How prize that used to be Orange was saved – and rebranded

Now the Women's Prize for Fiction has been launched, Kate Mosse tells how an award so important to writers and the industry was saved

Orange, a word that has no rhyme, has become the literary prize that defies gravity. Strictly speaking, it should no longer exist. Orange switched off its sponsorship in May.

With no Plan B in sight, the board running the prize, including Martha Lane Fox, the UK digital champion, made predictably defiant noises about keeping calm and carrying on, but this is a tough commercial climate. Was the game up for the English-speaking world's premier prize for women's writing? Last week we got the answer.

After a four-month hiatus, and a media blackout during the long, wet summer, the literary award formerly known, from 1996 to 2012, as the Orange prize announced the restoration of its original title, the Women's Prize for Fiction (WPF). It would be funded by a group of private benefactors led by Cherie Blair and bestselling writers Joanna Trollope and Elizabeth Buchan.

The mood of this relaunch has been upbeat. "I wasn't approached by anyone. I offered," Trollope told the Observer. "I suddenly realised this was necessary. Women writers need all the help they can get," she adds. "This is simply the best administered, most positive global prize that's also generous in spirit and ambition. Of course I was supportive."

British booksellers and publishers joined the chorus of approval for the women who had saved Orange. Tim Hely Hutchinson, CEO of Hachette UK, said: "It inspires, encourages and rewards writers all over the world. The prize is a key event in global publishing."

This international dimension, meshing perfectly with the digital revolution, is central to the success of this prize. It attracts coverage in China, South Korea, Russia and the emirates. Women for whom English is not their mother tongue have become inspired to write fiction in English, simply to be eligible for the prize, which attracts about 150 submissions of published fiction each year. In 2010 the Bookseller calculated that, of the five top-selling prize novels, four were Orange titles. Industry estimates suggest that Orange has promoted the sale of several million copies, as well as transforming the lives of its shortlisted writers.

Kamila Shamsie, shortlisted for her fifth novel, Burnt Shadows, says: "The shortlisting played a monumental role. A few months after, I was at the Canadian embassy applying for a visa. I'd taken a copy of the novel – I thought I might need to prove my credentials. The visa official took the novel, read the cover and said: 'You've been shortlisted for the Orange prize?' Yes, I said. 'You must be really good, then. I'll buy your book.' I've never had a more friendly and painless experience in a visa office – and when I went back to collect my passport there was the visa official with a copy of Burnt Shadows, asking me to sign it."

Last week's launch of the WPF was just the latest twist in the tale of a prize accustomed to challenging conventional wisdom, winning unlikely supporters and overcoming the monster of apathy. Starting in 1992, it began as a revolt against macho male fiction, represented by a boys' own Booker prize shortlist the previous autumn. After Ben Okri was awarded the Booker, several senior publishers, including former Virago editor Liz Calder, addressed the problem of a literary prize that appeared to exclude women. Booker was not merely out of touch, it was at odds with the British reading public's tastes. It was generally accepted in the trade that women readers were the main market for most fiction. Why was Booker so obtuse about this ?

In 1992 some 40 editors and literary agents met in the flat of the agent Anne McDermid to debate what to do. Among the contributors to the unanimous decision to launch a women's prize was a young, would-be writer about to quit her Random House job to write her first novel. "Basically," says Kate Mosse, now chairwoman of the WPF, "no one has ever owned up to the idea of the prize. It was a collective decision. I got landed with organising it because I had the time."

Once Orange had signed on as sponsor, the prize went from strength to strength. Mosse is pragmatic about their decision to pull the plug in May. "It's been a 17-year partnership. That's unprecedented." Why quit? "Orange was reviewing its strategy," she says, "and wanted to focus on film. Orange Wednesdays had been a huge success. The split was amicable. We wanted to expand the prize globally on digital platforms."

In May, there was a crisis. Orange had pulled out in such a way that it was impossible to have a Plan B in place. Mosse took to the airwaves. The Today programme was, she says, "the quickest and easiest way to reach all the people who might be interested to get involved". By the time she left the studio, she and her colleagues were being bombarded with offers. "But then," she says, "we ran into the summer. No one is around in August."

Faced with the realisation that no new patron could be put in place before 2014, Mosse and her board made the decision to go it alone. "This will be a transitional year," she says. Lane Fox agrees: "Proper sponsorship needs a long lead time."

The women set about raising money for the 2013 prize from private donors. Industry sources say the prize had cost about £300,000. "But we were confident we would succeed," says Lane Fox. "The prize offers such a fabulous combination of accessibility, aesthetic rigour and talent." The donors gave what Mosse tactfully describes as "different amounts", but the basic proposition worked: 2013 can go ahead, on the old model, while the search for a sponsor continues.

The making of the WPF is an impressive example of female empowerment mixed with chutzpah, charm, good luck and occasional guile. There remains the announcement of the heir to the Orange sponsorship. Four or five corporate suitors are in conversation with Mosse and her friends, who are coy about the state of play. "It's unlikely to be an arms manufacturer or a cigarette company," says Mosse. "The orange label of Veuve Clicquot would suit our brand." A champagne sponsor for women's writing? "I wouldn't say no," laughs Mosse.


Robert McCrum

The GuardianTramp

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