The National Book Foundation Responds

Dear Readers:

I don’t want this response from Harold Augenbraum of the National Book Foundation – sponsor of the National Book Award ceremony I wrote about Monday – to get lost in the comments page so I’ve brought it up front here.

It’s a stirring defense of an evening I will always regard, I’m afraid, with “unrelentingly negative” thoughts, as he puts it, but there is information here we should all celebrate regarding the hard work the NBA has done (and that I didn’t mention in my column) to get these awards noticed outside New York. At the same time – well, my reply follows his letter below.

Dear Pat,

Your column is interesting, but missing many facts:

If you check YouTube, you will find all the 2007 National Book Awards acceptance speeches on line. If you check YouTube in the coming weeks, you will find all the 2008 acceptance speeches on line.

As for webstreaming, after careful consideration and research, we at the National Book Foundation have concluded that no one watches them. Instead, we will upload the National Book Awards speeches to the National Book Foundation web site and send notices to the National Book Foundation email list (currently about 10,000) to let subscribers know on a regular basis what is now up. You will note that the National Book Awards Finalist Announcement video, filmed in Chicago in October, is on the Foundation’s web site. You may also want to consult with your local independent bookstores and libraries. In October, after extensive phone calling to each and every independent bookstore in America listed with the American Booksellers Association and in response to selected polling of bookstore owners and booksellers, the National Book Foundation sent posters to 1,000 independent bookstores, along with 100 bookmarks each about the National Book Awards Finalists. We also sent 100 bookmarks each to 2,100 libraries-also after calling every one of them to find out the best person at each library to receive them. This month we will send an additional 300,000 bookmarks (the medium both librarians and booksellers requested: they do not have room for posters, according to them) focusing on the National Book Awards Young People’s Winner and Finalists. In January, the Foundation will send 300,000 bookmarks-again to libraries and independent booksellers-focused on the Foundation’s 5 Under 35 selections of younger fiction writers. As for sending the authors around the country to promote reading, unfortunately, after doing this for several years, we found that the numbers reached were too small to be meaningful for the costs incurred, so that other means, from very low-tech bookmarks to higher tech eNewsletters, webcasting (not webstreaming, which reaches very few people), and podcasts are more effective. You will also note that on the National Book Foundation’s web site are exclusive interviews with each of the Finalists, which can be downloaded and printed out and read at your leisure or to accompany bookstore or library displays, along with the posters and bookmarks. When we asked booksellers and librarians if they wanted DVDs, there was a resounding no: they don’t have DVD players in their stores in most cases, won’t install them just for the National Book Awards, and don’t have table space. If they did, wouldn’t they have running loops of the new-fangled author videos all the publishers are making?

You will also note that only 3 of the 20 judges this year live in New York City, and that last year 7 out of 20 Finalists lived in the three states on the west coast (see David Ulin’s column and blogs about the National Book Awards in the past two years in the LA Times), and that this year’s lifetime achievement Medal was given to Berkeley resident Maxine Hong Kingston, last year Sacramento native (but New York resident) Joan Didion, and the year before California resident Adrienne Rich. You may also want to note that five of this year’s Finalists were published by independent publishers, who attended the ceremony in force subsidized by the mainstream publishing houses. And Horace Engdahl did not say that the American publishing community was insular, he said American writing was insular: there is a big difference, and the defensiveness came not from a defense of the publishing community but from a defense of the variety of American writing.

Yes, we changed some things at the National Book Awards to try to make them more fun and “glitzy”. That resulted in more press than ever. Will it sell more books? I don’t know. But I do know that trying new things and evaluating them to see their good points and bad points and then either continuing or rejecting those changes depending on their effectiveness is not a bad thing.

You may also want to note that the money raised at the National Book Awards dinner, funded mainly by the large New York presses, has paid for all of the above, that writers are invited to the event free or at cost (if they can afford it), and that nonprofit presses also get a special rate, which is also subsidized by the mainstream houses. You might also like to know that moving the National Book Awards from the “modest hotel” you mention to a “posh” downtown location cost exactly the same as the hotel in midtown. And that Socialista is not exactly a “hotsy-totsy in-spot” and that the after-party was underwritten by two independent presses who do believe that a night of fun to celebrate the selections of some of the best writers in the United States is a good thing.

