This annual literary prize (recently renamed the Man Booker Prize) has been awarded since 1969 to an English language novel written by an author who is a citizen of the United Kingdom, the Commonwealth, Ireland, Pakistan, or South Africa.

Entries are submitted by UK publishers, who can enter up to two novels per year. In addition, any author who has won, or been shortlisted for, the Booker Prize in the last decade may submit a title. Finally, publishers can submit a list of up to five further titles for the judges' consideration; the judges must call in from eight to twelve of these titles for judging. The novel must have been published that year and have been written in English; translations are ineligible, as are self-published works. The entries must be "unified and substantial", according to the rules; a book of short stories or a novella is ineligible. According to current rules, only one book can win in any year.

The panel of judges, according to the Booker website, "achieve a balance between ... gender, articulacy and role, so that the panel includes a literary critic, an academic, a literary editor, a novelist and a major figure". Unlike many other literary prizes, the Booker judges must read each book in the competition, a time-consuming task for which they receive no remuneration; in 2001 the judges perused over 120 novels. They first generate a short list of six titles - to reach the short list, a novel must have the support of at least one judge who believes it is a serious contender - and then make the final judgement of the winning novel. The winner receives a cash prize - £21,000 for the winner in 2001 - and the runners-up receive a smaller sum; in addition, their publishers must spend substantial funds promoting their books within three months of the announcement. The money devoted to promotion helps explain why, in the words of the Booker Prize website, "Booker Books Sell", but they also sell because they are really good books. I've read lots of Booker winners and shortlisted titles, and enjoyed almost every one.

The prize itself was established in 1968 by what was, at the time, Booker Brothers, a large conglomerate that had an authors' division which published such well-known names as Agatha Christie and Harold Pinter. Tom Maschler, publisher at Jonathan Cape, persuaded Booker to plough some of their profits into a literary prize, on the model of the French Prix Goncourt. Today, Booker is no longer in the publishing business, instead being "the largest cash & carry company in the UK". But the prize lives on, and has become one of the most prestigious literary awards for Commonwealth authors. Recently, the Man Group, a financial investment firm, won sponsorship of the prize, so it's known, for now, as the Man Booker Prize.

What else can I tell you? In 1992 a Russian corollary was founded, the Russian Booker Prize, to support Russian language novelists and the revival of that beleagured country's publishing industry. Salman Rushdie's magical and magnificent Midnight's Children was recently named "The Booker of Bookers". Only two authors have won the prize twice: J.M. Coetzee, and Peter Carey.

Booker Prize winners:

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