There are a lot of book awards these days. More, if truth be told, than are strictly necessary. And there's certainly the sense that many of these ceremonies are really only held for and by the literary set. They don't always celebrate what a typical reader might like. That's perhaps why the rather more down-to-earth Costa Book Awards - formerly known as The Whitbread Book Awards - are steadily gaining ground as one of the most interesting and prestigious celebrations of new books by British-based authors in the calendar. When the winner is announced tomorrow, the world's press will be in attendance. The victor takes away a nice cash prize, but the sticker on the front of his book, Costa Book of the Year 2009, is a ticket to unimaginable sales spikes.
Are the Costas in direct competition with the Man Booker Prize? Both certainly celebrate literary achievement, but the crucial difference is that the Costa shortlists operate within the context of a book being enjoyable for a wide audience. Past winners have included best-sellers such as Mark Haddon's The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time and Andrea Levy's Small Island. Both were hugely entertaining and moving novels. You could never call Anne Enright's 2007 Man Booker-prize winning The Gathering - impressive though it was - a crowd-pleaser.
The Costas, then, like to do things their own way. The judges, for example, aren't exclusively authors and journalists. This year the Spandau Ballet's Gary Kemp, the ex-supermodel Marie Helvin and the Men Behaving Badly actress Caroline Quentin have as much influence as the historian Robert Lacey and the deputy editor of the Literary Review, Tom Fleming. It's led to some rather sniffy comments about the Costas being too populist, grasping for publicity from the stars they involve rather than listening to people who really know their books.
It's nonsense, of course: if the Costas were that dumbed down, chick lit and Dan Brown would dominate the shortlist. "All book prizes - including the Booker - draw their judges from a wider pool these days," says the chairwoman of this year's awards, Josephine Hart. She should know: the Irish novelist has been a Booker, a Whitbread and an Irish Times judge. She goes on to list all of the Costa judges by name - and points out that eight of the panel are, in fact, published authors. What's more, four have also worked as actors, and Hart thinks that's just as important.
"Few artists are more attuned to the power of language than actors," she argues. "So I expect they will bring that particular gift to bear on the final judging process. But their presence is all part of a wider aim, I think, to make literature more accessible and important to everyone - and especially young people." Even the concept of the Costas is inclusive, celebrating as it does non-fiction as well as fiction. So instead of choosing the winner from a shortlist of appropriate novels, there are five categories: Novel, First Novel, Children's Fiction, -Poetry and Biography. A winner from each category was announced on January 5 and will now go on to the awards evening tomorrow, where an overall Costa Book of the Year is chosen. "Think of it as if the Pulitzer [which chooses its winners in fiction, drama, history, biography, poetry and general non-fiction] decided to pick a final, single winner," says Hart, excitedly. And she has every right to be -enthusiastic. Unlike, say, the Mercury Prize for music - where obscure jazz records are worthily nominated alongside Kasabian or Elbow - the winner in the Costa Children's Fiction category has as much chance as their more obvious and better publicised novel-writing competitors. Philip Pullman did just that with The Amber Spyglass in 2001. On two other occasions this century, biographies have taken away the overall prize: Hilary -Spurling's Matisse the Master in 2005 and Claire -Tomalin's Samuel Pepys: The Unequalled Self in 2002. Indeed, the list of previous winners is revealing: no one has ever achieved the Booker-Costa double. And though you wouldn't suggest that the Costas revel in being the antidote to the more established literary prize, it wasn't much of a surprise that once Hilary Mantel won the Booker late last year for Wolf Hall, she was shortlisted by the Costa panel but eventually overlooked for Novel of the Year. The winner is, instead, Colm Toibin, who, conspiracy theorists might like to note, was the controversial omission from the Booker shortlist last year. Go back a year and matters get even more murky. The overwhelming favourite for the 2008 Booker Prize, Sebastian Barry, narrowly - some even said unfairly - lost out to Aravind Adiga. Guess what? Three months later, Barry won the Costa Book of the Year. So by the