It started with a conversation on a warm summer afternoon in 2015, on the balcony of Robin Wade’s bright and spacious apartment, overlooking St Katharine Docks, London.
Underneath, water lapped at the sides of the small boats, shiny and white, moored to the wooden wharf.
Robin was looking for the next big thing and, later, at home, I stayed up late thinking of ways to make it happen.
A writing competition was one way, a straightforward one. Organising it would be a matter of merely fitting it in, a matter of adding it to the activities of an already brilliant team of editors at Daniel Goldsmith Associates, the literary consultancy I had founded some eight years previously.
Two thousand and fifteen was a time when I could stay up all night and still be alive the next day, so I did. I thought about the kind of genres we could handle within the team, the best people to judge it, the best time in the year to run it. I wrote the terms and conditions. In the morning, I emailed Robin: ‘I have an idea.’ He liked it.
First Novel Prize opened for entries for the first time on the 1st of February 2016. The response was incredible – incredible number of entries, incredible quality of writing.
Robin co-judged the Prize with Carla Josephson, then commissioning editor at Simon & Schuster UK. A year from the initial conversation, we were back on Robin’s balcony, this time three of us, discussing the shortlist (photo above of Robin, Carla and me, from left).
There are many brilliant writing competitions out there, but our model of pairing up a literary agent with a commissioning editor was, and I believe still is, unique.
It went so well, Robin generously offered to judge the 2017 edition too, this time with Darcy Nicholson, then senior commissioning editor at Transworld.
In 2018, Sam Copeland and Phoebe Morgan judged a record number of entries. We discussed the shortlist over a working breakfast at DoubleTree near the Tower of London, an exciting and stimulating start to one of the most terrifying days of my life; in the afternoon, I sat the graduation exam for a PG Diploma in UK, US and EU Copyright Law at King’s College.
Rarely do planets align as they did in 2019, when we had a commercial fiction editorial director and a literary fiction agent on the panel, in Ed Wood and Emma Paterson. The week the shortlist was announced I was away on training – an intense, exhausting week of nothing but law, designed to be deeply immersive. I remember scrolling through my emails late in the evening, searching for updates from the wonderful Angel Belsey, the Prize manager, and trying to remember what my life was about prior to that week.
In 2020, we had great fun debating the shortlist with Eve White and Chris White, the judges, and Ludo Cinelli, junior agent at Eve White Literary Agency. There was a buzz across Zoom about the undisputed first winner – the ‘showstopper’, we all agreed – but both Eve and Chris were taking turns to advocate for their own favourites for the second and third place.
If we didn’t have things like the Sistine Chapel, publishing would likely be the world’s greatest show of passion.
We might not have found the great next book for Robin, but in the first five years of the First Novel Prize, winners and shortlistees went on to get signed up by agents and get astonishing publishing deals across the world.
Emily Itami’s FAULT LINES will be the first title of Orion’s new imprint, Phoenix Books, to be published in May this year. Laure van Rensburg’s THE DOWNFALL was sold at auction in over ten territories last year. Other successes are Clarissa Goenawan’s RAINBIRDS, Vicky Bradley’s BEFORE I SAY I DO, Carolyn Kirby’s THE CONVICTION OF CORA BURNS, Neemah Shah’s KOLOLO HILL and Sharma Taylor’s BUTTERFLIES OF LAZARUS GARDENS sold to Virago only a month or so ago.
This year, Juliet Mushens and Emad Akhtar are looking forward to reading the entries in the First Novel Prize 2021. The sense of anticipation about this year’s entries has reached a certain zenith here. The next few months in which, I’m sure, some never-before-read breathtaking novels will come through, will be frantic with excitement.
Over the last five years, the First Novel Prize has grown to occupy a distinctive space in the English-language literary landscape, so we feel the time is right for a small addition. More soon.