National Book Award

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National Book Award
Sponsor U.S. books industry
Date November
Host National Book Foundation
First awarded 1950 (1949 publications) and 1936–42 (1935–41)
Last awarded Active
Official website

The National Book Awards are a set of annual U.S. literary awards.[1][2] At the final National Book Awards Ceremony every November, the National Book Foundation presents the National Book Awards and two lifetime achievement awards to authors.

The National Book Awards were established in 1936 by the American Booksellers Association,[3][4] abandoned during World War II, and re-established by three book industry organizations in 1950. Non-U.S. authors and publishers were eligible for the pre-war awards. Now they are presented to U.S. authors for books published in the United States roughly during the award year.

The nonprofit National Book Foundation was established in 1988 to administer and enhance the National Book Awards and "move beyond [them] into the fields of education and literacy", primarily by sponsoring public appearances by writers.[5] Its mission is "to celebrate the best of American literature, to expand its audience, and to enhance the cultural value of good writing in America."[6]

In 2010, there were 1,115 books nominated for the four award categories, led by the Nonfiction category with 435 nominations. The 2011 ceremony was held on November 16 in New York City.[7]

Winners and finalists

Current process

National Book Awards are currently given to one book (author) annually in each of four categories: fiction, nonfiction, poetry, and young people's literature. There have been awards in many other categories but they have been retired or subsumed in the current four. The National Book Foundation also presents two lifetime achievement awards each year: the "Medal for Distinguished Contribution to American Letters" and the "Literarian Award for Outstanding Service to the American Literary Community".[9]

Only publishers nominate books for the NBAs but panelists may request particular nominations from publishers. Each panel comprises five "writers who are known to be doing great work in their genre or field"[10] and publicity emphasizes awards "by writers to writers" in contrast to the 1980 to 1987 American Book Awards.[9]

Each panel considers hundreds of books each year in each of the four categories. Beginning with 2013, the Foundation announced a "longlist" of 10 titles in each of the four categories in September (40 titles), followed by a "finalist" list of 5 titles in October (20 titles), and then the winners in November (4 titles).[11] Previous to 2013, there was no longlist and only five finalists per category were announced in October. Panel chairs announce the winners and present the awards at the "National Book Awards Ceremony and Dinner" held in New York City each November. All finalists get $1,000, a medal, and a citation written by the panel; winners gets $10,000 and a bronze sculpture.[12]


Pre-war awards by booksellers

The first National Book Awards were presented in May 1936 at the annual convention of the American Booksellers Association, one month after The New York Times reported institution of the "new annual award". The winners were authors of four 1935 books selected by a vote of ABA members. Virginia Kirkus chaired the central committee of seven including the ABA president, three bookshops, Publishers Weekly, and American News Company. Three were called "the most distinguished of 1935" (novel, biography, and general nonfiction) and one "the most original" (novel).[3][4] Two of the books were advertised by their publishers as "The most distinguished autobiography of 1935" and "The most distinguished general non-fiction book of 1935" in NYTimes on May 12, the same day that the newspaper reported yesterday's awards.[lower-alpha 1]

For the next six years, 1937 to 1942, the awards were announced mid-February to March 1 and evidently presented at the May convention.[13][14][15][16][17][18]

The "Most Distinguished" Nonfiction, Biography, and Novel (for 1935 and 1936)[3][4][13] were reduced to two and termed "Favorite" Nonfiction and Fiction beginning 1937. Master of ceremonies Clifton Fadiman declined to consider the Pulitzer Prizes (not yet announced in February 1938) as potential ratifications. "Unlike the Pulitzer Prize committee, the booksellers merely vote for their favorite books. They do not say it is the best book or the one that will elevate the standard of manhood or womanhood. Twenty years from now we can decide which are the masterpieces. This year we can only decide which books we enjoyed reading the most."[14]

The Bookseller Discovery officially recognized "outstanding merit which failed to receive adequate sales and recognition" (quoted by NYT)[15] Finally that award stood alone for 1941 and the New York Times frankly called it "a sort of consolation prize that the booksellers hope will draw attention to his work".[18]

Authors and publishers outside the United States were eligible and there were several winners by non-U.S. authors (at least Lofts, Curie, de Saint-Exupéry, Du Maurier, and Llewellyn). The Bookseller Discovery and the general awards for fiction and non-fiction were conferred six times in seven years, the Most Original Book five times, and the biography award in the first two years only.[citation needed]

The winning authors and books were selected by a nationwide poll of booksellers (ABA members); during the 1937/38 cycle, ballots were received from 319 stores, triple the number who voted in the first rendition early in 1936.[14] In a 1941 advertisement, the Booksellers described the "significance of the awards" thus:[19]

In effect, his ballot says, "Of all the books of the year these are the three I enjoyed most – in two ways! I enjoyed reading them; and I enjoyed selling them." And that to a bookseller means people who, on his recommendation, read and enjoyed – and sent in other people who also read and enjoyed. The National Book Awards give you perhaps a greater guarantee of reading pleasure than any other literary prizes.

