Monday musings on Australian literature: Ashurst Business Literature Prize

Book coverMy, how dry does today’s topic sound? But read on, and see what you think. This prize was brought to my attention a couple of days ago by a tweet from author Michelle Scott Tucker announcing that her book, Elizabeth Macarthur: A life at the edge of the world (my review), had been shortlisted for the Ashhurst Business Literature Prize. Her tweet was followed up by Lisa (ANZLitLovers) posting the shortlist on her blog. I decided to save my post for Monday, as it seemed a perfect topic for musing on …

What exactly is this Ashurst prize?

Firstly, it has been going for FIFTEEN years, having been established in 2004 by Blake Dawson as the Blake Dawson Business Literature Prize, “for business and financial affairs writing”. The prize’s name was changed to the Ashurst Business Literature Prize in 2012. Ashurst Australia was previously called Blake Dawson, and is the Australian arm of an international commercial law firm. The prize has been administered by the State Library of New South Wales from the start.

The prize is currently worth $30,000, marking it as an award that means serious business! (Sorry, couldn’t resist that.)

Its aims, from the Prize’s site, are to:

  • Encourage business and finance writing and commentary of the highest quality; writing that brings with it the richness that can come from detailed research
  • Stimulate those writers with a knowledge of Australia’s business life and to encourage their continued production of insightful, well researched books that can be easily digested by the general reader
  • Enable all Australians and the general reader to be better informed about Australia’s commercial life and its participants
  • Add another dimension to Australia’s intellectual and cultural life

So the subject matter is clearly defined, as is the intended audience. The subject matter, though, has changed a little over time. Initially, it was restricted to Australian business and finance, but in 2013, this was expanded to encompass “international and global commercial life and its participants”. That explains why a book about the Lanes who started the Penguin publishing company was eligible. (See 2015’s winner.)

There’s also a wider aspiration about adding to our “intellectual and cultural life.” I like that – we need more good writing on some of the more practical topics affecting our lives.

The conditions of entry include the subject matter and the intended audience. Also:

  • the works must be in English, and can be in printed book or ebook form
  • the author/s must be Australian citizen/s or hold permanent resident status, and at least one of the authors must be alive at the time of nomination.

It doesn’t specifically say anywhere, but it seems that the works are expected to be non-fiction, so, for example, a book like Kate Jennings’ Moral hazard, which, as I wrote in my review,  “looks not just at our contemporary globalised financial world, but more widely at work, our relationship to it, and the moral choices we make in work and in life”, would not be eligible. A shame, I think, for such work not to be recognised. However, a wide variety of non-fiction genres are clearly accepted, including histories and biographies.

Past winners

The past winners, as listed on the State Library of NSW’s website:

  • 2004: Fred Benchley’s Allan Fels: A portrait of power (John Wiley & Sons Australia)
  • 2005: Darrin Grimsey and Mervyn K. Lewis’s Public private partnerships: The worldwide revolution in infrastructure provision and project finance (Edward Elgar)
  • 2006: Gideon Haigh’s Asbestos house (Scribe)
  • 2007: Caroline Overington‘s Kickback: Inside the Australian Wheat Board scandal (Allen & Unwin)
  • 2008: Leonie Wood‘s Funny business: The rise and fall of Steve Vizard (Allen & Unwin)
  • 2009: Peter Thompson and Robert Macklin‘s The big fella (Random House)
  • 2010: Paul Barry’s Who wants to be a billionaire? The James Packer story (Allen & Unwin)
  • 2011: Trevor Sykes‘ Six months of panic: How the Global Financial Crisis hit Australia (Allen & Unwin)
  • 2012: Peter Hartcher’s The sweet spot: How Australia made its own luck – and could now throw it all away (Black Inc)
  • 2013: Malcolm Knox‘s Boom: The underground history of Australia, from Gold Rush to GFC (Penguin Random House Australia)
  • 2014: Andrew Burrell‘s Twiggy: The high stakes life of Andrew Forrest (Black Inc)
  • 2015: Stuart Kells’ Penguin and the Lane Brothers: The untold story of a publishing revolution (Penguin Books Australia) (Lisa’s ANZLitLovers review)
  • 2016: Catherine Bishop’s Minding Her own business: Colonial businesswomen in Sydney
  • 2017: Michael Traill’s Jumping Ship: From the world of corporate Australia to the heart of social investment (Hardie Grant Publishing)

Has anyone read any of these? Several of the authors are known to me – including journalists Paul Barry, Gideon Haigh, and Caroline Overington – and I have heard of a couple of the books, but no, I’ve not read a one!

Shortlist for the 2018 prize

  • Ian D. Gow and Stuart Kells’s The big four: The curious and perilous future of the global accounting monopoly (La Trobe University Press)
  • Damon Kitney’s The price of fortune (HarperCollins)
  • Eleanor Robin’s Swanston: Merchant Statesman (Australian Scholarly Publishing)
  • Michelle Scott Tucker’s Elizabeth Macarthur: A life at the edge of the world (Text Publishing)
  • Brian Sherman and AM Jonson’s The lives of Brian (Melbourne University Publishing)

The judging panel is quite different to the usual composition: Richard Fisher AM (General Counsel and Adjunct Professor of Law at the University of Sydney); Narelle Hooper (business journalist, editor and author); Margie Seale (Non‐Executive Director of Telstra Corporation, Westpac Banking Corporation, Scentre Group and Australia Pacific Holdings).

The panel’s chair, Richard Fisher, described the 2018 shortlist:

… Four are biographies; two are concerned with pioneering business people, Elizabeth Macarthur and Charles Swanston whilst the others focus on James Packer and Brian Sherman. The fifth traces the evolution of accounting practice, and particularly The Big Four, from Medici to the modern day.

The winner will be announced on 15 May.

Any thoughts? Would you be inspired to read these sorts of books?

20 thoughts on “Monday musings on Australian literature: Ashurst Business Literature Prize

  1. Pingback: Monday musings on Australian literature: Ashurst Business Literature Prize | Phil Slattery, Author

  2. As I mentioned before. I think that this prize is neat. I can be a bit nerdy and I can find something interesting in many things. I wait with anticipation as to which book will be this year’s winner.

  3. Hi Sue, another award I knew nothing about. Good to see for the ‘nerds’, though I would be tempted to read the biographies, rather than commerce books. I don’t see many reviews on this genre, maybe only in the Financial Review..

    • Yes, good question Angharad. I don’t think I’ve seen that mentioned.

      I agree that it sounds businessy, but I think quite a few might have quite a social history approach, and I think the biographies could be good unless they get into business details.

  4. Like you, I was unaware of this prize. I have ‘Minding Her Own Business’ and attended a history lecture in Blackheath to hear Dr Bishop speak about her research and writing of this book back in 2016. It provides interesting insights into colonial women of business, often overlooked in early Australian histories. It will be interesting to see who wins this year – I’ve only come across Michelle Scott Tucker’s book courtesy of a review by Lisa Hill. It was refreshing to learn more about the Macarthur legacy as Elizabeth was also often overlooked with the focus drawn to John Macarthur …

  5. I’ve read four or five the the prizewinners since the prize began and others that were shortlisted and I’ve a copy of the book on Elizabeth Macarthur on my pile. I think the comments posted above sound rather narrow-minded. Non-literary non-fiction doesn’t get much attention in Australia. This prize deserved more attention and more thoughtful treatment.

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