Literary Betting: Popular Abroad, but Could It Catch on Here?


When Peruvian author Mario Vargas Llosa won the Nobel Prize for Literature on October 7, the news was widely praised. Readers around the globe hailed the novelist, critic and essayist's treatment of freedom and tyranny, while and publishers and booksellers were relieved to realize a number of his books are already available and in print with many more copies on the way.

But the most palpable signs of relief came from the headquarters of Ladbrokes, a betting agency based in Britain which started bookmaking on the Nobel Prize in 1987 and on the U.K.'s best-known literary award, the Man Booker Prize, two years later. That's because Vargas Llosa, despite being listed as a possible candidate for the prize every few years because of his worldwide popularity, was nowhere near the favorite to win in 2010. Odds on Vargas Llosa never went higher than 25-1 and as a result, according to a statement from Ladbrokes after the prize announcement, the author helped dodge a massive payout.

For a while, it appeared Ladbrokes would be faced with the exact opposite outcome, with the prize going to an emerging favorite. Betting in the run-up to the announcement centered squarely around two contenders: American Pulitzer Prize winner Cormac McCarthy and Kenyan author Ngugi wa Thiong'o. Bets on Ngugi, in fact, were at one point the largest in all the years Ladbrokes bet on the Nobel, moving him from 75-1 odds all the way up to 5-2 several days ago.

"It is difficult to rationalize the mentality or logic of bettors, but there had been a "snowball" effect here whereby some punters had a small amount of money at very big odds and as the odds began to fall, more and more people joined in," explains Williams. "It may be that we under-estimated Ngugi in the first instance, and people [thought they had] the chance to make some money!" Had Ngugi won, the effect would have been, as Williams told NPR, "a disaster."

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Ladbrokes certainly made more of a mint on the Nobel's previous two winners, Romanian-born German author Herta Müller and French writer Jean-Marie Gustave Le Clezio, neither of whom were among the favorites and off the radar of most publishing industry insiders and curious bettors. But the previous year's Booker Prize winner, Hilary Mantel, was the prohibitive favorite throughout, as was Turkish author Orhan Pamuk in the year he won the Nobel Prize, and in both instances, said Williams, "we lost a lot of money there."

Literary Betting: A Boon To News Media

The amount of money lost on a literary bet, of course, is relative. Compared to sports, bets placed on book awards are miniscule at best: about £500,000 total were bet on awards like the Man Booker Prize, the Orange Prize and the Nobel Literature Prize in 2009, and it took just £15,000 of bets placed in a short period of time on Tom McCarthy's novel C for Ladbrokes to suspend betting on this year's Booker winner, which will be announced on Tuesday, October 12. (Other U.K. betting agencies, such as William Hill, continued to take bets, though the odds on C are better than even.) But for an industry dwarfed by the money showered on other forms of entertainment like movies, television and videogames, betting adds an enjoyable bit of competition to the mix, and makes the conversation about books both more serious and less serious.

Literary betting has also proven to be a boon to the news media, especially in Britain but even in the United States, where betting agencies shy away completely from literary awards. The now-expected media coverage of these major prizes, as M.A. Orthofer, proprietor of the international literature website Complete Review, points out, is "enough for most bettors to think they can make an 'informed' decision."

The Nobel Prize, in particular, is a big story in large part because of the betting. There's no long list or short list, just the advance announcement that a winner has been selected. "Indeed, almost the only thing to go on is the betting -- and Ladbrokes (as betting leader in this field) have lucked out incredibly by having the odds shift so much in favor of the eventual winner the past few years: suddenly it seems like if you read the odds-movement correctly you
too can guess who wins the million dollar prize," Orthofer explains.

Will Betting on Literature Come to the U.S.?

So will betting on literature ever catch on in the United States? Will five-figure or even six-figure sums ever be laid down for the National Book Awards or the Pulitzer Prize's book categories? Orthofer, who comprehensively tracked the betting trends for the Nobel Literature Prize, doesn't think so. "Literary coverage -- in all forms of media -- is simply missing: even the big prizes, with set short lists, don't get the kind of coverage Man Booker, Orange and others can count on in the U.K. And the names aren't as recognizable: recall the many National Book Award shortlists that are dominated by authors few have heard of."

Williams concurs, albeit for different reasons: he points out that in the U.S. "there isn't really the access through legislation for this kind of non-casino betting" which leads to less promotion in the media. Specifically, sports betting is subject to the 2002 Federal Wire Act, which prohibits electronic transmission of information for sports betting across telecommunications lines, but the Act "'in plain language' does not prohibit Internet gambling on a game of chance." Add differing state regulations and knowing what bets are legal and where becomes a complicated affair.

Whereas in the U.K., where the laws are nowhere near as prohibitive, "there has been an appetite for "quirky" betting markets for the past couple of decades and literary awards betting falls into that category," Williams said. "UK residents are fascinated by the appeal of applying their same sports betting logic to things like literary awards, to politics, to weather." But Ladbrokes has been in the betting game long enough to remind prospective bettors, even for literary awards, of the general rule: "when a favorite wins the bookies lose and the public win cash. When an outsider wins, the opposite is true: We the bookies keep and win the cash and the public lose!"