Reestablished by the book industry

In January 1950 three book industry organizations announced that "works by Americans published here" would be recognized by three awards in March (at the annual convention?). There would be three distinct panels of five judges.[20]

That winter Harper placed several advertisements promoting the awards.

"first annual NBA dinner of the book industry in the Waldorf-Astoria Hotel on Thursday" [March 16] with speakers Senator Paul Douglas, Eleanor Roosevelt, and Frederick Lewis Allen. A one-half hour program from the Awards Dinner, including Mrs. Roosevelt's address, was broadcast locally at 9:30 and again at 10:00pm.[21]

The awards were administered by the National Book Committee from 1950 to 1974, when the Committee disbanded after publishers withdrew support.[22][23]

In 1950 and 1967, at least, the prize sponsors were three book-industry organizations American Booksellers Association, the American Book Publishers Council and the Book Manufacturers Institute.[20][22]

In 1973 NYTimes still called the National Book Committee a nonprofit funded "by publishers and by organizations involved in the book trade"[24] A temporary Committee on Awards Policy handled 1975.[23]

New categories and split awards

In 1964 Nonfiction was divided in three.[25]

The National Book Award for Translation was introduced in 1967 and split between two books,[26] the first split.[24]

Children's literature was first recognized as one of seven categories in 1969.[27]

Two awards were split in 1973 for the first time.[24]

Publishers dropped their support after 1974 and the National Book Committee was disbanded.[23] In 1975 the temporary administrator "begged" judges not to split awards.[23]

Three of 27 awards were split in 1983[28] before the drastic cutback that also required selection of a single winner in all three categories for 1984.[29][30]

Cut to two for 1986.[31]

"American Book Awards"

In 1980 the "National Book Awards" were canceled and replaced by "American Book Awards" on the film industry model (Oscars). "It will be run almost exactly the way the Academy Awards are run," a spokesman told reporters."[32] There would be nearly 30 awards presented in an extravagant TV-friendly ceremony, to winners selected by a standing "academy" of more than 2,000 people in the book industry.[32] Implementation was poor, the episode a disaster.[32]

Most new categories survived only one to four cycles, 1980 to 1983. There were seven awards categories in 1979, twenty-eight in 1980, nineteen in 1983 (plus graphics awards, see below), three in 1984.[33][34]

In 1983 there were 30 award winners in 27 categories including 14 categories of literary achievement in writing for adults; in turn, five for hardcover editions, six for paperback editions, and three general.[28]

1983 awards categories (27)

  • 8 for graphics: Pictorial Design, Typographical Design, Illustration Collected Art, Illustration Original Art, Illustration Photographs, Cover Design, Jacket Design[lower-alpha 2]
  • 5 for children's literature: (Children's) Fiction hardcover and paperback, Nonfiction, Picture Books hardcover and paperback
  • 14 for adults' literature: General Nonfiction hardcover and paperback, History hardcover and paperback, Biography hardcover and paperback, Science hardcover and paperback, Translation, Fiction hardcover and paperback, Poetry, First Novel, Original Paperback

Late that year, the AAP Board voted to fund a new version of the Awards, which had been "close to expiring from lack of support". At the time, AAP and Harper & Row president Brooks Thomas anticipated "probably fewer than ten" categories, including some "only for original paperbacks, not reprints". Edwin McDowell reported that "many book-industry officials hope ... [to] rank in importance with the $15,000 Booker McConnell Prize for Fiction" (British).[35]

For 1983 publications (January to October) there would be no awards. A committee comprising American Book Awards executive director Barbara Prete and four publishers designed the new and improved program, implemented fall 1984 for a publication year beginning November 1983. They cut the roster to merely three (Nonfiction, Fiction, and First Work of Fiction), moved the ceremony from early spring to late fall, and redefined eligibility to require publication during the calendar year of the awards (roughly, see Annual eligibility).[29] First fiction was dropped after 1985, leaving only the general fiction and nonfiction awards in 1986, the last year for "American" awards.[31]

In 1987 the "National" award returned in name. Covering the November ceremony, Edwin McDowell of The New York Times remarked upon the recurring changes in format and contrasted 1983 in particular, when there were 96 finalists in 27 awards categories (listed above). The surviving awards for general Fiction and Nonfiction, now with precisely five finalists each, were administered by National Book Awards, Inc., whose Chairman of the Board was the president of Hearst Trade Book Group. He declaimed that "Book people are really not actors, and there's a realization now that we should not try to reward things like who did the best book blurb."[36]

