A surprise announcement on June 10 from Costa Coffee has brought to an abrupt end the second most prestigious book award—after the Booker—in the U.K. and Ireland. Winners of the Costa Book Awards, previously the Whitbread Book Awards, have included Iris Murdoch, Kazuo Ishiguro, Seamus Heaney (twice), Andrea Levy, Philip Pullman, and Hilary Mantel. The awards have helped bring to prominence writers such as Kate Atkinson, Mark Haddon, and Helen Macdonald.
The Whitbreads began in 1971, when Geoffrey Hill's Mercian Hymns was among the first winners. Whitbread adopted the Book of the Year format in 1985, setting winners of five categories - Novel, First Novel, Biography, Poetry, Children's Book - in competition for the main prize. There was a grand dinner at Whitbread's headquarters, the Brewery in Chiswell Street. The 1986 ceremony, at which Ishiguro's An Artist of the Floating World was the winner, was among the most memorable, with snow blanketing the London streets and with several guests - among them Booker supremo Martyn Goff - succumbing to food poisoning.
Whitbread rebranded the awards as the Costa Book Awards in 2006. Costa Coffee is now part of the Coca-Cola Company. In recent years, the prize ceremony, at which the Costa Short Story Award is also presented, has been a stand-up reception at Quaglino's. Hannah Lowe, 2021 winner, took home £30,000; the category winners each won £5,000. The top end of the awards scene is more crowded than it was in the 1970s and 1980s, with the Women's Prize, the Folio, and the Baillie Gifford all seeking attention. Nevertheless, there is dismay in the trade at the loss of such a prominent advertisement for books.
Hazel Broadfoot, proprietor of Village Books (Dulwich Village) and president of the Booksellers Association, said: "I'm really sorry to see the Costa Awards go. There are so few awards that get the level of media coverage enjoyed by the Costas, and that bring recognition in so many different categories. Looking back at last year's winners it was wonderful to see the award for Open Water, a debut novel, and for The Kids. Poetry titles don't often get widespread public attention. I think they’ve been a very good thing for the book industry, and I hope some enlightened sponsor will come forward to help save them."
Quoted in the Guardian, Waterstones head of fiction Bea Carvalho said: "The Costa book awards have played a huge part in the success of some of the very best English-language books over the last 50 years and have helped to elevate the careers of some of the most exciting, important and talented writers at work today." She added that she and her colleagues looked forward to championing "the excellent previous winners including The Mermaid of Black Conch, H Is for Hawk, and Small Island for many years to come. The Costa awards’ influence in our bookshops does not end here!"
The announcement from Costa reads:
"After 50 years of celebrating some of the most enjoyable books written by hugely talented authors from across the UK and Ireland, Costa Coffee has taken the difficult decision to end the Costa Book Awards. This means that the 2021 Costa Book Awards held in February 2022 was our 50th and final awards.
Established in 1971, the Costa Book Awards (formerly the Whitbread Book Awards between 1971 and 2005) aimed to share and raise the profile of some of the best books published each year. We are incredibly proud to have played a part in supporting some of the best-selling authors of the last 50 years as well as trailblazing diverse and fresh voices, tackling a broad range of themes and ideas, across fiction, poetry and biography. And we are honored to have helped both these new and established talents reach a wider audience of readers. Watch highlights from the last 50 years here.
We would like to thank all those who have been involved and supported the Costa Book Awards over the last 50 years as we close this chapter."
A version of this story first appeared in the U.K.'s BookBrunch.