January 17, 2013

Mediocrity is not the solution: on the new National Book Awards


Nickname henceforth: the Franzies.

This week the National Book Awards announced a few big changes to how the literary prize will be judged and announced, including a ten book longlist in each category and a broadening of the judging panel.

The changes were instituted in response to criticisms that the prize had become less culturally relevant, and, more pointedly, that it was proving too small a boon to book sales.

The Times Media Decoder blog quoted Morgan Entrekin on the subject.

“When a book is shortlisted for the Man Booker prize, it sells another 50,000 copies,” Morgan Entrekin, president of Grove/Atlantic Press and vice chairman of the National Book Foundation’s board, told The New York Times last November. “It can transform the fate of a book.”

“The winner of National Book Awards succeeds,” he added. “But I would like to see it have that kind of effect on the shortlist as well.”

Others seemed to prefer a less mercantile spin on the changes. From PW:

“Our mission is to increase the impact of great writing on American culture and these changes are concrete steps to further that mission,” said David Steinberger, chairman of The National Book Foundation Board of Directors and CEO of Perseus Books Group.

Perhaps the most salient reaction to the changes is from Hillel Italie for the AP:

Like the Academy Awards or the Grammys, the National Book Awards ceremony is an industry’s showcase for itself, a balance between rewarding excellence and increasing sales that ideally achieves both. Major publishers are directly invested. They’re represented on the board of the National Book Foundation and pay thousands of dollars for tables at the ceremony.

Entrekin and others are frank about wanting the prize to more closely reflect bestseller lists in this country. They are not ruling out small presses, but they are clearly working to keep the focus on those books that have been most broadly acclaimed in their year, and that means, for all practical purposes, books from the Big Six-soon-to-be-Four. Again, from the AP:

Entrekin said that some of the recent National Book Award fiction lists, which usually get the most attention, had been “very eccentric” and that allowing critics and booksellers as judges could open up the process. The results, he thinks, will be a “little more mainstream,” and less likely to include “a collection of stories by a university press.”

“I think there are plenty of awards that recognize those kinds of books,” Entrekin said. “If one of those books is truly the best book of the year, that’s no problem. But it seemed like the judges had been recognizing lesser-known authors for the sake of choosing lesser-known authors.”

Entrekin also spoke about wanting to mirror the way the Booker prize has had success in driving sales of the books chosen.

Speaking as a bookseller, this idea is certainly smart if book sales are the only goal. Releasing a longlist about a month or so before the winners are announced gives retailers time to build dedicated displays. They’re most likely to build (or rather, might have the most sales from) displays that feature fiction, non-fiction and biography nominees. A list ten books long gives booksellers an opportunity to stock the display with books they themselves would like to see on there, and, all too likely, a display dominated by books available from large distributors.

But in many respects the Booker is not the best indicator of the sorts of sales jump the NBAs should expect. If they revise the standards of judging to favor the Franzens out there, for instance, how much room is there for improved sales on books like his? Whereas a book like Jesmyn Ward’s Salvage the Bones — excellent and under-read — truly benefited from its win. The reason the Booker results in such remarkable sales hikes here in the states is that by and large — and this is even true for books like Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall series — Booker announcements and displays are the first time U.S. audiences are being made aware of these books.

If the NBA wants to continue to prove its relevance (you’ll notice I’ve not even mentioned something so gauche as integrity, or interest), they’ll keep their sights aimed where they’ve been; on overlooked books from presses large and small.



Dustin Kurtz is former marketing manager of Melville House.