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Winning a Pulitzer Prize will line an author’s pockets with $10,000. A National Book Award fetches the same. The PEN/Faulkner Award for Fiction pays a hefty $15,000 to winners and $5,000 for runners-up.
Until three years ago, no other U.S. book award could match those amounts or the clout that comes with being named a winner or finalist. Then the Arts Club of Washington, which was founded in 1916, landed on the scene in 2007 with the National Award for Arts Writing, a $15,000 prize “designed to recognize excellence in writing about the arts for a general audience.”
But despite the hefty payout and the resources that go into promoting semifinalists, the Arts Club had a problem this year getting cooperation from a semifinalist’s publisher, which has the organization convinced that New York publishers aren’t interested in what’s going on outside New York.
“The whole problem we have here,” says Kim Roberts, who administers the National Award for Arts Writing, “is that any book event that doesn’t happen in New York is really not taken very seriously by New York publishers, despite the fact that our award is larger than the Pulitzer Prize and, in fact, is one of the largest monetary awards for books in the U.S.”
When Roberts contacted the publisher in question (she refuses to name which one, claiming, “I have to work with these people next year”) and said something along the lines of, “Your author is a nominee, please help us publicize the award,” the lowly PR rep on the other end of the line replied, “We only work with the major awards, let me give you the phone number for a junior assistant.”
Roberts isn’t too happy about being shoved off on a “junior assistant”—$15k ain’t exactly chump change!—but had nothing but kind words to say of the other three publishers. “I had nice receptions from the others. I feel like the new upstart. The award has only been around for three years,” she said.
And while Roberts refused to name names during a phone interview, and has, in fact, yet to return an email asking for just a tiny hint, the list of semifinalists is out there for the world to see, meaning—assuming Roberts isn’t pulling our leg for the attention—one of the following publishers is the culprit: Harcourt, Inc. (representing Jonathan Lopez), Alfred A. Knopf (representing Brenda Wineapple, a co-winner of the award), Pantheon Books (representing Michael Sragow, also a co-winner), or W.W. Norton & Company (representing Leonard Todd).
Washington City Paper spent the last couple of days jumping through the hoops, sending the emails, and making the phone calls—New York style!—in hopes of finding out which publisher turned up its nose at the prospect of publicizing an event in little ole’ D.C. Thus far, only Harcourt’s Gregory Henry has responded.
According to Henry, the attention vacuum is phooey: “Basically, we’re happy whenever our authors are nominated for awards…We’ll work with any awards organization—NY has nothing to do with it. Most of our employees are in Boston, for that matter! We especially love D.C.-based awards, as several prominent radio shows are based there, and the more the book ‘gets out there’ in D.C., the better chance it has of getting noticed by D.C. radio.”
We’ll update as soon as/if we hear back from the rest of New York.
UPDATE: Jessica Neely, Executive Director of the PEN/Faulkner Foundation, weighs in.
According to Neely, whose organization is based right here in D.C., PEN/Faulkner has two stages of interaction with publishers. “Basically, we start by soliciting books for review,” she says. “Once the books are chosen, we work with the publishers to publicize the award.”
“And it is a big award,” she adds. “People want to sell books. I’m really surprised to hear about [the Arts Club’s] situation, but it might have been a junior [PR] person who doesn’t know what he or she is doing.”
With regards to PEN/Faulkner’s location, Neely says, “Being in Washington has never hurt us. We get great coverage from the Washington Post because the Post has always been local to PEN/Faulkner.”
Though that coverage isn’t quite as in-depth in New York. “We’ll get stories in the New York Times, but we won’t get the big Style section piece that we’d get in the Washington Post.”
Her advice to the Arts Club? “That’s a big prize—they should be doing more to talk about the money.”