As the publishing industry prepares for next month's National Book Awards ceremony, publishers, particularly smaller ones, are dealing with what they say is the high cost of being an NBA nominee.
For all the obvious benefits, there are a fair number of charges associated with books being nominated for the country's most prestigious literary prize. Most notable is a little-publicized National Book Foundation rule that requires that publishers pay $1,000 for each shortlisted book to help the NBF market it. (The Foundation also gives $1,000 to the nominated author, though the group said that the numbers being identical is just a coincidence.)
For publishers, $1,000 is no small amount, coming, as it does, with the expense of flying in authors, buying tables, supplying nearly 100 copies of each book and the submission fee, which, at $100 per title, is more than that of many other literary prizes. (The Pulitzers, by comparison, charge $50 per book title.)
With the healthy number of nominations for small presses over the last few years, the issue of NBA fees has become more pressing. More than ever, publishers have to be selective in what they submit and may even have to scramble when a submission is chosen for the shortlist. "We come at it a little bummed out because it's not something we had built into our budget," said Copper Canyon marketing director Joseph Bednarik, whose house has two books nominated for the poetry prize this year. The money a nomination entails "is not something we can just pull out of the drawer," he said.
Of course, no house would turn down a nomination. And all the publishers PW spoke with say they unequivocally support the NBF and its mission of promoting literacy and literature. But they also question some of the Foundation's methods—particularly the $1,000 that gets passed along to authors. "Why don't we just avoid the charade and give the money to the author ourselves?" asked one publicity executive at a large house.
For its part, the Foundation maintains the fees are necessary for an awards program that has no major corporate backer, as does the Man Booker, or a standing endowment, like the Pulitzers. The group also said these fees are important to help fund its other activities, from writing camps for kids in the Berkshires to readings on Indian reservations. "[The publisher fees] are really just nominal support for what we do the other 364 days out of the year," explained Neil Baldwin, director of the National Book Foundation. "The awards are important, the awards are the standard-bearer, but there's a whole other social mission here." Baldwin pointed to the group's Web site for a full listing of its activities, among which is a national reading tour by the winning authors that is underwritten by Bloomberg.
For the publishers, however, the more immediate issue may not be the economics of the Foundation but their own balance sheets. When Front Street Books was graced with the first of several nominations a few years ago, Stephen Roxburgh, the head of the North Carolina press, learned that some of the charges could be daunting. While all were explained up front and Roxburgh says he never felt misled, Front Street is a very small press and cash flow is always a priority.
When it comes to intangibles—like future publicity and prestige—Roxburgh believes the nomination pays off. But from a dollars-and-cents perspective, an NBA nomination, he said, is not that simple. "The costs are quite substantial," Roxburgh said. "It's questionable whether you come out making any money on it in the short term."