The bookies, the bookish and the Booker

Booker Prize season, the autumn ritual when literary fiction temporarily breaks out of its arts ghetto onto the news pages, is almost over. Tonight at London’s Guildhall, nearly three months after the longlist was announced, the 2012 prize will be awarded and all the manufactured controversies – has the Booker become too mainstream, too elitist, too anglocentric, too whatever – can be forgotten for another year.

But the Booker Prize is not just a showcase for books, it’s also a showcase for bookies, an opportunity for bookmakers to reach a market that barely registers their existence for most of the year. The announcement of the bookmaker’s odds has become as much a part of the tradition as the announcement of the shortlist itself, with the media more than happy to disseminate the odds if it makes for a better story.

Given the success bookmaking PR departments (in particular William Hill’s) enjoy in getting their odds mentioned in broadsheet discussions of the shortlist you’d be forgiven for thinking the bookmakers are keen for book lovers to bet on the Booker Prize. While they’re certainly not averse to it, the truth is they’re not really after your £20 on Hilary Mantel, what they’re after is your soul, the Booker Prize is just the bait to get you hooked. As bait goes it can certainly look pretty tasty too; I imagine the morning after the shortlist is announced breakfast tables up and down of Britain resound with the question ‘what do the bookmakers know about literature anyway?’

This, of course, is precisely how the bookmakers want you to think because unfortunately it’s the wrong question to ask. The more relevant question – ‘what do the bookmakers know about pricing up the Booker Prize?’ – has a very different answer. Knowledge is not enough, you have to know what to do with your knowledge, and this is where the average bibliophile is at a considerable disadvantage against the bookie.

These, in ascending order of importance, are the five main tools a bookie uses when he’s setting his Booker prices:- a sense of where the judges stand in the experimental-readable spectrum; a sense of what kind of book, and what kind of author, wins the Booker Prize; a thorough grounding in the newspaper reviews (and these days the social media buzz too) of the shortlisted books; a sense of which books are liable to be bet on; and the ability to turn this knowledge into relative probabilities and thence into prices.

When it comes to judging judges, knowing what makes for a Booker winner, and analysing reviews the literati should be more than a match for the bookies (though whether they actually do think along these lines when assessing the Prize is a different matter altogether). The bookies’ edge when it comes to assessing the betting market is largely irrelevant – it doesn’t help in assessing each book’s chances, it just tells the bookies which odds to keep artificially short in the expectation they’ll be backed anyway.  So far so good for the literati, but unfortunately it is the last tool – the habit of thinking not in terms of absolutes (what is my favourite book, the best book, the book I think should win or the book I think most likely to win) but in terms of comparative probability (what are each books’ relative chances of winning) – that gives the bookies a huge edge.

Those unfamiliar with the world of gambling, and many of those familiar with it too, imagine the key to success is trying to pick the winner. This makes intuitive sense, after all you can’t win if you’re not backing winners, but in fact what you think might win shouldn’t even be a factor in deciding what to bet on let alone the guiding principle. What you should be trying to pick is the value, which is to say the book whose true odds of winning are greater than the odds being offered. In the long run this is the road to profit but few people are thinking of the long run when faced with winning or losing here and now. I dare say there are some Booker bettors whose thought ‘that looks like a good bet’ is prompted by the odds rather than their conviction the book will win but even these bettors, I would suggest, have mostly reached that conclusion through a feeling about that particular book rather than a careful assessment of each book’s relative chances.

If you still think your knowledge of books is an asset not a drawback consider the following cautionary tale. In 2002 I made the mistake of actually reading one of the books, Sarah Waters’ Fingersmith, before the shortlist was announced. Now unless you’re actually one of the Booker judges, your opinion, however informed, surely can’t be of more value in assessing a book’s chances of winning than an aggregate of the opinions of several expert reviewers. But we don’t tend to think this way, we inevitably overvalue our own subjective responses and opinions, a tendency particularly counter-productive in assessing the Booker Prize where the winner is chosen according to the subjective opinions of others not some objective criteria. I certainly let my personal opinions get in the way in 2002 both as gambler and bookmaker. I both personally backed Fingersmith and made it one of the favourites when I priced the event for Blue Square, the internet bookie I worked for at the time. Fortunately I didn’t make the same mistake the next year; had I read  DBC Pierre’s Vernon God Little beforehand I fear I would priced it up at 20/1 (it remains a complete mystery to me how the judges could have thought it a better book than Oryx and Crake or Notes on a Scandal, or even Brick Lane, but this is my personal subjective opinion and thus of little consequence).The sad truth is it is the bookmakers, unencumbered by opinions, who are best able to make an objective assessment of the reviews, not the bibliophiles whose knowledge is inevitably tainted by personal taste.

The bookies certainly can be beaten – not least because they deliberately skew their prices, shortening those they expect to be backed (usually the more famous authors), lengthening those they expect to be friendless – but it is those steeped in gambling not those steeped in books that are best placed to take advantage of this.

As a gambler I have two particularly vivid Booker memories. My first serious Booker bet was on David Malouf’s Remembering Babylon in 1993 which the bookies had inexplicably (or so I thought) priced at 7/2. BBC2 were showing the award ceremony and I watched smugly as various gathered luminaries, when asked their opinion of the likely winner, overwhelmingly choose Malouf. This made the disappointment even more acute when Roddy Doyle’s name was announced. Perhaps, with the benefit of hindsight, the fact that Vikram Seth’s A Suitable Boy, which had seemed the obvious winner all summer, was not even included on the shortlist (Lord Gowrie, the chairman of the judges, apparently thought it was too long) should have tipped me off to the fact that the judges could not be relied on.

But you can’t expect 7/2 shots to win every time, they only need win one time in four for you to make a profit, and it was another 7/2 shot that provides a somewhat happier memory. In retrospect it seems more than a little surprising that the bookies saw fit to make J M Coetzee’s Disgrace 7/2 in 1999 – this is the book a 2006 poll of writers in the Observer ranked the best novel of the past 25 years, while many considered it unfortunate not to win the 2008 Best of the Booker prize (it made the shortlist). The most surprising thing for me at the time was the fact that the bookies actually seemed prepared to lay me a proper bet; I got £400 on before they cut the price, making for a very nice £1400 profit.

Later, when working for online bookmakers Blue Square I got to set the prices myself. I liked to think I knew what I was doing when it came to the Booker – I had a postgraduate degree in English after all; I’d been following, and betting on, the Booker for years – but to be honest my main memory of setting the Booker odds was the disaster that was 2002. This, you may remember, was the year Yann Martel’s Life of Pi won. You may also remember that a few days before the ceremony a press release was accidentally circulated naming Martel as the winner, quickly followed by a retraction and the claim that the judges were yet to have their final meeting. I made the mistake of believing the retraction, of being only too happy to accommodate the legions of punters wanting to back the book even after we’d drastically shortened the odds. These days, I notice, Blue Sqaure no longer offer odds.

The Booker Prize is never going to be a big money spinner for the bookies – while it will tend to be a means of redistributing wealth from the bookish to the bookies the money involved is small and for the bookies the danger of being picked off by clued-up gamblers is large – but that’s not really the point. If just a few of those who bet on the Booker start to bet more regularly on other events the PR department’s efforts will have been worthwhile regardless of the P&L on the market. So next time you find yourself shaking your head in disbelief at the Booker prices over your morning coffee and are tempted to pick up the phone and have a bet, bear in mind the bookies have been doing this a lot longer than you. But more than that bear in mind that they’re not actually that bothered if you do win, they have their eyes on the bigger picture, on the 11 months of the year when no one thinks about the Booker and you might just find yourself tempted to have a bet on the darts.

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