The fixed number five finalists was retained through 2012,[10] while the number of book categories has doubled with the addition of Poetry in 1991 and Young People's Literature in 1996.[8] Beginning with 2013, the Foundation announced there would be a "longlist" of 10 titles in each of the four categories in September (40 titles), followed by a "finalist" list of 5 titles in October (20 titles), and then the winners in November (4 titles).[11]

Annual eligibility

Currently a book must be published "between December 1 of the previous year and November 30 of the current year." Its publisher must complete a nomination by June 15 and mail copies to the panelists by August 1. The panelists read all the valid nominees "over the summer" and the panels compile shortlists in September.[10]

The pre-war awards were announced in the winter, usually February, and described with reference to the year of publication, if any; for example, "National Book Awards for 1939" announced February 1940.[16] The 1950 to 1983 awards, as the National Book Foundation now labels them, were presented in the spring to works published during the preceding calendar year.[28][37] From 1984 the NBAs are presented in the fall, usually November, to books published roughly during the current calendar year (November to October, in 1984).[29] It appears that books published in the first ten months of 1983 were never eligible.

Medal for Distinguished Contribution (lifetime)

The Medal for Distinguished Contribution to American Letters is a lifetime achievement award presented by the Foundation at the final ceremony for the Book Awards. The medal comes with a cash prize of $10,000. It recognizes someone who "has enriched [American] literary heritage over a life of service, or a corpus of work."[5]

Five of the seventeen medalists through 2004 were previous National Book Award winners (Bellow, Welty, McCullough, Updike, and Roth, all but McCullough for fiction). Between 2005 and 2014, all of the medalists except Leonard have been previous National Book Award winners.

Literarian Award for Outstanding Service (lifetime)

The Literarian Award for Outstanding Service to the American Literary Community is a lifetime achievement award presented by the Foundation annually from 2005. It recognizes "an individual for outstanding service to the American literary community, whose life and work exemplify the goals of the National Book Foundation to expand the audience for literature and to enhance the cultural value of literature in America."[43]


Laura Miller, writing in Salon (October 12, 2011), said the fiction award has become a Newbery Medal for adults: Good for you whether you like it or not. She said "the impression has arisen that already-successful titles are automatically sidelined in favor of books that the judges feel deserve an extra boost of attention. the nominated books [often] exhibit qualities – a poetic prose style, elliptical or fragmented storytelling – that either don’t matter much to nonprofessional readers, or even put them off." She claims the NBA has become irrelevant to average readers and of more interest to professional writers.[48] Craig Fehrman, writing in The New York Times (October 28, 2011), said "the National Book Awards [are] known for this sort of thing. They're awards for insiders."[32]

In response to these criticisms, the award "has been taking a tough look at itself, hiring a consultant to survey industry insiders – booksellers, editors and even critics – to see if the award process itself needs to be reformed to attract more attention."[49]

See also


  1. Both on page 21: Vincent Sheean's autobiography Personal History advertised by Doubleday, Doran; Anne Morrow Lindbergh's North to the Orient advertised by Harcourt, Brace & Co.
      By 1937/38, if not earlier, there would be "National Book Award Editions" of some books.
  2. Only seven graphics awards are listed here, as in the contemporary source. Multiple sources say 27 and 19.


