Adapting a major awards ceremony to cater to an all-virtual audience is no simple task, as the National Book Foundation team learned in 2020. It is, however, as attendees of the 2020 National Book Awards found out in November, certainly possible to get it done right.
The first step to making it happen, former National Book Foundation director Lisa Lucas said, was making sure all the materials for the ceremony were acquired digitally. As early as March, Lucas said, the NBF team pivoted to digital submissions for roughly 1,700 books , which were sent via Dropbox and organized and stored in a database. This, Lucas said, happened even before it had entirely sunk in that the ceremony would need to be entirely virtual. The next step was research.
“Once we realized that it was really not going to be possible to have an in-person ceremony—relatively early on, maybe in April, it started to seem like we needed to really start planning—we watched!” Lucas said. “We watched every single production, whether it was a bookstore doing a chat with an author or it was a huge award show that had pivoted, like the Emmys. We just watched what everybody was doing, with an eye on what works and what actually delivers a good show.”
Once the Foundation’s awards team had a good idea of what, exactly, makes for a good virtual awards show, it brought on outside production and design teams and other partners to make sure the feel of the show was translated effectively from the banquet hall at Cipriani Wall Street to a computer screen. That meant everything from retooling invitations from paper to Instagram and Twitter and e-newsletters, to putting together animated shorts announcing the finalists in each category. Author Jason Reynolds was brought aboard as host for the ceremony proper, and celebrity hosts recorded audio introductions for each category.
Putting together scripted videos for the show—an element of the National Book Awards since 2017, but more important than ever in 2020—was similar to years past. The big change was lots of Zoom interviews, conducted with everyone from Elizabeth Alexander, president of the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, to Stephen Reidy, the widower of late S&S CEO Carolyn Reidy, who was the recipient of this year’s Literarian Award.
For the live segments, in order to best retain the nature of the show—at which authors find out in real time who won the awards—Lucas said the foundation landed on a mix of live taping and taped segments. The Translated Fiction category proved the trickiest, as it featured five authors from five countries across three different continents and a handful of time zones (plus their English-language translators); that segment, Lucas said, was recorded live-to-tape two hours before the ceremony. But much of the show, from the addresses by Lucas and NBF board chairman David Steinberger to the awards announcements, was done live.
Preparing for all of that was chiefly managed by the NBF’s associate director for awards, Anna Dobben. Before the event, Dobben said, “Every author got a one-on-one technical session with me and my stage manager, who was essentially the host of each Zoom call.” To ensure quality audio, Dobben shipped microphones to the finalists and the chairs of each category’s judging panel, who presented the awards. Medals and citations were also mailed to the finalists, Dobben said, adding: “It’s always striking to me how much mailing there is in publishing.”
There was also some location scouting involved. Reynolds was set up in a studio in Washington, D.C., to ensure high-quality internet and video, and to provide a striking background and a professional teleprompter. (“I don’t know if you’ve ever tried to makeshift a teleprompter,” Dobben said. “It involves an iPad and then the grace of whatever deity you pray to.”) Steinberger was set up in the New York Public Library’s Stephen A. Schwarzman Building for the evening, joined by Dobben, and Lucas Zoomed in from the Los Angeles Central Library; prior visits to those premises ensured solid internet connections and enabled the NBF team to find the best backgrounds and camera angles.
The night of the show, one author from each category met in different “green rooms”—Zoom breakout rooms—both to encourage conversation between finalists of different categories and to keep conversations from getting too competitive. Each breakout room was hosted by an NBF staff member or intern and included one screen showing the ceremony live. For that to happen, Dobben said, “My producer was in a room surrounded by six laptops, and each of those six laptops was hosting one of those breakout rooms and had a program feed so the authors could watch the National Book Awards while in that green room, so I didn’t have to worry about them signing in on time.”
The amount of coordination involved, Lucas said, was staggering. While she and her team had to manage roughly the same number of people as they would at Cipriani, normally “everyone’s in New York—you can see people and explain things to them,” she said. “Imagine coordinating them all by email and never meeting face-to-face, and having everybody have their cameras angled correctly. We had to become television producers!”
Then there was the matter of actually getting the recipients their awards. At a live event, that’s simply a matter of handing someone an award on stage. This year, Lucas said, in addition to shipping the statues to some winners, others had a more personal touch. “I hand-delivered Charles Yu’s statue to Irvine, Calif., where he lives, and Anna ran up to Harlem to give Tamara Payne her statue. It was wild.”
It was also an eye-opening opportunity. “We learned that there were elements to the show that we never thought to include, like using Henry Golding and Rosie Perez and Natasha Lyonne and Wyatt Cenac for reading citations,” Lucas said, adding that going forward, such elements might be included in live iterations of the event. As difficult as pulling it all off was, “We did some cool things that we’ve never done before,” she said, “which may change what the live National Book Awards might look like.”