Book Business EXTRA! Q&A--National Book Awards’ Executive Director Chats about the Impact of One of the Industry’s Top Honors.
The National Book Awards, an annual celebration of American literature, now entering its 57th year, were presented during a ceremony at New York’s Marriott Marquis Hotel on Nov. 15.
Harold Augenbraum, the executive director of the National Book Foundation, which organizes the awards, talks with Book Business EXTRA! about the impact the awards have had on the book industry since they were first given in 1950.
Book Business EXTRA!--How has the National Book Foundation maintained the prestige of its awards for more than half a century?
Augenbraum--Prestige comes from a variety of sources. Part of the prestige comes from the integrity of the Awards. One reason is that over many years, the National Book Awards have always tried to maintain a standard of excellence. Another is that the publishing industry has been very supportive. A third is that the National Book Awards constantly seeks to improve its awards process as times change. A fourth is that the periodic controversy brings attention to the selection and the process of selection. The scholar James English has written that the prestige of any cultural award is in direct proportion to the controversy it engenders. I’m not sure he makes a full case for that, but controversy among already well-known awards can bring notoriety, and that can help with the award’s prestige.
EXTRA!--Why do you believe acknowledging great work is beneficial for the book industry overall?
Augenbraum--A tough question. I think that any industry needs a standard to show that quality work is being done by those who produce its products, in this case, the writers. I think people will lose interest in an entire industry unless they believe that quality work is being done. Great work creates ideals and goals and the idealism of form. Can you imagine an entire book industry with a focus only on the production and dissemination of junk? What industry could exist without a measure of idealism?
EXTRA!--What pluses exist for a publisher whose author’s work is nominated for a National Book Award?
Augenbraum--Probably the most important is the prestige of having published work of great quality that has been recognized by the top writers in the field, but then there are the sales, current and future, which, particularly among the fiction finalists and winners, tend to rise exponentially.
EXTRA!--How have past recipients leveraged their nominations or awards to attain greater attention for their work and for books in general?
Augenbraum--Virtually every publisher will tell you that a writer’s backlist sales are much greater after being a finalist or winner of the National Book Award. The writers themselves will tell you that publishers put them in a different category after they have been National Book Awards Finalists. One poet told me that, after he was selected as a National Book Award Finalist, he was immediately offered a two-book contract, for poetry!
EXTRA!--How do you see the transition to digital-based works altering the way titles are eventually selected?
Augenbraum--Another complex question. Since selection of the National Book Awards is based on content and not on delivery method, it shouldn’t make a difference. However, I think it will open the selection process to varied forms of narrative structure, especially as the judges become more familiar with the uses of technology. Digital works will also change the way we look at narrative in general. We, as literary consumers, already read differently from the way we did in the past. Literary people read graphic novels, novels with embedded graphics, typographically pliant novels, novels that reflect our reading habits as consumers of Web site material. As we continue to read digital work in other genres (like newspapers--what do you call a “newspaper” on the Web, since there is no paper?), it will change our expectations of narrative structure.
Visit www.nationalbook.org for a full list of nominees and more information about the National Book Awards.