Last year’s National Book Awards Winner in Young People’s Literature, Sherman Alexie’s “The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian”, has sold 250,000 copies, according to its publisher, not bad for a hardcover teen book. Could National Book Award Winners and Finalists sell more? Of course, which is why we’re trying new methods to see how to spread the word more widely. Some will work, some won’t. But to criticize the National Book Awards and the publishing community for one night of fun in which 13 wonderful authors get to dress up and celebrate their craft in front of the business people of their industry-not their sales, their craft-is something I consider one of the better parts of the business. If you want to criticize it, go ahead, but at least temper your comments with some of the good aspects of what goes on that evening and get all your information straight. How unrelentingly negative can you be.


Harold Augenbraum
Executive Director
National Book Foundation, presenter of the National Book Awards

Holt replies:

Dear Harold,

I’m glad we agree that trying new ways to get word out about the National Book Awards, and making adjustments when the new ideas fail, is “a good thing.”

Let’s start with the difference in perception between the “modest” hotel and the “posh” hotel.

Here is the modest hotel, the New York Marriott Marquis, where the National Book Awards were held in 2007 (I’m assuming you used this ballroom):

And here is the posh hotel, Cipriani Wall Street, where the 2008 awards were held:

So it’s not the money you spent that makes the difference. It’s the decision to change the look of the NBAs from modest to posh so the event would be mentioned by the press as a glamorous shindig on the New York publishing scene. That was the goal, and apparently you’re still happy with its impact on the rest of the country. I needn’t remind you that many of the librarians and independent booksellerss you’ve been calling to get those NBA posters displayed are going broke in these perilous economic times and might feel, you know, unimpressed and maybe a little rankled by the choice of venue and the message it sends.

About those librarians and independent booksellers: I must say a wave of nostalgia* came over me when I thought of your dedicated NBA staff members making what must have been thousands of phone calls and sending thousands of packages to get NBA posters and bookmarks into libraries and bookstores all over the country. Just because I never saw the poster doesn’t mean it didn’t exist, and when it comes to the exhaustive effort it takes to get anything literary on anybody’s walls, kudos to the National Book Foundation.

Still, if last year’s poster is any indication, the problem is worse than I thought. Yes, the 2007 poster is on the National Book Foundation’s website and is downloadable for bookstores and libraries, all right, but frankly it’s so drab I wouldn’t put it up in my garage. It’s an all-type list of titles and authors (nary a photo) with floating illustrations of – well, hard to tell: either parts of tables or the letter M – that doesn’t garner much excitement.

The website does show us color photos of the book jackets (from 2005 on), but they’re not in the poster – in fact there aren’t any NBA posters that I could see until last year’s. So I think you have your work cut out for you, Harold. That dull, institutional look needs routing out, and I’m hoping that when the 2008 poster goes up, the NBA will think of the reader and liven it up a bit: Add a few lines describing each book, for example. Put the all-color jackets in the poster. Maybe provide thumbnail photos of the authors, or mini-photos from the awards showing authors and presenters doing something engaging and human. Why do a poster unless it catches and then holds the eye with things to discover? You could scatter small blocks of type with excerpts from the books, from author remarks or from book reviews. Otherwise, a list is a list is a list; it may be a poster, but the eye is just going to skip it.

Even the author interviews on the NBA website, which should be informative and fun to watch, are disappointingly provided in audio only (the screen goes black), so we miss much of the intimacy, the unexpected facial expressions, the spontaneity and tension that comes from a face-to-face conversation in front of a live audience. The audio is just a blah experience.

