On November 16, the National Book Foundation will hold its first in-person ceremony for the National Book Awards since 2019, black-tie attire and all, so “dust off that black tux,” as executive director Ruth Dickey said in an interview at PW’s office. It’s the first time the foundation has held its flagship event live at Cipriani Wall Street in Manhattan since Dickey took the reins from Lisa Lucas in 2021. Last year’s plans for an in-person ceremony were called off less than two months in advance of the big day, as yet another wave of Covid-19 forced the organization to pivot back to a virtual show. It’s taught Dickey and her team to be resourceful, and to turn past misfortune into future advantage.
“All the people in the literary community were so generous and kind as we had to make that pivot and figure out how to still make the awards special and make our goals, because the event fuels the work we do through the rest of the year,” Dickey said, referring to the fund-raising aspect of the ceremony. “One of the big wins with the online event is that so many people from around the country were able to participate in a really meaningful way. We’re definitely maintaining that strong online presence and have adjusted the run of show to make it a better experience for people in the room and viewers at home.”
That means condensing the event’s programming into one block from two, pushing dinner up to earlier in the evening, and holding an uninterrupted ceremony beginning at 8 p.m. ET, which will once again be produced by the foundation’s partner, Really Useful Media. The NBF is also continuing to explore ways for the event to engage a broader audience, including reaching out to bookstores and libraries to hold streamed viewing parties. At the moment, there’s no cap for head count other than Cipriani’s general capacity guidelines; any Covid-related policies and requirements, Dickey said, will be announced later in October.
Going back to in-person events is a big deal for the NBF. While “people have been very generous” in donating to the foundation throughout the pandemic, Dickey said, “it’s not the same as an in-person event, so the revenue has been lower, and that has been a challenge.”
The awards ceremony should help with that, though donations are not the organization’s only source of income. “It really is a blend of individuals, corporations, foundations, and government support,” Dickey said, which includes corporate sponsorships from publishers and grants from the Mellon Foundation, the National Endowment of the Arts, and the city and state of New York, among others. The NBF will also launch a “leadership circle”—a giving program aimed at individuals “who care about reaching readers to allow them to be part of our work in our plans in a meaningful way.”
The funding supports the awards ceremony and other prizes, including the NBF’s 5 Under 35 program spotlighting exceptionally talented writers under the age of 35, and it supports a staff of 10: Dickey; director of technology and special projects Meredith Andrews; director of programs Natalie Green; administration and operations coordinator Anja Kuipers; programs coordinator Emily Lovett; education programs manager Julianna Lee Marino; communications and marketing manager Ale Romero; awards and honors manager Madeleine Shelton; deputy director Jordan Smith; and director of development Meg Tansey. (Seven of them, including Dickey herself, are new to the foundation, with three joining this year.)
The funding also finances a robust set of reading-focused public initiatives that the NBF either runs or directly supports, and Dickey estimated that the foundation’s programs reach two million people annually. Among its initiatives are the Book Rich Environments program—which, Dickey said, “distributed 192,328 free books to children and families living in public housing authorities in 50 communities across 30 states and Washington, D.C.”—and Literature for Justice, a “nationwide, book-based campaign that seeks to contextualize and humanize the experiences of incarcerated people in the United States.”
The foundation also hosts public readings and book-based discussions nationwide as part of its NBF Presents program, which has employed a hybrid live-virtual model throughout 2022. Among the NBF’s events this year was one held late last month, during Banned Books Week, at the D.C. Public Library, in collaboration with the library, Loyalty Bookstores, and PEN America. During a panel discussion titled “Let’s Get Organized: Fighting Book Bans, Together,” the foundation held a giveaway of banned books by NBA–honored authors. (Among the honorees at this year’s awards ceremony is Art Spiegelman, the pioneering graphic novelist whose Maus has been a perennial censorship target.)
Recently, the NBF’s board of directors approved a new strategic plan, developed over the past 16 months by the board and foundation staff after more than 100 interviews and a survey completed by more than 1,300 participants. The plan is aimed, Dickey said, at taking the organization “to the 75th Anniversary of the National Book Awards in 2024 and beyond,” and will include, among other things, expanding the broadcast element for the NBAs, engaging readers in all 50 states over a five-year cycle, launching a teacher fellowship program, and expanding Book Rich Environments into a total of 60 public housing communities throughout the U.S. Dickey also hopes to expand the NBF’s role as an advocate for the importance of literature and literary organizations.
As the foundation prepares for this year’s big event, it is also eyeing its 75th anniversary, and the different ways it plans to mark the milestone. 2024 might seem a long way off if you’re not the one planning it, but as far as Dickey is concerned, she said, “it’s practically tomorrow.”