Inside the National Book Awards—A Q&A with Harold Augenbraum
Each year, the National Book Foundation–a New York City-based organization that celebrates the role books play in our culture–presents the National Book Awards, equivalent to the Oscars for authors. The organization issues guidelines to publishers to submit their best books to the competition, installs panels of five judges for each of the four award categories, and, each fall, coordinates the logistics of the book world’s most elegant affair. The finalists in each category—fiction, non-fiction, poetry, and young people’s literature—know in advance that they’re up for publishing’s highest honor that year.
Here’s the big surprise: the judges’ work is shrouded in secrecy and when the event’s emcee reads the card bearing the names of the winners of that year’s National Book Awards, it’s a complete surprise to the staff of the National Book Foundation, too.
Harold Augenbraum has served as the executive director of the National Book Foundation since 2004. He is an expert on Latino literature and has written, edited, and translated several books in the genre. He talked with inReads from his lower Manhattan office on a recent Friday morning.
inReads: To start, I’m very curious about your background. You’re a prolific writer and translator, but you’ve also had a long-career in the non-profit organizational side of reading, writing, and the humanities. What made you decide to go this career route, as opposed to writing full-time?
Harold Augenbraum: As my family will tell you, my writing makes no money at all. My books are somewhere between commercial and scholarly. I do it because I enjoy it, but I don’t make a lot of money at it. I really consider myself a reader and if you look at the things that I’ve published, they’ve related more to reading than writing. Translators translate for readers who can’t read great books in their original form. I consider myself a reader; I never wanted to be a writer.
I was a teacher of English in Spain for several years. When I came back to this country, I worked in a non-profit gerontology organization for several years, and I knew I wanted to work in the culture sector. I was a librarian at the Mercantile Library for fifteen years, and I enjoyed that a great deal. During my last three or four years there, I was doing broader geographic work to try to develop more national programming. It was the next step in my feeling like I could have an impact on what I love most, reading.
inReads: What is your favorite part of your position with the National Book Foundation?
Augenbraum: I like working with the writers and publishers the most. As time has gone on, I’ve gotten a greater respect for writers and publishers and all they do. It was a whole new world for me. In my previous positions, we dealt with academic scholars and critics. The ongoing interaction with commercial publishers has been more fun and rewarding than I would have expected. I’ve come to have quite a respect for what large and small publishers have been able to do in a very challenging environment–to figure out where they’re going to go and what they’re going to do. I’ve been impressed by how they’ve been able to adapt and figure things out.
When you talk about new publishing companies and they start out and they grow, you’ve got to have an admiration for people who would be that optimistic in an environment that is so untenable.
I’m an advisor for a literary magazine that’s only in print. Starting a literary magazine has always been an exercise in optimism and that’s a good thing. Sometimes these things last for five years or fifty-five years and they’re good things to have. The more literary magazines, the better world it will be.
inReads: Could you briefly explain the process of what happens between a publisher submitting a book for a National Book Award and an author receiving a bronze statue?
Augenbraum: The statues… they’re really heavy!
Publishers submit the titles to us in June. They need to give us the galleys or manuscripts—whatever form the book is currently in—for books that were published between December 1st of the previous year to November 30th of current year. The panels of five judges in each category are constituted in late winter, and in May they have their first conference call. From then on, the judges are completely independent.
I don’t know what’s going on then. Once we’ve constituted the panels, we have almost no contact with the judges until the 1st of October when they call in the finalists. The only time they get together is the day of the National Book Awards. We have no idea who they’ve chosen. When we’re sitting there with everybody else, we find out just like everyone else does. It’s just a surprise.
inReads: So you must have an enormous amount of faith in these judges.
Augenbraum: We elect them to be as independent as possible. It would be nice sometimes if we had some input. Once you put them together, they’re on their own. As in establishing a publishing company or journal, it’s an exercise in optimism
inReads: Each year, do you personally have favorites for who you’d like to see win?
Augenbraum: I do. I can’t say that I never get the ones I want—I would just really like the best books to rise to the top. It’s not always that with the winner, this is the best book of the year. It sounds a bit ingenuous, but it’s the 5 books that are the best. It’s not a scientific process. My favorites don’t matter at all, because there are 300 odd books in the fiction category and I can’t even presume to say this is the best book or this isn’t. I may have looked at twenty that have gotten some publicity or have been recommended to me.
inReads: Have there been any surprises as you’ve worked on the National Book Awards?
Augenbraum: Every year—the winner!
There was a surprise that Patti Smith won last year because it was different from the other finalists. There are surprises all the time. I don’t know if the judges are going for surprises. But we really tell the judges to develop their own criteria. Sometimes they say, “We’re looking for the best books.” So when they come up with the finalists, they’re just trying to fulfill their criteria. We impress this on them, “Look at all the books in a very level way, just go on the quality of the book itself.”
inReads: The website for the National Book Awards mentions that self-published authors, such as authors published through iUniverse, aren’t eligible. As ebooks become more and more common, might that rule change?
Augenbraum: Yes, I was just discussing this with someone yesterday. We go over the guidelines ever year. When people point out things that could be changed, we discuss them and whether changes need to be made. We’re open to this. We recently had a submission for the Awards and it was an app book [meant to be read on the iPad]. One of the rules is that you have to be able to print the book and submit it on paper, but this was a book with text and graphic and video. There are going to be high quality books that will only be published as ebooks and we will need to figure out how to handle that with our judges.
inReads: What’s the forecast for this fall’s National Book Awards ceremony?
Augenbraum: The submission totals are in and there are 1222 books:
- 311 novels
- 441 nonfiction books
- 191 poetry books
- 279 in young peoples’ literature
I was just exchanging emails with a judge this morning—she’s a French scholar and I’m a Proust fanatic—and she has a lot of good reading to do. The judges are very dedicated and I think it’s very interesting for the judges. They only do it once in most cases and they have the opportunity to see a snapshot of their own field in one year to see what people think is the best. The way they work, because they work mainly in conference calls and email, the cream rises to the crop pretty quickly. They’re in conversation in one way or another all the time. It’s a lot of work.
inReads: One last question and it’s a two-parter. What do you love about the way technology has changed the way we read and what aren’t you so crazy about?
Augenbraum: I just published an article, “In Praise of the Crazed Reader.” I’m not really sure that we read that differently yet. I think that will come with time. I’m more interested in what writers will do with the change in technology. The style and structure of literature changed between the Gutenberg revolution and the following century. I wonder whether the tablet reader will lend itself to a new phase in the type of literary abstraction.
The app book that I mentioned, it combines text, graphics, and video in a seamless story. That will have an effect on the way we read. There will be people who will only want to read text, or watch video, and then there will be combinations.
Check out last year’s winners.
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