And yes, I did see the video announcing the 2008 NBA nominations on the NBF website but I didn’t mention because frankly it’s so unrelentingly off the mark and stuffy I can’t imagine anybody watching it for more than 30 seconds. For one thing the nominations were presented at the Steppenwolf Theater in Chicago, which is famous for adapting literary works to the stage. That’s terrific, but we aren’t watching the video to hear the artistic director at Steppenwolf tell us about past productions. Save that for another video, which with time to explore the literary-stage relationship and the National Book Foundation as a bridge linking the two could be really sensational. Nor are we watching the video to wait while the artistic director introduces you, Harold, and wait again for you to spend more time talking about Steppenwolf, the NBF, Nelson Algren (a local reference but again do the Chicago angle in a different video), the upcoming NBA dinner, and then wait again for you to list the many books written by upcoming presenter Scott Turow, who finally, after five long minutes, reads the nominations. All this happens on a screen that is surrounded on the webpage (when I saw it) by the very list of nominations Turow is announcing, so the video feels irrelevant, lacking all the drama and weight that should come with this kind of announcement.

Simlarly the YouTube acceptance speeches (in 2007here’s Robert Haas) are preceded with interminable introductions by moderator Fran Leibowitz who I’m afraid stumbles through introductions she hasn’t rehearsed enough and tries to make on-the-spot jokes that are often pretty lame. Ditto some of the presenters who had trouble reading their own notes (others were polished and interesting). Finally after a suspenseful moment – when the winner is announced and we see members of the audience whooping it up – few authors offer the kind of memorable thoughts that would strike a nerve about books and reading with viewers at home. (Robert Haas’ mention of Emily Dickinson did, as did Sherman Alexie on growing up as a reader).

One presenter refers to the “wildly diverse (and) passionate” judges for this year’s NBA, and boy, does the viewer wish we could have some of that. Passion about books and reading should be the underlying message of awards, websites, posters and bookmarks, don’t you think? I mean it’s the job of all of us in publishing to somehow convey the essence of these books to readers, to uncover the authors’ excitement about writing and to relate our own exuberance in a way that infects readers’ consciousness big time.

So I wasn’t talking about covering the bases with not very interesting posters and videos. I was talking about breathing new life into a respected literary awards program that could and should inspire, making the originality and wonder of good writing so appealing that every challenge the comes in the reading of serious literature is worth the reader’s effort.

As to the comments of Horace Engdahl from the Nobel Prize, let’s get back to the exact quote: “The U.S. is too isolated, too insular,” he said. “They don’t translate enough and don’t really participate in the big dialogue of literature. That ignorance is restraining.”

It seems clear to me that “they don’t translate enough” means that U.S. publishers don’t publish enough translations. Surely he does not mean that individual authors should sit down and translate books from many different countries on their own. If Americans could only read more works in translation – and come on, U.S. publishers, you gotta put ’em out in number – then writers wouldn’t be “too sensitive to trends in their own mass culture.”

So when Engdahl says “the U.S. is too isolated, too insular,” it’s the whole publishing community, obviously including writers, that he’s criticizing. American houses actively avoid publishing works in translation (as mainstream houses told the New York Times), so of course American writers are going to suffer. The question is, who is responsible.

But Horace, tell me this: When you look at the fact that little more than 2% of books published in the United States are works in translation, don’t you agree the output is “a national crisis,” as a National Endowment for the Arts director said? Don’t you think we should pay attention to the reasons our publishers are actively turning away from these books and the pressures (they also told the New York Times) that their corporate owners have brought upon them to publish more commercial, easy-to-read Amurrican books instead?

And remember, Harold, I have no beef about the judges or the selections of nominees and winners, or their locations. The humorous incident regarding a publisher at an NBA dinner who exclaimed how happy he was about so many winners from the West, meaning the West Side of Manhattan, was a comment on the way a deep bias (i.e., mainstream publishers in New York not considering life West of the Hudson) can seep into the vernacular of an insular community.

