Why Costa Awards Have Bookies In A Flutter: The Rise Of Culture Betting

At first, the two worlds couldn’t seem further apart.

On one hand - literary award ceremonies, those buttoned-up affairs where hushed academics politely tap their flutes before applauding the year’s prevailing poets or authors.

On the other - the airless chaos of the average high street bookies, where TVs blear down on gamblers locked in private despair or cheering their way to victory.

But when the winner of this year’s Costa Book Award is announced at roughly half past eight this evening, these two worlds will be brought momentarily together. Having a flutter on culture is on the rise.

“Ten years ago, you could have counted the amount of cultural events people betted on on two hands, and we didn't really promote them as events,” explains Jessica Bridge, a public relations manager from Ladbrokes.

“But within the past 5 years, both book and arts awards have boomed - and nowadays we'd have up to a couple of thousand customers who enjoy these markets.”

The shortlisted writers in the 2010 Costa Book Award pose at the ceremony

The country’s other major betting company, William Hill, are experiencing the same change.

“There is a loyal literary market for book awards,” Graham Sharpe, their media relations director tells me.

“The Booker is definitely the ‘Grand National’ in the market – the Costa is a bit more like the Derby!”

Those who did fancy a flutter on this year’s ‘literary Derby’ installed Matthew Hollies – winner of the Costa Biography Award with Now All Roads Lead To France – as their clear favourite. His account of poet Edward Thomas’ final five years is on for 2/1.

“People who bet on literary awards tend to be from a knowledgeable following, placing bets averaging around £20-£50 a time.” Graham explains.

If he’s right about the relative wisdom of the culture betting crowd, then at 3/1 Andrew Miller (Best Novel, Pure) and Carol Ann Duffy (Poetry, The Bees) are both in with a chance, while Christie Watson (Best Debut Novel, Tiny Sunbirds Far Away) and Moria Young (Childrens Novel, Blood Red Road) are likely to leave disappointed as the outsiders on 5/1 each.

Matthew Hollis, author of All Roads Lead To France, the bookie's favourite to win the Costa this year

But how much can betting on book awards really matter to the gambling industry, considering the enormous gulf in public interest between them and, for example, Premier League football?

“For us it’s easily worth in excess of a a million pounds a year. The stakes are smaller than major mainstream sport, but they’re comparable with the Oscars and Baftas,” says Jessica.

“The Costa is one of the smaller pieces. Bets on it were worth around £10,000 last year.”

So, pretty small fry stuff then. But that’s not to say people placing bets on non-sports events like the Booker or the Costa - ‘novelty bets’, as they’re known to the bookies – doesn’t matter.

If imagining the average Carol Ann Duffy fan walking into their local betting shop and slapping a tenner on The Bees seems a little unbelievable, that’s because it is. The majority of bets on cultural events are made online, and arrive in flurries at the last minute when the odds have already started to shorten or lengthen.

But it is precisely the fact that books and art fans are, on a whole, atypical and inexperienced gamblers that mean they represent an opportunity for industry. Unlike sports nuts, they are an untapped market.

“Hand on heart, our share price rarely fluctuates on the results of awards ceremonies,” admits Bridge.

“But they are very valuable marketing tools for promoting our brand, and making the betting industry more accessible to a broader audience.”

Unsurprisingly, social media is playing its part in helping bookies enter this brave new world of high-brow betting.

“The interesting thing about novelty betting is that [through social networking] they can gather up a lot of momentum from almost nowhere. A few tweets and a few bets later and the odds have collapsed,” says Jessica.

“Even more importantly, our up-to-date odds can reach an unbelievable amount of people through one #costabookawards hashtag.”

As the often insular world of writers, publishers and journalists gather tonight in their suits to discover which of the five shortlisted authors will pick up the winner’s cheque for £30,000, it’s interested to think that, outside, the gambling industry will be paying close attention.

“We've just suspended our betting on [the Costa Prize], but it was a particularly lively market this year,” says Jessica.

“Matthew Hollis was a clear favourite but we saw some inspired and eye-catching money for Andrew Miller. If anyone else wins, it would be a great result for the bookies!”

See a round up of the Costa Book Award shortlisted authors and books: