Andrew Kidd would say he’s 'in the business of discovery'. With both the recently rebooted Rathbones Folio Prize, which he co-founded, and his new book discovery app, Alexi, he is committed to bringing good books to the people. It’s not a matter of worthiness - he’s not trying to impose his taste. 'There’s nothing more boring than the idea that books are good for you,' he laughs
A prize for the writers
The Rathbones Folio Prize - or simply Folio Prize, as it was initially called - was in part inspired by a reaction to controversies surrounding the 2011 Man Booker Prize. "It seemed to be setting out priorities for what it should be," says Kidd. "There were these quotes that became slightly notorious around ‘readability’ and stories that ‘zipped along’. There’s nothing wrong with either of those qualities in books, but the Booker was traditionally a prize for excellence."
Though Kidd can see that the Booker has "sorted itself out in that respect now", at the time there was a vacant space that Kidd and co-founder Kate Harvey - a former colleague at Picador, and now at Harvill Secker - felt needed to be filled. "That was the initial catalyst, but then we began to think about how a prize might work and what it might do for authors in comparison to what other prizes had done up to that point. I was conscious, having been a publisher and an agent [he was then at Aitken Alexander] for many years, that the relationship authors had to prizes was quite arms-length. If you won or were shortlisted, it was seen as this tremendous good fortune that fell on you, but that you didn’t have much agency in the process."
Kidd and Harvey wanted to change that, so they created a system in which the judges are drawn from, and the books are nominated by, one centralised body: the Folio Academy, an international group of writers and critics. Each member nominates his or her three favourite books from that year, creating a top 60. Publishers are then allowed to write to judges to nominate books, and judges can pull in 20 more books, making a longlist of 80 books from which the shortlist is selected.
"We thought it was a more transparent and logical way of running a prize," Kidd says. "When we started approaching writers, they almost all jumped at the chance. I think they saw what we were offering them was similar to what the film world has with the Academy Awards."
Kidd was struck, sitting in the first judges' meetings in late 2013 and early 2014, by the humility and creative respect shown by the judges, as he has been again this year: the 2017 judges are Ahdaf Soueif (chair), Lucy Hughes-Hallett and Rachel Holmes. "There’s a sort of purity to the process, which doesn’t necessarily make it better or worse than judging a prize any other way, but it’s striking that it hadn’t been done that way before."
A natural balance
The initial prize fund was £40,000, since reduced to a still-handy £20,000. Another innovation, soon copied by the Booker, was to admit American authors. Now, the Folio is open to non-fiction as well as fiction. "We instructed the judges only to think about the text in front of them. Don’t think about it as a balanced list or what else the authors have done. Just try to come up with the eight best books you’ve read. It sounds obvious, but it’s important."
Nevertheless, the panel came up with a list that was impeccably balanced. "It was so balanced it was four non-fiction, four fiction. Four men and five women [one of the books is co-written]," Kidd grins. "They were slightly alarmed that it would look like a fix, but it wasn’t."
New sponsors, new collaborators
This year’s shortlist announcement was the first to be hosted by the new sponsor, Rathbones, which Kidd describes as a "positive, benign" supporter. "I think some sponsors can try to influence things, but this feels like a really collaborative venture." The initial sponsor, the Folio Society, pulled out after the first two years, prompting both a search and a rethink. With the Booker accepting US entries, Kidd and his colleagues needed to find a new point of differentiation to appeal to potential backers. The Folio board took time out for focus groups with publishers and members of the Academy, eventually concluding that the way forward was to try to become "a broader force for good in literature".
The prize set up events with collaborators such as the British Library, naming them the Folio Academy Sessions. Each is organised by five academy members, to discuss themes of their choice: fear in storytelling, for instance, or narratives outside books.
There is also a collaboration with First Story, which sends writers into schools to help children write stories about their lives. Every year, the scheme throws up a few "genuinely gifted" children, and Folio aims to offer them support through the Rathbones Folio Mentorships. From September 2017, four academy members will be paid to work one-on-one for a year on writing projects with these students.
Meanwhile, the Guardian First Book Award also shut down, and Folio decided to expand into the non-fiction niche it vacated. "There is a lack of prize recognition in non-fiction," Kidd says. "Especially for a lot of the voice-driven, creative non-fiction that doesn’t easily fall into any category. We didn’t want to discriminate against ideas, we wanted to create engagement with the world. Once we had all this in place, it felt like we had a story to tell and we could go out and find a sponsor."
Folio hired "force of nature" Minna Fry, previously with HarperCollins, who secured the Rathbones sponsorship. "They liked the story we were trying to tell and our values seemed genuinely in line with theirs. There was an affinity."
Diamonds in the dust
What has not changed is the focus of the prize on exceptional writing. "It would be great if prizes didn’t have to exist and a range of great books would just rise naturally to the top. But there is so much publishing, it is necessary for there to be good mechanisms for discovery."
Kidd himself is a bit of an expert on the topic. Finding Amazon’s algorithm filters lacking, and knowing the struggles the books pages of newspapers and bookshops themselves go through, he has founded digital book recommendation service, Alexi. The system works by well-known authors recommending their favourite books to readers. "A prize ultimately shines a light on one book - the winner - and to some extent the shortlist - so we’re trying to find a way to shine a light on a broader range of books and the backlist," he explains.
With both Alexi and the Rathbones Folio prize, Kidd is hoping to bring good books to the surface. He’s not interested in picking a "popular winner", but uncovering the best writing. "It’s about shining a light on the best book, whatever that may be. Sometimes that’s a title that already has a lot of momentum, but more often than not it isn’t, and that’s kind of the point.
"It’s in service of the public, ultimately, of people to whom books matter. There’s a difference between an elite achievement and elitism. We can get excited about the idea of excellence - by people who can do something beyond what we can do. Good books can do that."
The 2017 winner will be announced at an awards ceremony at the British Library on 24 May. The British Library will host an event featuring the shortlisted authors and judges on 23 May.