Hilary Mantel’s Thomas Cromwell saw to it that there could be only one winner in this year’s Man Booker Prize. Yet all six finalists were presented with something that the canny Tudor statesman would himself have prized: a hand-bound copy of their novel.
For the runners-up, these unique volumes already rival the value of the checks they receive for 2,500 pounds ($3,200). Were they to part with them, the tomes would fetch much more.
Their presentation is a tradition dating back to 1991, when the U.K. prize partnered with Designer Bookbinders.
Ben Okri’s “The Famished Road” won that year, and it was bound by Angela James. When the author glimpsed it before the judges revealed their verdict, he was so impressed he told James he should have written a better book.
A plate with the word “winner” was already pasted inside. Okri hid his lack of surprise well when his name was read out.
Since then, a copy of every shortlisted novel has been bound by one of the society’s fellows. They are far from gilt-tooled editions of the kind that are sold by the yard.
In Hans Holbein’s portrait, described in “Wolf Hall” and “Bring Up the Bodies,” Cromwell poses with a bejeweled book in forest green. It’s not that different from some of the Booker bindings, whose materials -- leather, wood, and beeswax-coated linen thread -- have remained unchanged for centuries.
Yet there’s a contemporary edge to many designs that keeps them relevant in our eBook age. In recent years, they have featured feathers, shells and even a tiny bird bone.
The judges called “Bring Up the Bodies” a bloody story. Sue Doggett’s binding reflects that. Covered in shimmering vermillion fabric, its jet spine is beaded like a courtier’s doublet. The edges of its pages are mottled an ominous scarlet.
Mark Cockram has worked on five Man Booker novels. He read each as many as six times, he told me when I visited his studio.
“I’m getting my inspiration from the text in the same way a landscape artist would get from the landscape,” he says.
He spent seven years mastering his craft and can make a basic book in about 27 minutes. The longest he has ever taken is three years. It was a gift for his father, who insisted on first killing the animals whose skins would make its cover. They were rats, and the book itself was a guide to keeping them as pets.
“We used the tails for the page markers,” Cockram says.
No rodents were harmed when he bound Zoe Heller’s “Notes on a Scandal,” which he housed in a box file, or Steve Toltz’s “A Fraction of the Whole,” whose leather was hand-dyed and embellished with acrylic paint and photographic prints.
The types of bindings that the Man Booker inspires would otherwise sell for about 2,000 to 3,000 pounds, James says. If a Booker copy were to make its way onto the market, an author’s reputation and its moment of literary limelight would add value.
There aren’t enough sales to create anything resembling an index for contemporary fine bindings. Still, they do perform well at auction. One of Cockram’s made its seller a profit just two years after it was commissioned.
They’ve acquired some savvy connoisseurs, Cockram says, included a managing director in markets at Citigroup, who is taking binding lessons and asked not to be named.
Simon Eccles, an honorary fellow of the Designer Bookbinders, spent his working life as a stockbroker.
“I’m an investor,” he says. “I’ve got to buy good value for money, and I think this is the finest.”
In 2002, he attended a Designer Bookbinders exhibition and was smitten. When I met him for tea in London’s Tate Britain, he brought along one of his favorites, a book of Wilfred Owen’s letters and poems bound by Paul Delrue.
“It’s tactile,” Eccles says, “a whiff of leather. It gives you a special lift -- you don’t get that from an eBook.”
Stuart Southall, chairman of the actuarial consulting firm Punter Southall, is another bibliophile. The most expensive volume in his collection was bought for 31,500 pounds and bound by the late Frenchman Paul Bonet.
What he lusts after is something that he cannot commission: a Man Booker binding complete with its commemorative bookplate.
This year’s Man Booker bindings are on show at Waterstone’s, 203-206 Piccadilly, London, W1J 9LE through Oct.31. Information: http://themanbookerprize.com, http://www.waterstones.com and +44-843-290-8549.
Muse highlights include Jason Harper on cars, James Russell on architecture and Jeremy Gerard on New York theater.