New rules set for National Book Awards

  • Posted: Saturday, January 26, 2013 12:18 p.m.

NEW YORK — The National Book Awards are getting a rewrite.

New rules announced Tuesday include a “long list” of 10 nominees to be offered for each of the four competitive categories before being narrowed to the traditional five finalists. And the pool of judges will be expanded beyond writers to include critics, booksellers and librarians.

The changes are the most extensive since the mid-1990s for the awards, presented each fall by the National Book Foundation, as the major New York publishers attempt to broaden their appeal. The publishers have been unhappy with the selection of fiction finalists in recent years and the omission of such high-profile works as Jonathan Franzen’s “Freedom” and Marilynne Robinson’s “Gilead.”

The expansion to 10 mirrors a recent change in the Oscars, but foundation board members said they had been looking to Britain’s popular Man Booker Prize as a model.

“We just basically borrowed some of their ideas,” said foundation board vice president and Grove/Atlantic CEO Morgan Entrekin, citing the Bookers’ use of long lists and non-writers as judges. “The Bookers do a fantastic job at getting a conversation going about good books. With the long list, for instance, you get this conversation bubbling up about what made it and then about what doesn’t get on the short list.”

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.”

Lesser-known choices

“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.”

The revisions cap a year-long process during which the book foundation hired an independent consulting firm to discuss the awards with booksellers, editors, writers and others in the literary community. Some ideas were rejected, such as allowing celebrities to be judges. The board also voted not to limit the number of books a publisher could submit, a suggested solution to the complaint that the time commitment needed to read hundreds of new works had made it difficult to find judges.

“We’re asking people to read a lot of books, but some of these librarians and booksellers we hope to bring in are reading a lot of books anyway,” Entrekin said.

“Our mission is to celebrate literature and expand its audience and we chose the path most consistent with our mission,” said David Steinberger, chairman of the foundation’s board and CEO of the Perseus Books Group.

This fall’s long list will be announced Sept. 12, followed by the short list on Oct. 15 and the winners on Nov. 20.

The National Book Awards have changed several times since being founded in 1950. Winners, who have included William Faulkner, Ralph Ellison and Saul Bellow, were originally announced in advance of the ceremony. The number of categories and nominees have expanded and contracted, with 17 finalists for nonfiction in 1957 and more than 20 competitive categories in the early 1980s.

Awards for translation, “contemporary thought” and first novel have been added, then dropped.

The format had been stable in recent years: competitive awards given for fiction, nonfiction, poetry and young people’s literature, and five finalists announced for each category, picked by five-judge panels of writers that change annually. Over the past two decades, the National Book Foundation has attempted to draw more attention to the actual ceremony, bringing in such celebrities as Steve Martin and Andy Borowitz to host and moving the venue from a Marriott hotel ballroom to the more upscale Cipriani Wall Street.

Showcase for books

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.

Ironically, publishers were happy with the fiction nominees of 2012, the last group to be voted on under the old rules. The finalists included a mix of well-known writers (Louise Erdrich, Junot Diaz, Dave Eggers) and debut novelists (Ben Fountain and Kevin Powers).

For years, foundation executive director Harold Augenbraum has issued oral instructions to judges that they should not pick books based on the publisher or commercial success or the author’s reputation. In 2012, the point was reinforced in written guidelines that stated “fame or obscurity, small press or large, should have no bearing” on their decisions.

“I have no idea if that made any difference,” Augenbraum said. “In fact, one judge thought the rules meant not to overlook the smaller presses.”

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