Best of the Best: What Book Awards Are Doing to Stand Out from the Crowd

As the minutes before the National Book Awards ceremony tick down, PT was curious about the changing state of US book prizes generally. According to a 2009 white paper by management consulting firm McKinsey & Company, the prize industry is growing faster than any other philanthropic sector. The business of prizes has become so large as to warrant the first-ever Global Prize Summit, held in London earlier this year, and to show up in US federal legislation in the America COMPETES Act of December 2010, proving that prizes are becoming big business. This abundance, though creates a problem all too familiar to publishers: how to “to break through the noise” of an overflowing prize market. In an age of overwhelmed audiences, hopes that book prizes will offer distinction and cultural visibility run higher than ever.

Listed below are nine US literary awards, all of which receive less pomp and circumstance than the National Book Awards or the Pulitzer. But one thing these smaller prizes share in common with their larger, grander cousins, is the requirement that publishers or authors themselves submit their books for recognition. For most of these prizes, entry means paying a fee that, especially for smaller publishers, needs to be justified. The question of whether or not a book will stand out of the crowd once it’s won an award remains the subject of vigorous public debate, but we had an even more basic question: what chance does a book have of standing out enough to win a prize in the first place? How large are the entry pools? What categories are most crowded?

The average number of the titles entered is listed for each of the award programs below. For a more detailed idea of entry statistics in one of the country’s most prominent awards program, we had a conversation with the National Book Foundation about their numbers for this year. Katie McDonough, Marketing Media Manager for the National Book Awards, said that entries tend to hover around 1,200, and this year was no exception. Those entries came from some 250 publishers, with the number of titles from each publisher varying widely (there is no limit to how many titles one publisher may enter). Spread across the Awards’ four categories, non-fiction always receives the most entries (441 this year) and Poetry the fewest (at 189 this year). Fiction titles number 315 for 2011. McDonough spoke to the changes in the NBA category system that have happened over the years. Back when fiction was broken down into genre categories, it not only made better odds for entrants, but made the judges’ task less arduous. While the NBA has found the broad categories now in use to be far preferable, things are harder for both judges and entrants.

Even though the sum of an award is composed of more than enrollment numbers alone, the numbers we found do bear consideration. The NBA clearly has fewer entrants every year than the ForeWord or IPPY awards (listed below), and yet is far more in the public eye than either of these. That the NBA entry fee of $125 is not outrageously more expensive than any of the lesser-known awards begs the question of why publishers are as selective as they are in submitting to the NBAs. Although only three programs on our chart share the NBA’s from-publishers-only submissions policy, 1200 still seems a very low number for the tally of American publishers who covet this prize. And even though the NBAs do all their official marketing by the low-profile option of postal mail, their numbers obviously aren’t low because renown is lacking. The NBA’s selective-yet-with-fairly-high-odds approach is only one in the common struggle to find balance between drawing as wide a range of entrants as possible and maintaining an air of exclusive selectivity. As shown by the range of numbers below, different awards programs focus on different ends of this popular-exclusive scale in their search for distinction in the increasingly noisy awards marketplace.