Baileys drops women's prize for fiction sponsorship

Drinks brand, which has supported the award since 2014, says it is refocusing marketing strategy on non-English speaking countries

The women’s prize for fiction will no longer be named the Baileys prize, after the drinks brand announced that it will end its partnership with the award after the winner of the 2017 prize is announced in June.

Previously known as the Orange prize, the award is one of the highest-profile book prizes in the world and the only major honour in the UK specifically focused on women.

Organisers of the women’s prize have said they want its next sponsor to pay for a year-long boost for women’s fiction, rather than a once-a-year celebration when the winner is declared.

Author and broadcaster Kate Mosse, who founded the prize in 1996, said it was already in conversations with potential sponsors. “This is an unparalleled opportunity for a sponsor to champion women’s voices and we are interested in the women’s prize becoming a year-round platform for women’s voices,” she said. “We feel ambitious.”

Citing initiatives such as the book bar at Waterstones and a programme of women writers at the Latitude festival, she said Baileys had enabled the prize to go some way towards realising its ambitions, but “we want to build on the digital platform for the rest of the year and promote this broader idea of a celebration of women”. Though she said any potential partner would need to have communication at the centre of its ethos, she refused to reveal the business interests of any preferred partners. “We are talking to a wide variety of businesses across all sectors,” she said.

The Diageo-owned drinks brand had initially signed up to sponsor the prize, worth £30,000 to the winner, until 2016, but had extended its involvement for an extra year. The extension, Mosse said, should enable a smooth transition to the new sponsor.

She denied that the end of the partnership reflected unease about the fit between Baileys and quality women’s literature – with some in the literary world regarding the drinks brand as downmarket. “Baileys has been and will be for the next year a very good fit with the prize in that their focus is on women’s joy and passion for bringing people together and sharing a good book,” Mosse said.

Diageo said it was ending its sponsorship in order to invest in its global and non-English speaking markets. A spokesperson for the prize said the new strategy meant that sponsorships had to work across all its markets and denied the deal was a casualty of Britain’s decision to leave Europe. The drinks giant, which also owns Guinness, Smirnoff, Johnny Walker and Tanqueray gin, will retain links to the prize through chief marketing officer Syl Saller, who is to join the board alongside other senior business figures, including lastminute.com founder Martha Lane Fox and Nicola Mendelsohn, vice president of Facebook in Europe, the Middle East and Africa.

Baileys picked up the tab for the prize in 2014 after telecommunications giant Orange pulled out. A brief interregnum between sponsors was paid for by a group of benefactors led by Cherie Blair. Mosse said the future of the prize was not under threat and hoped a new sponsor would be in place by summer. “I would love to be able to stand on the stage in June and for Baileys to hand over the baton in person,” she added.

The award was launched in 1996 in response to a perceived lack of women writers on the shortlists for other literary prizes, notably the Man Booker, which in 1991 delivered an all-male shortlist. It has since become a global launchpad for women writers including Lionel Shriver, who won in 2005 with We Need to Talk About Kevin, and Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie who took the 2007 award for Half of a Yellow Sun.

However, the success of women on rival prizes in recent years has caused some to question the validity of its continuation. Shriver has since criticised a women-only prize as “problematic”. Speaking as part of a panel discussion hosted by the Man Booker prize last year, she said: “This whole thing of treating women specially, as if they need special help and special rules, is problematic and obviously backfires.” She added that “there is this problem of suggesting that we need help, that men have to leave the room and then we’re prize-worthy.”

Contributor

Danuta Kean

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