I have, it turns out, written before about the money. Back in 2003 I received an invitation to the NBAs and speculated before looking at the RSVP card how much an individual ticket would cost. I know you know a common gripe among publishers is that they’re kind of roped into buying tickets for a whole table or two or six at the NBAs, but this is one of the perks of bigness, yes? If you’ve got to be owned by a corporation, at least Dad can give you a night out once a year, and be sure to take that nice nominated author with you. But you know, Harold, for an individual person coming from, say, California, the ticket price might be – well, at the time I thought, shoot, $100? Then I read about your fine education-outreach programs at the NBA which must be costly for sure, so I thought maybe $200, and, considering your other programs, $300. Well, you can see where this is going. I got up to $500 per head before looking at the RSVP card and, surprise, surprise. Even then a single ticket cost for this one event cost a thousand bucks, not counting airfare and hotel (granted, not a problem if you live in NY and isn’t that telling?) plus meals and cabs and aspirin.

You can read about this in an archived column because even then I wondered about the insularity of the New York publishing community. So let me ask you, Harold: Have you ever considered holding the National Book Awards in, say, Seattle or Denver or Oxford, Miss.? These are great book towns as you know with plenty of terrific media including national bureaus and correspondents with NPR and AP and USA Today and even the venerable New York Times, plus book bloggers galore, and boy! Talk about the reception you’d receive, not only from the very independent booksellers and librarians you’ve been courting but also from writers who are, after all, the bread and butter sources for all of us.

Oh, but wait. It is the money that’s holding you back, isn’t that right? If the NBA dinner moved out of New York, a lot of mainstream publishers wouldn’t buy those tables, and as you mentioned in your letter, “the large New York presses” are so instrumental to much of National Book Foundation funding. Well, since that’s the case, if I were you, I wouldn’t go beyond the pale either. It just makes it all the more important captivate (not just reach) a national audience with the finest moments of the National Book Awards.

Finally, you mention that Adrienne Rich was a recipient of the prestigious NBA lifetime achievement award. But do you remember that she refused a personal invitation by your predecessor, Neil Baldwin, to contribute to an anthology the NBA wanted to compile as a fundraiser with Borders as its partner?

This took place in 2000, when chain bookstores were driving independent bookstores out of business in the most visible and predatory way. Rich was furious. She wrote to Baldwin about her fears of “a particularly intricate and disingenuous connection between Borders’ harassment of the independent bookselling community and its self-promotion via the National Book Foundation.

“To put it bluntly,” she added, “the National Book Foundation is presently providing credibility and respectability to a corporate enemy of independent bookselling.”

Well, you may think she got a little too hot under the collar, Harold, but of course, I agreed with her and put much of her letter in my column. A non-profit institution like the National Book Foundation simply can’t take sides in an issue like this: The chains-vs-independents controversy had been the subject of several huge lawsuits; it had torn up the membership of bookstore associations national and local; it had caused many authors to cut their book tours and it convinced readers who understood what was at stake to never set foot inside a chain bookstore again.

So I think Rich wasn’t asking too much of the National Book Foundation to listen to the reasons she would not contribute to any book, even if it helped the NBF, that would be promoted and distributed by Borders.

As Rich said, “I should not need to detail to you, of all people, the vital importance of both independent presses and independent bookstores to any genuine freedom of diversity of expression, in a country where media are being swallowed by media, and fewer and fewer ideas are made available by the resulting conglomerates.”

Apparently there were a couple of letters exchanged, and they go even deeper into the issue. But the lesson here, it seems to me, is that Rich is talking about the same blinders, Harold! She’s saying to Neil Baldwin, a representative of the mainstream publishing community in New York, you don’t get it. You aren’t seeing what’s happening to the rest of the country. One look West at the devastation that is reducing the number of independent bookstores by half would have told him, whether he agreed with taking sides or not: Don’t use Borders. It’s a slap in the face to the independent bookstores that sell a lot more copies of serious literary works – the kind the National Book Awards are built upon – than any of the chains.

Now Harold, tell me if I’m wrong about the outcome. The anthology was published by Random House’s Modern Library as “The Book That Changed My Life” in 2002, and I can’t find any indication that Borders survived as a partner or principal in the venture. If it didn’t – if your predecessor finally listened to Rich’s remarks that using Borders would be a blotch on the NBF name – I’d love to know.

Meanwhile, I sense that you are listening to the world, Harold, and I admit that it’s easy for people like me to sit out here 3000 miles away and criticize things I don’t like. So if you move the National Book Awards back to the New York Marriott Marquis next year, let me know. Who knows, if you let me in I might be able to afford the ticket.

With respect and gratitude,


*I mention nostalgia because I remembered the first time my advertising colleague Bill Chleboun and I found a way to publish a special Christmas Books insert – half editorial, half advertsing – at the San Francisco Chronicle. We printed it out-of-house to keep the costs down and used slick stock to make the color photos really pop, as they say. The best part was an early print run so we could get multiple batches to independent booksellers in plenty of time so they could use the insert as a sales tool on the front counter.

Like you, Harold, Bill was aware of booksellers’ busy schedules, especially during the holiday season, so he telephoned over a hundred booksellers in the Bay Area to see if they wanted the insert and how many they could use. The response was terrific, and everybody wanted it right away. So on the morning the special Xmas insert was delivered to the Chronicle, Bill and I, along with my editorial colleagues Alix Madrigal and Bob Thompson, were waiting at the loading dock. Most of the inserts would be mailed from the printer, but since this was our first venture, we decided to count out and tie up bundles ourselves, throw them into the back of Bill’s pickup truck and deliver them personally to the San Francisco stores that very morning.

I’ll tellya Harold, I remember looking up at the skyscrapers in the financial district as Bill sped us toward the first bookstore and saying to Alix and Bob, “this is going to be great.” I imagined the excitement of carrying in our first special Xmas insert and exclaiming “Here it is!” to the store’s welcoming staff. (Bill had faxed titles of the books featured in the insert so that booksellers could order enough inventory to fill what we were sure would be a serious demand.)

So the truck pulled up to the first store and out we jumped, each of us carrying a couple of bundles as we trooped through the front door (not the delivery entrance in the back). “Here it is!” I called out to the assistant manager, and the last thing I remember in my euphoria was seeing every head at the counter turn toward us, a look of surprise – or was it dismay – crossing the faces of sales people and customers alike. They all realized an interruption in holiday business had just begun – not exactly a happy surprise. “What is that?” the assistant manager said, and even as I started to explained, she began shaking her head. “I’ve never heard of your special Xmas insert, and you can’t put it here,” she said, gesturing to all the impulse items next to the cash register. “And you can’t put them there” (under the counter with the Xmas wrap and supplies).

Well, you know how these things go, Harold. The manager whom Bill had talked to was not in the store, there were no cell phones at the time, customers had begun lining up behind us, so what could we do. Before he knew it, Bill, still parked in the bus stop outside, saw Alix, Bob and I carrying the same bundles out of the store that we had just carried in. It didn’t take long to figure out we weren’t going on to the next store. “Wait here,” Bill said as he tossed us the keys, and thank heaven he found a buyer who had been told about the special Xmas insert and who came out to the sales floor to straighten things out with the staff. I must say when we trooped back in and found a clear spot near the register, it was gratifying to see customers pick up the special Xmas insert with curiousity and interest. Keep looking! I thought – it’s really an invaluable guide.

As you might have guessed, though, Harold, not every store owner/manager/buyer remembered talking to Bill, not every front counter had the space, and not every customer took to the special Xmas insert, so we had to do a lot more ‘splaining to do. This is why the experience came back to me when I read about your staff making all those phone calls about the NBA poster and bookmarks. One of the things I admire about bookstores (and libraries) is that their priorities are never in doubt. The first thing they do is serve the customer, who has questions about books that must be answered immediately. Posters like yours and special Xmas inserts like ours are fine, but they may not be taken care of right away, and sometimes not for a while, even when the right person has ordered them. But it’s worth the effort on our part, wouldn’t you say? Believing in the National Book Awards and in the Chronicle’s book section as contributions to the nation’s reading habits must be, to use your words, a good thing.