reaction was: Can another sponsor be found? There is a better question to ask: why do we need sponsors at all? Other countries award national prizes – we do not. It’s embarrassing and says a lot about what successive governments think of reading and of writers. Our Prime Minister would have been eligible for a Costa for his biography of Shakespeare had he ever finished it. He is forever quoting our greatest writers but his government does nothing to support them – closing libraries, threatening to axe the Arts Council and letting Amazon off with taxes while squeezing independent bookshops. Their support for the arts is a fiction and nobody is buying it.

Sponsors come and go and, rightly, have their own objectives. The Booker lost their sponsor Man Group in 2019 and Crankstart stepped in. Baillie Gifford saved the Samuel Johnson Prize in 2016. In 2005 Costa came to the rescue of the Whitbread prizes, which had been running since 1971. They stepped in with cash and took over the name. Now they’re moving on.

It’s great when the aims of sponsors align with the needs of readers and writers but we shouldn’t be reliant on the private sector to support and celebrate one of our oldest and most vital creative industries. Publishing is an industry in need of an industrial strategy. It’s up to government to provide this.

I’ve won prizes, lost prizes, judged prizes and rolled my eyes at prizes. The Costas were a good thing. This is not the ending anybody wanted or expected. And maybe, as with the best fiction, another twist is coming.

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