You can't judge a book by its cover, however you can judge the success of an event by the length of the queue wrapping itself around the block; seemingly literary events are all the rage this season (unless of course the long line is for the chronically understaffed cloakroom, but I digress). Last Thursday 250-odd people from across the publishing world (all of whom were apparently already rocking their winter wardrobes) flocked to the Polish Club on Exhibition Road to celebrate Vintage's 21st Birthday. There was champagne, balloons and oysters - an impressive spread for any party, let alone a publishing one given the current climate.
Vintage shared their special day with The White Horse Bookshop in Marlborough, winner of the Vintage Independent Bookshop of the Year competition. The White Horse's owner Michael Pooley took to the stage where Gail Rebuck, the CEO of the Random House Group, awarded him his £1,000 prize, a crate of champagne, and a 'special privileges' VIP ticket to future Vintage books and events. Second and third prizes both went to London bookshops - Riverside Bookshop in Hays Galleria and Slightly Foxed on the Gloucester Road respectively. As Rebuck explained, the success of the Vintage division, as indeed any publishers, lies in significant part with booksellers, and, at a time when so many independent sellers are struggling to keep their heads above water, it's important to acknowledge and reward those who are doing an admirable job.
Speeches over, we were encouraged to enjoy the rest of our evening and, with vodka shots and a disco upstairs, everyone certainly did their best. The crowd-pleasing tune of the night was 'Ice Ice Baby' - the image of the literary world's great and the good rapping along is certainly going to stick with me for a long time.
I'm inclined to say that Random House certainly knows how to throw a good party - people are still talking about last year's Man Booker event at Two Brydges in Covent Garden, so I have high hopes for next month's offering. If the current favourite, Jonathan Cape author Julian Barnes, does scoop the prize for The Sense of an Ending (find my roundup of the nominated titles here), the celebrations are sure to exceed all expectations.
In the meantime, this Monday was the BBC National Short Story Award, managed in partnership with Booktrust. The winner, D. W. Wilson for his story 'The Dead Roads', was announced live on BBC Radio 4's Front Row, broadcast from the party at the Free Word Centre in central London. The crowd was a tad subdued at first - it took some significant encouragement to raise a raucous cheer convincing of a live audience (not to mention the logistical complications of attempting to clap with a glass of wine in one hand and a canapé in the other) but after a couple of practise runs (and some strategic tag-team high-fiving in my corner of the room) we managed to make the noise required. Currently completing his PhD in Creative and Critical Writing at the University of East Anglia, at only 26 years old Wilson is the youngest ever recipient of the prize - a cheque for £15,000 presented to him by the Chair of the Judges, Sue MacGregor.
According to Di Speirs, Editor of Readings at BBC Radio, the shortlist for this, the sixth year of the prize, was "particularly strong". The runner up was Jon McGregor with "Wires", and the remaining three on the shortlist were M. J. Hyland with "Rag Love", Alison MacLeod with "The Heart of Denis Noble", and K. J. Orr with "The Human Circadian Pacemaker". You can hear interviews with all five authors, as well as the actual stories, on the BBC Radio 4 website here.
It is interesting that both these prizes acknowledge an aspect of the publishing world supposedly in decline: independent bookshops and short stories. Vintage attributed The White Horse's win to the efforts they made to engage their customers in what they were reading; running a competition, the staff dressing up in Vintage costumes, and even holding a tea party in the shop itself. Along similar lines, short stories are meant to be read in one sitting; they can be devoured at the exact pace the writer intends, making the relationship between author and reader ever more tangible. Despite the ongoing debates about the death of the book, reports of bookshops facing closure, and the decreasing sales figures for collections of short stories I, for one, am extremely glad to see the publishing world, the BBC and independent charities like Booktrust still championing good, old fashioned literary values.