It seems like what I have come to call “the frequent irritation” arose in 1992, my first year as a judge of the National Book Critics Circle awards. I learned as a judge that publishers and authors cannot “enter” the NBCC competition. Instead, the 24 NBCC directors, elected by the membership to serve as judges, keep track of newly published fiction and nonfiction all year long. Publishers and authors can lobby the judges by sending copies of the books, calling attention to reviews and other tactics. But being “nominated” for an NBCC award cannot occur, because no nomination process exists outside the minds of the 24 judges. Yet there it was, in the author's bio on the jacket of a newly published book: listing the accomplishments of the author, the publisher told potential purchasers that he had “been nominated for the National Book Critics Circle award.”
At the time, I had no clue whether the alleged honor resulted from an honest mistake or a knowing deception. Eventually, I served nine years as an NBCC judge. The longer I served, the more misleading author bios I read suggesting an honor that does not exist: receiving an NBCC “nomination.”
I started paying closer attention to author and publisher claims about honors from other contests, especially the Pulitzer Prize. By then, I wasn't surprised to read claims of Pulitzer “nominations” in the fiction and nonfiction categories. Any author or publisher can enter the Pulitzer competition by sending the requisite number of books and the $50 per title admission fee. There is no nomination process.
Sig Gissler, administrator of the Pulitzers, based at Columbia University, tells me the misleading claims are “an occasional problem.” The word “occasional” is a matter of perspective; searching Amazon using the string “nominated for Pulitzer Prize,” I found 967 matches. (A similar search using “nominated for National Book Award” yielded 714 hits. The only “nominations” for that award arrive directly from publishers, accompanied by a fee of $125 per title.)
“We discourage use of the term 'nominated' when a book has simply been entered,” Gissler tells me. “Now and then, when we see misapplication, we send a straightforward message informing the author about the misstep and usually get compliance. Some authors seem to honestly feel they have been nominated because their publishers have used the term. In any case, we are too busy with other things to regularly police the situation.”
Sounding wistful and maybe even a tad hopeful, Gissler adds, “If you can help sharpen use of the correct term, we will appreciate it.”
In the Internet era, book buyers who want to determine if an author or publisher is exaggerating honors can easily check the winners and finalists of competitions such as the Pulitzer Prize (pulitzer.org) and the National Book Critics Circle (bookcritics.org). Still, it would be better if publishers and authors stepped away from “let the consumer beware” mode.
The truth is, becoming a finalist and even winning book, magazine, newspaper, broadcast, and online reporting/writing competitions should not be viewed as an automatic sign of quality among book buyers. For 25 years, I have judged annual journalism competitions. An alarming percentage of the winners and finalists are not exceptional. I've even won a few competitions myself for reporting and writing that fell way short of exemplary. (Disclosure: I rarely enter competitions, because of the reality I have discovered as a judge. When I do enter, I am almost never seeking prestige alone. Instead, I am seeking cash.)
Because of what I know about judging competitions, a phrase that really grinds on me is “award-winning author,” as in “Joe X, who has written seven previous books, is an award-winning author.” Trust me, a lot of those awards derive from mediocre books competing against just a few other mediocre books in contests with little visibility.
The Pulitzer Prizes, National Book Awards, and National Book Critics Circle competition all announce finalists and, eventually, winners in each category. The finalists and the winners should publicize their achievements. The other entrants, the so-called nominees, should be ashamed for their disingenuousness. The misleading phrasing cheapens the usually deserved recognition of the winners.