The National Book Awards is trying to glam-up its ceremony, in the hope that more people will pay attention to it. You know, build buzz for books.
This is not likely to have much of an effect on book sales, really, since people don’t really care about the National Book Awards. Oh, sure, an author’s publisher and agent do, since a winner can probably command a higher price on the next book (if the publisher decides to take the next book – these days you never know). The general reading public? Not so much. But this year, the judges were told they might want to include more popular titles and not just literary darlings, as in the recent past, or little books that could and needed attention – so there are some big names (Dave Eggers) among the nominees.
But Dave Eggers already sells well. A National Book Award isn’t likely to give him that much more pop at the register.
The thinking among the National Book Awards folks is to give these American awards something of the glamour of the Man Booker Prize, the British award for fiction. Shortlisted nominees often find their books selling an additional 50,000 copies, and the winner perhaps twice that (this year’s winner was the much-deserved Hilary Mantel, for Bring Up the Bodies, the follow-up to her excellent previous book, Wolf Hall, also a Booker winner).
But Great Britain is smaller than the United States (population approximately 62 million, versus about 315 million over a much larger geographic spread). And the Booker award is just for one category of book – fiction – rather than the several categories for the National Book Awards. And Great Britain values its literary writers more than does the United States, sadly. Or at least, it acknowledges them, even if they’re not bestselling writers of thrillers or erotica.
The problem lies in part too with the publishing and literary establishments. There are lots of good books, and many good authors, but even if an award is somehow supposed to help people clarify what’s good versus what’s maybe equally good but not given an award, it’s still a bit of a stretch to think that because you’re inviting some names known in New York media circles to come to a red-carpet awards ceremony that the subsequent photo op will somehow translate into book sales somewhere else.
Books sell from the ground up – by word of mouth, or hand-selling, from the relationship an author has with his or her readers, thanks to a strong platform. Awards might get you a little notice in those media outlets that still actually cover books (and those are fewer and fewer – people rely more on social media for this). But it’s up to the book, and how the author has attracted and built an audience, that count.
But you can’t blame the National Book Awards for trying.