rationale that the -Costas seem to do the opposite of the Booker, Toibin should win this year for his novel Brooklyn. It would be a popular choice. The story of a girl who leaves her small Irish town for 1950s America is the critically -acclaimed writer's most accessible story yet, by virtue of "having a beginning, middle and end", as he told The National last week. A novel that's as much about the notion of home as it is New York, Brooklyn is impressive because it doesn't fall into cliché, into descriptions of wide-eyed immigrants staring up at skyscrapers. The Brooklyn of his story feels pulsingly, even dirtily, real. Another contender is Raphael -Selbourne, who won the Costa First Novel category for Beauty. Much of the press since has focused on -Selbourne's previous life as a scooter salesman, which conveniently overlooks the fact that he's also been a teacher and interrupted an MA in Islamic Studies at the University of Birmingham to write his debut. And it's the latter experiences that inform his novel about a young Bangladeshi woman who runs away from her arranged marriage and home in Wolverhampton into a world of benefits, chancers and the English working class. But she finds an unlikely hero in this frequently funny story exploring the innocent outsider. Selbourne, to be honest, is also an unlikely winner. But this fine first effort deserves the publicity it's now enjoying. The other outsider for Costa Book of the Year is Patrick Ness, the winner in the Children's Fiction category for the second part of his Chaos Walking trilogy, The Ask and the -Answer. Not that it isn't a great book. In fact, Ness achieves something rare with this series: it's a story about adolescence that never once patronises or preaches. Instead it is, as he puts it, "a western with some sci-fi settings", the story of young Todd and the friendship he strikes up with a travelling companion, Viola, as they attempt to navigate a dangerous future dystopia where no women exist. All the classic thriller elements are here, just wrapped up in a young hero. But just as -Pullman had to wait until his trilogy was complete until he could take the prize, you sense that Ness will have to be patient too. And if the passage of time suggests the days that poets regularly scooped the grand prize are long gone - Seamus Heaney and Ted Hughes shared the Costa award when it was the Whitbread between them for four memorable years between 1996 and 1999 - Christopher Reid's A Scattering may change all that. The winner of this year's -Poetry category is a beautifully honest book of four poetic sequences written in tribute to his wife, who died in October 2005. In the wrong hands this could have been self-pityingly maudlin, but Reid approaches bereavement with a combination of fear and clear-eyed calm. It makes A Scattering a journey, of sorts, as he slowly marks out - and works out - his life from the first diagnosis of his wife's illness to life after she dies. It's a collection that, somehow, rises above the form. All of which leaves Graham Farmelo, the winner of the Costa Biography prize for The Strangest Man: The Hidden Life of Paul Dirac, Quantum Genius. This was something of a sleeper hit in 2009, but in a year where most pointless celebrity biographies bombed, it was great to see someone who actually deserved to be written about taken to so many people's hearts. The Nobel Prize winner Dirac has been called the greatest British physicist since Isaac Newton, a pioneer of quantum mechanics whom Einstein not only saw as a contemporary, but a peer. And yet, thanks to crippling reticence, he was also a recluse and has been almost entirely forgotten since his work in the 1930s. Farmelo brings him to life in incredible style, making The Strangest Man a good outside bet for victory on Tuesday. Of course, the Costa chairwoman Hart won't be drawn on favourites. She's not about to tell anyone which books she particularly enjoyed reading. But her favourite part of the process wasn't chairing the discussions, meeting the celebrity judges or enjoying the power that comes with choosing a winner. It was simply, as she says, "reading the books". "Yes it is an honour and a responsibility to be the chair," she adds. "But it's important to remember some humility, that time makes the final judgement. The list of great writers who were 'missed' by their contemporaries is daunting." And with such a great list this year, isn't it daunting to choose just one? "Well, when the chair remarks at an awards ceremony that everyone on the shortlist is a winner, I often feel there is a greater element of grace than accuracy in that statement. The Costa shortlist is different in that - in fact as well as sentiment - the shortlist is comprised of winners."