  1. "National Book Award", Infoplease: Arts and Entertainment: Awards: Book, Magazine, Newspaper Awards. Retrieved before 2011-10.
  2. "Seattle's Egan wins National Book Award", Mary Ann Gwynn, The Seattle Times, November 15, 2006. Retrieved before 2011-10.
  3. 3.0 3.1 3.2 "Books and Authors", The New York Times, 1936-04-12, page BR12.
  4. 4.0 4.1 4.2 "Lewis is Scornful of Radio Culture: Nothing Ever Will Replace the Old-Fashioned Book ...", The New York Times, 1936-05-12, page 25.
  5. 5.0 5.1 National Book Foundation: Awards: "Distinguished Contribution to American Letters". Retrieved before 2012-01-07.
  6. National Book Foundation: "History of the National Book Foundation". Retrieved 2012-01-07.
  7. National Book Foundation: About Us: "Frequently Asked Questions". Retrieved 2012-01-05.
  8. 8.0 8.1 National Book Foundation: Awards: "National Book Award Winners: 1950 – 2009". Retrieved 2012-01-05.
  9. 9.0 9.1 National Book Foundation: About Us: "History of the National Book Awards". Retrieved before 2011-10.
  10. 10.0 10.1 10.2 National Book Foundation: Awards: "How the National Book Awards Work". Retrieved 2012-01-05.
  11. 11.0 11.1 Lua error in package.lua at line 80: module 'strict' not found.
  12. National Book Foundation: Awards: "National Book Award Selection Process". Retrieved before 2011-10.
  13. 13.0 13.1 "5 Honors Awarded on the Year's Books: Authors of Preferred Volumes Hailed at Luncheon of Booksellers Group", The New York Times, 1937-02-26, page 23.
  14. 14.0 14.1 14.2
    "Booksellers Give Prize to 'Citadel': Cronin's Work About Doctors Their Favorite--'Mme. Curie' Gets Non-Fiction Award TWO OTHERS WIN HONORS Fadiman Is 'Not Interested' in What Pulitzer Committee Thinks of Selections", The New York Times 1938-03-02, page 14.
  15. 15.0 15.1 "Book About Plants Receives Award: Dr. Fairchild's 'Garden' Work Cited by Booksellers", The New York Times 1939-02-15, page 20.
  16. 16.0 16.1 "1939 Book Awards Given by Critics: Elgin Groseclose's 'Ararat' is Picked as Work Which Failed to Get Due Recognition", The New York Times, 1940-02-14, page 25. Cite error: Invalid <ref> tag; name "nyt1940" defined multiple times with different content
  17. "Books and Authors", The New York Times, 1941-02-16, page BR12.
  18. 18.0 18.1 "Neglected Author Gets High Honor: 1941 Book Award Presented to George Perry for 'Hold Autumn In Your Hand'", The New York Times, 1942-02-11, page 18.
  19. "The Booksellers of America Announce Their National Awards", The New York Times, February 23, 1941, page BR21.
    • More than half of the advertisement featured the three prize books of 1937, announced earlier that month. The "Discovery of the Year" sported a dust jacket with stylized "First Prize" ribbon affixed and the Novel was promoted in its "National Book Award Edition" (also advertised ten days earlier: February 13, 1941, page 17).
  20. 20.0 20.1 "Book Trade Plans to Honor Writers: Industry Will Award Annual Prizes for Poetry, Fiction ...", The New York Times, January 22, 1950, page 68.
  21. "PROGRAMS ON THE AIR" (radio), The New York Times, March 16, 1950, page 46.
  22. 22.0 22.1 "Book Award Goes to 'La Vida'; 'The Fixer' Wins Fiction Prize: 3 Others Will Be Honored at a Cerem[ony] ...", The New York Times, March 5, 1967, page 39.
  23. 23.0 23.1 23.2 23.3 "The Last of the National Book Awards?" (The Guest Word), William Cole, The New York Times, May 4, 1975, page 288.
  24. 24.0 24.1 24.2 "2 Book Awards Split for First Time", Eric Pace, The New York Times, April 11, 1973. Retrieved 2012-01-25.
  25. "National Book Awards – 1964". National Book Foundation. Retrieved 2012-01-31. Compare 1963 (via menu at top of page).
  26. "National Book Awards – 1967". National Book Foundation. Retrieved 2012-01-31. Compare 1966 (via menu at top of page).
  27. "National Book Awards – 1969". National Book Foundation. Retrieved 2012-01-31. Compare 1968 (via menu at top of page).
  28. 28.0 28.1 28.2 "American Book Awards Announced", Edwin McDowell, The New York Times, April 14, 1983, page C30.
  29. 29.0 29.1 29.2 "11 Nominated for American Book Awards", Edwin McDowell, The New York Times, October 18, 1984, page C25.
  30. "Three Writers Win Book Awards". The New York Times, November 16, 1984, page C32.
  31. 31.0 31.1 "National Book Awards – 1986". National Book Foundation. Retrieved 2012-01-31. Compare 1985 (via menu at top of page).
  32. 32.0 32.1 32.2 32.3 "The Short, Unsuccessful Life of the American Book Awards", Craig Fehrman, The New York Times, October 28, 2011. Retrieved 2011-10-31.
  33. "National Book Awards – 1979". National Book Foundation. Retrieved 2012-02-04.
  34. "National Book Awards – 1980". National Book Foundation. Retrieved 2012-02-04. Compare 1983 and 1984 (via menu at top of page).
  35. "Publishing: New Life for American Book Awards", Edwin McDowell, The New York Times, November 4, 1983, page C28.
  36. "An Upset at the Book Awards", Edwin McDowell, The New York Times, November 10, 1987, page C13.
  37. "Book Publishers Make 3 Awards: ... Gold Plaques", The New York Times, March 17, 1950, page 21.
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  43. National Book Foundation: Awards: "Literarian Award – 2005". Retrieved before 2011-10.
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  48. "How the National Book Awards made themselves irrelevant", Laura Miller, Salon, October 12, 2011. Retrieved 2011-10-13.
  49. Lua error in package.lua at line 80: module 'strict' not found.
  • The New York Times.
One historical source is microfilm, in many library holdings. Another is ProQuest Historical Newspapers: The New York Times (1851-2007). Another is the New York Times online. ProQuest and both offer subscription services that some libraries purchase.

External links